By Deirdre Madden
Moving half way around the world to teach English can be tough. You leave behind your friends and family, move to a culture completely different from your own, and often find yourself as little more than a glorified babysitter pressing play on a tape deck. One of the keys to surviving a year (or more) in a land far from home is to find a way to do something you love in your spare time.
‘Stache Potatoes was formed originally by Tom Romano, Keenan McLean Webb (aka Kaldaan the Warrior) and Ryan Manary as a way to have some fun.
“It really started in January, when Tom and I played a song for our friend Rachel’s birthday,” explained Keenan. “He wrote it, and I added in. He played guitar and I played bass. It went well, so we started playing and putting things together.”
“I knew Tom and Keenan and their group of friends as acquaintances. We’d always wanted to hang out more, and the one time we finally did, they asked me to join the band and I was blown away,” added Ryan. “Every Tuesday we’d hang out in Keenan’s apartment, work on original songs that Tom wrote, we’d kick around ideas and it really just took off.”
It was at the Open Mic nights at Royal Anchor where they met Nick “The Drummer” Kotel. When the opportunity arose to play for the first Jung-gu street festival in May, they convinced Nick to join them for just the one gig.
“Keenan came up to me when we were doing an Open Mic, and asked me to play with them in that May outdoor show, and I said, ‘I guess’. I played the show, and I had fun,” said Nick. When pressed by the others, he decided to make the commitment to join the band. “I’ve been having a great time with it. I love to play the drums.”
Often in this expat community, groups form and disappear as key members move on to new places. This could have been the fate for ‘Stache Potatoes (or Stashy Potato as they’re called by Koreans) when Tom headed off to Spain about six weeks ago, but luckily Alex Smith was available to step in and fill the vacancy.
“I randomly bumped into Keenan and Ryan when I was at the Royal Anchor one night, an Open Mic on a Thursday night. They saw me play and said, ‘When Tom leaves, do you want to join the band?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great.’ So, I did,” Alex said.
Keenan added, “He’s a trooper, too, because before he joined, there was a month where he was coming out to all of our shows. We just knew we had to have him.”
With that addition, the band was once again complete; Alex on lead guitar and piano, Ryan on rhythm guitar, Keenan singing and playing bass, and Nick on drums. On occasion, they’re joined onstage by Danielle Malson, who sings duets in songs such as “Somebody I Used to Know” by Gotye. Originally, they started singing that song with Amanda Bell, but after she left for India, Danielle stepped up.
For most of the guys, this is their first real band, where they’ve gone beyond jamming with friends and moved on to scheduled performances in front of audiences.
“Our first major show we thought, ‘Well, we hope we can do this!’” said Ryan.
The positive response, not only from the audience, but from another Ulsan band, Karaoke Dokey, gave them a lot of confidence to keep going. Ryan continued, “Every week we go out and play; Tuesday’s practice, Thursday’s Open Mic, playing any gig we can get. And now we have a gig almost every Friday and Saturday this month.”
When asked about the name, the group just laughed. “I came up with it!” piped up Ryan. Keenan tells the story: “One night, me, Ryan and Tom pretty much were like, ok, we’ve booked a show so now we need to come up with a name. So we decided to go out, walk to the corner store, get a few beers and kick around a few ideas. Well, a few beers turned into about 7 beers … Ryan came up with ‘Stache Potatoes, and I think we laughed for around 15 minutes straight. We just thought it was genius then, and then it kind of became a commitment. We decided, ‘Ok, we’re just going to stick with it, that’s it.’ Then I decided to grow out a mustache, and now people literally won’t let me shave it off. They tell me I look weird without it. I used to hate mustaches.”
“He’s the only guy with a real mustache, so I have some sunglasses that have a dangling mustache, or we wear stick-ons,” Ryan pointed out.
“My look has become a result of the band. This is a novelty item, it’s just permanently on my face,” Keenan elaborated, to much laughter from the rest of the group.
Nick jokingly added, “As the drummer, I have no decision making abilities at all. They never come to me for anything.”
On the surface, the guys appear to just be having a lot of fun. It’s clear they’re good friends, as there’s a lot of good natured teasing back and forth. But underneath the joking and banter, there is a seriousness and sincerity about creating music not just for themselves, but that others will appreciate.
Previously, they played a few original songs written by Tom, but since he left, they are now working on their own collaborations. While they enjoy playing a wide variety of covers in their shows, they’d like to do a lot more of their own stuff eventually.
“It’s in that alternative rock, indie style. We like stuff that’s catchy, that we like to play, that we think people will enjoy hearing,” said Keenan.
“We like to see them dance,” Ryan added.
“By the end of the month we should have our three new ones ready to go, along with some more covers. We want to keep it fresh, not just repeat the same set list constantly,” said Keenan.
Some of their favourite cover songs include “Creep” by Radiohead, which is loved by both foreigners and Koreans in the audience, “Thrash Unreal” by Against Me!, and “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. They’ve recently added Bryan Adams “Summer of ‘69” and play classics like CCR, Zeppelin, the Beatles, and 90’s alternative rock. While different members have different favourites, they all agree that getting the crowd up and dancing is the best part.
“We want to play stuff we like, but we also want people to rock out to our songs,” said Keenan.
“I pretty much like any song I can groove to,” added Nick.
Their backgrounds are diverse, and their influences range from progressive rock to heavy metal, from rap to reggae, from Sublime to Brand New.
Alex, from Nottingham, England, has classical training in piano, and lists Chopin as a favourite, along with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. “I’ve played in jazz bands and rock bands, and before I came out here I was in a heavy metal band. Everything I do revolves around music. I love it.”
Keenan, who is from New Smyrna Beach, Florida, sang with choirs throughout school and is self-taught on the bass. His 20 minute drive to and from high school was where he really started to let loose, “I’d just rock out in my car. Eventually I’d ride around with my friends and, you know, not care what they thought, so I’d continue to rock out. Then my best friend, Sean, he picked up guitar, and he’s amazing. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t just want to sing. What am I going to do with my hands?’ so I just picked up bass, and taught myself from music tabs online.”
Ryan, from Painesville, Ohio, started out playing the drums, but switched over to guitar when he was in high school. “I had about seven lessons that my parents paid for, but I didn’t stick with it. Then I went to college and I started just playing with other people. I’m obsessed with the guitar now.” He also plays harmonica. “Some old hippie taught me when I was out camping.”
Nick from Belleville, Ontario, had no interest in music until his parents sent him for drum lessons at the age of 13. “I quit for a while and took it back up in high school and played in the school jazz band for about 2 years. Then I stopped playing until about my 3rd year of university when I’d jam with my friends. If it wasn’t for my parents, I would never have played the drums. I’m really thankful that they did that. Otherwise, what else would I be doing in Korea? I’d just be sitting there.”
So what does the future hold for ‘Stache Potatoes?
First and foremost, the guys see the band as a hobby, something to do while they’re teaching English to make their experience in Korea even better.
“We’re enjoying Korea from a completely different perspective, because we’re getting to go places and play music. I’ve made probably more Korean friends because of the band than I did before,” Keenan said.
It’s also a chance for the friends to hang out and get in their “bro time” as Keenan put it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have bigger aspirations.
Having recently booked a show in Busan and made connections in Daegu, they now have their sights set on making it to Seoul. And ultimately, they’d like to cut an album, to have something tangible for all of their hard work.
“I’d also like t-shirts,” added Keenan. “So, you know, we’re aiming really high.”
It’s hard not to picture the best case scenario, especially in the recent wake of success seen by Burlington, Ontario band, Walk off the Earth, who’s cover of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know” became an internet sensation, and has reached over 136 million views on YouTube.
“My Mom thinks we’re going to be the Beatles. But you never know with technology these days. Something could go viral, it could be big on YouTube, and you never know. I’d be willing to just put my life on hold and go tour with the band if we got big, but I’m not expecting it,” Ryan said.
“Stache Potatoes go to Siberia!” Keenan joked.
They’ve accomplished a lot for a group who played their first gig in May, and have only been together in their current form for six weeks. They acknowledge that they’ve had a lot of help along the way.
“I do want to give a shout out to Karaoke Dokey. They’ve been so supportive and really encouraging, and given us constructive criticism. Most of the time they’ve had a gig, they’ve invited us to perform and they’ve been really awesome to us. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for us. I feel like maybe in another setting, things might be a little more competitive. Where things are a little more static, people would be out to boost themselves, and we’ve kind of boosted each other and it’s been a really cool feeling of brotherhood between our two bands. So we’ve got to give mad props to them,” said Keenan.
“Also, we need to give a thank you to Mr. Kim (from the Royal Anchor – ed). He gives us a place to practice, a place to put on shows,” said Ryan.
“Any day that he’s available, he’ll have a show, he’ll make drink specials, just so we can put something together,” added Nick.
“Yeah, he’s probably been our number 1 fan, and our biggest critic,” said Keenan.
“Also, we want to thank Manilla Town, with Maria. They’ve given us a place to practice, and gigs as well,” Ryan said.
“They’ve been really encouraging and helpful. Of course you can’t play shows if you don’t have somewhere to start. Now we’re doing other places, it’s all because of not only the open mic nights where we all met, but because of individual shows we’ve been able to put on at those two venues,” Keenan added.
And, of course, they realize that their current success has a lot to do with “the people who’ve shown an interest in (their) shows and come out” to support them in different venues around the city.
‘Stache Potatoes may someday reach the lofty heights of Rock ‘n’ Roll stardom, or they may disband when a Yoko comes between them, but in the meantime, the guys are dedicated to rockin’ out and having fun, and sharing that with everyone around them.
If you’re wondering where you can check out these talented guys, look no further. Their October shows are all in Ulsan, but after that they’ll be heading further afield to Busan and Daegu, so catch ‘em while they’re near by!
They will be playing tonight (October 5, 2012) at the Royal Anchor in Seongnamdong (Shinae/Old Downtown), at Karaoke Dokey’s final Anchor show. ‘Stache Potatoes go on at 10:30, followed by Karaoke Dokey at 11:30.
Saturday (Oct. 6) at 5pm they will be playing at the World Music Festival at the Ulsan Cultural Center beside KBS Hall in Daldong. ‘Stache Potatoes will be performing in the T-Hope Tent, raising money for the T-Hope Christmas Party out at the Ulsan Orphanage. Karaoke Dokey is onstage at 3pm Sunday (and it will be lead singer Jon’s last show with them, as he leaves the following day).
Join the lads at the Open Mic night at Royal Anchor, every Thursday at 10:30pm. It’s not a band night, it’s a chance for anyone to get up and perform – sing, tell jokes, recite your best emo poem. Who knows, it could be the start of something big!
Check out Ryan’s YouTube channel, Teacherman50, to see his students singing the songs he’s taught them throughout the year.
And don’t forget to check out their Facebook page, and hit “Like” to keep up to date on all of their goings-on.
Here’s a complete run-down of their upcoming events so far. Their shows will be added to the Ulsan Online Events Calendar, too.