A handful of Montclair State University professors really rock. Quite literally. When they’re not teaching, conducting research or fulfilling other professorial – or in the case of one, department head – duties, they’re playing in their respective bands and entertaining crowds.
Family Science and Human Development Professor Jon Caspi, Anthropology Professor Chris Matthews, who is also department chair, Associate Anthropology Professor Julian Brash and Montclair adjunct professors Chris Freid, Social Work and Child Advocacy, and Glen Fittin, Theatre and Dance, have all found both musical and academic success.
An expert and author of books on sibling relationships, Caspi has been teaching for almost 23 years. He’s been in the indie, alternative and punk scene even longer. While in college in the 1980s, he fronted Bouncing Off Bob, which as Caspi puts it “toured and received enough radio play to appear on the Top 100 college radio charts, one spot below Tracy Chapman and a few spots higher than Bon Jovi.” For the last 12 years, he’s been the leader and guitarist for Jon Caspi & The First Gun, a band labeled with its own genre of “Heartland Punk” by the Asbury Park Vibes website and “New Jersey Americana fueled punk” by ThePunkSite.com.
“A lot of people think of professors as sort of stodgy and that they don’t have a life,” says Caspi, whose band is releasing new music this month. “All of us have these completely different, separate lives that people don’t know about.”
He and fellow professors-by-day-musicians-by-night will prove their “metal” at Tierney’s Tavern, a Montclair institution, on Saturday, September 23. They will be opening for the British punk rock band Vibrators V2. Tickets for the show may be purchased on Eventbrite.
Caspi and Matthews both fell into academia as a Plan B. Caspi’s band at the time, Bouncing Off Bob, was touring, signed to a label and receiving radio airplay. “Then the band broke up, and I didn’t really know what to do with my life,” he says. “I met a guy who had a master’s degree, and I said, ‘How long does it take to get a master’s degree?’ And he said two years and I said, ‘I could do that as a backup’ – and here I am.”
Caspi’s master’s led to a PhD in 1997, which launched his teaching career and in 2002, he joined the Montclair faculty.
Long before Matthews arrived at Montclair in 2012, he was a founding member of the Washington, D.C.-based punk band Shudder to Think and penned much of the band’s music. Formed in 1986, the group recorded four albums for the indie Dischord record label. “Being in a band when you’re in your late teens or early 20s is a lot of fun,” he says. “But when I was 23 or 24, I started thinking, I don’t think I can do this forever. I’d majored in anthropology, and I was looking around at my options and applied to [Columbia University] graduate school and got in, and I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m changing the focus of my life from music to whatever anthropology is going to be.’”
What anthropology turned out to be was the path to a successful career as a professor, as well as the department chair and now also the co-director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Musically, today Matthews writes songs for and leads a new band, Quiz Show, formed in 2016. The trio is on the Magic Door Records label and has released two singles, two EPs and are working on a new EP to be released next year. Matthews’ band includes two professional musicians – Jesse Krakow on bass and Joe Billy on drums – who “indulge me by playing in my band,” he jokes, “but they play in other bands and have their own things going on.”
Some of the rockin’ professors met one another through musicians’ circles and discovered they worked at Montclair, while some met at the time of the photo for this story. Associate Anthropology Professor Julian Brash, who works in the same department as Matthews, knew that Matthews was from the Washington, D.C., area and was familiar with the D.C.-based punk band Shudder to Think when he lived in the area. “So, he just sort of asked at one point, ‘Are you that guy?’” recalls Matthews, who responded with, “Wow, yeah.”
Matthews learned that Caspi works at Montclair from some professional musicians. “I know Jon’s band,” he says. “They’re a big deal.”
Jon Caspi & The First Gun has made a resurgence thanks to national airplay and some press about a rereleased fan favorite and New Jersey cult hit from the band’s sixth album, “Raise ’Em High!” During the pandemic lockdown of 2020, the WFMU-FM disc jockey Glen Jones played the song and kept playing it every Sunday as “The 2 pm Toast.” This weekly tradition spawned a life of its own, with a Facebook group where people post their toasting photos. Additionally, a “Raise ’Em High” beer is being rereleased by Alternate Ending Beer Co. in Aberdeen, New Jersey, on the same day as the Tierney’s Tavern show. Caspi will perform at the brewery that afternoon before heading to what he calls the “Professors That Rock” show at Tierney’s. In addition, the song’s momentum led to local label Fake Chapter signing Caspi’s band, which has new music releasing this month, including a new live version of “Raise ’Em High” to be released September 22.
While their academic and music worlds are generally compartmentalized, there is some spillover. “The material I teach on relationships has informed my writing. I think it would be impossible for it not to,” says Caspi. “I have deliberately included siblings in a couple of songs because of my work. My band does have a song called ‘Ghosted’ out which was inspired from in-class discussions with students about the relational behavior of ghosting.”
Matthews also says there’s some overlap between his music and his anthropological work. “I work a lot on social inequality and racism,” he says. “Sometimes this is fairly clear in the lyrics, and sometimes it’s metaphorical. For example, there are [song] lines about W.E.B. DuBois and David Harvey, who have been intellectual guides in my career.”
Chris Freid has been an adjunct professor of Social Work and Child Advocacy since 2005. Freid – or Chris Skel as he is better known in music circles – will open the Tierney’s show with a solo acoustic performance. When he’s not performing solo, he sings and plays guitar with The Skels, a New Jersey-based Celtic rock band known for its drinking songs, that has played throughout the northeast as a supporting act to the likes of the Dropkick Murphys and Shane MacGowan. A member of the Skels since 1995, Freid rocks on in two other bands, the rock trio Graveyard Ghost Story and the Celtic/Americana trio The Coffin Ships.
Glen Fittin, an adjunct professor in Theatre and Dance, was the drummer for Caspi’s former band, Bouncing Off Bob. Today, he plays with two bands, the remnants and One More Once.
The remnants have been rocking for decades and were described this way by The Two River Times of Monmouth County: “If The Beatles met the B-52s, The Clash and the Smithereens and jammed one night, they would make a wonderful noise a la the remnants.”
Brash, an associate professor in Anthropology, is the vocalist and guitarist for Tri-State, a “four-piece jangle pop and indie rock band from Maplewood, New Jersey, that formed in 2010,” according to Wikipedia. Their discography includes an LP (Hey Pal in 2019) and three EPs, including 2021’s Doom Loop. The group has performed at the North Jersey Indie Rock Festival.
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