The University Class of 2020 was a diverse group of students who were forced to finish their college career under unprecedented circumstances due to COVID-19. Nevertheless, a group of five students — Jake Vanaman, David Normansell, Abbey Potter, Rob DiCicco and Zach Cummings — all aged 22 and part of the Class of 2020, banded together — quite literally — in the group The Shrugs, despite the circumstances. Driven by their passion for music, the group worked to produce their first full album “Junk Days and Radio Zones” during the pandemic, with a release in August 2020.
The band was formed in 2016 when Vanaman and Cummings — first-year hallmates in the Balz-Dobie dorm — were in search of a guitarist. When they heard Normansell blasting music in their residence hall, they finally found the member they were searching for.
“Dave would just shred like, as loud as possible, behind a closed door, because he was antisocial or, at least he was first year. So we didn’t really know who he was. So me and Jake knew that we wanted to start getting the band together. And so we knew we needed a guitarist and one day, we just knocked on Dave’s door, and we were like ‘Do you want to play with us?,’” Cummings said.
Later that month, in jazz band auditions, Vanaman found DiCicco when they were placed in the same combo.
“And then I was at a jazz band audition, like the big school band, and I saw Rob play bass. And in my mind, I was like, ‘I want to play with that cat!’” Vanaman said.
Finally, Vanaman met Potter through URecords, — formerly known as ORecords — a group of local musicians that organizes events and creates music in the Charlottesville area, and The Shrugs were officially formed.
Throughout their years here at the University, The Shrugs played many types of gigs, anywhere from fraternity parties, casual get-togethers to just entertaining walkers or diners on the Corner. On the side, the band worked to create their own songs, as at the start they mostly played covers of other group’s work. With the release of their first extended playlist in 2018 — also called “The Shrugs” — the group knew they wanted to release more of their own music before they graduated.
“Basically our third and fourth years in Charlottesville we would just mainly be playing live shows and making money that way,” DiCicco said.
Finally, in their fourth year at the University, The Shrugs had finalized preparations for and were ready to record their first album. However, when they started recording in early March, disaster struck the world in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their plans were abruptly ruined. Despite this setback, the group stuck together and took the opportunity to record the album all by themselves.
The group recorded their music in stages in their various apartments, homes and student housing in Charlottesville — “Whenever we were back in Charlottesville, we were able to work on it. So people would come in like for a day or for a week and lay down whatever they needed to. And it kind of just grew out of that. Jake took up the reins with recording, mixing, mastering. And it was nice to really do that all by ourselves — one to save money, but two to just know that from start to finish, it was completely in our hands also,” DiCicco said.
The resulting album is a clever mix of relaxed instrumentals and synthesized beats, a somewhat rock, somewhat low-fi collection interspersed with a variety of soft, crooning vocals.
Although the future of The Shrugs may be uncertain at the time, the members are certain that the memories and friendships will last a lifetime, and Vanaman is sure that the “artist identity is still alive.”
“Junk Days and Radio Zones” — along with the groups’ other music — can be found on all streaming platforms.
By Max Paley
November 10, 2020