Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dog House Band appears in Oxford American

Oxford American: Writers Who Rock

A crew of ragtag writers make beautiful music—in their spare time.

I first met David Gates—former editor at Newsweek, Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction—in the mid-aughts, when I was a graduate student studying writing at The New School MFA program in New York City. We shared an enthusiasm for country and old-time music, though it became clear quickly enough that Gates was a layman scholar of these traditions, whereas I was just fumbling around. He turned me onto The New Lost City Ramblers, Joseph Spence, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, George Jones and Gene Pitney. I admired and envied the seemingly superhuman scope of his musical knowledge, and also the fact that he didn’t just listen: He played.

Gates told me that he’d started on clarinet and saxophone in his early teenage years, then moved on to guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Over the years, he’s played in bluegrass/old-time, jazz, and rock & roll groups, and I get the impression that he’s been in a band more often than he’s out of one. I’ve gone to see him play many times. When he was between groups he used to sometimes sit in on guitar with a Brooklyn-based indie-country act called Andy Friedman & The Other Failures, but now he’s got The Dog House Band, a group comprised entirely of writer-musicians and musician-writers, born out of the Bennington College Low Residency MFA Writing Program, where Gates is a long-time faculty member.

The Dog House Band began more or less by accident. During the bi-annual ten-day residencies at Bennington, Gates and fellow-Bennington instructor Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies, editor of AGNI) would spend their evenings hanging around the Dog House—housing for faculty who bring their pets to the school—with a couple acoustic guitars and (quoth Birkerts) a “bottomless bottle of Maker’s Mark.” The two played mostly country, blues, and folk songs, and the sessions were open to anyone who cared to listen in or join in. “Gradually,” Gates said, “we began discovering congenial people in the program. The singers Ben Hartlage, Erica Plouffe Lazure and novelist Rebecca Chace, and the bass-player Lee Johnson”—a mixture of faculty, students (some now alums), and university employees. Johnson, for example, was working at Bennington as an A/V guy. Tom Bissell—2010 Guggenheim Fellow and author of several books including God Lives in St. Petersburg—sometimes sat in on banjo.

In the early days The Dog House Band was a mostly acoustic group. They cut one record, Let’s Doghouse: A Tribute to Liam Rector (2008), a spirited collection of covers (Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down”), traditionals (“St. James Infirmary,” “Angel Band”) and one original (“Elephant Graveyards”) penned by Chace.

Since then, The Dog House Band has grown to nearly twice its original size. Greg Phelan, a Bennington student, plays organ and keys. Vic Rawlings, a musician and instrument-maker, has a girlfriend who graduated the program and does some A/V work for the school; he plays electric guitar. Lily White, a professional jazz musician and veteran of bands led by the likes of Jimmy McGriff and Dizzie Gillespie, is a current student—she plays saxophone and sings. James Wood plays drums. Val Haynes sings. Wyatt Mason, a celebrated critic and magazine writer, told me he taught himself guitar with the explicit goal of being able to participate in the Bennington jam sessions. He now finds himself the band’s rhythm guitarist. (Chace and Hartlage are no longer full-time members, but they sit in when they can.) Lazure—a student when she joined the band, now on the faculty at Phillips Exeter—put it this way: “Our music shifted from old-timey homespun country with an upright bass, to a 10-member ensemble with a big rawkin sound.” But, she says, “two elements have remained a constant through our evolution of the past five years: the camaraderie and the music. There's genuine love here, and admiration for each other and for the sound we can produce in a relatively short stretch of time.”

Given how little time the band has together—and remembering that what time they do have is explicitly devoted to the in-depth study of an entirely different art form—it’s unsurprising that DHB focuses on covers and standards. But the more time I spend listening to them the less I think this matters. A good cover is thrilling because it combines the intimacy of the long-familiar with the novelty of an original insight. The new DHB sound has enabled them to take on more songs in a wider variety of styles; it’s also given them the opportunity to re-imagine the repertoire they already have. Think of Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, or Iron & Wine on the tour they’re on right now.

"Drinkin' Thing" by The Dog House Band

Mason, who records the band’s practices and shows, hooked me up with a recent DHB show in New York City (they headlined a party for The Paris Review) and a semi-official bootleg, Don’t Make Us Go Back to Our Lives. Both recordings are stunning. Gates and White shine on Gary Stewart’s “Drinkin’ Thing,” which Mason rates as “probably the best thing we’ve done so far.” (For my part, I like their straight-faced cover of Josh Thompson’s red-state anthem, “Way Out Here.”) Lazure smolders and Birkerts raps on their must-hear mash-up of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

Don’t Make Us was not recorded by Mason, but by Paul Kolderie, whose mile-long list of production and engineering credits includes—get ready for this—Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone, and several albums apiece by The Pixies, Morphine and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Kolderie was introduced through his wife, the writer Robin Vaughan, when she was enrolled in the writing program. There is a standing offer from him to produce the next DHB record. Nothing’s certain yet, but Mason says they’re shooting for 2012.

As with every DHB member I spoke to, Mason’s exuberance extended beyond well-earned pride in his band to evangelism for the joy of music in general. The group is talented and they’re dedicated, but their ambition isn’t to top charts—it’s to sustain and build on the happiness they’ve found in playing together. Their pleasure and purpose derive directly from the music and are regarded as ends in themselves. I found myself getting a little jealous. When I confessed to Mason, near the end of our conversation, that I don’t play an instrument, he exhorted me to pick one and learn it, insisting that I would look back on it as the best decision I’d ever made. “There’s a lightness and joy that you get through playing which is only to the good,” he told me. “It’s a special way of being alive.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dog House Band headlines Paris Review's Lit Crawl

NEW YORK (Sept. 2)——Members of Bennington College Writing Seminars' Dog House Band will play a twin set for the Paris Review's Lit Crawl from 8 p.m. to 9:30 Saturday, Sept. 10 at Fontana's (105 Eldridge Street) in Manhattan's East Village. Admission is free but will likely fill fast.

The band features members Sven Birkerts, David Gates, Lee Clay Johnson, Erica Plouffe Lazure, Wyatt Mason, J. Greg Phelan, Vic Rawlings, Lily White, and James “Sin Killer” Wood and promises a range of rock and country tunes.

For more information:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dog House Band descends upon Exeter, NH

(EXETER, N.H.)—Members of the Dog House Band will play a short set on May 17, 2010, in the Periodicals Room of the Phillips Exeter Academy library.

The performance will take place following a 7 p.m. reading by fellow Dog House Band member Erica Plouffe Lazure, who served as the school's writer in residence for the 2009-2010 academic year.

"It's been both a fun and productive year here at Exeter, and I thought it would be fun to celebrate it through both words and music," Lazure said. "There's a great musical community here at Exeter, and I'm glad some of my friends from Bennington can join in on the fun."

Bennington Writing Seminars faculty members Sven Birkerts, David Gates, and Wyatt Mason will join Lazure, an alumnus of the program. Birkerts' son, Liam, is on tap to play upright bass.

The band's other members--alumni Rebecca Chace and Ben Hartlage, as well as staffers Vic Rawlings and Lee Clay Johnson--won't make it for this show, but other shows are in the works for the summer, including the June 2010 residency at Bennington.

The Dog House Band CD, created in honor of the Bennington Writing Seminars' founding director, Liam Rector, is available online at All profits from CD sales will be contributed to the Liam Rector Scholarship Fund for the Bennington Writing Seminars. To date, the band has donated $3000 to the scholarship.

For more information, write to:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The old Dog House learns a few tricks

BENNINGTON, VT (JANUARY 14, 2009)—Members of the Dog House Band will play an opening set for singer-songwriters John Wesley Harding and Andy Friedman at 9:30 p.m., Friday, January 15, at the Bennington College Student Center. The show is free.

Bennington Writing Seminars faculty members Sven Birkerts, David Gates, Wyatt Mason, and Tom Piazza will perform along with writing seminars alum Erica Plouffe Lazure, staff member Vic Rawlings, and former staff member Lee Clay Johnson.

The Dog House Band CD, created in honor of the Bennington Writing Seminars' founding director, Liam Rector, will be available for $15 at the show and at the Bennington College Bookstore. It is also available online at All profits from CD sales will be contributed to the Liam Rector Scholarship Fund for the Bennington Writing Seminars.

The band will announce another gift to the Liam Rector Scholarship fund, which will bring the tally of donations from CD sales to nearly $3000.

"We'd love to up our donations in the next few months," said Lazure. "But the only way to make that happen is through the support of our fans and friends."

For more information, write to or visit for details.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dog House to play Bowery Electric

MANHATTAN (August 18, 2009)— Members of Bennington Writing Seminars' Dog House Band, featuring musician John Wesley Harding, will perform at 6:30 p.m., Aug. 26, at Bowery Electric (327 Bowery, Manhattan).

Off the heels of their Poets and Writers July 27 show at Brooklyn's Galapagos Art Space, band members will reconvene for a Gigantic/Bomb/Opium magazine "You Don't Know Me" Benefit Bash. For more information about the event, visit:

As always, the Dog House Band CD, Let's Doghouse!, will be available at the show for $15. All proceeds will be contributed to the Liam Rector Scholarship fund at Bennington College.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dog House Band plays for Poets & Writers party July 27

(BROOKLYN, NY)—Members of the Dog House Band will play two sets at Galapagos, 16 Main Street, in Brooklyn, NY (DUMBO) at a party hosted by Poets & Writers Magazine. The party begins at 6:30 p.m., Monday, July 27. The band's CD, "Let's Doghouse: A Tribute to Liam Rector," features faculty, staff, and alumni of Bennington College's Writing Seminars.

The CD, created in honor of the Writing Seminars' founding director, will be available for $15 at the show. All profits from CD sales will be contributed to the Liam Rector Scholarship Fund for the Bennington Writing Seminars.

In addition to several special guests, Bennington Writing Seminars faculty members Sven Birkerts, David Gates will perform along with writing seminars alumni Rebecca Chace, Ben Hartlage, and Erica Plouffe Lazure.

Poets and Writers featured the Dog House Band in its July 2009 issue. Click here to read the article or visit

Visit for more information about the CD benefit project or email

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dog House Band featured in Poets & Writers magazine

The Dog House Band and its CD project is featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers magazine. The article, written by Bennington alum A. N. Devers, appears below. The Band has donated $2000 to the Liam Rector Scholarship Fund and plans to make another $1000 donation this summer. Please consider purchasing a CD to help us meet that goal. Thank you!

Bennington Band Honors Late Poet


A group of writing instructors and students who over the years formed a ragtag band during late-night impromptu jam sessions at the Bennington Writing Seminars, in southwest Vermont, released their first CD earlier this year. Titled Let's Doghouse: A Tribute to Liam Rector, the compilation serves as a memorial to the founding director of the Writing Seminars, a poet, who passed away two years ago.

The musical meetings that led to the formation of the Dog House Band began about five years ago at the Doghouse, the only residence on the Bennington College campus where instructors are allowed to stay with their pets. Novelist and journalist David Gates, a regular Doghouse resident, brought along his guitar five years ago, and over time other musically inclined students and teachers found their way to the house. It was only after Rector committed suicide in August 2007 that the musicians began to think about recording an album to honor his memory and his love of music.

"Liam was always musically besotted, with a great range spanning rock, folk, blues, even show tunes," says critic and guitarist Sven Birkerts, the current director of the Writing Seminars. Rector, who stayed at the Doghouse with his wife, Tree Swenson, was known for making CD compilations of his musical obsessions, which he then handed out like books to friends, teachers, and students. He called the mixes sentimentia. "Liam liked to say that music was so essential to poetry," recalls Writing Seminars graduate and poet David Scronce, "that the time a poet spent listening to music counted as study hours."

Joining Gates and Birkerts in the band are program alums Rebecca Chace, a novelist; Ben Hartlage, a poet; Erica Plouffe Lazure, the fiction writer who spearheaded the project; and Lee Johnson, an audio-visual tech at Bennington currently pursuing his MFA in fiction at the University of Virginia. Composed of blues, country, and bluegrass songs, Let's Doghouse was released at the January 2009 residency and received widespread support from the Bennington community and eventually a positive review in the Boston Globe. "Country songs dominate the CD only because they're what the band seems best at together," explains Gates.

All profits from the CD, which can be ordered online at, are donated to the Liam Rector Scholarship Fund. "One thing that Liam had always wanted for the Writing Seminars was to offer more students financial assistance through scholarships," says Lazure. "Those who buy a CD will not only get a taste of the music that Liam loved, but they will also help to contribute to that fund."

Although members of the Dog House Band are scattered across the country, they will reunite this summer for the fifteenth anniversary of the Seminars. "Any of us would drive eighteen hours to play a half-hour set," Gates says of the band's commitment. "Offer us a gig, and we'll get there."