Bowties and ballads

May 27, 2010, 12:51 a.m.
Bowties and ballads
HELENA VILLALOBOS/Staff Photographer

It is 9 p.m. on a Sunday night inside a tiny, deserted Braun classroom. A group of boys with concerned looks on their faces sits in a circle. The surrounding boys watch in anticipation. There’s a pause, and suddenly a voice emerges.

“I feel like I have trouble connecting with people since all my skin secretions are acidic and I can’t touch anyone without giving them first degree burns,” one boy says, followed by raucous laughter from everyone else in the room.

“Come on guys, let’s be serious!” Sam Julian ’10 interjects. But even he can’t help cracking up as the group tries to read through the skit about a super-hero support group.

The Stanford Fleet Street Singers are not your run-of-the-mill all-male a cappella group. Anyone who has been to a Fleet Street concert is familiar with the ridiculous skits and videos that accompany their songs, as well as their elaborate sets. From all of the boys bursting out of a massive dinosaur egg to a mechanic salamander crossing the Dinkelspiel stage, Fleet Street is characterized by its creativity and off-the-wall silliness.

“Our humor is definitely one of our biggest selling points,” said Julian Kusnadi ’11, this year’s director. “Before coming to Stanford, I knew I wanted to join an a cappella group, but Fleet Street wasn’t what I had in mind. However, at O Show, Fleet Street’s performance really stood out to me.”

But Fleet Street is not merely about tomfoolery and laughs. The members, in addition to being complete goof balls who happen to be strong vocalists, are also accomplished songwriters. The group prides itself on having a large repertoire of original songs–an aspect that they feel distinguishes them from other a cappella groups.

“As a performing group, Fleet Street isn’t just a group of singers,” Kusnadi said. “We really concentrate on making our group a creative vehicle for all talents. We write our own songs, spend hours designing and building elaborate sets, design really cool posters.”

“The writing process is very organic,” he added. “All members are highly encouraged to contribute and collaborate. No song belongs to any one member.”

Fleet Street’s talents have not gone unnoticed beyond the Farm. Their most recent self-titled album, released in 2006, was hailed, “The most important collegiate a cappella album to be released in a decade” by Deke Sharon, the head of Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA).

This year, Fleet Street has been hard at work to finish a new album. Six years in the making, “Through the Roof” features different iterations of the group and tracks written by older members in previous years.

“It’s not very typical, I know,” Kusnadi said with a laugh. “But then again, we’re not very concerned about being typical!”

The editing and mixing process has been grueling, taking up large portions of the members’ time and sometimes leaving them with only 20 hours of sleep a week, members say. The group recorded, edited and mixed its own tracks at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) before sending them to an industry specialist, Bill Hare.

Despite the huge time commitment, being in Fleet Street does come with its share of fun stories.

“Well, there was that one time in a hotel room…” Kusnadi laughed, reflecting on his most memorable moments with the group. He continued with tales of performing on cruise ships to Mexico and being invited back to the second round of America’s Got Talent with an all-expense-paid trip to New York.

For Andrew Nelson ’12, highlights have included serenading the new dollies and Pi Phi “littles.” He also reported that some men have called them to serenade their girlfriends while proposing. But due to logistical reasons, this has never actually happened.

Back in the classroom at Braun, the room is filled with laughter and jesting. But with a quick rap on the blackboard, a single piano chord and a flick of Julian’s hand, a certain level of seriousness fills the room. And then, 16 voices blended into a perfect melody.

But the seriousness does not last long. The beautiful love ballad quickly devolves into an account of a serial killer with herpes, chlamydia, dementia and schizophrenia. And despite its serious-sounding title, “Golden Rules” is actually about bathroom etiquette for boys. Go figure–that’s typical Fleet Street.

Fleet Street’s new album will be released on May 30, during the group’s spring show, “Fleet Street Makes History.”

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