Four high school bandmates returned to their first spotlight at the Newtown Teen Center August 16. The Screw Ups — all 2008 Newtown High School graduates — have been enjoying a growing success since then.
The band — a ska/jazz/funk/reggae sound — has grown despite distance from one another, and from venues in Boston and Rhode Island. Since graduation they have become popular in the Massachusetts and New England areas. Bass player Kyle Kearney and drummer Dave Manville now live in Boston, while alto sax player Nico Bonvini and guitarist and songwriter Julian Wahlberg live in town.
As they set up their equipment on August 16, Mr Bonvini glanced at the roughly 20 students on the dance floor, with others seated near the pool table or gathered outside. Waving his arm at the room he said the place had been filled when he was in high school. Soon, as the music started, guests began skipping in circles and moving to the music. Among them was college sophomore Kurt Liniger. Since the time he was a sophomore in high school, he has been coordinating bands to play.
“I knew The Screw Ups; I knew they played then,” he said, so he had contacted them again for this month’s show.
Remembering when their band “solidified” in 2007, said Mr Wahlberg, he and Mr Bonvini recalled their fans crowding into the Teen Center on Church Hill Road several years ago. Students either performing in one of several bands, promoting, or just listening “all sort of supported each other,” said Mr Bonvini. The band scene had “been big.”
He remembers a “packed” crowd where “there were always photographers; kids doing what they love.”
Mr Manville talked about the musical momentum that started in town around 2005 and lasted several years. “Kids in our town would meet bands from out of state; we got bands to come through Newtown — we would be playing on the same bill.” The bands “got bigger” he said.
“Lots of kids had bands, there were a lot of popular acts,” said Mr Bonvini. “We would go to hear each other.” He said, “There was a huge swell” in the local teen music scene at the time.
“Now, that whole movement has kind of died….what’s left is just a few bands,” said Mr Manville.
Mr Bonvini thought about the barriers of distance the bandmates now face and have worked to overcome in order to do what they love.
With two members in Boston and two in Newtown, “Logistics were tough,” he said. “Every time we need to practice at least two people need to drive two and a half hours, end up sleeping in Boston, or turn around and go right back home.” Their music is “absolutely a devotion,” Mr Bonvini said. “We are committed to it.”
After high school, “We knew we loved what we were doing, we wanted to play but there was nowhere to do it, venues died,” Mr Bonvini said. “We started looking for places to play…” After playing a few places in Rhode Island and Boston, he said, “We found other bands and that got us momentum, and then we got in the studio last year.” They released an EP (extended play demo) in April, which, start to finish, took them almost a year, after which “things really took off.” Hear their songs from their EP at http://screwupsband.bandcamp.com.
The EP is not a CD. Online downloads for a “name your price deal” are available. “Most people put $0 and listen for free. Despite the cash spent making the music tracks, they have made $1. “Such is the fate of musicians,” Mr Bonvini said. The Teen Center Show did not earn them any money either. “It’s a testament to how much we love it,” he said.
Through social media on Twitter and Facebook, etc, “We went from 36 followers to 1,200.” They have received online reviews, their information has spread through “little blogs,” that discovered them, and caught the attention of a big music website in Britain: LouderthanWar.com. See http://louderthanwar.com/new-band-of-the-day-the-screw-ups. “We are playing on the radio station in Venezuela, I never would have expected that,” Mr Bonvini said. “Once people start writing on these little blogs, you never know what’s going to happen.”
From there, “Invites to play started pouring in,” said Mr Bonvini. “We are getting invites to open for more popular and touring bands. We try to book for the weekends.”
The Screw Ups “might play on a Wednesday somewhere, and if we end up getting home at 4 in the morning and sleeping two hours before work, so be it. We love it. All of a sudden, it’s been worth it.” Their work and personal lives do not get in the way, “because we won’t let it; we have willingness to jump logistical hurdles,” he said.
Mr Bonvini realized how much digital promotion has helped The Screw Ups get noticed. “We played to almost empty rooms a couple years ago and people came up and said how much they loved us. It’s tough, people don’t find bands at concerts anymore, they find them on the Internet. And we are getting it right, even club owners say they like us…I hope they’re not lying.”
Listen to songs by The Screw Ups at www.reverbnation.com/screwups, or visit their Facebook page or Twitter at @screwupsband.
Where does the band hope to be in coming years? “I think it’s a different answer for all of us,” said Mr Bonvini. He wants to open for certain acts he has “been idolizing,” and wants to do a Northeast tour. As far as their momentum, he said, “I think we are where we need to be, and I think I want to get back into the studio.”
Thinking about his musical career then and now, Mr Bonvini sat down for a beer with the band’s singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Mr Wahlberg.
Only a few years out of high school, the band members are looking ahead. Mentioning current aspirations, Mr Wahlberg said, “I want to play more than we do.”
In coming years, Mr Bonvini would “love to add another horn.”
Considering where they get their song ideas, Mr Bonvini turned to Mr Wahlberg and said, “That’s him.”
“Anything can prompt thoughts of a song,” Mr Wahlberg said. Personal experiences, a sudden thought, anything.
Mr Bonvini said Mr Wahlberg likes to take one “good line” for a song and “build around it.”
“It’s always spontaneous,” Mr Wahlberg said. “It’s the ones that hit you immediately that are great.” Mr Bonvini said.
“If you sit down and try to make a song, it turns out terrible,” Mr Wahlberg said.
Mr Wahlberg tries to “jot down ideas and lyrics when I can,” and they “both listen to music nonstop,” said Mr Bonvini. “We need it like food. That’s what we do when we hang out. We listen to music. I never get sick of it.”
They both found musical inspiration early. Julian Wahlberg is the son of musician Doug Wahlberg from the Doug Wahlberg Band. “My father plays guitar,” he said, and he taught himself “from there.” He had started the violin in fourth grade. “My dad wanted me to play guitar and I continued from there.”
Mr Bonvini grew up playing drums, and wanted to play the sax, he said. He wanted to play tenor, but teachers steered him toward the alto, which is what he plays now.
The four band members have expanded their music, but have arrived at a style they like, both Mr Bonvini and Mr Wahlberg agreed.
“To hear us you know we listen to punk, reggae, and ska,” Mr Bonvini said, but they are more than just one of those sounds. “Once people hear us we get a good response.” He describes their music as “Reggae with grit; raw, emotional energy.”
Heavily influenced by Tower of Power, Mr Bonvini said, “I had wanted to turn 21 since I was 11,” when the band played locally for crowds age 21 and older.
The Screw Ups will be playing at Otto’s Shrunken Head in Manhattan on September 12, at the Acoustic Café in Bridgeport on September 13, and on Halloween at The Stomping Ground in Putnam, N.Y. Find show details and information at www.OttosShrunkenHead.com, www.AcousticCafe.com, and www.The-stomping-ground.com. Guests must be 21 years old or older to attend.