BY: Karen Wilson and Nick Oldham
Callum Bethune and Brett Blackwell are both within six credits of graduating from MSU, but they’re taking a break from school.
“I don’t really feel like facing the real world that much yet,” explained Bethune.
“I took psychology because it seemed like the easiest major in the entire school, pretty much,” Blackwell said. “I never thought college would get me anything.”
To other Bozemanites, Bethune and Blackwell may appear to be stereotypical college dropouts, slackers who milk the system while contributing nothing to their community. But as two of this small town’s young artists, they have found the time and space to do what they love — and for them success has nothing to do with graduating from college.
Callum Bethune: Cyrkus
Callum Bethune, known by his friends as Cal and his fans as Cyrkus, readily admits that he moved from Minnesota to Montana in 2008 “for the snowboarding.”
Although Bethune enrolled at MSU to study computer science, he quickly became intrigued by Bozeman’s budding electronic music scene after driving out to the mountains for one of Musik Lives Here’s first DJ dance parties.
“I was kind of intrigued because I’d already been making a little bit of music in my free time at home,” Bethune said. “I figured I would see how I could help out and what way to start playing music that I wanted to hear.”
Almost five years later, Bethune has become a part of the Musik Lives Here crew and DJs under the name Cyrkus, “not really making any money doing it, just playing shows.” Now that he’s slightly older and more mature than when he attended that first mountain party, he sees electronic shows differently.
“I still definitely get down at shows, but don’t have as much fun as I used to,” Bethune explained. Even when he’s not DJing, he helps set up for shows, allowing him to see the process of an electronic show from beginning to end. “I like the circus feel to it,” he said. “That’s definitely where my DJ name comes from. It always feels like it runs like a circus, just a bunch of people doing random shit, then it all somehow comes together and it works out.”
This circus metaphor applies not only to electronic music shows, but to college and the process of actually getting a degree.
Bethune certainly possesses the computer science skills of a college graduate, and recently picked up some work writing remote scripts for a new Behringer DJ controller — essentially a rectangular interface of knobs and a grid of identical square buttons that can all be programmed to do different things and even light up different colors. Bethune is helping write the scripts to make this complex piece of technology work in the computer program Ableton, popular among DJs.
“It’s kind of a cool thing in a way, I’ll end up writing a script that will be on a lot of computers,” Bethune said nonchalantly.
Although Bethune’s formal education at MSU helped him develop the skills for such a task, he said “computer science is something I had been into since I was like 12 years old. Growing up on the computer, I downloaded whatever programs I could find.”
This personal drive has led to Bethune’s success in the DJ world and the beginning of what could be a promising future in the programming world — all before graduating from college, which he only needs six more credits to do.
Although Bethune says he doesn’t want to face the real world, it appears that the real world has already found him.
Like a circus, it will all come together one day, and Bethune’s laid-back approach to life means less of a push to become famous or start a career, and more of a tendency to lay low, learn independently and push the boundaries of creative technology.
“I’ve always really liked the computer as a tool for art,” Bethune said. “Music is one part of it, but I also have a visualizer that I’ve written on my computer, and I’d like to play around more with some sort of fully interactive visual and audio experience. All of the different types of media you can create on the computer, it seems like it’s not being fully taken advantage of yet.”
Brett Blackwell: Twiggie Smalls
Brett Blackwell started making electronic music out of curiosity.
“My friend got this really basic little DJ controller, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the easiest thing ever. Anyone can do that,’” Blackwell said. “So I got one too, and I really liked it.”
In the couple of years since that discovery, Blackwell has progressed from mixing other artists’ music in a style his friends dubbed “baby-making music” to creating his own brand of electronic beats.
“I started making music when it just felt like so many people started DJing, so it was like, ‘I’m just like everyone else now. There’s nothing really special about me.’ Because I realized how easy it was to do it,” he explained. “So I started making music to try and set myself apart from other people.”
None of this probably would have happened, though, if Blackwell hadn’t moved to Bozeman — a decision that originally had nothing to do with music.
“I just moved here because I didn’t qualify for California schools because I didn’t get good grades in high school, but Montana schools pretty much accepted everyone,” he said.
Once at MSU, Blackwell made friends, had fun and found his passion making electronic music. For him, college was never a means to an end, just a way to “put off getting a real job for four more years. So I just figured out something to do not affiliated with college,” he explained.
Although his college studies in psychology have nothing to do with music, Blackwell said if he had stayed in California, “I probably would have kept doing the same thing with all of my friends from high school and not really branched out as much as I did.”
For now, he sees Bozeman as a solid place to call home, at least until he completes the one class he needs to graduate from MSU. Although he says “there’s definitely no money involved” in making music, he has enough money saved to support himself here. “If I lived anywhere back home, I would be out of money,” Blackwell said. “But here I could probably live another two years.”
Along with the cheap cost of living, Blackwell says Bozeman provides a perfect setting to lay low and develop his artistic talents while “living the good life.”
“I don’t think the music I make is too incredible, but I think in a few years it might be. I hope it will be,” he said. “I’m really not planning on becoming the world’s best DJ at all..”
Regardless of what happens, Blackwell said he plans to keep making music: “I’ll probably just get some mediocre job and keep doing it forever, I would assume.”
Joe Funk: Kitchen dweller
A classically-trained musician, Joe Funk plays the stand-up bass. He has explored a variety of instruments and styles since he first began playing classical violin in elementary school, but it would appear he has found his calling plucking soulful bass lines for local bluegrass favorites The Kitchen Dwellers.
When he moved to Bozeman to study at MSU, Funk considered playing music more of an obligation than a hobby.
“I never knew that bluegrass could be fun until I moved out here,” Funk said. “I had the mentality, ‘Oh, I go take lessons and learn this song.’ I didn’t know I could hang out with my friends and jam and do whatever we wanted.” Although things are becoming slightly more serious these days with the band, he still enjoys the freedom of expression he gets from playing bluegrass as opposed to the rigidity of the music theory classes he’s taken or the orchestra he’s participated in almost every semester.
The Kitchen Dwellers have progressed from their humble beginnings of jamming in a cluttered kitchen, and now that Funk is finishing his fourth year in the civil engineering program, he admits that he has “a big decision ahead:” If he chooses to play music, he might live in poverty for a while, but if he chooses to get a job in the engineering field, he won’t have nearly as much fun.
Although he has not made a final decision, the increasingly difficult demands of engineering school combined with the Kitchen Dwellers’ increasingly intense tour schedule have made it hard for Funk to practice with the band as much as he would like.
While finishing up his degree certainly has its benefits — job security, for one — Funk also finds the idea of hitting the open road and touring with his band pretty appealing.
“Pretty much everyone is dead set on playing music for the rest of their lives,” he said of his bandmates. “I’m the only one who’s not 100 percent right now. Even though that’s what I want to do, I have to weigh all my options and see what’s best for me.”
Graduating from MSU might prove difficult if Funk decides to run with the Kitchen Dwellers, who have big plans. Although they have room to grow in Bozeman, Funk said the band is reaching a limit of what they can do in this town. “I think our main goal right now is to keep expanding, and that’s kind of hard to do when you’re 12 hours away from any big cities.”
At the moment, Funk still sees music as “the fun part” of his life, and he doesn’t want to give that up.
“I feel like it’s really keeping me up mentally,” he said. “It’s giving me something to do.”
“Music can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up or give you shivers everywhere, but still just make you want to party,” Funk said. “It can make you feel whatever you want to feel.”
“I definitely am going to be playing music my whole life, whether or not it’s my career.”
Jeremiah Gaiser: Jespy
While Jeremiah Gaiser’s college career was short-lived, music has been an ongoing endeavor for him since age five. “It was the classic ‘mother forces you to take piano lessons situation,’” he comically explained. However, when a friend introduced him to electronic, sample-based music in high school he became hooked instantly and “fell in love with that process” of making music.
Gaiser, who embodies the DJ persona of Jespy, is an up-and-coming electronic artist living in Bozeman. He attended MSU as a freshman last year, but quickly realized higher education was not for him — not because he couldn’t do it, but because it didn’t feel right.
“I came to study sustainable food and bioenergy sources and then it wasn’t really science-y enough for me,” Gaiser said. “So I went into biochemistry and now I don’t go to school anymore.”
Although now he works independently, he values the musical education he did get with piano and guitar lessons in his younger years. “It really endowed me with a lot of knowledge of theory and whatnot that I really do use today,” Gaiser said gratefully. However, he believes continuing with the structured music tutelage might actually have hampered his creative process, because in that setting “you might end up coming up with a sound very much like the students around you instead of your own labor of love.”
Now Gaiser produces fresh music while working in web development, his other “primary passion,” to make a living. At only 20 years old, he just needs to complete a three-month trial as a paid intern at a web development firm to secure a high-paying job. It gives him the freedom to create music when he wants — a pretty sweet setup compared to the stereotypical rut of college dropouts.
He’s not sure whether making music is a sustainable long-term career, but he continues to make music and hopes that one day it may be.
With all the friends he’s made since moving here from Kalispell, a solid job and support from local companies like Chamberlin Productions, Gaiser finds it harder each day to leave Bozeman. Yet, he definitely feels limited in what he can do in this small town. “I feel like you could plateau here pretty easily because of the population and culture surrounding the type of music that I make,” Gaiser said, admitting that he has been considering a move to Seattle where the scene is a little more rich and the population more dense.
Regardless of where he goes next, Gaiser promises to always make music, whether as a full-time job or not. For now, our supportive community and the impending beautiful summer will keep Gaiser around Bozeman — plus, at such a young age, he has plenty of time to hang out before he branches out to pursue his musical goals.