“I’m not necessarily creating music like I’m creating toothpaste or a soda drink.”


Administrative Assistant, Office of Student Conduct
Length of service:
9 years
Other stuff:
His band’s record is available at Spruce Street Records, the Penn Bookstore, Spaceboy and other record stores on South Street, and online at www.groovedisques.com

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Andrew Chalfen (C’86) spends his days behind a desk at the Office of Student Conduct.

But since graduating from Penn as an urban studies major in 1986, he’s been a fixture on the Philadelphia independent music scene, writing songs and playing in bands. Former bandmates and collaborators include Philadelphia Weekly columnist Joey Sweeney, Joe Genaro of the Dead Milkmen, and members of Philly rock-band-of-the-moment Marah.

Chalfen’s current outfit, Trolleyvox, is a 5-piece pop group. They’re heading into the studio this fall to record a follow-up to their first record, “Ephemera for the Future.”

Q. What songwriters do you admire most?
Yo La Tengo, Elliott Smith, Teenage Fanclub. Bands that generate good record after good record, instead of just one good record. REM, up until the “Green” record. The Replacements. And I take a lot out of the top five bands of the ’60s: the Beatles, the Who, the Byrds, the Kinks, the Stones.

Q. If you had to bring just three records with you for the rest of your life…
This New Zealand band called the Verlaines, they’re definitely a big influence on my songwriting and guitar playing. The record is called “Hallelujah All the Way Home.” Around ’84 or ’86, Robyn Hitchcock came out with an acoustic record that he recorded in a friend’s kitchen. It’s called “I Often Dream of Trains.” And I know it’s kind of cliché after the VW commercial, but for the past 3 years I’ve been nonstop listening to “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake.
   These are all acoustic records. It’s weird. I like rock ’n’ roll, but I like to listen to really quiet records. I want Trolleyvox to make a really quiet record.
   It all comes down to funding. I’d put out a record every year if I could afford to do it. With the state of the music industry right now, I’d rather put it out myself and have control over it. I have so many friends in bands that are signed to labels that have become nightmare situations and they’re trying to get out, buy themselves out of contracts. It’s just a mess.

Q. How would you describe the subjects of your songs?
My lyrics are not exactly happy lyrics, but I think that’s okay, to be exploring the darker side of what goes on in people’s heads in relationships. People think it’s a reflection of your personality, but it’s just a reflection of what one finds engaging. I listen to Mark Eitzel. That doesn’t mean I’m a depressive, liking over-the-top melancholy histrionics. He makes it into an art.
   I’m not saying my stuff approaches art, but it’s something to shoot for.

Q. You don’t think your stuff approaches art?
Well, maybe it does. I don’t think the artist can judge that. The artist can just make it, do the best he can, and leave it to someone else to judge whether — If it creates a meaningful experience for someone else, great, and it’s really great when it does, but that experience is out of my hands.
   I’m not necessarily creating music like I’m creating toothpaste or a soda drink for their enjoyment. That’d be great, but the initial reason for writing a song is not for someone else’s enjoyment. It’s a selfish act. It’s to get my own creative ideas out.

Q. What’s the best part of the band for you?
I love recording. I love playing out, too, don’t get me wrong, it’s a rush, but there’s something very temporary about the rush of that. Whereas if you have the physical artifact of a record, years later, you can say, “I did everything I can to make this sound like the sound in my head.” I’ve played hundreds upon hundreds of gigs in my life. Having a physical artifact is still — It’s a little more to show for it.
   It’s a very hard life to lead. A lot of it has to do with the fact that artists aren’t valued monetarily very highly in this society. Which is why I have a day job. If you can’t make money from royalties, and you’re not touring around constantly — even touring barely pays for itself. You have to make money from somewhere, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who gets successful.

Q. Ever a time when you’ve been ready to say, all right, forget it?
Oh, sure. You’re touring, some gigs have been canceled because the promoter didn’t have the muscle to get you into decent clubs, or was shady. Everybody’s sort of despondent. You desperately need a really good gig to pick you up out of it. I’d never give up music, but, like, do I really want to be out on the road, playing to 14 people on a Wednesday night, as my life? The answer would have to be no. [laughs] It’s much more fun to have gigs more infrequent, and local, and because you really enjoy playing them, not because you have to. And to make records because you really like the people you’re making the records with, doing best job you can possibly do.


Originally published on September 14, 2000