An impatient motorist honks incessantly on Walnut Street. Hundreds peck away at their Macbook keyboards in Van Pelt. A freshman unleashes an ear–splitting scream as “Love Story” starts playing in a frat basement. From its loudest parties to its most solitary corners, Penn’s campus is bursting with sound, not all of it particularly desirable. But escape to the top floor of Fisher Bennett, or the depths of Platt Performing Arts House, and you might hear something unexpected. Entering those halls, the stray notes of instruments being tuned and singers doing warm–ups wash over you. Like the horns of the Angel Gabriel, they announce that you have entered another realm—one alien to the one most of us inhabit. Welcome to the world of Penn musicians. 

Ahead of Street’s inaugural “Street Sessions”—a band showcase by students, for students—we peeked behind the curtain at how campus musicians balance their stardom with their everyday lives as students. While our peers will take the Smokey Joe’s stage by storm next week, we can’t help but wonder, what happens before they make it to the stage? And what happens to these artists post–mixer or Bloomers show? Do they dissipate into nothing, fading into the black until next called upon by a campus that yearns for culture? No—beneath our very feet exists a world of music that many of us can only peer into from the outside. But how do these musicians live? What makes them tic? With the pen as my instrument, I set out to talk to these campus musicians myself—and figure out just what it takes to join their ranks. 

Combo 4

Photo: Katrina Itona

What happens after we die? 

“We play the great gig in the sky,” Combo 4 echoes in unison.

From the outside, Fisher Bennett Hall is a rather unimpressive sight, especially surrounded by the sleek glass facades of more modern engineering buildings on the east side of campus. Four stories above the street, however, the otherwise silent English building morphs into a great labyrinth of practice rooms, always alive with horns and strings. As the sound of student jazz groups wafts in from outside our space in the corner, the band, Combo 4, tells me that many of them had started in the same place—as members of a student Jazz Combo. It wasn’t long before one of the members of that combo had to play a friend’s birthday party and gathered the team for the performance. While that gig never came to fruition, they ended up performing at a cocktail hour soon after, with a lot of jazz and a sprinkling of pop. Seeing the crowd’s energy begin to flag, the band decided to bring the heat with a powerful rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Having reached the end of their setlist, they only had one option—play it again. And again. And again.

Since those days, Combo 4 has expanded their repertoire significantly. Their recent setlists feature a mix of classic jazz and college pop hits, though they hope to try out some slower tunes if they ever get the chance. While they’re no strangers to difficult sound equipment and restrictive set times, they say that the energy of crowds makes every show worth playing. 

Their biggest pet peeve? When people assume that the “4” in their name means there are four people in their band—“One time,” says Isaac Gateno (C ‘24), “one of us couldn’t make it and someone went, ‘Oh, it’s Combo 3!’, and no—that’s not how this works.”

It is at the moment of Gateno’s musings that a campus celebrity walks through the door—Anthony Mohr (C ‘24), Combo 4 drummer and the Math 1410 tutor to whom many freshmen owe eternal gratitude. His percussion work is just as reliable as his integral calculus solutions—Armie Chardiet (C ‘25) makes clear that “Anthony is our rock.” With Anthony keeping everyone on rhythm, when the band has to think on their feet and improvise, all they have to do is make weird eye contact and cue each other in. This kind of collaboration is the real secret to Combo 4’s success. “When you find people you mesh well with and practice a lot together,” says Isaac, “you’ll play a lot better than ten [people] who are all really good at their instruments.”   

Combo 4’s fortune seems to have been written in the stars. The band tells me they’d gotten an astral reading to ensure they’d achieve success, and allegedly have matching tattoos of a scorpion somewhere on each of their bodies (author's note—no proof of either claim was ever presented to me). But this supposed ink isn’t the only thing they all have in common—they also have a shared vision for what the band should be. Discussing how to form a band that works, Josh Valluru (C ‘24) says, requires “knowing what you want to get out of it.” While everyone in Combo 4 was a veteran of the campus music scene, they all wanted a space to experiment sonically. Armie adds that “we wanted a place to have fun, and for some reason, people started paying us to do that.” For that second part, the band thanks Isaac, the point man for organizing their performances. At this, Isaac shakes his head. “I’m the least talented person in this band, but I try to surround myself with musicians who are better than me. Finding people I can rely on, both musically and just as people, means so much.”

While Combo 4’s lineup has changed over the years, their passion for music remains the same. Most of their current roster graduates next year, but they say this project will continue far beyond their time at Penn. “I want this band to live on, even after I pass,” Isaac says. I’ve even heard a rumor that Combo 4 will be playing with Adele next year. I can neither confirm nor deny whether this rumor comes from Combo 4 themselves. 

Bloomers Band

Photo: Katrina Itona

What’s the largest animal you could reasonably defeat? 

Godzilla, An Emu, A Large Fish, Giant Octopus.

Every member of Bloomers Band joined for their own reasons, but most trace their introduction to the group back to the yearly free show that Bloomers puts on alongside Mask and Wig during New Student Orientation (NSO). While most stuck around for the whole performance, Marcus Butler (W ‘27) admits to watching the first ten minutes, then leaving early with some of his friends. It was only through a chance encounter with the band later that night at Wawa that he ended up auditioning. “I wasn’t sure at first,” he says, “but they told me NO! Just be there! And I was.” Guitarist and singer Veronica Baladi (C ‘27) says that she initially auditioned for the group as a bassist, despite having never played the bass before. “I had heard they needed a bassist,” she says. “I just thought, oh, these people are so cool, this is probably my only shot at getting in … but at my audition, I played guitar and sang for them—now, I play guitar and sing for them.” Others joined through referrals from Penn’s larger music community—drummer Nix Pawlowski (W ‘24), for example, was called up to fill in at a single show, but ended up sticking around in the long run. 

Though best known for being the musical wing of the comedy troupe, Bloomers Band performs at events across Penn’s music scene, from backyard band parties to bar shows at Smokes. Their style varies heavily from year to year—these past few years, they’ve moved through successive phases of punk and indie pop before settling this year on “a little bit of disco,” featuring The Cranberries and ABBA in their recent performances. The members of Bloomers draw their inspiration from a variety of places, including Carole King, Bobby Darrin, and even opera. What unites them all, however, is their shared love for trying new styles of music and seeing what sticks. 

Their advice on getting involved in the music scene? Don’t be afraid to try—and don’t quit if things don't work out the first time around. “The first time I tried out, they didn’t need a violinist,” says Helena Munoz (C ‘25). “But now they do.” 

The results of auditions, they emphasize, are often more about the needs of the group than the talent of the individual trying out. The most important part of making music is finding a group of people that’s right for you, echoing the sentiments of Combo 4. “Playing with people you like is important,” Marcus says. “I’ve played with people I don’t like […] it’s more fun not to play with them. I like everyone here!”

Good Company

Photo: Katrina Itona

Are you insured? 

“Justin is liable for everything.”

The story is simple: ZBT was throwing, and Noah Gold (C ‘26) needed a team. So he pulled in Alex Howe (C ‘25) from his econ class, and the two recruited mutual connection Justin Pedersen (C ‘27) to work the drums. The event was a hit, and they’ve been frat sensations ever since. 

Playing frat events has been a great time for Good Company. “It’s definitely nice to get paid,” Alex says. “I never realized groups would pay us to come play for them.” The band has a wide repertoire of songs that range from high–energy dance hits to slow, smooth jazz ballads. Their most important job is to adjust to the needs of their audience. 

This year, at Hall Formal, they were hired to play for 90 minutes. Three and a half hours later, they were still on stage. Getting tired of playing the usual hits, they pulled up chord sheets on their phone and freestyled on pieces they had never played before. The show ended as audience members sang along to Taylor Swift, with the band improvising riffs to accompany them. They don’t mind doing karaoke shows: “When the audience is drunk,” Justin laughs, “they don’t know the difference.” Moreover, playing parties means they don’t have to worry about gathering an audience themselves, since the frats are incentivized to provide an audience who are ready and excited to see them play. 

They’ve never played a bad show so far, despite having to deal with uncooperative sound equipment. “We’ve had to adjust sound settings mid–show, which is probably as improv as it should ever get,” Noah says. 

Recently, they’ve been branching out in new directions, including writing original music. Their music pulls from a wide range of influences, including Rex Orange County, Steely Dan, and even Dutch psych–pop outfit Feng Suave.

“Noah’s an amazing lyricist,” Alex begins. “I appreciate a non–corny set of lyrics.” The band uses studio space in Annenberg to practice their new tracks. “Don’t rent it out on Mondays!” Alex warns. That’s their time.

Everyone in Good Company is involved in other musical projects at Penn. But this band, Noah admits, is his favorite part of the arts scene because of the opportunity it grants him to innovate. The others agree that while the musical landscape at Penn is home to many school–sponsored groups that perform in organized settings, Good Company is a free space to experiment. “We don’t want faculty breathing down our necks,” Justin says. “We get to choose what we want to do.”

For people looking to break into the music scene, Alex says that success is often more based on word of mouth than pure skill—it’s important to get out there, talk to people in the community, and start playing. “It’s scary to do it once,” Noah admits, “but you gotta get out there, in any form you can; no gig that’s too small, nothing not fun enough to play.”  Justin adds that you can’t get caught up on failures—every next show is an opportunity to practice and showcase your talents. Keep moving on—“it’s always about what comes next.” 

Melatonin Sex Dream

Photo: Katrina Itona

What would you do if you were President? 

“Turn the White House into a high rise. A big gold block…that would be sick.”

When he takes melatonin, Daniel Brennan has dreams. Long dreams. Vivid dreams. Sex dreams? Maybe not. He’d rather call them “erotic.” It’s more nuanced that way.

Melatonin Sex Dream is the product of passion, camaraderie, and authentic Jersey excellence. Crosby Collins (C ‘27) and Myles Fort have played music together from an early age, having gone to the same musical dojo in Asbury Park, where young Myles earned a prestigious “black belt in drumming.” Upon learning that they would both be going to Philadelphia after graduation, they were determined to keep jamming throughout their time in college. Elsewhere, Myles ran into Daniel Brennan at Drexel’s radio station, where the two bonded over their shared love for the music of Algernon Cadwallader. The four finally came together when Crosby and Sam Grey (E ‘27), the only non–Jersey native of the bunch, ended up in the same music class and decided to play together. They flirted with the names Applesauce Anarchy, Piñata Party, and Boydinner before Daniel’s tasteful dreams bestowed upon them their current moniker.

Melatonin Sex Dream’s style can be expressed in two words—Midwest Emo. Some of their greatest inspirations are Title Fight, Pinegrove, and Modern Baseball. But while they may pay tribute to the greats of their genre, they refuse to let themselves be defined by a single sound, often experimenting with samba, math rock, electronic, and even some ska in their jam sessions. Have they ever tried rap? Almost. They were planning on a cover of Modern Baseball’s “Your Graduation”, but it never really panned out. Myles gives us a quick preview of what an MSD rap–rock piece might sound like:

“Yeah, let's go… Sam is great, Dan is great, Crosby’s cool, we’re all fun.” 

Like the freeform rhyme scheme of their bars, Melatonin Sex Dream’s songs are experimental and unafraid of challenging the norms of their genres. 

While Melatonin Sex Dream are relatively new to the Philly music scene, they emphasize that it’s a welcoming place that rewards participation. The key to making good music? Meeting people you get along with and making art that’s authentic to who you are. “When you’re really putting cool art out there,” Crosby says, “people notice pretty quickly because it’s such an intimate scene. Be unapologetically yourself. If you have a stupid idea for a band name, use it.” 

Being part of a band is not for the faint of heart. It takes dedication. Building expertise in your own instrument is hard enough—but building chemistry with other musicians to the point where you understand each other musically is another task entirely. It takes vision, in both writing original music and performing covers with your own flair. And it certainly takes zeal—playing your first gig is never easy, and it takes immense amounts of work to get everyone on the same page sonically before your grand debut.

But most importantly, good music takes good people. Regardless of the genres they played and the songs they made, every single band I spoke to said the most important part of being a musician is finding the right people to play with. And musicians don’t just support their fellow band members—in Penn’s intimate and collaborative music scene, bands come to each other's shows and encourage each other on their musical journeys. As Justin from Good Company put it, “Everyone wants to see you succeed. No one wants you to fail.” Who knows? Perhaps the real music is the friends we made along the way.

34th Street’s inaugural “Street Sessions” will take place at Smokey Joe’s, Thursday 4/18 7–9 PM. 18+ to enter, 21+ to drink.