A mess of wires lays strewn across the basement floor of Ben Silverman’s Amherst home. A power surge connects the wires to a slew of musical instruments and equipment, including two guitars, a bass, keyboards, two microphones and a few amplifiers.
The room is no larger than a single dorm, but the nine present members of Kids on a Hill manage to find enough space to maneuver their instruments comfortably and begin their weekly practice.
Much like their early accommodations in a University of Massachusetts dorm room, where they began practicing, the bandmates are used to playing in tight quarters.
Still, in their two years of performing since, the hodge-podge group did not expect to receive the type of fandom that led to becoming the opening act at Spring Concert this coming Sunday.
In a lot of ways, their accommodations have made them tighter as a group and closer as individuals. Though they weren’t strangers when they began playing in 2009, Kids on a Hill’s assembly was merely incidental.
“It was interesting because we came together very organically and randomly,” said singer Nora Murphy. “We didn’t ever sit down and decide to be a band. We played this one show and then another show came up and we were like, ‘Oh! Let’s play that one again.’”
In early April 2009, drummer Nick Pope was slated to perform with his band at a Patriot’s Day celebration at Orchard Hill until his cohorts cancelled. Pope scrambled for other musicians to fill the void with about one week to go before the show date.
Pope elicited the help of guitarist/drummer Ben Silverman, bassist Craig Holland and guitarist Ben Falkoff to fill the slot, who were already performing together as a trio.
The offer was extended to saxophonists Alec Huston and Greg Blair and singers Chris Kazarian, Nora Murphy and Madeleine Maggio, which began a fateful four-day stretch.
Most of the students resided on the same floor of Van Meter as part of a Residential Academic Program that grouped students in the performing and visual arts majors together.
Four days before its scheduled performance on The Hill, Orchard Hill, the group huddled into Silverman’s single dorm room and began practicing for their impromptu gig.
They practiced countless hours until they had learned eight new songs, playing them in a set that opened the President’s Day celebration show on The Hill on April 20, 2009.
A warm reception on The Hill coined the band’s name and spurred them to continue playing for fun.
“[We] kind of just started because we really enjoyed playing together, no matter what. We liked jamming and, out of jamming, we got a couple songs together,” said Silverman.
Aside from squeezing into dorm rooms, hallways and common rooms, the band drew crowds to their practices on the basketball court outside of Van Meter which, as Falkoff recalls, was not always welcomed, yet well-received.
“There was this one night when Orchard Hill was putting on [a party in the Orchard Hill Bowl] and we ended up playing the basketball court that night … At the end of the night, one of the maintenance guys, somebody who was in charge of the power, walked out and said, ‘You know, it’s midnight. You’ve got to put a stop to this. It’s late. But, frankly, I think there’s a lot more people here than there is at the Bowl,’” said Falkoff.
Kids on a Hill’s sound is characterized by its upbeat harmonies and synchronized instrumentals. With the energy of an evangelist, Kazarian creates the driving force behind microphone while Murphy and Maggio mostly complement him in the background.
Pope craftily steadies the group on the drums, while Silverman and Falkoff trade licks wielding their electric guitars. Huston and Blair, who played saxophone together at Newton High School, have adapted a deftness of harmonizing the horns.
The newest member of the group, Christian Tremblay, has a not-so-ecclesiastical approach to the organs, while Holland provides the essential bass licks that qualify the type of jazz-and-funk infused tunes the band is accustomed to playing.
“The music that we play – we’re playing a solo and then we’re jamming – but it never goes really far,” Holland said. “We jam and then it stops and that only happens when we have a long show and we can actually do that. Usually, our arrangements are very tight and very much worked-out.”
The fledgling group began predominantly playing cover songs. Out of the 10 people in the group, each had their own musical preferences, but they could all agree on one motif they enjoyed playing the best.
“I wouldn’t say [we have the same] taste in music because we like all different kinds of music and different backgrounds, but we all love funk,” said Maggio.
In addition to covers of Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Jeff Buckley, they tackled funk classics from Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic and, most notably, Stevie Wonder.
The group recently played at the Jazz Showcase on the UMass campus, which was themed after Stevie Wonder, where they played “I Wish,” “Sir Duke” and “Master Blaster,” getting help from newly acquired freshman keyboardist Tremblay.
As of late, the group has included original music into their ensemble which, as Murphy said, has been an interesting and inspiring process.
“Now, we’ve been focusing a lot on originals and it’s been such a great experience, getting to hear everybody’s different artistic takes and how the band can really elaborate on songs that people write by themselves on acoustic guitar,” said Murphy. “Bring it to the band, flush it out; it’s all instrumentation. Watching the songs transform and hearing people adding their ideas, it’s really cool.”
During the winter hiatus from UMass’ scheduled classes, Kids on a Hill met in Maggio’s hometown of Great Barrington and collaborated on an extended play album.
They cleared out a room in Maggio’s parents’ home and set up a makeshift recording studio, where they taped four songs in four days over Silverman’s laptop.
The EP features original songs written by four members of the band: “Start it Upright” (lyrics written by Kazarian, music written by Falkoff), “Magic Lover” (written by Kazarian), “Scary Faces” (written by Murphy) and their oldest song “Without Words” (written by Falkoff).
The band hopes to have its EP ready for the concert, but it is still in production.
In the two years since debuting outside of Van Meter, Kids on a Hill has played at various campus-events as well as music venues in Cambridge (Middle East) and Northampton (Bishop’s Lounge).
Local psychedelic grunge band Orange Television requested that Kids on a Hill open their show at the Iron Horse Music Hall on Oct. 16, 2010. The group considers that to be its best show to date.
Yet, without a designated manager and content with their current reputation, they don’t actively seek to book shows and remain humbled by their recent recognition.
“In thinking about how we came together, we’ve definitely kept this same sort of impromptu and fun attitude throughout the whole time,” said Murphy. “We’re even a little bit thrown off, I would say, by the recent attention we’ve been getting. We definitely do this because it’s fun and none of us ever sat down and said, ‘Let’s make a band.’ It just happened.”
After winning the annual Battle of the Bands event hosted by the University Programming Council on March 21, Kids on a Hill will perform as the opening act to the Spring Concert on Sunday.
Kids on a Hill will take the Mullins Center stage around 7 p.m., as the group of musicians travel far down The Hill from their former residence hall and onto a stage much more gracious than their rehearsal space.
“The Mullins Center is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever done,” said Murphy. “Few musicians get to experience playing on a scale that large, so it’s going to be really different.
“I’m a little nervous about it,” she added. “I don’t know how it’s going to sound. I don’t know anything, but it’s going to be really unique, something we’ll never forget and something we‘ll learn a lot from.”
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at email@example.com.