Rob Neilson (left) and Jake Frederick play music during a weekly jam session in a Lawrence University storage garage they turned into a makeshift recording studio. Dubbed the storm shelter, the garage provided refuge for the two professors during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

It is not a stretch to say music is being made on the Lawrence University campus at almost every hour of every day. When you are home to a world-class conservatory, music is part of the campus heartbeat.

So, why wouldn’t a history professor and an art professor, staring at a suddenly wide-open calendar when the pandemic shut down their planned spring 2020 sabbaticals, throw themselves into the writing and recording of an album? Why wouldn’t they hole up inside a storage garage that doubles as an art studio, purchase recording equipment they have no idea how to use, break out guitars the history professor built himself, and start writing songs—lots of songs—most of them tinged with a doomsday vibe to match the moment?

And why wouldn’t they title that album Songs from the End of the World?

No reason at all. Hence, we give you the Junkyard Tornadoes, the musical mix of Jake Frederick, professor of history, and Rob Neilson, the Frederick R. Layton Professor of Studio Art and professor of art, with a 12-song album all their own; now available on the digital music service Bandcamp.

Both had big plans for their sabbaticals. Neilson was heading to Scotland for an art fellowship; Frederick to the Newberry Library in Chicago for a research fellowship. All of that was put on hold as COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, sending students home for remote learning and halting all non-essential travel. With no classes to teach until fall, they suddenly had time on their hands and nowhere to go.

“We were in shock about how crazy the world had suddenly become,” Frederick said.

The two professors have long dabbled in music as a hobby. They regularly gather in the art garage—“the storm shelter, as I’ve begun calling it,” Frederick said—to play together, occasionally thinking about recording their songs or playing in public or both. They have one public performance as a duo under their belts. And before the pandemic hit, they submitted three original songs (an EP, Three Minute Average) to Mile of Music organizers, hoping to get on the 2020 festival lineup. It was canceled before they got an answer. And, yes, Frederick builds his own guitars, four of them to date.

They saw an opportunity in the unexpected pandemic pause, one that would nurture a secret (or not-so-secret) longing to be rock stars. Or at least allow them to stretch themselves a bit musically and in the process find some refuge from the COVID storm.

They headed into quarantine with a pact—they and their wives would form their own biome of sorts, isolated from the rest of the world. From March through the end of summer, the two professors experimented with their music. They wrote and rewrote songs. Neilson purchased recording equipment and started playing around with software, teaching himself the basics of being an audio engineer.

“I knew nothing about how to record an album,” he said. “I just started looking into it. What do I need? I got myself a little bit of equipment. And then literally just started plugging things in and recording it and seeing what worked, how would this sound; learning as we went.”

It was all music all the time in the art garage as spring rolled into summer.

“We started writing some songs that night,” Frederick said of the night in March 2020 when faculty were told the campus was going remote for Spring Term and university travel was being shut down. “Just started writing about the bizarre world we were living in. I think the first thing we wrote was I Got a Virus. We wrote a song called Quarantine Me. This is all the first night. I think we wrote four songs that night, and it occurred to us that we don’t think we’re any good (as musicians) but we think some of the songs we write are pretty good.”

None of the songs they wrote that first night ended up on the album. But it kick-started something that would consume them over the next eight months of quarantine.

“We figured we might be dead by the end of the summer, so maybe we should get these things recorded so the archaeologists can maybe play the songs someday,” Frederick said with a laugh.

Learn more about Jake Frederick: Teaching about disasters.

Learn more about Rob Neilson: Adding artistic flair to Fox Cities.

He and Neilson bring self-deprecating humor to every conversation about their music. They know they are on a campus surrounded by faculty and students overflowing with music talent. Many of those students will go on to make, perform, and teach music for a living.

For them, though, it’s simply a hobby, a chance to enjoy their friendship while channeling some creative energies.

“Writing songs for us pre-dates the pandemic,” Neilson said. “But really sitting down and recording an album, that was the bit. It became clear, we’re not going anywhere. The university stopped all travel. I was going to Scotland; Jake was going to Chicago. I also had a public art project that got canceled. My gallery shut down. The whole world shut down. That was the moment we realized, well, maybe we should record these tunes. We don’t have anything else to do.”

When they returned to teaching in the fall, the music continued but time grew tight. They set a hard deadline to finish the album.

“At some point Jake and I decided that we would be done and out by Christmas,” Neilson said. “The Beatles always released an album right before Christmas, and look what happened to those guys. We were going to release our album by Christmas no matter what.”

And they did. Songs from the End of the World was a wrap by mid-December. They cut a couple dozen CDs for family and friends. A former student suggested they make the album available for download on Bandcamp.

“We wanted to put it out there for free because we didn’t think it was deserving of anyone’s money,” Frederick joked. “But to host it on a server, we had to charge something because they need to make their money.”

It’s now on Bandcamp for $5, available here.

We’d like to tell you the album has become a pandemic sensation and is now on the Billboard Hot 100. It is not (at least not yet). But the Junkyard Tornadoes did sell a few downloads.

“We’ve gotten a check,” Neilson said. “So, Jake and I are at this point professional musicians.”

“It was $24,” Frederick added. “I can now say definitively that I’ve made more money as a professional musician than I did on my first book.”

Songs from the End of the World, which has a sort of gritty Warren Zevon’s The Wind feel to it, isn’t explicitly about the pandemic or the anxieties and rage that consumed 2020. But there’s no missing it.

“It’s in there because it’s inescapable,” Neilson said. “There was no way not to. That was our whole lives. It was everybody’s lives.”

Now what?

Well, they’re already working on album No. 2. Other than that, the focus is squarely on their teaching jobs. Music remains the hobby that helps them find new energy. Maybe one day they’ll take the music out of the art garage. Perhaps they’ll make another run at Mile of Music.

“The first thing we’d have to do is put together a band,” Neilson said. “At this point, it’s Jake and me playing all the guitars, bass, keyboards, harmonica, percussion.” (They did get a rhythm section assist from colleague Tony Conrad.)

Frederick and Neilson know they wouldn’t have to look far to find other capable musicians. But, they joked, the musicians in the Conservatory might have better options.

“This whole thing feels like a very Lawrence-y thing to do,” Frederick said of the album. “You have an art professor and a history professor who don’t know how to engineer and really don’t know how to write songs and don’t know how to read music; don’t qualify as musicians. Of course, we’ll write an album. But at the same time, this place is richly populated with people who actually have some idea what they’re doing making music. There were moments recording this album where we were trying to figure out our timing or we were trying to figure out a key change or something that would just take us hours, and you know that this is stuff that first-year students across the street can do in their sleep. … If anyone in the Con feels like their music is somehow threatened by us, I’m going to get a tattoo that says that.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu