Dead Poet Society members formed the band while attending Berklee, where they studied music in all its theoretical glory. Unlike so many others, they actually graduated—if it was useful time spent remains up for debate.
“We live in a world where we try to make sense of things and apply parameters and rules so that we can understand it,” frontman Jack Underkofler told American Songwriter. “And you can’t do that with art, you just can’t. There are no rules, there are no parameters. There’s all these ideas of what’s technically right and technically wrong when it comes to music theory. Those are general concepts that do apply to a lot of things, but the rules are being broken all the time. There is no structure to art.”
Instead of putting the Ivy League hypothesis’ and techniques to work writing formulaic songs, Underkofler, with guitarist Jack Collins, bassist Dylan Brenner and drummer Will Goodroad, wrote from reality but also from what they imagined for their debut album -!-, (pronounced The Exclamation Album), due out March 12. That’s not to say some songs aren’t as believable. Every song, whether it was from a place of personal experience or imagined situation, is filled with undeniable conviction, passion and wisdom beyond vocalist/guitarist Jack Underkofler’s 20-something years. Despite being arguably one of the better singers to emerge from the mod-rock scene in the last five years, that avenue wasn’t always what he planned on at Berklee, as a guitar major, who recalled Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra as his earliest musical experiences.
“I wasn’t really raised on the music that all of my peers were raised on, like classic rock,” Underkofler said. “Most of my musical influences growing up were literally Earth Wind and Fire, Chet Baker, and the Beatles.
“It wasn’t until I picked up a guitar when I was 12 that I really just started discovering music on my own. My dad, a few months into it, got me a Bob Dylan essentials book. It had a CD of 50 songs and came with a chord book. I just learned every single song in the entire book. And I just kind of became obsessed with it.”
Guitar was undoubtedly Underkofler’s first love, and he enrolled at Berklee as guitar major, but that shifted to something else halfway through his student life.
“Two years into going to Berklee, I was sitting in a blues lab class one day, and I was watching all these guitarists, take a solo, playing 12 bar blues,” Underkofler remembered. “And it was like literally one of the most torturous things you can imagine. And I’m watching each person take a solo going down the line and it’s getting closer and closer to me. Everybody’s doing pretty decently. It gets to the guy right before me and it just hits me like ‘I fuckin suck, what am I doing?’ After that I went straight to the office for the different principles and switched over to vocals.”
Not necessarily having the same rock upbringing as his peers and bandmates, Underkofler came to the rock world with a rather different perspective. He wasn’t enthralled in drugs, excess or toxic romance, but he still wrote some of the most compelling songs about those same things. “.CoDa.,” their biggest single from the new record, hit hard with pristine, tight guitars, impressive compositions and a story about toxic people uncovered by the lyrics, talk shit bitch/ say it like you wanna leave/ you love me like cocaine.
“To be honest I was kind of trying to put myself in that position because I had a lot of subconscious feelings, but I hadn’t really lived that experience yet,” Underkofler said about the song. “It was almost as if I were telling the future of what my relationships were going to be. Of course, until the one I’m in right now, I’m very happy. But the song was just kind of telling of how I felt about being very codependent in a relationship.”
Other tracks, like “.loveyoulikethat.,” were the opposite experience and written completely from a personal real-life comprehension that unraveled after a breakup.
“I was in a very long-term relationship with a girl I had been dating since high school,” Underkofler recalled. “And the whole feeling behind it was that I cared about her, and I didn’t want to hurt her, but at the same time, I was not happy in the relationship.”
Underkofler’s favorite track from the record “.Haunted.” is even more different, offering a slow tempo, acoustic feel with clean vocals, sung in a higher register than the other tracks. It shows an opposing characteristic to Underkofler’s voice, influenced by vocalist Myles Kennedy.
“I really don’t think that I fell into a rock vocal style until I joined Dead Poet Society,” Underkofler reveals. “I listened to rock, but it wasn’t my favorite genre of music. I mostly listened to Coldplay, Jack Jones and John Mayer and all this really soft kind of stuff. That was where most of my musical influence came from, but there was one singer who was very influential when I was learning how to sing rock—and that was a Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge.
“He has a very clean vocal technique with no rasp in his voice at all,” he adds. “And I think having that influence, growing up really gave the initial shape to the way I sing now even though I sound nothing like that anymore. When we first started out, I sang kind of like Guns N’ Roses, but we drifted away from that as I discovered my own voice.”
The prominent vocals Underkofler produces alongside the group’s technique-tinged music is the new resurgence of rock music bleeding with the equal brash attitude of Guns N’ Roses, but with a classically trained foundation. Even more so than technique and instrument competency, it came down to the performance which is an area Dead Poet Society dominates.
“The thing about music is that you’re limited to one set,” Underkofler said. “You have all these senses of smell, touch, sight, hearing, but you only have your ears when you’re listening to music, and so you have to convey all of those sensations. You have to bring them into that moment with the pure audio, giving them this full experience.”
The performance and connection links back to Underkofler’s early comprehension and obsession with great performers and connectors like Bob Dylan, who may have not been the best vocalists, but were authentic.
“Everything comes down to the way you say it and how true you can convey things,” Underkofler said. “What makes a great singer is not somebody that’s technically good, not somebody who can hit all the notes or have amazing range, it’s a person that can connect with you emotionally. A lot of people hate Bob Dylan, but I personally feel like he was amazing. He could make me feel exactly what I needed to feel in that moment, from what he was saying and how he was saying it. So it all comes down to how well you convey the story with your emotion.”
Remaining transparent and convincing is Dead Poet Society’s aim regardless of whether it’s accomplished through forceful vocals, brash personalities, or well-composed music. The band has discovered who they are as people in that environment, more than any other.
“I try to be myself as much as possible and honestly being yourself on stage is a skill in itself,” Underkofler said. “But most of the time I feel more comfortable, standing on stage in front of a bunch of people than I do in a one-on-one conversation.”
Berklee may not have taught Dead Poet Society a thing about real music but they emerged as a band worth a damn, among the army of others struggling to do the same. Dead Poet Society is sure to pave the way for what every other mod-rock band is to become-—if they’re any good.
Pre-save -!- (The Exclamation Album) here, ahead of its March 12 release.