Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 3, 2020 | °F in Baltimore

Artist Spotlight: Virtual Reality, a five-piece progressive rock band on campus

By JAE CHOI | January 30, 2020

b3-virtual-reality
courtesy Ashrita kumar Virtual Reality got together thought Homewood United for Music, a student group on campus.

Virtual Reality is a five-piece rock band composed of vocalist Parker Treadway, guitarist Ronald Salazar, pianist and guitarist Matthew Ost, drummer Paul Vallejo and newly-recruited bassist Mahesh Pitchayan. 

In many ways, the diversity of their talents reflects the diversity of their academic interests: Treadway is a Mechanical Engineering major; Salazar is a Neuroscience major; Ost is studying Computer Science; Vallejo is completing a masters in Chemical and Biomolecular engineering; and Pitchayan is an Economics and International Studies major. In fact, the band members chose the band name Virtual Reality because they believed that if they were to combine their diverse skill sets they would be able to develop devices capable of replicating reality. Indeed their moniker is an apt expression of the unique gifts and perspectives that each member contributes to the band.

The band members originally met through the student group Homewood United for Music (HUM), a community of student musicians at Hopkins. 

Salazar and Treadway met as freshmen in front of AMR III, Building B; they were both on their way to a HUM event. Salazar recalled seeing Treadway with his guitar, and as a fellow guitar aficionado, he was quick to strike up a conversation.

Ost met Treadway while he happened to be carrying his saxophone on the way to a performance. 

“I talked to Parker a little bit and I asked what he played because he had a sax case. I’m a sucker for saxophone, and so I saw that he played sax and was like ‘Oh we gotta do something,’” Ost said. 

Once the three of them got together for their first jam sessions, they tried looking for performance opportunities through HUM. At the time, Vallejo, who was also part of HUM, was trying to help match them with a drummer. When he could not recruit anyone else, he decided to join as the drummer himself. Pitchayan, a freshman, then joined last year in the fall as a bassist.

“I met them at an interest meeting for HUM. They were actually playing there, and it looked like they needed a bassist. So I told them I played bass, and I got added on,” he said. 

Since meeting, the band has been proactive in trying to perform at various venues and find gigs at every opportunity. Recently, they had the chance to perform at Ottobar with a touring artist, singer-songwriter Jared Knapik. 

Vallejo had an instrumental role in helping Virtual Reality perform at what has been their biggest venue yet. 

“My other band, we were contacted by a touring artist, and the artist was looking for other locals. They were like, ‘Do you know anyone else who would like to play?’ So I was like, ‘I might happen to know another local band that’d be willing to play,’” Vallejo said.

Knowing that this was an opportunity that had to be seized, the band quickly worked on establishing their online presence. 

“We had a little photoshoot and then I gave that info to the Ottobar, and we got Virtual Reality on that bill — so it was Virtual Reality, Pink Shift, which is the other band here, and Jared Knapik,” Vallejo explained. 

Treadway also reflected on what the performance at Ottobar meant for the group. 

“I guess you could call that our big break,” he said.

Ost also acknowledged why this opportunity was especially different.

“It was our biggest gig, not necessarily in size, but in legitimacy, because they had a sound system,” he said. 

Virtual Reality is also considering the possibility of touring, especially after they heard that Pink Shift, Vallejo’s other band, was going to be touring over spring break. They are also interested in reaching out to other well-known local venues such as Undercroft, the Reverb and Metro Gallery. 

As for their sound, they describe themselves as having a progressive rock style with influences from classic rock, blues, jazz and punk.

Ost is trained as a jazz pianist, and Treadway has been playing saxophone since elementary school. Both grew up listening to classic rock. 

Salazar also grew up listening to classic rock with his father and learned guitar in high school. Vallejo, on the other hand, grew up listening to punk and alternative rock and taught himself how to play drums in the drum room at the Mattin Center. 

The band originally started out doing covers, but they began writing their own individual songs over intersession. They are currently working on an album.

Through the process of rehearsing their music and writing songs, the band members have found that their influences mesh nicely. When arranging covers, one of the members will propose a musical idea, and then other members of the group will pitch their own. They liken the process of arranging covers to meditation, letting ideas fly around until they come to a point where things seem to click and they can incorporate these ideas into a coherent arrangement:

“There’s one point — like an hour — where we’ll be sitting there at the end of the hour and we’ll all look at each other and be like, ‘OK, one, two, three, four,’ and then it just happens. I just think that’s the coolest thing — to be able to noodle for an hour and a half without knowing where anything goes and then to stitch something together from the parts,” Treadway said.

As for their process for writing songs, they will begin with an instrumental and then figure out the song lyrics.

“Our approach to writing the song starts with the instrumental and what we think sounds cool, and from there we build the story around that — it’s a very backwards approach,” Treadway added. 

Despite their favorable interpersonal chemistry and their success at numerous gigs, being in a band doesn’t come without its challenges. Members of the band note that managing time between performing, rehearsing and living life as a student at Hopkins can be difficult. 

“It’s not easy. At this point you sacrifice school or sleep. When you’re preparing for a show like Ottobar, we all care about sounding good. So we make time,” Vallejo said. 

Recently there has also been waning support from the school for the performing arts. Several groups on campus, such as HUM and several dance teams, have been losing funding due to a controversial Student Government Association policy that led to significant budget cuts. 

Salazar, who is on the executive board for HUM, talked about the effect that budget cuts have had on the organization.

“They cut our funding too. So we’re barely holding onto our events,” Salazar said. 

The band members hope that arts groups like HUM can continue to operate on campus. 

“Without HUM, we would have never met, and there are a couple other bands on campus who met the exact same way, and I feel like a lot more students knew about this organization,” Treadway said. “It’s not so much what the organization can do. It’s about it being a meeting ground for like-minded people.”

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