Change up: Nate Bolling says no to guitar rock in defining a unique sound

Nate Bolling (far right) formed A University of Whales with cello and violin instead of guitar. The band plays one of its rare live shows at Carter’s Mountain on August 1. Image: Ashley travis Nate Bolling (far right) formed A University of Whales with cello and violin instead of guitar. The band plays one of its rare live shows at Carter’s Mountain on August 1. Image: Ashley travis

By Graham Schiltz

When Nate Bolling started A University of Whales, he wanted the band to be different. After playing music in Charlottesville for 11 years, doing everything from metal to hip-hop, he wanted a change of pace.

A pianist by trade, Bolling, who’s perhaps best known around town as a member of the rock band Astronomers, sought a departure from the guitar-based music he’d spent much of his career entrenched in. He began with the instrumentation: cello and violin fill the void of guitars in fleshing out piano-based songs propelled by Bolling’s vocals. More traditional rock band instruments—bass and drums—comprise the rest of the band.

The result is grandiose chamber pop that swells and rescinds like the habitat of the group’s namesake, building with the gravity of an orchestra before dropping into hushed melodies. “It’s a style I’ve always liked… a lot of orchestral stuff, a lot of piano,” Bolling says. “I played a lot of guitar, I had done the rock band thing, so it was kinda just fun right off the bat to say no guitar.”

Between masonry jobs, live sound gigs, and wedding performances, Bolling was writing A University of Whales songs before the band’s lineup was filled. Bass player Jess Martin, a friend of Bolling’s since moving to Charlottesville, and former Astronomers drummer David Brear were interested, but cello and violin players eluded them. After fortuitously meeting cellist Erin Braswell and violinist Loryn Post in the span of a couple weeks, the pieces fell into place for the nascent band.

Bolling writes the songs, but the other members are involved as well. Even though he handles some of the arrangement, especially in the songs’ early stages, he wants the band to bring their own flair and experience to the writing process.

“They’re the ones that play the instruments. Most of the time, they probably hear something better than what I would hear,” Bolling says. “I try to make it a group effort as much as possible.”

Because of the band members’ respective careers and families, not to mention out-of-town members, full-band practices are limited. Bolling sends demos via email, and the band plays a limited number of shows. Thursday’s gig at Carter Mountain (one of Bolling’s favorite places to play) is one of the band’s only shows of the year.

“We’re not out here trying to be famous or anything,” says Bolling, and he’s happy with how the music turns out. In the age of the internet, when it’s easy to feel like everything has been done before, his aim is “just an attempt to not make the same old music.”

He’s certainly succeeded. A University of Whales’ brand of baroque pop isn’t necessarily in vogue, but Bolling isn’t too bothered. “I’ve always been pretty happy with [our niche],” Bolling says. “The best thing to hear at gigs from people is ‘nobody sounds like that.’”

Bolling says the band recorded its first full length, Everything is Beautiful, last year simply because they could. Three years of making music created an album he considers “more minor key [and] moody,” filled with meditations on death and mortality. Despite the limited time band members spend in the same room, A University of Whales accomplishes exactly what Bolling set out to do: make the music he’s always wanted in a way that no one has before.

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