When the 15th hole at Manor Golf Course is rocking, it can only mean one thing: rehearsal night for N.E.W. athens.
This quartet of Rockville rockers, gaining attention of late for the way they play the finest worksongs of the 1980s alt band R.E.M., practice in the enormous, teal-walled musical-mancave of their lead singer, golf-and-guitar enthusiast John Ohly. And they like to play loud.
“My objective, first and foremost, is to have fun with these other human beings,” says Ohly, 47, referring to bassist Will Styne, keyboardist Dana Tofig and drummer Steve Snyder. “Our first step out of the basement was in October 2016. We played The Great OaktoberFest, an outside party here in the neighborhood, and that was kind of our first foray.”
With roots firmly planted in Rockville, the band has performed for fellow R.E.M. fans in Baltimore at the Ottobar, at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia, at Brookeville Beer Farm, Bethesda’s Villain and Saint and in August, at Bethesda Blues & Jazz. At their show on Saturday, June 24, at The Hamilton in D.C., they will open for Stop Making Sense, a Talking Heads tribute band.
“I don’t see Disney calling us to be R.E.M. like you’d have a Beatles act,” says Ohly, whose jolly nature, gleaming bald head and love of beer and ale as well as his alma mater (he played golf for University of Maryland) have earned him the nickname Friar Terp. “But as long as we’re enjoying it, there will be plenty of people who want to listen.”
The goal, according to Dana Tofig, is not to be a “tribute” band. “We don’t try to look like R.E.M., but rather to cover their music with real fidelity,” the singer-keyboardist explained. That means they carefully learned the instrumental and vocal parts, including R.E.M.’s superb waterfall harmonies between lead singer Michael Stipe and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills, which Ohly and Tofig replicate dutifully and with great success, with Styne and Snyder pitching in on backup vocals.
They do a range of songs from the band’s extensive oeuvre, from 1983’s instantly iconic debut, “Murmur,” through college radio faves “Reckoning,” “Fables of the Reconstruction” and “Life’s Rich Pageant” to the more mainstream “Document” (with its popular “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “The One I Love”) and “Green” to mainstream smash hits “Out of Time,” “Automatic for the People” and beyond.
“Yes, there is a circuit,” Tofig added. “There are a lot of tribute bands—Phish, Depeche Mode, the Police—but we’re doing it for the music.”
Even when they don’t all agree on which R.E.M. music they like the best; after all, the band has sold more than 85 million copies of their 15 studio albums—plus three live albums, seven extended play albums, 14 compilation albums and 63 singles. “We’re all a little bit different,” noted bassist Will Styne. “(R.E.M.’s original E.P.) ‘Chronic Town’ was the first one I listened to at my buddy’s house, and that was the beginning of all of it for me. John’s more accepting (of the band’s later albums). I was done after ‘Green.’”
But it’s that kind of give and take that keeps the band interesting.
“John Ohly and I are the co-leaders of a contemporary worship band at Oakdale Church, and Steve Snyder occasionally plays there with us,” explains Tofig, 49. “I was in a couple of bands in high school, and I’ve always been a musician. But I wanted to be in a rock band for a long time.”
Growing up in a musical family in Connecticut, Tofig did a lot of theater and played a lot of music before settling on a career in communications and trading gigs for work and family. In his 30s, he became involved in church music, and when his career brought him to Montgomery County, everything came full circle.
“We’ve never played an R.E.M. song at church, but oh, yeah, we bring the noise,” he said. “There’s a whole musical genre out there for contemporary Christian rock. You won’t hear a lot of hymns; it’s pretty straight-ahead rock and roll worship—which we like, which our pastor likes.” There are opportunities to worship more traditionally at Oakdale, he added, “but some people really like contemporary worship music and I think we do it pretty well.
“That’s where John and I learned to play together: We developed a rhythm and we’re in sync. That translates well to the other band.”
The Oakdale Worship Band is also where Steve Snyder came aboard. “They were looking for a drummer, they found me, and it was full steam ahead,” said Snyder, a jazz and big band aficionado who was not much of an R.E.M. guy before N.E.W. athens—but really likes the music. “That’s not something I could say from day one,” he admitted. “I knew some R.E.M. stuff, but it really grew on me over time. The other guys feel the dedication I put into it, I feel their dedication; that’s how it evolved.”
Growing up in different cities around the United States, Snyder was always in a band or two, playing proms and homecomings even when he was in school. “In elementary school, I lugged a snare drum around for a couple of years until I saved up enough paper route money to buy a cheap drum set,” he recalled. “Then I was off and running.”
For Snyder, being in the band has its rewards. “It’s fascinating to see people singing along to the songs, enjoying themselves, hearing something they don’t get to hear every day,” he said.
Ohly agreed. “There’s nothing like playing live music, watching people as their faces light up and they sing along with you and actually grab you after the show to say how much they enjoyed it,” he said. “That makes it wonderful for me. That’s what it’s all about.”
Out of Time
There’s a funny story Will Styne likes to tell, one that predates the N.E.W. athens band era.
“John and I go way back,” he explained, noting that he grew up around Manor Country Club and went to Our Lady of Good Counsel High School at its former location in Wheaton before heading to Clemson University and a day job in the finance industry. “About 10 years ago, John and I were friends; he was in charge of the member-guest tournament at the club and he hired Pat DiNizio from The Smithereens to come play at the party.”
They put together a backing band—Styne, a self-taught musician, said his mom had bought him an acoustic guitar for $5 at a garage sale back in 1980 or ’81—and practiced for six months on their own, learning every Smithereens song they could find. “The day (DiNizio) came down we were ready to play any one of his songs from our list of 35 without ever having played with him. He told us before the show, ‘I’m all in if it sounds good, but if you guys (stink), I’m kicking you off the stage.’”
They didn’t (stink)—and the Ohly-Styne pairing went on through almost a decade of iterations before R.E.M. proved to be the charm. “The full band, it’s been a late bloomer thing for me,” said Ohly. “Dana, too. Will and Steve, they’ve played a lot more live music, done touring with bands.”
Ohly grew up surrounded by music, but never went into it as a career. “My mother was an opera singer,” he said. “She had a successful career teaching classical voice to young people; some of her students went on to the Metropolitan Opera and sang all over the world. So, I grew up in the classical realm of things.
“I fought her tooth and nail to get an electric guitar when I was 14,” he added. “It was a great day for me, a sad day for my mom. She finally gave in.”
Before that happened, however, his mother insisted he take classical lessons with an acoustic guitar, which Ohly found “really useful. That gave me a foundation.”
And that solid foundation of musicianship is what is at the core of N.E.W. athens—that, and camaraderie. Throughout the harmonies and chord changes, the shows at country clubs and beer farms, and opening gigs for tribute bands like Girlfriend in a Coma and Once in a Lifetime, the quartet remain a group of friends who seem delighted that people they don’t even know are beginning to flock to their shows.
“That’s great, that’s what we want,” said Tofig, who said they’re grateful to their hardcore fans, but happy to expand. “You can’t keep tapping your friends to come to every show, so it’s encouraging when people show up because they love R.E.M. and they heard we were good.”
And they are good. Seasoned, experienced, inspired by the music they play and by each other—and happy to have a chance to keep rocking into middle age.
“Playing quality live music at this level, entertaining people—I think as long as the music is good, it doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 65,” said Ohly. “I think there’s no age handicap on music.”
N.E.W. athens opens for Stop Making Sense on Saturday, June 24, at The Hamilton DC, 600 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $18 to $25. Call 202-787-1000 or visit www.newathensband.com. The band will perform at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, 7719 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 3. For tickets, $15 in advance, $20 on show date, call 240-330-4500 or visit BethesdaBluesJazz.com.