By Piper Curda
The Tower Room in Blanchard is a quiet, modest room on the top floor of the historic building, made more tranquil by the flurries of snowfall dancing past the windows in the brutal chill of January. The space is anything but devoid of energy, however, as three of the five members of one of Wheaton’s newest student bands, Card Club, fill the room with laid-back banter and a subtle but palpable passion for the unique music that sparked their growing on-campus following. The band was formed Oct. 8, 2018 (a date immortalized on one of the band’s merch shirts) though the initial idea originated the prior semester between lead singer junior Charles Schlabach and drummer senior Jake Richardson when they both attended the BestSemester program at the Contemporary Music Center in Nashville, Tenn.
“We were talking down there about starting something when we came back … to keep it going because that was such a good experience,” Schlabach explained. Shortly after arriving back on campus, Schlabach and Richardson reached out to junior Grant Deakins and junior Josh Zuckermann to join as bass player and keyboardist, respectively. “Jake was actually the first person I met [at Wheaton]; he moved me in freshman year,” Deakins mentioned. This elicited a chuckle from guitarist sophomore Caleb Ballard who pointed out that Zuckermann had helped him move in freshman year as well. These fortuitous moments seemed to be a running theme amongst the group, with Ballard having joined the band in an almost accidental fashion, right before the band’s first gig. “I just heard from Grant, ‘Hey dude, we have these guys that I jam with, do you wanna play a show with them?’ and I said, ‘That’d be fun,’” Ballard laughed, with Schlabach adding that “There was a good week or two where it was like, ‘Is he in the band?’” Evidently, that is no longer a question given that Ballard plays an integral role in the band, as does every member.
If we keep pursuing just being genuine in our writing, there’s going to be a fingerprint of our faith in there.Caleb Ballard
Throughout Card Club’s conversation with the Record, the group placed concerted emphasis on the idea of collaboration. Ballard, Deakins and Zuckermann all come from backgrounds of playing in bands throughout high school and performing in a wide variety of contexts ranging from worship to art rock to classical, while Richardson and Schlabach are more grounded in a structural process of creating music which is influenced by their time in the Nashville program. This balanced combination of concept and composition seems to have lent itself to the tangible brotherhood chemistry that the band emanates both on and off stage. “It’s been cool seeing that blend because it works together really well,” Ballard confirmed. “It’s really shaped how we play and perform and how we write and what our sound has become,” Deakins added.
This sound is described by the members as “synth-y pop rock” and “happy indie pop,” replete with 80s-inspired guitar riffs, drum and bass sounds rooted in funk, and Pulp Fiction references buried in the lyrics. “There’s a lot of sad music out right now … we want to write happy music!” Deakins exclaimed, adding that “at the end of the day we just want people to have a good time listening to it and going to our shows.” The somewhat vague language the group ascribes to their music is representative of the diversity in their catalog of songs and their refusal to be put into a singular box or genre. “I’m not very knowledgeable in the history of music … so honestly whatever comes out is just kind of what comes out naturally … it’s mostly accidents,” Schlabach told the Record in a moment of modest truth. The others were quick to give Schlabach credit where it was due.
“Charles really has such a great creative vision and drive behind it and the sound we’re going for … Charles really pushes that and we’re all able to support that well and provide ways to make it better,” Deakins said. Ballard continued on, explaining that “even if somebody else comes in with an idea, it’s kind of Charles coming up with a cool melody for it.” Schlabach made sure to clarify, however, that the band is in no way a one-man effort. “It all can’t come from my head,” he said seriously. “Everybody fills the space that they’re given really well,” Ballard agreed. To that end, each member has their own unique approach when it comes to creating.
“At the end of the day, we’re just making noise, and it’s so cool that that’s something that brings people together and can make people feel a certain way,” Deakins said thoughtfully. “We’re just hitting instruments and it can be clash-y and weird and still people find something in it and might find something that not even us, as the artists, found.” In a different vein, Ballard explains that he tends to find vulnerability and community in his art. “I feel most free to be vulnerable with people when I’m playing music … it’s just become kind of second nature to how I think,” he told the Record, “I get to take people into these little pictures I’ve made whenever I get to play. It’s just how I love connecting with people, and that’s what I’m passionate about.” Schlabach, who contributes heavily to the lyric portion of songwriting, expressed what he views as the two primary reasons to write music: for other people or for yourself. “I definitely struggle between the two because I don’t want other people’s opinions to affect too much of what I write, but I also want to keep it honest,” he admitted. Deakins summed up their joint creative effort in describing it as “an outlet to tell a story.”
While there is a distinctive individuality to the members of Card Club in the unique ways they dress, speak and perform that lends itself to their intriguing image as a band, there is also an element of self-awareness that each one of them consciously possesses. “I think it’s really important to stay self-aware when you write music because it’s really easy to get caught up in this idealistic vision of what you’re doing,” Ballard expressed thoughtfully, explaining how easy it can be to come across (or actually be) pretentious or inaccessible when working on music seen as out-of-the-box. “You don’t want to just write for other people, but there’s a degree to which I have to know whether or not I’m in a different world … you have to maintain that awareness.”
Deakins added that the group attempts to bring this awareness to all facets of life as a band, including stylistic choices, at which point the members transitioned into a prolonged shoutout of sophomore Elliot Young, whom the band gives credit to for their logo, t-shirt designs and social media content, among other things. In an email exchange with the Record, Young spoke of how his intrigue in the band was sparked upon hearing the name. “There was a symmetry to the name that I enjoyed and I got really excited about the possibility of that name,” Young explained, saying he drew inspiration for the logo from visual trends he’d seen on Instagram. “I love the look of bold monospace characters. I think powerful and recognizable branding is a major factor to a new band’s success and I wanted to make sure Card Club had that covered.” It seems Young’s efforts have done the trick, given that Card Club is already a recognizable name on campus, despite the fact that they are a self-described secular band which can tend to operate against the grain in a place like Wheaton. Even so, the band doesn’t see this fact as an advantage nor a disadvantage.
“I firmly believe all art is God-breathed … I’ve had very spiritual moments with secular music and the joy that comes from that I feel is pretty raw and rooted in a community that is a loving environment for people to be in,” Deakins told the Record, with all members agreeing that the secular music industry can be seen as a mission field. They spoke to the opportunities they’ve had to enter into community with other bands in the unlikeliest of places, with Deakins saying, “It’s cool to just actually meet people where they are … to spark conversation and be present with people.” Ultimately, while identifying as a secular band, Card Club aims to represent themselves as Christians in a band and noted that they have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the Wheaton community since their conception. In terms of implementing any kind of spiritual nuances in their current or future music, Ballard shrugged and earnestly articulated that “if we keep pursuing just being genuine in our writing, there’s going to be a fingerprint of our faith in there.”
It’s clear that Card Club has an explicit vision for how they want to present themselves as a band. However, this doesn’t mean they know what their future as a band will look like. With Zuckermann currently studying in Nashville at the same program where the idea for Card Club was born and Richardson on the road working for a tour, the rest of the members don’t exactly know how this will change things. “It’s a lot of question marks for us right now. We’ve been trying to continue to schedule some gigs and get other guys in, but it’s not the same without them,” Schlabach said, though the group pointed out that the absence of the others allows for more opportunity to get into the recording studio and concentrate on that aspect of things for a while. “I think we all would love to see Card Club work out,” Ballard declared hopefully, while acknowledging that each member was also working on their own solo projects. “I definitely have some stuff that probably wouldn’t fit into Card Club that I’ll finish eventually, but we seem to have fallen into something fairly good,” Schlabach said in agreement. “We all feel we’ve found something special, which is such a generic music thing to say,” Deakins affirmed, “but we’re going to ride this ship until it sinks.”