Paul Gregg walks down to the basement of Shenkman Hall, tapping into a room with a colorful sign that reads “Student Musicians Coalition.”
Gregg, the vocalist of student band Bencoolen, is meeting the rest of his bandmates to practice songs from “The Bencoolen EP” for a gig at the small Arlington alternative venue Iota Café.
Since their first show together last February, the alternative rock band has landed five sets at venues like the Black Cat and Rock & Roll Hotel. They’ve played songs from the new release for those crowds, including students at GW’s Fall Fest.
At Iota on Saturday, the band will headline an early show with hors d’oeuvres. The five guys are excited to play at the intimate coffeehouse that sees mostly East Coast-based bands in a small brick room, a contrast to the the dive bars and grungy clubs they now know well.
The band, whose name originates from a street in Singapore where Gregg bought his first guitar, started jamming together in early fall 2013.
When saxophonist Ian Braker and guitarist Teddy Scott decided to pursue music professionally, they approached their friend, Gregg, to start a band. Eventually, they added a drummer, Kevin Mathieu, and bassist Eric Burke.
Gregg sits at a table in the SMC room, surrounded by a handful of practice rooms. In one, a student band covers “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, but the folksy strains are drained out by the rock-and-roll riffs of another group in an adjacent “soundproof” practice room.
Snares and guitar cases litter the floor and a bag of gummy bears sits on the table. On the wall is a Bencoolen poster with George Washington wearing a hula skirt, a lei and an ascot.
The rest of the band members trickle in slowly, and at about 9:30 p.m., they all pile into a practice room. While Gregg and Scott hook up amps and effects pedals, Mathieu kicks off his sneakers and starts playing the drum kit. Braker begins to jam along with Mathieu and Burke jumps in with a funk rhythm. The band picked up Mathieu after the former drummer left.
“I switched my drum lesson from Monday night to Tuesday night because I had switched into this class … that this girl I had a big crush on was in,” Mathieu said.
By lucky coincidence, Bencoolen’s former drummer was in the class just before Mathieu and asked their professor about Mathieu’s talent. Eventually, he auditioned and got the spot. Even through the lineup changes, Gregg said the spirit of the band has remained the same, which is why the name stayed.
In the practice room, Scott, who helps book all of the band’s shows, tells the others when to meet to drive up to their show at Iota Café. Then he runs through the setlist. The guys spit out ideas about what would make their set “more metal.”
These may be the last bittersweet moments Bencoolen has to jam together: Braker, Burke and Scott are all graduating this year. Braker will work for the Navy, and Burke might move after graduation, leaving spots open for the band to hold auditions.
Scott took a job in D.C. for the next year and plans to remain in Bencoolen, which eased some stress for junior Gregg and sophomore Mathieu. Without Scott, Bencoolen might have ended.
“At least me, Paul and Kevin want to be professional musicians when we grow up, as much as a pipe dream as that is,” Scott said. “So for us to get out there and get paid to play was something that needed to happen, and that was the whole purpose of Bencoolen.”
When Bencoolen performed at Fall Fest, Gregg told the audience that the show would be the biggest the band would ever see. He was speaking for everyone, particularly the band members who will graduate and leave D.C.
But for Gregg, Scott and Mathieu, they said Bencoolen has to go on.
“At the core, if me and Paul are in a band together, it’s going to be Bencoolen,” Scott said.
The band released “The Bencoolen EP” in August, after recording the songs in May while preparing for a show at the Black Cat. Their sound engineer, GW alumnus Martin MacAlister, helped them on the album and offered up his home for the recording.
“We put them down on the track and he’d be like, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe you want to do this instead.’ And we’d try it out. The recording process made it sound better,” Gregg said.
Bencoolen had just finished finals and recorded for a week, all day every day, pausing only to play their set at the Backstage at the Black Cat. Now that the album’s out, Bencoolen wants to start working on a last event: putting on a GW Music Festival in the spring with some of the other 20 bands in SMC
“Once we kind of know all the talent at GW, we can kind of figure out some sort of bill, which would be really cool,” Gregg said.
As members of the SMC executive board, Bencoolen knows all of the student bands. Gregg hopes to get some of the serious talent to put on a concert, with students playing for students.
The band is also looking to extend their EP with five more songs to make it an LP, their first. With an album in tow, the band could tour to other cities and play larger venues, in the hopes of seeing Bencoolen rise in popularity.