Let us first establish this fact: Gentle Hen is the new name for the band that from 2001 until 2014 was known as School For the Dead.
The name School For the Dead comes from the title track on singer/songwriter Henning Ohlenbusch's 2001 solo album, Henning's School For the Dead. When he put together a band to play a record release show, it didn't require much thought to name the one-off band after the album.
Ah ha, but that performance was such a success on every level that everyone involved was eager to keep the ball rolling, and so the name stuck. Or should I say they were stuck with the name, like it or not. As the years went by, the "not" part became the elephant in the room and once the band decided that it was OK to change horses in midstream, the too-familiar search for a new name began. And so in May 2014, Gentle Hen played their first gig.
Now that that's out of the way, some musical history…
At the time of the first School for the Dead show in 2001, Henning and drummer Brian Marchese were already in three bands together: They were the rhythm section in The Aloha Steamtrain, The Gay Potatoes, The Greenbergs, and the recently disbanded Humbert. In Humbert, Henning was also one of three singer/songwriters (needless to say, some parts of the Northampton, Massachusetts music scene feature a lot of cross-pollination). Brian was even in one or two other bands besides that!
Henning handpicked the members for his new project, and it's fitting that when it came to bass players, he chose one who had a similar style to his own: solid, tasteful and creative. The man he chose was Max Germer: former Maggie, future Winterpill and always Spanish for Hitchhiking.
On keyboards, Ken Maiuri was a fairly obvious choice. Brian and Henning were already in a couple of bands with him and Ken on keyboards (or any instrument) always takes things to a new dimension.
Once it became apparent that School for the Dead was indeed more than a one-off, the guitar duties fell into familiar hands: those of Anthony Westcott, who had also been a member of Humbert with Henning and Brian.
Henning's a prolific sort, so there was no shortage of new songs for him to play for his new band. As became custom, he'd present a completed new song for the band with a few key suggestions for this or that part. Going over the new song a few times, this collective of creative minds democratically contribute to the arrangement process while not losing site of Henning's original vision. So there's the basic dynamic. Now for some history.
In 2003, School For the Dead recorded and released their debut EP, The Chain CD (oh, did I mention that Henning has also produced and engineered all of the School for the Dead albums?. Now you know.). The concept of the chain CD may have been thought up by drummer Brian. Remember, we were witnessing the collapse of the music industry as we'd known it and everyone was looking for new and clever ways to sell their music. Making use of the ubiquitous AOL tin mailers of that era, the band mailed out three or four copies of the Chain CD to random unsuspecting music fans. They were asked to keep one disc and pass the others on to friends. It was a huge success, in a tiny way.
2004 saw the release of the first SFTD full length, The New You. It included fan favorites such as "Photobooth Curtain", "Something's Taking Over" and "Campground Daughter". The boys took their show on the road, playing primarily New England and New York, gaining new fans everywhere they went. They even advertised themselves for "house concerts'--why go out? invite all your friends to your place and the band will come to you! These proved to be some of their best shows. Max took a year off to help raise his newborn baby, and Ken took over bass duties for a while.
2006 found Rub Wrongways studio and office moving to a bigger, better locale, and the band wasted no time getting to work on their next album, A Telephone Built For Two. Max was back and a new energy was in the air. A Telephone Built For Two was just as strong as its predecessor, boasting classics like "Periscope", "Disgruntled Lover" and Henning's tribute to Northampton's late, great Baystate Hotel, "Thinking Of a Time".
A word about the aforementioned Rub Wrongways Records: initially started by the Humbert boys, most of the responsibilities more and more fell on Henning's shoulders, or lap, depending on if it was a good or bad day. There was a name, there was a logo. There were random acts sending demos thinking it was a real label who'd perhaps sign them and give them tour support. Thus, the motto, "It's a Record Label. No it's not."
Rub Wrongways also became the name of the studio where some, but not all of the acts recorded, and where Henning was the engineer and producer. Rub Wrongways has released all the albums by Gentle Hen's sister band, The Fawns, as well as drummer Brian's project, Sitting Next to Brian and several other acts. Everyone's involved with each other musically if you connect the dots, but each act is quite different from the others. For a few years, a selection of members from several Rub Wrongways acts played shows together as The Rub Wrongways Caravan of Stars, where the "supergroup" would play songs by everyone in the band.
So back to our story. What happened after A Telephone Built For Two? Many, many more shows, at which School for the Dead developed an increasing sense of adventure and spontaneity, and the fun they were having on stage was contagious, upping the delight factor in their audiences. Henning liked to keep the band on their toes by introducing new songs mid-show, or calling for a long musical freak-out backdrop to his sudden stream-of-consciousness monologues with the audience.
It was around this time that a name change started to be discussed in earnest. As stated before, the band is democratic to a fault. Many band leaders would say "we're called _______ . The end." But Henning wanted everyone to be happy, so the conversation would start and stop and start and then there'd be shows and it'd be too late to get the word out and in the meantime someone had second thoughts about the almost-new name and they'd be back to the beginning.
During this time, the Caravan of Stars were playing many shows, and The Fawns were delighting in a new level of Fawns-ness as they played out more and more. Meanwhile, Henning was introducing new songs at each SFTD practice, and it became apparent by 2010 that it was time to make a new record.
"I shan't engineer this next record", proclaimed Henning. "Nor shall it come out under our present name. By the time it's finished, we must have a new name".
In late spring of 2011, Henning, Max and Brian drove up to Nowheresville, New Hampshire to spend a weekend recording basic tracks with the legendary Frank Padellaro. All was going very, very well, as Henning would make regular subsequent trips, sometimes with other band members, for overdubs and, eventually mixing.
And then came a long stretch where everyone was busy with everything imaginable (Frank moved. Henning spent much of a year touring as a member of Polaris. And on and on..) and mixing stretched into 2014. I know, who are these guys, Guns and Roses? Historical Note: They aren't Guns and Roses.
Then a young man on an auburn pony rode out of the fog on a spring morning and handed Henning a scroll. Before Henning could thank him, the man rode off and disappeared along with the fog. Henning shrugged and opened the scroll. "Gentle Hen" it read. "Gentle Hen?" wondered Henning aloud. "Your band's new name" breathlessly said a passing jogger. "Well I'll be..", said Henning, already texting the others with the new name. The first show as Gentle Hen occurred in the spring of 2014, and so a new chapter began. 2015 saw mixing finally completed, and 2016 sees the release of not just the first album by Gentle Hen, but an EP as well. And not only that, but the band has already worked up enough new material so that the album after this one could be recorded tomorrow if they wanted. Maybe they've already recorded it. Who knows?