Usually, rock competitions are a waste of time -- pay-to-play, rigged popularity contests that don't help a band's career. But here's a refreshing change: At WQED's recent College Battle of the Bands, an instrumental quartet called Cellofourte beat out four mainstream pop acts.
According to founding member Tate Olsen, Cellofourte germinated when he wrote cello arrangements of rock songs while at CMU's School of Music. "I had a few friends in the cello studio, and we were doing a lot of covers, like Metallica and Evanescence. Within a few weeks, people had heard of us, and the Guitar Society of Fine Art asked us to play a showcase at Club Café." Cellofourte's other members also hail from music schools -- Nicole Myers is a CMU grad and Simon Cummings is currently a senior there, while Ben Muñoz attends Duquesne. Its debut CD, Unsung, consists of mainstay covers, but the group has since amassed a whole set of originals.
"We have the driving rhythms reminiscent of heavy rock, and then over the top of that we'll throw in a gorgeous melody that's classically derived," says Olsen. Yet Cellofourte makes a point of distinguishing itself from the famous purveyors of "cello-rock," such as the goth-oriented Rasputina and the metal-worshipping Apocalyptica. "The difference between [us and them] is our desire to keep sounding like a cello," Olsen says. "We run a pedal, but it's to control volume, not to add distortion or effects. We really like that clean sound, not to sound like a guitar. Otherwise, we'd just play guitars."
The combination of amplification and familiar timbre allows Cellofourte to exist in many circles, from educational programs to cocktail hours, weddings to rock clubs. The members can play the same originals in each situation, altering only their mode of dress. Witness the Cultural District plums the group has picked up, such as playing Light Up Night at Fifth Avenue Place at 7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 16, and then rocking the Pittsburgh Public Theater's open house the following afternoon, 1:30 p.m. Sat. Nov. 17.
Cellofourte piled up quite a prize package at its triumph in Mister Rogers' old studio. The group recorded a video with professional producers from the John Lennon Foundation's educational tour bus, and received free iPods, Reason software and a pro account on Purevolume. Most importantly, the band received a voucher for 1,000 CDs from Discmakers, which will come in handy when Cellofourte finishes its next CD, called Combustion. "It'll be all original," says Olsen, "written by Ben, me and Simon, though we haven't gotten around to writing as a full group yet."