Many HBS students possess incredible talents that extend far beyond the realm of traditional business skills, and Michael Mahoney (NA) is no exception. Outside of HBS, Michael plays percussion with Boston-based Cardinal Direction, a band that has appeared with national acts including Sister Hazel, Dispatch, the Pat McGee Band, and Virginia Coalition among others. Comprised of four members-Aaron Dunham (vocals, acoustic guitar), Michael Mahoney (drums, percussions, vocals), Greg McCullough (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Ross Niblock (vocals, bass)-Cardinal Direction spent the last two years touring up and down the East Coast.
Recently, however, the band has spent most of its time in the studio, and Cardinal Direction will release is latest CD, Hotel 154, later this week. In between recording, rehearsals, and reading, Michael Mahoney spoke with the Harbus about the band and its upcoming release.
Harbus: When did you begin playing music?
Mahoney: I started playing the piano when I was eight years old, and I played the piano for ten years. I began playing percussion my freshman year of high school, mostly classical percussion. I learned Latin percussion-congas and bongos, and djembes -during my senior year, really loved it, and that’s when I started playing with friends in a popular music setting.
Harbus: How did Cardinal Direction form?
Mahoney: Ross, Greg and I were best friends growing up. We started playing music together when we were 10 or 11 years old; we played at talent shows together in middle school and high school. We basically performed anything that we could physically play-so it was fairly limited. We thought, ‘what can we do with piano, singing, and acoustic guitar?’ Usually it was Simon and Garfunkel or Billy Joel or something like that. Greg then went to college at Davidson, where he met Aaron, and after college we all began playing together. At that point we didn’t really have the intention of becoming a band, we just enjoyed playing together.
In 2001, Aaron moved from North Carolina up to Boston, and we really pursued being a band very seriously. We felt that we could really do something with this. We probably played 60 or 70 shows between August 2001 and June 2002, and that’s when I would say that we became an honest-to-goodness band, as opposed to a bunch of friends who got together and played.
Harbus: How do you describe the band’s sound?
Mahoney: Cardinal Direction started as an acoustic band-two acoustic guitars, lots of vocal harmonies, and me on percussion. In the last year, we decided to broaden our sound. I picked up the drum kit, which I had toyed around with for a few years, but didn’t start playing seriously until a year ago. At the same time, Ross also started playing the bass. So now, I would describe our sound as a warm, acoustic rock.
Harbus: Who writes the lyrics and the music?
Mahoney: The lyrics are all written by Ross and Aaron; Aaron has actually written the majority of the lyrics. The music is written by both of them as well, although the band really writes the songs that people hear. When the band plays a longer set, for example, Aaron might do one or two songs by himself on guitar. He constantly cycles new songs in, and a lot of times we will hear a song and say, we’ve got to learn that as a band. So Aaron will write the basic structure and then the band fills in the rest.
Harbus: Is Hotel 154 your first album?
Mahoney: No, not really. We put together an EP in February 2000, because we really wanted to get some of the music that we had been playing together as friends down on a CD. We also released a more full length album in September 2001. So essentially this is our third release, or two and a half, but it really feels like our first since we’ve expanded our sound so much over the last year.
Harbus: How has HBS affected your life with the band?
Mahoney: It hasn’t had as big of an impact. When we were all living in Boston, we played every gig that came our way; at least, as long as we weren’t going to lose a lot of money on it. We would take any chance to play. Over the last year, after Aaron moved back to North Carolina, we had established ourselves and established enough of a following where we could more focus on what we chose to play. So the biggest change has just been the structured schedule where I don’t have the ability to take a day off, but it hasn’t been that tough of an adjustment.
Harbus: How often do you perform and practice now?
Mahoney: We average around four or five shows a month, though we actually haven’t played in the last month because we have been focused on getting our album out. We try to rehearse once a week or so, which is obviously challenging with Aaron in North Carolina, but we can usually schedule rehearsal time around gigs.
Harbus: Tell me about the new album.
Mahoney: For us, the new album is really the product of learning to play together over the last two years, and becoming what we are today. We recorded over the last eight months, and it’s our most complete project as a band. Besides adding the drums and the bass, there are a lot of intricate vocal harmonies that really defines what we are about musically.
We also had a chance to bring in some of our closest musical friends, many from bands that we’ve played with over the last few years. We have a friend playing harmonica, another playing banjo, and another guy on organ on a few tracks. We even got our producer, Jack Gauthier, to play guitar in a few places.
The thing that’s so cool about this album is that everything we did in the past was just about getting it down and getting it done. For this album, we probably spent 25-30 days in the studio recording. And because there are so many layers, mixing is a huge, huge part of how an album sounds. For this, we were willing to put in the time, and so the album feels complete, like we want it to sound. I don’t listen to anything and think “it could be so much more…” which is cool.
Harbus: Who are your musical role models?
Mahoney: When you play music, and particularly when you play in a band, you start to look at other bands not only for their musical influence and performance influence, but also for way that the band develops.
Dispatch is one band that is a big influence for us. The started as an acoustic band and built up, just like we are doing now. The also hit the Internet age right at the perfect moment; Napster was huge for them.
They are probably one of the more successful independent bands in the
last 10 or 15 years. In addition, we all have individual influences. For me, Carter Beauford, the drummer for Dave Matthew’s is a huge influence, someone I would definitely like to emulate.
Harbus: Do you have a favorite venue?
Mahoney: I love the Cat’s Cradle down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. First, it’s in one of the best college towns in the world, and second, the sound there is unbelievable. They really take how the band sounds very seriously. Any band you talk to will appreciate a club that not only has great sound-because there are lots of places with great equipment-but also a place with people who really care about how each band sounds.
That really makes a difference. I also love playing at Harper’s Ferry, where we’re playing our release show. I love that venue as much for the sound-they do a great job-as the crowd. We all grew up in Boston, so every time we play there all our friends are there, our parents our there, my sisters come to the show, and it’s really amazing.
Harbus: Are you considering a post-MBA career in the music industry?
Mahoney: I don’t think I want to go into the music industry from a business standpoint. There are so many challenges. I think that once you’ve been in an independent band, it would be hard to be objective. It would always be emotional. Now if the music industry wanted to sign Cardinal Direction,
that would be another story.
Harbus: What do you see in the future for Cardinal Direction?
Mahoney: I hope that this album takes off-I hope that a lot of people hear it and a lot of people like it. It gives us a chance to expand our fan base. After that, I would hope for the right person to hear this album at the right time and think that it’s worth giving us a chance. If we could get a shot, so that the next album we make isn’t on our dime, well, that’s all you can really hope for.
Editor’s Note: Cardinal Direction will be playing a CD release show is this Thursday, November 6th at Harper’s Ferry in Allston. Visit www.harpersferryboston.com for more information about the show. To learn more about the band and Hotel 154, visit www.cardinaldirection.com.