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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Millard Fillmore: Old History, New Sound


Millard Fillmore became President on July 9, 1850, after the death of Zachary Taylor. He was the last member of the Whig party to hold office and his failed reelection campaign ensured his now persistent obscurity.

More than 150 years later, Fillmore’s name and legacy has become an obscure pop culture and historical reference, which will now enter the music world thanks to a new band of four Grinnellians.

Brian Cavanagh-Strong ’09 (keyboard), Adam Thein ’10 (bass), Nate Redman ’09 (drums), and Mike Weslander ’09 (guitar, lead vocals) formed the band Phineas Gage over Fall Break as all four met in the basement of 1010 High Street, playing together throughout the week. After winter break, and some soul searching, they changed their name to Millard Fillmore to avoid any confusion with the ever popular other Phineas Gage; a hardcore metal band from Watertown, MN.

The guys still meet several times a week in the same basement they formed in with a low ceiling and even lower head banging pipes. They listen to a recording of their live show, discuss arrangements and practice. Being a freshly formed band, the members know they are still growing together.

“I don’t know we know what our sound is yet,” said Redman. “We don’t know how to categorize ourselves, and maybe the object is to not do that.”

Initially, the group was, understandably, a bit short on material.

“You know, when we started we played a lot of covers because we were experimenting with how we sound,” said Cavangh-Strong. “But as we started writing more music it seemed pretty unified. Right now we are in a stage of playing mostly original work but using our favorite covers to supplement that.”

The songwriting process normally begins with Weslander.

“Most of the stuff I write is just on my acoustic guitar,” says Weslander. “I show it to [everyone] and we’ll change the chords, lyric passages and melodies, which makes it our music and not just mine.”

Much of their original material sounds like the sum of their individual influences, which range from John Mayer (Weslander) to theatre music (Cavanagh-Strong) to Van Morrison (Redman) to Rush (Thein). Weslander sings in a gentle tone, breathing the words out of his mouth, Brian never allows his upbeat keyboarding or his voice to get submerged, and all four commonly join together for rich harmonies to add a sense of pop to their jam band vibe. The sound is friendly while still containing enough energy and variation to make it the main focus of a bar scene.

As for next year, after three members have graduated, the group may still be able to get together to practice and play gigs, as all of them may remain in Iowa.

That plan reaffirms their laid back approach. Why worry about the long-term outlook when a quality jam session can happen right now?

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