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Nathaniel Kelley ’12 was able to turn a dream into reality during his time at Lafayette.  He recorded and performed a rock album as his senior honors thesis. Kelly, who graduated in May with an A.B. with majors in music and a self-designed creative performance, is looking to make a career in rock music.

Nathaniel Kelley ’12

Nathaniel Kelley ’12

Before attending Lafayette, Kelley had never had any musical training. His thesis, which took a year-and-a-half to complete, shows his progress from beginner to where he is now.  His project consisted of writing five songs in different rock styles.  He formed a band, and recorded and mixed the songs.  On the practical side, he reworked the songs so they could be performed. On the academic end, he explored and analyzed where each song fit in the rock tradition.

The inspiration for his thesis came from his desire to turn his education into something tangible.  He was most influenced by musicology writer Neil Strauss and by the book Faking It. On a musical level, modern rock bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, grunge bands like Nirvana, and punk bands like Iggy and The Stooges inspire him. His band, Whiskey Dixxx, performed at Pearly Baker’s Alehouse in Easton, house parties, and finally, the Williams Center’s Black Box Theater for his thesis presentation.

Listen to recordings of the band in concert

Kelley says his advisers were “guiding lights” for his project. Kirk O’Riordan, assistant professor of music, who composes contemporary concert music but also has a background in writing and producing popular music, was his main songwriting mentor. Jorge Torres, associate professor of music, and Holly Roadfeldt, visiting instructor of music, critiqued the work and encouraged Kelley to explore the philosophical and musicological aspects of his project. Eric VanHoven, visiting instructor of music, coached him on some of the vocal aspects of his songs.

An independent study in his junior year, co-taught by O’Riordan and Carrie Rohman, assistant professor of English, laid the groundwork for his thesis project as Kelley analyzed popular music from many styles and time periods. Rohman found Kelley to be “one of the most genuinely creative and intellectually curious students I have taught.  He is willing to consider and inhabit almost any creative position or idea for a while, in order to see where it leads him.” Kelley was very impressed at how understanding and encouraging his professors were in letting him try whatever he felt he needed to make progress.

O’Riordan talked a lot about styles with Kelley, and pushed him to explore a wider range, not just what was easy or comfortable. As a result, he wrote in styles ranging from electro-industrial to mainstream pop. They also worked together on the production, which included the mixing, vocals, effects, timbre, and quality. Kelley collaborated with his band on the songs, and O’Riordan advised based on what he heard.

“I have always enjoyed students who don’t just immediately accept my aesthetic premises and instead challenge me to defend why I think what I think,” says O’Riordan.

Kelley plans to form a new band and write songs for TV and film.

“In a perfect world, I would like to live the ‘rock star’ dream: sustaining myself through writing my own songs and playing them for others,” he says.

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  1. John Slampyak '71 says:

    As a Detroiter, I have to give a shout out for the first track, “Kick out the James/Icky Thump” which spans 40 years of Detroit rock. The MC5 song was actually “Kick out the Jams” though.

    1. Nathaniel says:

      Hey John,
      Actually, we wrote a punk song that was called “Kick Out the James” because our guitarists name was James, and he was always noodling around on during practice. The pun was intentional, of course, but I’m glad you got it.

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