Rochester has long been home to a vibrant and diverse music scene. Original music has always had room to find an audience here, a luxury most cities cannot claim, but we support our own. Even in the pre-punk days local bands like The Invictas , Soul Brothers Six and Duke Jupiter were able to make a name on a national level. But beyond those lucky few lie the stories of dozens of bands who achieved their own form of greatness. With an array of clubs and bars encouraging original voices there has never been a lack of up-and-comers (and should-have-made-its) hitting the stage on any given night.
A little over twenty years ago David Baumgartner, Sean Leahy, Will Veeder and Kris Durso joined those ranks as Muler . During their two decade career, Muler has embodied everything that makes this scene unique. They were just four guys who made loud tuneful rock and roll in the least pretentious way possible…
Muler’s first rehearsal was above Arena’s flower shop on East Avenue sometime in 1993 with Durso on guitar, Veeder on bass, Leahy behind the drums and Baumgartner singing. Any other specifics have been lost to time. Former motivations and plans are nothing but hazy memories these days. Perhaps the only agreed upon fact is lack of a connection to the local scene.
Muler grew not out of an urge to be another Rochester band, but rather the kind of band they wanted to see. The initial inspiration grew from the mix tapes Baumgartner made for Leahy during their college days. As the music director of his college radio station, Dave had access to a wealth of indie rock, a collection he felt compelled to share with his childhood friend.
Having never been in bands before, or being particularly well versed in playing music, neither really know what convinced them to put a band together. Dave considers seeing Buffalo Tom in 1991 as a particular influence. Says Baumgartner: “it always bugged me that bands couldn’t wear like khakis and a polo shirt and just rip it up and bang shit out and sweat like other bands did.”
In the pre-grunge days rock and roll had a uniform, an embarrassing combination of big hair, tight pants, fringe and god knows what else. Like the punks of the generation before, the bloated monster of show business kept rock and roll at an alienating distance. But Buffalo Tom was different. “They looked like my friends, they looked like regular fucking guys and they just rocked. We can do that! And they didn’t seem like great musicians and I knew a couple chords and I just saw he was playing G’s and C’s and D’s and just playing fast and super loud.”
After convincing guitarist Kris Durso to join them while at a Dinosaur Jr show (who in turn brought Will Veeder into the fold) Muler was became a reality. Not that those early practices were any indication of a band that would last over 20 years. “Dave knew maybe 2-3 chords. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Durso actually played at the first practice. When he put a lead over our bullshit we were like, ‘WHAT THE FUCK’” says Leahy.
The passion and work ethic—in those early days the band would practice upwards of 3-4 times a week—allowed them to quickly gel. Although Dave and Sean had not played with anyone before, that early focus and intensity got the band playing in front of people fairly quickly. Early nondescript gigs playing to various girlfriends, friends, band members, and the occasional bystander are now largely forgotten. The band that grew out of that youthful rock and roll idealism first came to be at (now defunct) local spaces Abyss and Friends and Players.
just like Superchunk…
if that’s your thing”
It is those kinds of local spaces that have allowed original music to flourish in Rochester. After the DIY boom of the post-punk era there has been a wealth of venues that support the unique rock and roll voices we have to offer. Spaces like Scorgies , Milestones , Jazzberry’s , Friends & Players, Abyss and Wonderland may be distant memories; but the legacy of the rooms is the vibrant scene we take for granted today.
Fortunate for Muler, they came around at a time when a complete and total lack of musical experience was not necessarily a deterrent to getting on stage.
Not long after forming Muler booked a demo session with a dance DJ named Maestro in order to introduce themselves to the larger clubs like Abyss. Baumgartner remembers Maestro: “he had jheri curl, like Deion Sanders. Looked like a first wave rapper; track suit, big glasses. He looked like Kurtis Blow.”
Maestro was surprisingly hands off allowing the band to present themselves as they were. Those sessions never saw the light of day, but they did function as a avenue to larger shows. Veeder remembers how that tape got them onstage at Abyss by simply stopping in on the right day. Fortunately a slow business day and a friendly bartender gave the fledging band their first break into the nascent local scene. Veeder remembers “there were like 2 people in the bar. Bartender put the tape on and this old lushy blonde was like ‘I like this stuff.’” The band jokes about how barely-coherent day-drunks have been their audience ever since.
Current member Jona Toll was at that early show. “I was working at Abyss at the time… I remember [Muler] had the best flyer because it had Ernie and Bert on it. I didn’t know who the hell they were but I saw that flyer and I was like I’m showing up.”
But it was the legendary Friends & Players where Muler finally began to get noticed and fall in with other bands. The influence of Friends & Players cannot be understated when it comes to the wave of underground local music in the 90s. Something resembling a relatively unified local scene was able to grow because a place like this basically just allowed anyone to play.
Baumgartner remembers Friends & Players “was just a neighborhood bar. Like a serious drinking bar… to bring 20 kids into that place and start ordering beers? They thought we killed it, to bring in 20-30 people.” It wasn’t a particularly nice place, but it was the kind of bar where you could see original local music every weekend. Beyond the confidence boost that comes with being able to have a steady space to play, it was at Friends & Players where Muler was introduced to bands such as The Thunder Gods , Koo Koo Boy , Dog’s Life and Nod (a friendship that would be memorialized on the 1998 Carbon Records single Here Comes Nod).
If nothing else the record served as an introduction to local label owner, and future Muler bassist, Joe Tunis. At the time Tunis was publishing local music zine Suck. Tunis remembers the single being the first time anyone sent him anything for review, a decision that set off a twenty year relationship. After advising on a self-released split single with long gone locals Lift, Tunis released the Thrush single on his new Carbon Records label.
Tunis recalls the compulsion to release Muler’s music then and now: “they dropped off a single, it was the Share An Apple single, we were running a zine at the time [Suck], it was the first time anyone sent us anything. So with Muler and with Hinkley , I don’t do a very good job. The label has niche… and it’s not indie rock. Indie rock is a pain in the ass to get out there and get it listened to because there is so much. The problem is when I hear the stuff and they give it to me and they’re not going to do anything else with it, I kinda have to put it out. I’m sort of compelled to put it out and it’s not because I think I owe them… this is so good it’s got to get put out somehow.”
Despite his self proclaimed “low expectations,” the Thrush single was able to bring notice to the band. Recorded at Studio Red in Philadelphia (chosen because personal favorite albums by bands like Versus and Helium were recorded there) the songs had the crucial mix of studio sheen and the ragged glory of the live performance.
However, it was a chance meeting with John Szuch that really got things moving. Described by the band as a “trust fund kid,” Szuch was in the process of launching Deep Elm Records . He and the band crossed paths after a non-descript show in New York. Although he was there for another band, Szuch was sufficiently impressed enough to hand Durso his business card that night.
Veeder remembers the unimpressed Durso saying something sarcastic, shoving the card in his wallet, only remembering to call several days later. That card led to the release of the On The Rug b/w Slowpoke single – Deep Elm’s first non-compilation. More importantly that release led to a review in Magnet and increased visibility in NYC.
Meanwhile an English label called Dedicated—newly flush with money after the unexpected success of Spiritualized , and Beth Orton stateside—had hired young hipsters to scour the rock and roll underground looking for American bands to sign. Fate converged at a sparsely attended gig at the Continental, a club in the St. Mark’s neighborhood in Manhattan. One of the young scouts happened to be in attendance and was impressed enough to bring the money men to watch another show.
Although the band had been making increasingly sophisticated singles on larger labels, the break came down to pure luck, one night they just happened to play in front of the right set of ears.
For the second time,
Muler’s powerful live show
directly led to
a record deal…
This time Dedicated came knocking with an open wallet, “carte blanche” as Baumgartner tells it. Unfortunately band and Szuch had already discussed the possibility of a full length – negotiations that made the band nervous. “He was a bulldog. Really smart, knew business.” But Dedicated offered an opportunity that could not be ignored. Soon enough they signed the contract and got to work.
Again they called on Red, but this time he came to them. Dave remembers the sessions: “Red brought his stuff up here. He had a U-Haul filled with everything. Set up across from East High, there was a studio there. They bought us new equipment and everything. We recorded for a month.”
At first the album was heavily supported: ads, posters and even their own branded condoms. Dedicated’s promotional reach had some effect as current guitarist Nick Walter remembers walking into Sounds (a Manhattan record store) and seeing the displays. Although already a fan, this was how he found out about the full length. Attempting to keep the momentum going, Muler began to demo a second LP. But like The Turtles and Big Star before them, the system went off the rails before they were able to make a mark.
About six weeks after the release of their debut major label album, The State Of Play , Dedicated went bankrupt. With no promotional support, and the CD becoming suddenly unavailable, Muler began to run out of options.
It was around this time Muler experienced their first major line-up change with Jona joining on bass and Will moving over to guitar. Although the possibility of a second album was lost, this line-up quickly recorded the Here Comes Nod single and MotelBibleSchool EP were for Carbon. In spite of both records being as good as anything that got them signed to Dedicated, their moment had passed.
Professionally their hopes had been dashed, but that era of the band did something The Beach Boys, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Little Richard couldn’t. They played the single best show I have ever seen.
there are bands in town
that are just as good
I’m listening to!”
In March of 1999, I, along with current guitarist Nick Walter, made the trek out to Bug Jar to catch Muler and Hilkka , a long (personally) beloved local math-rock outfit. Think Shellac , only more streamlined and not filled with hate. At least outwardly so. Justly forgotten Boston area pop band Gigolo Aunts were scheduled to headline, but bailed due to the weather. Time has fogged the memory of the bulk of the show, but I have images. I remember Dave tackling Jona, both falling out the back door of the club into a snow bank and not missing a note. I remember someone, maybe Durso, running into his amplifier and just crumbling to the ground. I remember the antics, but I mostly remember a band putting everything they had into a show for less than 20 people. In 15 years I never forgot that show and tell the story whenever I can. The band seems a little uncomfortable with my adulation. Admittedly my enthusiasm can be a bit much – but I know what I saw.
“I hope moving furniture isn’t our rock and roll legacy”
Despite the quality of the later Carbon recordings, MotelBibleSchool in particular is as good as anything that came out of this town, Muler began to fall apart. Seven years of hard living and professional heartbreak was more than they could handle. In 2000 the band simply ran out of gas. Today they can’t agree on who first wanted to stop, they just know they weren’t surprised.
Things did not go exactly as planned, but they know it wasn’t for a lack of trying. What happened was never fully in their control. They did what they did and they did it as good as anyone. But sometimes that hurts more than knowing your blew your chance on drugs, women and stupidity. At least that is changeable behavior. Muler got crushed by the unfeeling gears of the music business. They never stood a chance.
After the breakup, Will and Sean formed the country-ish Hinkley, releasing several CDs through Carbon, a catalog that runs the gamut from very to unbelievably good. Jonah continued with 5 Watt Bulb while Dave started Birdcircuit , an unabashedly pop band with two legitimately great albums to their name. Durso moved down south and recently published a young adult novel called Isaac’s Will . Within a couple years Sean left music entirely to focus on real life, quickly having three children, and Muler became another local music footnote; one of the bands who were able to get something out nationally during the alternative rock feeding frenzy of the mid to late 90s. But eventually Sean was itching to get back behind the drums.
In 2010 Muler reformed with Dan Smith, guitarist from Birdcircuit, and Joe Tunis (Hilkka, Tumul , Tuurd , Speedqueen, Crush The Junta and many others) on bass. In 2011 the long wished for second album, Hope You Found A Home was finally released on Carbon Records. But after all this time priorities change, goals evolve. Hope You Found A Home was born purely out of a need to create. All proceeds from the album go to The Grant Fund , a foundation focused on the support of SIDS research and prevention and established in the name of a friend’s young son who passed at only four months of age. To the band it was a no-brainer. To hear Sean tell it they are no longer interested in just making it about themselves.
“I feel like, and this is the truth actually, the band I feel like can go on without Will, it can go on without me, it can go on without Jonah. But Muler could never be without Sean,” Baumgartner says. “He’s the glue. It doesn’t work without him.” It’s a generous thought, but Will quickly counters “the combination of you two [Dave and Sean] is the glue.”
After being off and on for 21 years, releasing two full lengths and a handful of singles, and briefly grabbing that major label brass ring, what’s left? “There’s nothing left to prove. Except be better” says Sean. “And the fact you had one of your best shows is enough. It really is.”
About Brad Lewis:
Tags: Brad Lewis, history of Rochester, Muler, Muler the band, Multi-use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC), music, Rochester, Rochester music history, Rochester NY, WAYO, WAYO radio
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