By Lisa Occhino
You may remember The Rare Occasions from when we selected them as our Band of the Month over the summer, and once again, they’ve proved just how full of talent and potential they are. On November 7, 2013, the Berklee-Tufts rock band was crowned the first place winner of our 2013 “In the Groove” Songwriting Competition, which gave them a consultation with Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee John Oates (of Hall & Oates, the most successful duo in the history of recorded music), 10 hours of studio time generously donated by The Record Company, this feature on berkleegroove.com, and more. Our staff selected the band as a finalist from a record number of 96 submissions, putting them into the live final round with Fate & the Family Band and Sam Fischer. After a nail-biting audience voting period, The Rare Occasions won the grand prize with the immense support of their family, friends, and fans. (Click here to read a full recap of the live songwriting competition and listen to all the finalists’ songs.)
I sat down with bassist Jeremy Cohen, vocalist/keyboardist Brian McLaughlin, and drummer Luke Imbusch to find out more about their winning song, how they garnered so many audience votes in the competition, and their advice for new Berklee students looking to form a band.
Berklee Groove: Congratulations on winning our 2013 ‘In The Groove’ Songwriting Competition! Tell me a little bit about your winning song, ‘Scarlet Lies.’ What’s it’s about?
Brian McLaughlin: ‘Scarlet Lies’ is a song that I wrote two summers ago…. The lyrics took me a really, really long time because I didn’t know what to write about. And in a way, the lyrics are sort of about not knowing what to write about. The last verse is: ‘In the search to find the flower for you / I came across a poet or two / Scarlet lies dripped from their eyes / So take it from me, how bad could it be, my love?’ So basically, the whole first part of the song is talking about a relationship, and… trying to express the main character’s love for the other person in the relationship. He came across poets and artists and realizes that they make things up for their own artwork, just to be able to write about a certain emotion. So ‘scarlet lies dripping from their eyes’ is basically false pain that these poets and artists are inducing upon themselves…. So that’s sort of what the song is about: just making stuff up for the sake of writing, even if it’s painful – especially if it’s painful.
BG: So did you write the lyrics after the music?
Brian: Yeah, we were already working on the arrangement and writing the song as a band before I had even finished the lyrics.
BG: And is that your usual songwriting process? Do you work on the music first and find the lyrics afterwards?
Brian: Usually I have a start for lyrics. I’ll come to the band with an idea for chords… maybe some lyrics, definitely a melody for each of the chord changes, and then we’ll sometimes change the melody, so then the lyrics change.
“To me, the reward was big enough being in that final stage and able to play The Red Room – being part of the ‘who’s who’ of the songwriting niche at Berklee.”
BG: If you were given the opportunity to perform on stage with any band at any venue in the world, who would you want to play with and where would you want to play?
Brian: I think we all have our own individual answers to that question. I’ll bet I can predict [Jeremy’s].
Jeremy Cohen: What do you think is mine?
Brian: Okay, probably like Coldplay at Wembley or something like that.
Jeremy: I was just thinking about how I feel like playing at venues like The Red Room – I think that’s where I would be satisfied. I think definitely playing big arenas with 30,000 people would be sick every once in a while, but having a personal connection with the audience I think I would value much more than a loud, screaming crowd. But Coldplay, yeah.
Luke Imbusch: Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden.
Brian: My answer would be Led Zeppelin in Royal Albert Hall in London. In 1970.
BG: Since we live streamed the finals on Concert Window this year, people watching at home could participate in the voting for the first time. We were shocked at how much that affected the outcome of the competition! How did you get so many people to watch the live stream and vote for you?
Jeremy: The perks of a big Irish Catholic family…. I told my mom and I told my Auntie Diane, and once the two of them know, the entire family knows…. I think one phone call was enough to get [the word] out.
Luke: And people at Tufts. We’re half Berklee, half Tufts, so all of the Tufts people – we tried to get them to come, and we didn’t tell them about the stream until later, but once they found out they were like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna watch it online.’ But they still voted, which was nice.
Brian: It’s really hard to get Tufts people to leave Tufts.
BG: Did you guys feel like you had a good chance of winning first place?
Luke: Up until we heard the other bands play. We got nervous.
Brian: I had listened to Fate & the Family Band online, and I don’t think their recording really captured what an amazing band they are. The vocals were amazing, and then I realized, ‘Wow, this is a really well written song. We don’t stand a chance.’
Jeremy: They did awesome. For me, I was just happy to be a part of it…. We would’ve gotten some cool stuff regardless of what happened, but… to me, the reward was big enough being in that final stage and able to play The Red Room – being part of the ‘who’s who’ of the songwriting niche at Berklee. So I was pretty proud of that.
“We’ve gotten so many shows that we wouldn’t have gotten if we didn’t go the extra mile and talk to somebody.”
BG: Which part of the first place prize package are you looking forward to the most?
Luke: The recording time for me. I love recording, and we have so much new material that is ready to be recorded.
Jeremy: I think we have so many opportunities. 10 hours of free recording time – that’s insane.
BG: What advice would you give to Berklee students who are just starting out in a new band?
Jeremy: To all the new students, I’m gonna be another one of the thousands of people who are gonna say this to them, but networking, networking, networking. We’ve gotten so many shows that we wouldn’t have gotten if we didn’t go the extra mile and talk to somebody…. No matter how good you are, there’s such an oversaturation of musicians…. If you don’t go the extra step to make yourself known, it’s gonna be a lot more difficult to get your stuff out there. Networking is really important… but at the same time, to not let the business stuff compromise the music, ‘cause that stuff can turn into a full-time job. You need the business stuff to get your music out there, but the music should always come first.
BG: What are your plans for the band after you all graduate?
Jeremy: The topic is open for discussion.
Brian: We have to have ‘the talk’…. We know where people are headed geographically at least next year. Peter [Stone, our guitarist,] is still gonna be at Tufts, Jeremy is still gonna be at Berklee, and… I’m an electrical engineer, so I’ll probably get a job in the Boston area as well. I’d like to continue jammin’ with you guys.
Luke: I’ll probably be around for a while before moving out [to LA], so it’s still up in the air.