Tuesday, September 29, 2015

One of Chicago’s hottest bands has deep roots at Northeastern Illinois University.

Willy Dynomite is fresh off performances at Double Door, Schubas and Navy Pier, and the 10-piece band is set to make a triumphant return to Northeastern, taking the stage Oct. 2 as part of the University’s first Homecoming Block Party.

“We play original soul music,” guitarist and vocalist Stephanie Stahl said. “With 10 people, it’s pretty loud, big and dynamic.”

Baritone saxophonist Robin Koelsch said the band’s sound is “hard to describe. It’s like soul/funk/good times ... original music that has a feel to it that is graspable. It’s danceable, and it’s really, really fun. “

Although Willy Dynomite has been together for less than two years, the band’s story really began at Northeastern in 2007 when Stahl, Koelsch and Josh Therriault bonded as friends and collaborators.

“I met Stephanie before I met Robin,” said Therriault, who sings and plays keyboards with Willy Dynomite. “Stephanie came in here three or four years into my pursuit of a degree here. We were really good friends pretty much right away, with a similar sense of humor. We had always talked about making this band. ... It took us a good seven or eight years to actually put it together.”

Koelsch was the missing ingredient. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, she came to Northeastern to pursue a master’s degree in applied music pedagogy. She earned that degree, as expected, but what she may not have anticipated finding at the school is a future co-worker, artistic collaborators ... and a husband.

“Josh (Therriault) and I met at Northeastern. He was not a fan of mine early on,” Koelsch said with a laugh. “I had to wear him down.” The two have now been married for three years and have a 3-month-old son.

Koelsch and Stahl have their own tight bond.

Koelsch, who managed two School of Rock locations, hired Stahl to teach music to young students in 2009. “Stephanie is one of my best friends,” Koelsch said. “She’s an extraordinarily talented musician who (Koelsch knew) would do well at School of Rock.” 

One night on their way home from work, while talking about collaborating, Koelsch and Stahl decided to master instruments other than what they’d been primarily playing in order to improve their teaching skills.

After a while, Stahl said, they recognized they were gelling together. She can remember thinking, “Hey, we’re pretty good. We should not hoard this.”

Stahl, Koelsch and Therriault began playing together as No Child, eventually adding a drummer to the mix, and Stahl and Therriault began writing songs in earnest.

These early collaborations led to what would eventually become Willy Dynomite, named by Therriault as homage to trombonist and jazz musician J.J. Johnson, who scored the soundtrack for the movie “Willy Dynamite.” He said it was also a nod to Mayo Tiana, a trombonist, like Johnson, and Northeastern’s director of jazz ensembles and a music instructor.

“I found Mayo Tiana here at Northeastern, a great inspiration to me,” Therriault said. “He exposed me to a lot of music. A lot of what my musical identity is today comes from Mayo Tiana.”

“It really humbles me,” Tiana said of the praise that came from Therriault as well as Koelsch and Stahl. “My job here is to build an interest in art that some people look at as dead. (Students) want to play with a lot of other great players in a band, and these are three of those people. They’re all wonderful musicians.”

Current Northeastern student Carson Hooley now plays drums with Willy Dynomite, joining the three NEIU grads, Stahl (B.A. ’15 Interdisciplinary Studies), Koelsch (M.A. ’07 Music) and Therriault (B.A. ’07 Music).

“Carson is a very talented young man,” Tiana said. “Great guy. When he came here, he was already a player.”

Willy Dynomite also features Zach Kritzer on guitar, Andy Peplinski on bass, Caleb Mitchell on trumpet, Josh Shapiro on tenor saxophone, and Natalie Felix and Megan Fletcher on backing vocals.

Two other musicians with Northeastern connections occasionally fill in and perform with Willy Dynomite: Northeastern alum Matthew Bordoshuk (B.A. ’10 Music), who plays baritone sax in appearances with the band, and current Northeastern student Robert Alonzo, who fills in on trumpet.

“As a band, we’re all really close,” Therriault said. “Stephanie and I write the songs, but everyone else is part of the process. We come with ideas, but they all flesh it out; they shape what we do and have a great contribution as well. We like to refer to ourselves as a family band.”

Stahl, who goes by the stage name Stella Steel, is quick to credit Northeastern for where she is now. She came to Chicago from Milwaukee to do music education. “I was looking for a school with a solid music department that was affordable,” Stahl said. “I kind of ‘found myself’ at Northeastern.”

Therriault said he came to Northeastern after a summer of working as a plumber’s apprentice on a construction site.

“The work was so physically demanding that I thought it would be a great idea to go to college,” Therriault said with a smile. “Dr. Shayne Cofer was gracious enough to give me a scholarship after a semester.”

Koelsch, who now serves as program director at Foundations of Music, which puts music programs in underfunded Chicago Public Schools, said Northeastern is “great for people wanting to learn how to teach. I’ve been able to use (my) experiences at Northeastern to land several jobs that I’ve had.”

Willy Dynomite will take the stage at the Homecoming Block Party at 6:15 on Friday night. Fans who miss the performance needn’t worry; the band’s future is bright. Therriault and Stahl have nearly 20 songs written, with plans to record and release an album in 2016.

“I’d love for us to record an album that gets some attention,” said Koelsch, who said she’d like to tour and even take the band’s kids with them on the road. “Every band member is truly involved and really invested, and I hope that will help propel us forward.”

-story written by Travis Truitt