Written by Asa Hoffman
It’s no secret that Hillsdale College is a very busy place full of driven, very busy students. Although this offers students a wide array of opportunities to further their education, it can also contribute to a lack of time available for leisure and reflection. While some attempt to overcome this by dedicating certain days to rest and pull away from campus bustle, others dive into their hobbies to regroup. For Hillsdale-bred quartet Rourke Michael, music is the best diversion, especially when it is enjoyed among friends.
Rourke Michael is made up of Hillsdale grads Ryan Burns, ’19, Carson Waites, ’20, and Jake Rummel, ’20 and current senior John Szczotka, ’21. I spoke to Waites about the formation of the band, and he pointed to his exploration of music production, his “longest running hobby,” as the origin of the group. As he acquired more gear and honed his skills, he realized working with others would both raise the quality of his work and give him the chance to share his music with others. At first, he joined forces with Rummel to form the original iteration of Rourke Michael.
“I knew that working on music with another person would immediately boost the quality because it would double the diversity of thought that went into it, and Jake was both my best friend and most trusted musical ally at the time, so we decided that the recording we were doing for fun would be packaged up at the end of the summer and released like it was a big deal, complete with an album cover photo shoot and (self-imposed) deadlines to our label (which consisted solely of us). We decided to call ourselves Rourke Michael (our middle names) and that was that.”
Though he describes his craft as “half-amateur,” anyone who has seen him and Rummel perform at Centralhallapalooza or a Phi Mu Alpha concert would attest they are two of the most impressive musicians in recent campus memory. Both are incredibly accomplished jazz musicians on multiple instruments, which heavily influences their style.
“At the beginning, we tried to incorporate jazz explicitly, but now we’ve refined our sound, and we’re more interested in making music that is exactly what we want to listen to. Jazz still plays a big part because when we’re writing songs, we don’t have to fall into all the same old chord changes or form—we’ve experimented a lot with our arrangement, spurning traditional song structures for novel ones, substituting in more abstract chords than are typically used in the ‘pop’ family of genres, etc.”
Waites credits their time at Hillsdale as a critical part of the band’s evolution, saying, “It’s all inspired by the people we met and hung out with there, the music we played and listened to, and the friends we made who were going to listen to our music.” Hillsdale remains their biggest market even after graduation, and the campus always looks forward to anytime vocalist Szczotka takes the stage, whether at a weekend party or in a chamber choir concert in Christ Chapel.
Rourke Michael released their second full-length album, When the Sun Gets Low, on September 18, 2020, and promoted it with a much-anticipated listening party at Boondocks, the off-campus house that was home to much of their music-making. The album combines a wide range of styles and instruments to create a sound the band describes as “post-pop,” and much to their credit, it is a unique blend that conveys their artistic identity with both authenticity and flair. Waites said the band’s previous albums, full-length Moonlighting and EP 1955, were stepping stones that helped them reach where they are today. Songwriting and recording are strenuous processes that take time to master, so those first two projects gave the band a chance to hone their skills. Waites explained, “Moonlighting was important for us because it was about getting something out there, but 1955 and especially our most recent album found us really picking out only those tracks that we really liked.”
Right now, the band does not have its sights set on touring the world or anything that grand, but anyone who knows them understands just how far they could go if a record label were to wisen up and sign them. According to Waites, “Our biggest aspiration is just to continue working together and exercising a very creative part of ourselves that is often forgotten. It’s more of a bonding activity and hobby than anything else, and I think we’d all be happy if it was always just that.” Rourke Michael is already looking forward to their third LP and hope to release it by the end of next year. After a pretty grueling year for everyone, their thoughtful music will be a welcome diversion from culture’s almost universal screaming into the void. If you are looking for music to take you away from any sort of craziness, give Rourke Michael a listen; you won’t regret it.
Visit the band’s Spotify page here.
Asa Hoffman, ’21, is a proud Oregonian who studies politics and music. When he is not working on schoolwork or managing things at the radio station, he is probably formulating his next pretentious take on music. If there is a concert on campus, odds are good that he is playing at it.
Published in December 2020