It’s Saturday night in Syracuse. Upstairs at 701 Livingston Ave., in a sweltering attic packed with humans, Matt Prussin is steering his way through the guitar part of Kanye West’s “Power” when he notices the floor is shaking. More like buckling, straining to hold the energy of the boisterous crowd, dozens of college students singing along to the song, screaming the lyrics back at the band — six-piece ensemble Some of the Lights, Syracuse’s first and only Kanye cover band, appearing here for the first time. And they’re dancing, really dancing, swaying and jumping and chanting, brought to ecstasy by the anthems they know so well.
But the house itself just isn’t having it, and Matt’s not the only one who notices—Kyle Drumheller on the drums can feel the floor bucking beneath him and he’s thinking oh god, but there’s nothing he can do except plow ahead and finish the set. Oh dear, are we going to die? thinks Haywood McDuffie, standing center stage with the mic in his hand. I’m glad you guys are into it, but I’d like for you to not kill me. Downstairs, a freaked-out tenant posts snapchats of his rollicking ceiling, which seems only seconds from collapsing. Meanwhile, back upstairs the band is in the home stretch. Vocalists Haywood and Darriea Clark cede the spotlight to Matt, who caps the performance with a stinging guitar solo, and finally, circuitry exhausted, the amps sputter and go quiet.
And the audience goes wild, whooping their applause. A few people rush the stage, mingling with the new band as they turn off their instruments — Matt and Josh Daghir on guitar, Darriea and Haywood on vocals, Harryhausen’s Sean Dougherty and Kyle Drumheller on bass and drums, respectively. Hands are shaken, backs are slapped, congratulations all around.
All of the band members recall friends and audience members coming up to them after the show and at Juice Jam the next day to congratulate them on “the sick Kanye show.” But when asked when their next show would be, none of them had any idea.
“The fact of the matter is,” Sean explained, “we only ever thought we were doing this one show. And all of a sudden we had gotten some attention, some buzz off it.”
A few songs into their first set ever playing together, the energy whipped up by Some of the Lights was already outgrowing their baptismal venue—something none of them had anticipated. After all, they’d met for their first practice only seven hours before taking the stage, and seven days before the show, Some of the Lights didn’t exist, even as an idea.
It all began when Josh learned he had a gig. At a party the previous Saturday, he was told he was booked to open for These Walls the following Saturday in the marching band frat house at 701 Livingston. Now he just needed a band.
It had been a long Monday, and finally, deep into the night hours, Darriea was drunk. Outside the Insomnia Cookies on Marshall Street, she ran into Josh Daghir, who she hadn’t seen in ages. They go all the way back to freshman year, when they covered Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful” at a BBB open mic — and last year they’d tried to collaborate again on another band project that ended up falling flat. This time, he has another proposition for her: how would she like to sing for this band he’s putting together for a show on the upcoming Saturday? Yes? Great. They’ll be doing Kanye covers.
“I knew Darriea had a great voice from working with her before,” Josh says. The idea was originally to have her perform the vocal samples on Kanye’s soulful early work, a la “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks,” but the band soon realized her voice could be put to use on nearly all of the tracks they planned to perform, in the background as well as the foreground.
Haywood was smoking and playing Call of Duty when he got the text from Josh drafting him to the squad. They’d previously talked about doing music — Haywood writes lyrics, performs and produces — and he agreed with an easy shrug. “You want me to get up there and rap some Kanye songs?” he remembers saying. “Sure. Why not? Why the hell not?”
Josh only had to go as far as his own kitchen for another guitarist — he ambushed Matt, his housemate, while the latter was making dinner, recruiting him to the team despite the fact that Matt had only ever performed solo, and wasn’t even a fan of Kanye’s music. “I definitely had to really dive into the songs we were doing and listen to them a lot that week, because it was my first time hearing most of them,” Matt remembers of the setlist Josh foisted on him. He wasn’t alone — Darriea had to go back to Kanye University as well to prepare for the performance, being unfamiliar with some of the deep tracks the band had picked to play.
But for the bass and drums combo that Josh knew he would need to pull off that muscular hip-hop sound, he turned to a known quantity — and more old friends. Sean and Kyle already form the backbone of garage-punk group Harryhausen, an established act in the University scene. Plus, Josh knew that Sean shared his worship of Kanye from long conversations while living together abroad in London last semester.
In London during the spring of 2016, they had toyed with the idea of forming a roots band to play hip-hop inflected rock. As both were fellow fans of Mr. West, Kanye’s music had never been too far removed from any of these plans. Though back then he’d pledged his bass to whatever Josh managed to cook up, Sean wasn’t expecting the late night text from Josh — “Yo, I’ve got this crazy idea,” — and he certainly didn’t expect how quickly those tentative schemes would gel into reality.
Suddenly, they had a planned gig, a setlist — and a name. While tossing different riffs on Kanye songs for something to christen the new band, Sean came up with ‘Some of the Lights,’ a play off West’s 2010 hit “All of the Lights.”
The instrumentalists’ shared living situations made the process of adapting Kanye’s stylistically diverse material a little easier — guitarists Josh and Matt live together, as do bass/drum duo Sean and Kyle. All the instrumentalists’ spent time working out pieces of the song in smaller groups before gathering on Friday night in an attempt to put it all together. Still, the entire six-piece band wasn’t able to meet and practice as a unit until Saturday, with the show only a few hours away—which didn’t leave a whole lot of time for slacking off.
On the day of the show, the group’s attempts to get together for a last-minute practice were hectic, almost comically disorganized. “The point of despair,” Josh says, “was when we were are like the band was all there and then we were waiting for Haywood to get there, and as soon as Haywood got there, then Sean had to go do something. At that point it was like 8 hours before the show and people kept leaving practice and it was like ‘oh god.’”
“The problem,” Sean explains, “was that before we were practicing with the group — while we were playing acoustically and separately it was fine, we were talking and saying ‘what do you want to do for that part, what do you want to do for that part’ — but when we got together, playing like plugged in, there was no way to play the songs and play over them, and a lot of the songs require vocal cues for you to know when to come in and out.” For example, ‘Jesus Walks’ maintains one chord the entire time until beginning a series of octave changes in conjunction with the vocals, but an instrumentalist needs the vocals to signal and lead these shifts. “Without Darriea and Haywood there, we were floundering a bit,” Sean admits.
In a way, playing Kanye’s material required the musicians to rewire their approach to performing, shifting the center of gravity from the backing band to the vocalists.
“In every band I’ve ever been in, it’s almost like vocals were a second thought,” Josh reflects. “It was really cool to see vocals as the lead. It was a refreshing change.”
Relying more on vocals to drive the songs wasn’t the only challenge the band faced in seeking to recreate Kanye’s extravagant brand of hip-hop. The instrumentalists had to figure out how to use their same old garage-rock set up to translate the smorgasbord of Kanye’s varied, often avant-garde sounds. It’s a complicated process that the band is continuously playing with as they move to expand their repertoire — substituting specially tailored work on the guitars, bass, and drums to capture West’s sound while still adding their own spin.
“I think the experimental the song, the more we take creative liberties,” Sean says, “Like with ‘Paris’ or with “Black Skinhead” — it’s like we really need to find cool ways to recreate these sounds.”
For those not so familiar with Kanye’s work, that eleventh-hour practice capped what had been an intense and unexpected crash course in all things Yeezy, guided by longtime citizens of Yeezistan like Sean, Josh, and Haywood — but for all of them, it was a new experience in some way. Most of them had never played with each other before; some, like Matt, had barely played as part of a group before. None of them had ever been in a group so large.
“It was like, ‘Alright guys, nice to meet you, ready to play this show?’” Sean remembers. There was no time for the careful consideration of group chemistry that often goes into forming a band—with their first show coming up in mere hours, they had no choice but to make it work.
However, this didn’t end up being much of an issue. Darriea says of the practice “everyone instantly clicked,” and there was a tentative excitement, even confidence among the ranks in the hours before the show.
As they finally took the stage that night, squeezing into a corner of the attic with all their equipment, Sean remembers a slight sinking feeling when he thought about how little they’d prepared for this moment. But at that point, there was no time even for doubt. With no introductions (very few people knew what they would be playing that night, and they wanted to keep it that way) the band started up, launching into the tribal huff and stomp of the thunderous Yeezus single “Black Skinhead.” Recognizing the tune, the surprised crowd roared its approval. Turns out, the band didn’t have to worry about bombing their first set as much as actually bringing down the house.
Weeks later, on a sun-drenched fall morning, Some of the Lights is lounging on the steps of Hendricks Chapel. What was originally an interview (ostensibly being conducted by me) has turned into an impromptu band meeting. Everyone has relaxed, bouncing around ideas and laughing in the morning air. There is talk of switching up the setlist to include more of Kanye’s catalogue — “We could always come out with something from Life of Pablo that nobody’s expecting, like ‘Famous?’” — as well as possibly covering other artists, like Kendrick Lamar or Chance the Rapper.
“We’re not playing our own music, you know, trying to get out a message,” Josh says. “It’s just about playing these songs that people love, and putting on a great show.”
Sean chimes in. “The whole rock and hip-hop thing isn’t new. You know, there’s Rage Against the Machine and a bunch of others. But there didn’t seem to be anything like it around here, and people really responded to it.”
Josh mentions wanting to bring together the hip-hop and indie house-show fanbases within the Syracuse University community — scenes he believes are too separated to allow for healthy inter-mingling and collaboration. The band is already entering talks with several student orgs and house venues — the Syracuse Student Hip-Hop Organization and the ascendant Space Camp venue on Ackerman Ave are two possibilities at the moment. Meanwhile, the band is currently booked to play at Orange Music Group’s “Shake the Cobwebs” event at Big Red (516 Euclid) this Friday night (only $3 to get in!).
As Josh talks campus unity, Sean tells me about the thinkpiece he’s planning on posting to his music blog Off the Record, which will go in-depth on Kanye’s impact as an artist, making parallels between Saint Pablo’s career and the continuously evolving studio-experimentation of the Beatles’ run. They’re very similar in certain ways, he insists, with no small amount of passion in his voice. Meanwhile, Darriea is having rapturous visions of Some of the Lights getting big enough to where they’ll be able to play the Dome, and beyond — “I’m rethinking my whole career path here, guys.”
“Hey,” I say. “Didn’t the Beatles start as a cover band too? Anything’s possible.”