After graduating from high school in 2012, Ben Bersers-Lee was itching to get out of his suburban bubble of Lexington, Massachusetts and experience life as a “real human being.” That fall, he moved away from the conventional path of attending college and moving into an Allston apartment, spending two years managing personal finances and cultivating the sound of his indie rock band, The Symptoms.
The Symptoms is a four-piece band formed by Bersers-Lee, now a freshman at Emerson; James Fraser, a sophomore; and their Northeastern University counterpart, Drew Smith. The three students carried the band from its formation at Lexington High School to Boston-area stages like The Middle East and Great Scott, and recently established a foundation at Emerson as one of campus record label Wax on Felt’s newest signees.
“I always knew I wanted to do music, but didn’t see that as a school thing,” said Berners-Lee, a freshman writing, literature, and publishing major. “I wanted college to be more practical and music to be the fun thing, and I made my Plan B my Plan A.”
Fraser and Berners-Lee both delayed attending school, living together and pursuing divergent interests alongside performing. Berners-Lee said he played music as an indulgence and kept school as a fall back, sustaining himself by working at various restaurants throughout Allston. Fraser said he took up painting and continued to read and learn outside the structure of school. The two also hosted small shows with friends and local fans.
Last fall, Berners-Lee said that the band was short a drummer for a house show, and focused on a quiet, acoustic, lyric-centered set instead of playing music composed for four pieces.
“We passed around a piece of paper and had everyone write a word on it, and that was the basis for the lyrics,” said Berners-Lee. “Then we just improvised the whole thing.”
The band also invited sophomore Anne Malin Ringwalt to perform. Ringwalt, a writing, literature, and publishing major, has released three full-length acoustic albums, but this house show was her first concert.
Last Wednesday, Ringwalt asked The Symptoms to perform the Cabaret as the opening act for her first show at Emerson, returning their favor to her. Ringwalt said she thought it would be fun for the artists to reunite now that The Symptoms are working on a new album.
“I view them as very proactive,” said Ringwalt. “They work hard to be well-connected with young musicians and those who curate and book shows at Boston venues.”
Berners-Lee said that the band gradually shifted from trying to headline shows to instead finding touring bands and asking to open for them.
“It’s a slightly different audience when you open for a touring band, one that’s not part of the music scene all the time,” said Berners-Lee. “You see mainstream music fans who don’t usually get down the local level.”
Fraser and Berners-Lee both said that The Symptoms’ music is based on the simple format of traditional indie rock. They were influenced heavily by progressive rock when they started, but according to Bersers-Lee, evolved over time to encompass different styles of music in their work. Recently, Bersers-Lee said they started working on songs that are better equipped to stand as mainstream singles.
“As a musician, you want to entertain yourself and impress yourself all the time,” he said. “You get so deep inside of it that mindset is hard to penetrate. We’re working on being able to write a pop song that repeats parts and has a hook, not just a journey.”
In their latest EP, Contrasts, The Symptoms are ethereal and melodic, with crooning, repeating hooks and softly sung harmonies. Their opening song, “Seeing in the Dark”, is a slow build of a track, beginning with delicate, flowing “ahhs” that progress into a jazzy, lo-fi anthem. The rest of the album combines a variety of sounds, including soft piano music, electronic beeps, and disjointed guitar riffs.
“It’s very textural, both the sound and the music,” he said. “It’s more about the shape of what you’re hearing as opposed to notes and rhythm.”
As The Symptoms bridge the gap between the progressive rock of their past and pop music with mainstream appeal, Fraser said they are continually receptive of their environment because their style has always changed as the musicians themselves have grown. Now, both Fraser and Bersers-Lee can use Emerson’s resources and artistic community as a means of expanding their musical pursuits.
“Emerson tries to not only teach pure art and skill but the ability to showcase and communicate that in a more practical context,” said Bersers-Lee. “It’s what a college community needs.”
Berners-Lee said that ultimately, his decision to start college and attend Emerson specifically was driven by a need for a practical application of his skills and assurance of financial stability. He and Fraser both study writing, literature, and publishing.
“The major benefits me in that I’m going to make relationships with people pursuing the more practical elements of the trade,” said Berners-Lee. “It makes it more viable of a degree financially because you’ll have some sort of basis on which to promote yourself and a network of people in the industry.”