Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Baudboys of Pro A Cappella

The other day, I blogged about an a cappella group made up of Microsoft employees. (That post here.) They call themselves the Baudboys, and for a bunch of self-described geeks, they talk a lot of smack! Herein, a Pitch Perfect exclusive interview with Baudboy bass Dave McEwen. (Note: He’s the one all the way on the right.)

So, what do you do at Microsoft?
I’m a marketing guy. I work for the Developer & Platform Evangelism group.

Uh, what’s that?
The group that thinks far out into the future and tries to secure the future of the platforms. So, when Vista came out, there were programs ready to run on Vista. That’s Evangelism.

When did you start singing?
I grew up in Alaska in the middle of nowhere. The first time I heard something that moved me was Glad, and their album the A Cappella Project. Then I found Take 6. I’ve been an a cappella freak since then. I was a teenager. And once I found Take 6 I thought, I’ve got to do this. For a guy with pedestrian music talent like myself, I couldn’t lead a group. I was a tuba player at the time. I’m a band geek. You see all these glee clubs on TV. I couldn’t wait to go to college to join one. And then I went to a college without an a cappella scene, Northwest Nazarene College in Nampa, Idaho. So I created a couple. One was called Noise. None of them lasted longer than one performance. We had fun. I figured that was the end. Until I came to Microsoft in 2000. There were a bunch of guys from Yale and Princeton still singing. I thought, I’ve got another chance. Take two! I said, I don’t care if you let me in or not, but I’m going to be a Baudboy.

What were the auditions like?
Grueling. But not as bad as some of the auditions could have been. One of our members was the former pitch of the Whiffenpoofs. We have a guy who was with the Harvard Krokodiloes. Another guy was the Princeton Nassoons' director. They know what hardcore auditions are like. These guys could reduce you to nothing if they chose to. But the talent out here in Redmond is harder to come by than at Yale.

What do you remember about your Baudboys audition?
I think I had two rounds of call backs. There were maybe eight people trying out for bass that year. It went from eight to four to two. I’ll be honest: When it got down to two, I realized the other guy had more talent. So I focused on making them laugh by quoting The Matrix.

We’re all Microsoft employees. We’re geeks first and singers second.

How often are auditions held?
We only bring people into the group when someone cashes out their stock options and leaves Microsoft. That’s when we put the word out to the other singing groups.

Wait. There are other a cappella groups at Microsoft?
Yes. The Microtones have been around since the late 80s, at least. I don’t want to speak ill of them, but they used to be the primary group at Microsoft. I don’t want to toot my own horn but I am in marketing. When people at Microsoft think of music, they think of the theater troupe and the Baudboys.

There’s a theater troupe, too?
The Microsoft Theater Troupe. They do a Christmas show. They did Grease.

Please tell me there are on-campus rivalries...
Not really. We have a rule: If you're in the Baudboys, you can't be in the Microtones. We encourage a cappella here. But in return, when we have an opening we occasionally take their best singers.

Where does the name Baudboys come from?
All of the original members are gone, and nobody kept records back then. But it was something like this. Around the fall of 1990 four guys from the Microtones (who wanted to sing their old collegiate barbershop music) split off. They’d sing as part of the Microtones concerts. Someone yelled, What’s your name? In true geek fashion, they hadn’t thought that far ahead. Someone said, Let’s call them the Bad Boys—because they left the Microtones. Then someone said, What about the Baudboys. Baud is the speed rating of an old-style modem. We’ve talked about changing the name, but we have just enough brand recognition now.

So you have a sense of humor about yourselves.
We mock ourselves. We’re geeks. We know it. We’d rather get a laugh than a tear.

The Baudboys won the Northwest region of the Harmony Sweepstakes this year. Why compete?
Up until 2003, we were a bunch of guys singing in conference rooms for fun. We’d hold on campus concerts once a year. If there was an open mic, we’d polish up “Coney Island Baby” and that was pretty much it. Then we heard about the Harmony Sweepstakes and we thought, How hard could it be? So we went. And we got our asses kicked. We saw what people could do. We had our eyes opened. In true Microsoft fashion we said, We’re going to remake ourselves. We’re going to add vocal percussion. We’re going to drop the four part harmony and become a pop group. And we’ll determine our success by how we do at the Sweepstakes. That’s what we call Cyclical Iteration for Improvement. It’s a planning phase. We modify, build and then we perform at sweeps.

How did you do at the finals this year?
A group from Germany won. Vocaldente. They were insane. I don’t have bitter feelings. The right team won. We practice one day a week. In a conference room. From five-to-six on Tuesdays. And we’re going up against groups that practice eight hours every day. It was all pro groups—and then one group of geeks with day jobs. We’re not gonna harmonize these guys to death. Our whole thing was, Let’s go after audience favorite vote. We came close. I will say, We had the longest standing ovation of the night.

What was the set list?
We sang Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Aeroplane.” We sang “Gonna Make You Happy Tonight,” a comedy song from an Australian a cappella group, Tripod. It’s about a guy telling his wife he’s going to make her happy, and do all the things she wants him to do—just as soon as he’s done with the video game he’s playing. The crowd got it. The applause was deafening.

Hilarious. Are the Baudboys celebrities on the Microsoft campus?
Good heavens, no. Though I have been recognized as a Baudboy before. In the cafeteria, someone said, Dude, you’re a Baudboy! I got up to do a presentation on Application Lifestyle Management. There were 100 people in the room. Someone said, Go, Baudboys! from the back.

Any paying gigs?
There are now! Because people know who we are. The word is out.

What’s the word?
Microsoft has this geeky singing group. And they’re good now.

Do you perform on campus?
We’ve always been big on campus. We’ll sing in Building 16 at lunchtime. It’s an office building with this real nice atrium. We routinely have crowds of 200 or 300 people. And if you’re walking by, it’s hard to ignore us. If there’s a group holiday party, we’ll show up at that.

Any chance there’s an a cappella group at Google? Yahoo!?
We sang the national anthem for the Microsoft Hockey Challenge—where they play the teams from Sun Microsystems or Google. Someone from Sun said, We have an a cappella group that would kick your ass! But then they disbanded. Groups come and go at Google. We think they’re running from us. (laughing) I’d love for someone from Google to hear that and challenge us.

When is the Baudboys album dropping?
We hope to have one for the fall. That’s our goal. Making a CD costs money. We’ve been a non-profit group. We’d rather sing at a nursing home and spread the love. But I want to get us more paying gigs. It’s not greed. We just want to give fans a CD. We have a demo CD. We recorded it in a small studio down in Renton. I’m a Seahawks fan. I’ve missed one game in the last decade. That was the day we were recording our demo. We could self-record, but we want to do it right.

Who decided on the group’s jeans-and-blazers look?
Funny story. We kept getting asked for pictures. Being a PR guy myself, I said, We gotta spend some money here. So we went to Sears.

Like, the Sears Portrait Studio? At the mall?
Yeah. I gave Sears $80 bucks and said, Take as many photos as you can. We didn’t have matching clothes. So we ran down to the clothing depart and grabbed jackets off the rack. The guy in the back, with his hands in the air? You can see the tags on his jacket. After the photos, we went and put the jackets back on the racks. That photo has been in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, some London paper... That was the best $80 bucks we ever spent.

For more on the Baudboys, click here.

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