Four Penn State juniors, clad in t-shirts and jeans, are set up outside of Pollock Commons playing a concert at Pollock Palooza, an end-of-the-year event with live music, food and activities that takes place before Penn State’s finals week.
The four juniors – Derek Williams, Jake Ludwig, Jon Callan and Zach Kramer – make up one of State College’s newest indie-rock bands, Mute Cities.
The group is unique in several ways, most notably its genre of music. While many of the bands in State College play generic top-40 songs and hits from the 70s through the early part of the millennium, Mute Cities prides itself on being an indie rock/pop band that plays mostly original music.
Mixing inspiration from a bevy of different musical acts – like Young the Giant, The Strokes, and Vampire Weekend, along with various indie-rock bands the quartet enjoy in its spare time – the men of Mute Cities stand out.
“It’s something that we all love doing, playing music, so we might as well play stuff that we make that we can be proud of,” Williams said.
The men of Mute Cities don’t want to be the run-of-the-mill bar band. They have aspirations beyond State College.
Mute Cities didn’t come together by an act of serendipity or a freak accident. It was actually a pretty simple process.
Williams and Callan are roommates acquainted for two years, and both started playing their instruments after they met. Williams handles vocals and guitar, while Callan plays bass. Kramer and Ludwig, the band’s respective lead guitarist and drummer, have been playing music since high school.
The group came together after Williams told Callan that he wanted to play original music. The first time they ever played together was during a cover show in October, where Callan introduced Williams to Ludwig. There, Williams suggested the trio start a band.
Ludwig introduced Willams and Callan to Kramer, claiming, “He’s better than any drummer you’ll find.”
The group jammed several times in January of 2014, and the band was “officially” formed in February. However, it still needed one thing: a name. Several got shot down – like “Cardboard Fort” and “The Radio Flyers,” which the band couldn’t use, because it’s the name of one of Kansas City’s premier cover bands.
One day, the band got fed up of being nameless, and went with something random.
“We got it from the game F-Zero X, which is the game that Captain Falcon from Super Smash Bros. is from,” Ludwig said while his bandmates laughed at the thought of a name coming from a random video game. “One of the main maps on that, also the map in Super Smash Bros., is called ‘Mute City.’ Not plural. So what we did was take it, and thinking about copyright things, we put an ‘S’ on it.”
“We sat there and went, ‘That’s it! We’re going with that name!’” Williams said.
At first, Mute Cities struggled to break into the loaded State College music scene. Aside from the occasional house show or frat performance, there wasn’t much of a demand for an indie rock/pop band that prefers playing original stuff to covers.
“We did an acoustic open mic thing, but you could win it,” Ludwig said. “It was the Blue and White Society’s Open Mic at the Hintz Alumni Center. It was the first show we ever played.”
Williams described the show as “Murphy’s Law to the nth degree.” There was horrendous feedback during one of the songs, Williams broke a string, and the entire band forgot how to play the final song, which led to everyone just playing random stuff.
“We won!” Ludwig said, still surprised at the result of the competition months later. “We won a $25 Chili’s gift card, and then all the Penn State Lives Here stuff because they’re obviously trying to get rid of it. A shitton of stuff, just a bag of stuff, like glasses, stickers, magnets.”
“We dumped all of it on Jake’s bed and just danced around it,” Williams added.
The band got its first break, and played its first major show, at Movin’ On’s Battle of the Bands, a contest which traditionally takes the top two bands and lets them play at Movin’ On.
The band played three original songs, because according to the contest’s rules, doing covers would lead to an automatic disqualification. As one would imagine, Mute Cities was fond of that rule.
Despite nerves, Mute Cities played very well. So well, in fact, that it came in second place, beating several far more well-established acts. Usually, this means a band would perform at Movin’ On.
Mute Cities wasn’t given that chance.
Movin’ On decided that, due to changes to the date, location and schedules of the acts that were performing, it could only take one band. This brewed some controversy.
“This decision was made before Battle of the Bands, but it was not communicated clearly enough to all parties,” said Movin’ On Overall Director Dan Kramer in a statement. “That night, I personally called a member of all 12 competing bands to explain the situation and to notify them if they were one of the top three highest scoring acts. All of the contestants were all very understanding of the situation despite the initial miscommunication.”
“I was hanging out at a party at 1 a.m. when I got a phone call, and it was Dan Kramer,” Callan said. “He was very apologetic, but he did say that we’d be the second band.”
The band took the news in stride, and found a way to turn the negative of being passed over into a positive.
“Everyone was under the impression it would be two bands,” Ludwig said. “They neglected to really spread it around, and there was a lot of disappointment. I wasn’t really disappointed, but a lot of the kids in the other bands were.”
“We had only been playing for a month and a half at that point,” Callan said. “We were thrilled to be up there playing and our friends had a ton of fun. We were OK with it.”
Mute Cities has since played some larger shows, most notably a performance at Arts Crawl, which Callan helps organize.
For now, the band mostly plays smaller shows, like its performance at Pollock Palooza.
With Callan in the center, flanked by Williams on his right, Ludwig on his left and Kramer on the drums in the back, the band plays for a sea of students in Pollock’s outside common area.
The band begins its eight-song setlist with a well-known cover, “First Date” by Blink-182. The small table of students focused intently on the band sings along, while various students taking part in other activities around the common area are bobbing their heads and loosely paying attention.
After two original tracks – “Family Tree” and “Spout” – Mute Cities heads into another cover, “I Got” by Young the Giant.
Mute Cities plays three more original songs – “Good Deed Good Night,” easily the band’s slowest and most melancholy track of the day, followed by two more upbeat songs, “Monster” and “Point of View.” The set closes with a cover of Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy,” which Ludwig jokingly tells the crowd is, “your mom’s favorite song.”
As the set ends and Mute Cities packs up to raucous applause from the crowd – which has gone from barely paying attention to captivated – all four members are smiling. These aren’t coy, shy smiles. Rather, all four are ginning from ear to ear, proud that they didn’t just play well, but that they absolutely nailed their performance.
As for future plans, Mute Cities is in a bit of a tough spot, as its members will go their separate ways over the summer with internships and jobs back home. This won’t keep the band from recording music and writing, as the four tentatively plan on putting some stuff together over the next few months. They even plan on doing a few shows in that time, should the opportunity come up, since they know people in Philadelphia, State College, Pittsburgh and New York City who can help book them.
However, when the band returns from summer vacation, it doesn’t want to be like other bands in State College.
“You see all the bands who say, ‘We play Indigo on Thursdays,’ like My Hero Zero, that’s like their job,” Ludwig said. “That’s cool, and you probably get paid more than we do, but we want to go and travel.”
The band is trying to put out an EP, and hopefully play some festivals once next year comes around, while still having as much fun as possible.
Of course, the four guys have one year left in school, meaning their impending graduations from Penn State are coming sooner rather than later.
“We have a year to have fun,” Williams said. “After depends on where we go next year, what we’re all doing after that. It will be a game time decision.”
“Maybe if we get kicked out of school, we’ll decide then,” Ludwig said.
Mute Cities doesn’t want to be a great State College band. It wants to be a great band that started in State College, and most importantly, its members want to have fun while they do it.