Culture  Hoofing it as a band

McGill student musician on balancing art and academics

At this time of the year, balancing academics with passions and hobbies – be they artistic, athletic, or career-driven – can be difficult, and usually comes at the expense of both.Once student workloads get heavier and the sun begins to shine longer every day, the question of whether students’ extracurriculars are compatible with their studies proves to be a curious one. And for the students who moonlight in up-and-coming Montreal bands like Braids, the F in Fresh, the Youjsh, and the Hoof and the Heel, there doesn’t appear to be an easy solution.

Farid Rener, a U3 Electrical Engineering student at McGill, is the Hoof and the Heel’s drummer. The band also comprises vocalist and guitar player Harris Shper, vocalist and keyboard player Christine Hale, and bass player Al Mal, who respectively make their living as a professional musician, illustrator, and recording engineer. As a band, they have performed in New York, San Francisco, and L.A., purveying a brand of alt-folk described by Hale as being characterized by “a lot of ups and downs.”

Having met through mutual friends and music festival fundraisers, the group’s influences are as diverse as their origins. The four cut their teeth in metal cover bands (Rener), punk bands and string quartets (Shper), and alt country bands (Hale and Mal). Although the band hails from Winnipeg, England, Vermont, and L.A., they formed in the summer of 2009 in Montreal, “the only place that feels like a home,” says Hale. It is a city that Shper describes as “always fun because we’ll have friends and family in the audience, as well as strangers.” He adds, “I think, as a whole, Montreal is a good ‘listening’ city.” The sense of community extends to fellow Montreal musicians, whom the band are avid fans of – particularly those with a foot in McGill. Rener comments, “It seems as though there are some pretty big bands coming out of McGill right now: Tonsstartssbandt, Braids, the Youjsh, et cetera. Lots of our friends are McGill students, so I think it is inevitable that we end up being part of that ‘scene.’”

Recently the band has played at the Intersice loft in Griffintown, where Shper recalls that “everyone was dancing and having a great time,” in contrast to a recent show at Gerts, which Rener describes as “a strange venue” due to its “sports-bar feel.”

When asked about the relationship between university life and his musical pursuits, Rener – the only member of the band still attending university – says, “My program is notorious for destroying your social life and extracurricular activities.” He confesses that “it has been pretty tough to balance both, especially recently, as we have been playing lots of shows. The solution is lots of coffee and less sleep.”

“I feel like my life is split into two different worlds right now,” he continued. “The stuff I am doing in school seems so far removed from band life that I try and keep them as separate as possible, to keep my brain from exploding. I never really dreamt that the Hoof would have as much success as it has had recently.”

The burgeoning success of McGill bands such as the Hoof and the Heel proves that the musical endeavours of students such as Rener can exist in harmony with academic life. The winning balance seems to be a combination of a strong work ethic and a creative division of time, though Rener admits, “I have been caught day-dreaming about playing shows in class on more than one occasion.”

As for the time being, he adds: “Right now I’m trying to keep my options open. I only have one year of school left, and after that, who knows.”