Giants Of Despair
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Giants Of Despair

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"'Giant' Roadhouse Rock"

There’s an air of lightness in the tone of Bret Alexander when he talks about his latest musical project, Giants of Despair. He laughs and jokes quite often and seems incredibly relaxed. It is a band designed for fun, and it appears that’s exactly what he gets from it.

Alexander, of course, has been described as the soul of The Badlees, one of the most successful bands to ever come from NEPA. He also sometimes fronts a critically acclaimed side project, The Cellarbirds, and is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio, considered by many musicians to be the area’s best facility. He is a serious guy when it comes to music with lots of experience, yet he says Giants of Despair might be the best band he’s ever played with.

“Musicianship-wise, no question,” says Alexander. “They’re just great, great musicians.”

That’s high praise for the group, which features former Breaking Benjamin drummer Jeremy Hummel as well as Jason Shaffer on bass and Nyke Van Wyk on violin. Alexander has known Hummel since 2001, when he produced the debut EP from Breaking Benjamin. He’s also known Van Wyk for years through his work in the Allentown area and was so impressed that he hooked him up with local modern-rock favorites Panacea. Shaffer, who also works as an audio engineer, once played in a band managed by former Badlees manager Terry Selders.

“These were all people that I knew and respected,” says Alexander. “It just kind of grew naturally.”

Well, sort of. Alexander, who is also working with The Badlees on their first album in nearly seven years, admits that when Hummel first approached him about doing some gigs, he didn’t think it would happen.

“When Jeremy came off the road with Breaking Benjamin, he called and asked if I wanted to get together and do a duo, or play together and do something,” he says. “I was a big, huge fan of his playing, and I love working with him, but I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t know if I have time for that. Getting gigs, organizing it. …’ I kind of turned it into this big beast before we ever played a note. Jeremy says, ‘Well, I’ll tell ya what … why don’t we just get together and see how it feels?’”

Alexander laughs at the simplicity of Hummel’s suggestion, and at how he was right. One jam was all it took.

“We got together, and it felt really, really great,” he says. “We just kind of went from there.”

Giants of Despair mixes originals with some choice covers. At any show, you might hear some tunes from The Badlees, The Cellarbirds and Alexander’s solo catalog, as well as songs from The Beatles, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash, Bill Withers and Bruce Springsteen. A version of The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” can be heard on the band’s MySpace page as well as a rendition of The Badlees classic, “Fear of Falling.”

The name of the band — Giants of Despair — comes from a steep mountainside road in Wilkes-Barre, known to locals as Giants Despair.

“I used to live up that way, and whenever I heard anybody mention it, I’d say ‘That should be a band,’” says Alexander with a chuckle. “I tried to sell it off on probably a half-dozen other groups that were looking for names, and when we got this thing put together, Jeremy was like ‘Why don’t you use your band name?’ So we did. On another level, I always thought it was cool, with a band like Soundgarden, that it has a sense of place to it. You could go to Seattle and go to the statue. There is an actual physical place that’s tied to the area.”

The band will appear on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at The Woodlands as part of the Weekender/Mountaingrown Original Music Series. Although the musicianship of Giants of Despair is superior to what you’ll usually find in a bar, the group is still just that: a very fun bar band.

“We don’t write a setlist,” says Alexander. “Everybody just shows up and everybody has a good time playing together. That’s really all it is. We’ve all been in very high pressure, tense situations, so we try to make it fun. All four of us have been in very serious projects that have had their share of drama, so this is a breath of fresh air.”

- The Weekender


"Central Pa. music 'Giants'"

Already area “giants” in the music industry, four professional musicians make up rock band Giants of Despair.

Bret Alexander, guitarist, vocalist, main songwriter and producer of the band also was the driving force behind The Badlees.

Jeremy Hummel, drummer/percussionist, was a co-founder of Breaking Benjamin. Hummel played and toured with Breaking Benjamin for five years.

Jason Shaffer, on bass, played from Grantham Road, a band that opened for Hootie and the Blowfish.

And violinist Nyke Van Wyk writes and arranges music in the studio when he is not performing anything from chamber to rock music on stage.

Together, the band members play a mix of covers and original tunes.

“I definitely would describe it as a rock band,” Alexander said, “but we’re a little bit different because we have a violinist.”

That makes for music with some Celtic elements, some folk elements and some tribal elements, Alexander said.
“It’s certainly different, but not that different,” he said.

The four men met as a result of working together in different capacities at Alexander’s recording studio, Saturation Acres, in Danville, Pa.

“We were all friends, and we all worked together,” Alexander said.

From their friendships, they thought it would be fun to go out and play together. Finally, Alexander said, they did, and they’ve continued to play in the area fro enjoyment.

“We don’t really play full-time at the moment,” Alexander said. “Everyone is involved in a lot of other things.”

Even with their busy schedules, Alexander said, the band hopes to play a lot more next summer and get some new music out.

“We’re planning on putting out an EP around spring-time,” Alexander said. “That will be our first recording.”

Alexander said his interest in the music industry stemmed from a recording studio he interned at while in college. He was 21 and would just get coffee for engineers and producers. But his interest encouraged him to start his own studio and form the bands.

With Giants Of Despair, the pressure is off for the four men who individually have celebrated their own successes. Rather than trying to break a record deal, the band is just worried about having a good time and getting started.

“We’re just kind of getting out and stretching our legs,” Alexander said.

- The Evening Sun


"Going the Extra Mile with Giants of Despair"

As we arrived at the Fieldhouse in Etters, we discovered the rather large parking lot was
full, not a single spot left in the main lot. After parking in the overflow section on the hill
above the restaurant, we made our way inside. It was standing room only at the bar.
In the dining area, tables close to the stage were filling quickly. No doubt that this crowd
was there in anticipation of a great show from the night’s entertainment, Giants of Despair
(sometimes abbreviated as G.O.D.).

The band, whose name is derived from a steep hill in the Laurel Run section of Wilkes Barre, PA, are Bret
Alexander (vocals, guitars, and mandolin), Jeremy Hummel (drums), and Jason Shaffer (bass) and occasionally,
Nyke Van Wyke on violin. The band plays a mix of classic covers from bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling
Stones, Credence Clearwater Revival and Johnny Cash along with some original songs from Bret Alexander.
The credentials of the gentlemen in this band are quite noteworthy. Alexander is best known as a founding
member/chief songwriter of the Badlees and recording engineer/producer of Saturation Acres studio. Hummel
was an original member of Breaking Benjamin. His drumming is on their first two albums and he toured the
country twice with the band. He is currently in great demand as a session drummer and drum instructor as well
as a contributing writer for Modern Drummer. Shaffer was part of the popular local band, Grantham Road who
once opened for Hootie and the Blowfish and released an album (Parade) which received national airplay.
Shaffer has also built a solid reputation as a recording engineer working out of After 7 Studios in Mechanicsburg,
PA. Van Wyke has a demanding schedule as a highly sought after session musician and was unfortunately not
available for this show. The result of this combo is a crowd-pleasing bar band with experienced
showmanship and classic style.

The band started the first set with Uncommonly Blue from The Cellarbirds Perfect Smile album. More than a few
fans in the crowd knew all the words and were singing along. This is what really made this “bar band” stand out
from the rest – original music as well as the superior musicianship of the band. The clear difference between this
band and other talented local bands is Bret’s original music. The quality and craftsmanship of his songs were
the driving force of the Badlees success and what has built a loyal base of local fans that support him in his
various musical projects.

According to Bret, he wanted to be a musician since his early teens taking up the trumpet in school and then
learning guitar. His first band gig was in high school with a local band from his hometown of Canton PA. Bret
explained that he got the spot because the previous guitarist had gotten into some trouble with the law and his
mother took his guitar away. In the late 80’s, Bret along with guitarist Jeff Feltenberger and drummer
Ron Simasek formed Bad Lee White eventually adding singer/front
man Pete Palladino and bassist Paul Smith. Fans shortened the band’
s name to The Badlees and it stuck. The Badlees were the vehicle for
Bret’s songwriting throughout the 1990’s spawning the hits Angeline
is Coming Home and Fear of Falling from River Songs in 1995. While
these may be the songs for which Bret has received the most
commercial success, they offer only a glimpse of the true ability of
this songwriter to touch his listeners.

Perfect Smile from the Cellarbirds and Gentleman East, a solo CD are testaments to the depth and range of Bret’
s writing. Such lyrics as, “My heart’s a gnarled tree wrapped inside of me looking for the light that seldom
shows,” from the title song Perfect Smile, paint a stunningly beautiful image both visually and emotionally while
the aural vibe is reminiscent of the Beatles. Gentleman East, Bret’s solo effort released in 2004 was a clear
departure from the pop styling of the Badlees and the classic rock and roll sounds of The Cellarbirds. The
influences of Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and John Lennon are apparent throughout the songwriting
and stripped down instrumentation. Bret cites I Want to Win in This World, performed with just an acoustic guitar
and deep, earthy vocals, as one of his personal favorites on the album. A longtime fan of Bret’s songs attests,” I
listen to his stuff over and over again and find the many layers
he has built into a seemingly simple song. Each time I discover something new. I think that's one of the big things.
At first blush some of the songs sound deceptively simple, but when you really listen, you realize how amazingly
complex they are. By the same token there is great beauty in simplicity.”

When Bret isn’t writing, performing and recording his own music, he can be found in his studio, Saturation Acres,
co-founded with Badlees bassist, Paul Smith. Saturation Acres has grown into one of the finest recording
studios in the area. Having recorded and produced for a diverse assortment of artists such as Breaking
Benjamin, Panacea, K8, Jared Campbell and John Blair, Bret says he enjoys collaborative work. “When you run
out of new ideas of your own it is a good idea to get other perspectives....which fuels your solo work. It’s a circle.
Whatever keeps me making music is where I go.”

It has now been nearly five years since we’ve had an extended album from
Bret Alexander with many promises along the way of something new to come.
In that time span, he has played live gigs with many different lineups from the
three-piece Cellarbirds, to two-man collaboration with drummer Jeremy Hummel,
to playing solo, to this latest lineup with Giants of Despair. There have been
occasional new songs that have trickled out such as the moody, syncopated
Don’t Ever Let Me Down and the pop-oriented Well Laid Plans, but we eagerly
await another collection.

At the end of the night as we trekked back to our car parked in the outer reaches of the parking area, we talked
about what we enjoyed most about the show. The band played a wide variety of covers which went over well
with the crowd but we agreed that the brightest parts of the evening were when they played songs from Bret
Alexander’s own collection. I was looking forward to popping in a Perfect Smile CD to listen to on the way home
when I heard the opening notes of Uncommonly Blue blaring from a car pulling out of the lot. Someone else was
also hungry for more!

So what can we expect from Bret Alexander in the near future? Giants of Despair will be playing a light schedule
this spring and plans are forming for a studio project in the future. The Cellarbirds have a few shows booked
over the summer. The Badlees have a new album in the works expected to be completed this spring and plan
to reunite for a few gigs this summer.
- DamesofPA.org


Discography

Giants Of Despair CD due early summer
Hear the individuals on recordings by Breaking Benjamin, the Badlees and Grantham Road.

Photos

Bio

Four professional musicians having a blast playing their favorite songs for an appreciative audience. It’s not what you hear every day on central-Pennsylvania stages, which is what makes this group so special. Whether it’s a cover of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby or one of Bret’s originals from the Badlees catalog, the music flows effortlessly and creates a vibe that leaves a smile on every face. It’s all about having a good time and not about trying to get a record deal. Individually they’ve already done that.

Bret Alexander is the driving force behind central-PA legends, The Badlees. As guitarist, vocalist, main songwriter and producer he led the band through several independent albums and a couple major label releases. The most popular CD, "River Songs," spawned two national rock radio hits. His time now is spent mostly in the studio where he is a highly sought-after producer/engineer/musician.

Jeremy Hummel co-founded Breaking Benjamin, the multi-platinum powerhouse from Selinsgrove, PA. He was with the group for 5 years, played on their first two albums for Hollywood Records, and toured the country several times. As a drummer/percussionist, he is widely regarded as the area’s top studio musician, live performer and instructor. He is also a contributing writer for Modern Drummer magazine.

Jason Shaffer started out as a guitarist, but switched to bass in order to join Grantham Road a few years back. That group toured primarily in Pennsylvania, playing everywhere from corner bars to opening for Hootie And The Blowfish in front of 10,000 people. They had a Christmas song that was played on commercial radio from New York to Alaska, and their album "Parade" received rave reviews and airplay nationwide. He is a top recording engineer in the Harrisburg area and is beginning to work more as a producer and musician.

Nyke Van Wyk is almost never separated from his violin. It seems he’s always in one of three places – In the studio, as a musician & arranger; on stage performing everything from chamber music to rock to experimental; or on the road driving to the next gig. A tremendous player who adds an exciting element to any project he's involved with.

Booking this band can be tough. Each individual is in such high demand as a studio musician, sideman, solo artist, producer and/or recording engineer. But when they do get together on stage, they create a sound that is clearly several notches above the typical bar band.