Between the four of them, the Counterfactuals have 12 degrees, four wives, seven kids, and one critically acclaimed debut album, Minimally Decent People. The bandmates are Carleton philosophy professors Dan Groll (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Jason Decker (lead guitar), Carleton music professor Andy Flory (bass), and St. Olaf philosophy professor Mike Fuerstein (drums). Groll and Decker started the band in 2010, and the current quartet has been together for two years.
They are an unlikely indie-rock band. Groll and Fuerstein earned bachelor’s degrees in jazz (on drums and saxophone, respectively). Flory is a Motown expert, and Decker’s ultimate goal, when he began playing guitar at age 12, was to play like Dire Straits. The Counterfactuals’ sound was described by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) as “finding that connecting point between roots, folk music, and modern pop.” MPR’s alternative music station, the Current, hailed Minimally Decent People as “must-hear music.”
“It’s an amusing reverse evolution,” says Fuerstein. “Most people get into indie music as teenagers and turn to jazz in their 40s. I was listening to Oscar Peterson during my ‘rebellious years’ and only explored indie rock in earnest once I had financial responsibilities and graying hair. Next thing I knew, I was drinking PBR in Dan’s basement,” which serves as the band’s weekly practice space.
The foursome’s midlife success should serve as inspiration to teenage garage bands everywhere. Never give up, kids. But earning a PhD is a solid back-up plan.
- Drumsticks: The drumsticks belong to Groll. Not pictured is his most prized pair—given to him by Elvin Jones’s wife, Keiko, after a show. Jones’s drumming powered John Coltrane’s famous quartet.
- Kids toys: Groll says the toys belong to his kids, but Decker insists, “Those are for Andy in case he gets bored playing the bass.”
- Guitar: “Epiphone is the budget line of Gibson guitars,” says Groll of his acoustic guitar. “It’s like buying a nice Honda Accord.”
- Andy Flory: An accomplished music scholar, Flory has written extensively about American rhythm and blues, lectured at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and served as a consultant to Universal Records for several Motown album reissues.
- Amplifier: Flory purchased this amplifier 20 years ago when he was director of the Rock Shop (“rock and roll—not geology”) at the French Woods Festival, a performing arts camp in the Catskills.
- Jason Decker: The group’s audio engineer, Decker recorded, mixed, and mastered Minimally Decent People and builds technical equipment. “I try to make up for my
mediocre guitar playing by manufacturing effects,” he says. “I could practice the guitar—not paper over my imperfections with random noise—but I find the latter more interesting.”
- Reel-to-reel Player: In fact, this is not a reel-to-reel player, but a Decker-made tape-echo machine. “I don’t really understand electronics—but I want to,” he says. “So I start messing around and hope I don’t get electrocuted or burned too badly in the process. Yes, I’ve been both.”
- Miles Davis Poster: Groll bought this poster when he was an undergraduate at McGill University. “Davis had a genius for putting together the right band at the right time,” he says. “I like that he looks over us.”
- Mike Fuerstein: Fuerstein played clarinet and piano as a child, then moved on to jazz saxophone in his teens. “I fooled around on drums as a kid and even won our high school’s battle of the bands with a sloppy version of ‘Summer of ’69,’ ” he says. “But I only devoted myself to learning them in a meaningful way when Dan asked me to play in the band three years ago.”
- Drums: To save Fuerstein from having to lug his drums to Groll’s basement each week, he uses Groll’s set—a vintage 1964 Ludwig kit. Fuerstein’s set is a Mapex M Birch kit, which he bought off of Craigslist.
- Pabst Blue Ribbon: “Of the cheap beers, PBR is the best, which makes it an ideal band-practice beer,” says Fuerstein. “The downside is that when you put it next to a Fender amplifier, everybody thinks you’re a wannabe hipster—which I am. I try to contribute as much aging-dad-faux-hipster cred to the band as possible. That’s what I bring from the St. Olaf side of the Cannon.”
- Dan Groll: “I’m the band’s taskmaster,” says Groll. “I’m the guy who organizes everything and is a pain in their sides.” He also is the band’s songwriter and wrote all the tracks on Minimally Decent People.
- CDs: It took 1.5 years for the band to self-record Minimally Decent People, which dropped in fall 2013. Their initial run of 200 CDs has since sold out, but they plan to make more. (“We also made 300 LPs, which won’t sell out—ever,” says Groll.) The album can be downloaded at thecounterfactuals.bandcamp.com or purchased at the Carleton Bookstore.
- College degrees: Groll’s degrees, stacked on the sidelines, serve as a reminder that practice can’t run too late. These rock star profs have class in the morning.