Four Frost students use alternative music to offset pandemic-related burnout

Damn Janis performing at Titanic Brewery and Restaurant.
Damn Janis performing at Titanic Brewery and Restaurant on Thursday, March 3, 2022. Photo credit: Katrina Nguyen.

The Frost School of Music is home to a variety of bands and artists that are beloved by the greater UM student body and hold successful performances on and off-campus.

One of the most well-known of these acts is the band Damn Janis, whose posters and stickers can be seen decorating surfaces on campus from laptops to water bottles to classroom doors.

While the band promotes their newest single “Paper Cigarettes,” the Hurricane spoke to Damn Janis’s four members about their experiences making music together and their plans for the future.

Damn Janis is composed of four Frost students who, in addition to their instruments, all contribute songwriting and vocals.

Seniors Aaron Bissoondial, a jazz guitar major and James Hasell, a music engineering technology major, switch between rhythm and lead guitar.

Drums are provided by junior Kyle Skarshaug, a jazz drum performance major, while Mike Ramos, another junior majoring in jazz bass performance, plays bass.

Junior Mike Ramos plays the base
Junior Mike Ramos plays the bass during Damn Janis’ performance at Titanic Brewery & Restaurant on Thursday, March 3, 2022. Photo credit: Katrina Nguyen.

Although three out of the band’s four members are jazz musicians, each member brings a unique musical background to the group.

In their songwriting, Damn Janis aims to synthesize its members’ diverse experiences and influences into a cohesive and unique sound.

The band cited a wide variety of genres and acts as their influences, including classic rock, punk, indie, reggae, blues, folk and post-punk.

However, the members are adamant in refusing to pigeonhole themselves into a single genre.

“When genrefication is essential, I always say alternative rock that lands somewhere between grunge and post-punk,” Skarshaug said. “A major goal is to break away from the shell that music school can kind of force us into sometimes.”

As is the case with most artists who have faced the task of performing during the pandemic, Damn Janis’ history is inseparable from the influence of COVID-19.

While the members had all separately discussed the idea of forming a band in late 2019, it was the isolation caused by the early quarantine period that spurred the four musicians to begin collaborating over Zoom.

“We all got really into it and got really excited about what we could do and we were like, ‘Once spring break’s over we’re gonna get this band back together and we’re gonna play’ and then spring break never really ended,” Bissoondial said.

Aaron playing his guitar at Damn Janis' venue at Titanic Brewery & Restaurant.
Senior Aaron Bissoondial playing his guitar at Damn Janis’ venue at Titanic Brewery & Restaurant on Thursday, March 3, 2022. Photo credit: Katrina Nguyen.

The members agree that the project became an outlet for the frustration and anxiety caused by the switch to online classes and an attempt to reconnect with the passion for music that brought them to Frost in the first place.

“A couple weeks into quarantine it was like, ‘Man, we’re all sad and music school is just making us more sad. We need to find a way to have fun with music again,’” Skarshaug said.

Ramos explains that collaborating with the others is similar to his experiences in the Miami DIY music scene that he frequented during high school.

“With this band I started playing exciting music again, which I had missed and I’m glad that I still get to do,” Ramos said.

After in-person school resumed during the Fall 2020 semester, the band began writing and rehearsing in person, later turning their focus to recording and releasing their finished songs.

“When we got back to school for that semester, COVID restrictions were really intense and there was kind of nothing to do, so we just rehearsed,” Skarshaug said.

Once the band had sufficiently developed their sound, they began recording at the Weekes music library.

Their first single, “Statues,” was released in early 2021 and has been followed by five other singles.

Following the decrease in cases of the virus during the Spring 2021 semester, the band decided to start playing in-person shows.

The band’s performances have become quite popular with UM students and outsiders alike, with their last show on Feb. 19 garnering around 100 attendees. Despite the success of their performances and the group’s focus on community building through live shows, the pandemic continues to limit their frequency and scale.

“As musicians, it’s not strictly our responsibility to ensure the safety of the people at our show, but I personally try to take on that responsibility,” Ramos said. “I think we all do in the sense of just making sure that nothing bad happens at our shows.”

Ramos explains that they have made the decision to cancel performances due to rising virus numbers in the past.

Despite the damper placed on Damn Janis’s live shows by the virus, the band’s popularity has brought about positive changes to the members’ lives.

“Random people will come up at the show and be like, ‘I love the new song,’ and it feels great,” Bissoondial said.

Because half of the members are currently in the second semester of their senior year, the band is asked with increasing frequency what their plans are for after graduation.

The answer: they have no idea.

Skarshaug explains that the project was not created with long-term goals.

“We kind of started this as an experiment, at least for me in a lot of ways, to manufacture joy,” Skarshaug said. “There’s certainly the potential to keep going.”

However, the members agree that even if the experience comes to an end after graduation, the fact that it grew as much as it did has changed their lives for the better.

“I don’t know if anyone who’s seen us and lived through what we’re doing here — just in school, just kids—are ever gonna forget the experiences we’ve put together, because I’m not and none of us are going to forget that,” Bissoondial said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of anything in my life.”