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These engineers rock

They find time for music between classes and labs

by Sara Peters

When Fabled begins their first song, it's immediately clear that this is not a typical acoustic show. Yes, they sit on stools, and lead singer Matt Nickoloff '04 is wearing those "sensitive artist" spectacles and a beaded necklace, but other than that, there is no resemblance to a Joni Mitchell concert.

First of all, it's loud, and every action of the gents on stage says they're hungry for more volume. Matt's vocals were deceptively gentle at the beginning, rising to scratching defiance at the end of many a song.

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The members of Fabled are, clockwise from bottom left, Tim Skerpon '03, Aaron Ellerbee '04, Dan Siegfried '05, and Matt Nickoloff '04.

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Tim Skerpon '03 plays his guitar with such ferocity that one fears he'll bloody his knuckles on the whirring strings. Luckily Tim's nimble fingers and pick work evade the dangers, creating growling chords one measure, delicate, traipsing melodies the next.

Slumped casually upstage in the dimmest halo of light, is bassist-slash-Princeton-running-back Aaron Ellerbee '04, thrumming his bass with the pungency of a funk musician rather than a folk star.

Dan Siegfried '05 might have fit in at a hippie drum circle while playing the conga, but once he was behind his drumset, that image vanished. A jazz flavor in his flams and rolls, a volume all rock-and-roll, and a zealous head bopping conjured images of Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police.

Fabled, who only did an acoustic show as a novel change to their highly electric norm, is definitely a rock band. But dropping them in a subgroup is tricky. Their set list is a gumbo, with a dash of jangly, folksy guitar, a dab of jazz percussion, and a bit of everything else found in their deep musical cupboards.

The group of Princeton student musicians creating this category-evasive music is Tim, a chemical engineer, on lead guitar; Aaron, a mechanical and aerospace engineer, on bass; Matt, an English major, as lead singer; and Dan, a Woodrow Wilson School major, on drums.

The band

Fabled is unique in that the band is definitely a unit without a definitive leader, although their personalities are quite disparate.

"Tim and I are in charge of strategic planning," Dan said.

The guitarist and the drummer book gigs, deal with media, and set the course for Fabled's future. They share a charismatic self-confidence, but while Tim is a picture of cool, potential energy, Dan is definitely kinetic. Dan is the charming jokester making eyes at audience members, but Tim is the ladies' favorite at shows accepting their swooning cries calmly.

"Matt tends to keep us in check musically," Tim said.

The atypical lead singer is on the shy side, but he is assertive with his band mates, giving his creative input and infusing their music with a larger social consciousness.

Aaron is the newbie and is reminded of it more often than he'd probably like. He spends much of his time doing the bulk of the heavy lifting, and shrugging off Dan's persistent barrage of jibes with a characteristic unflappability. Still, they see themselves as a cohesive unit.

"It's much more like a group than some bands," Matt said. "I don't think there would ever be a major dispute between us."

The music

Many of Fabled's early songs were written by Tim, but now they're collaborating on all new music. As songwriters, the band members look to expert lyricists such as Bob Dylan, U2, Counting Crows, and The Who.

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Aaron Ellerbee '04 and Tim Skerpon '03 are the two engineering majors in the band Fabled.

"I write most of my songs, about..." said Tim, hesitating.

"Girls," offered Dan.

"Well, I write songs about myself dealing with girls, rather than the girls themselves," Tim said. "I feel like most of our music isn't about the surface issue. It's about what's beneath."

The band's lyrics are full of questions. In "Cloud of Witnesses" they speak of "the 'what's next' place we're in." Indeed, the majority of their songs transport listeners to that "what's next place" at the brink of change, or in the wake of change, where decisions must be made in the midst of drowning confusion. The emotion of the songs travels within this range, from shock to rage. The music often rises in crescendo with the increasing panicked anger of the lyrics. Matt's pained tenor is the perfect match to this musical journey, deftly expressing the range from meek plea to snarling demand.

It seems that Fabled's music is a stew made by four cooks, who each tossed in his favorite musical ingredients. The band (particularly Dan) had a hard time identifying their influences, since there are few bands they share an avid zeal for, aside from Counting Crows.

"My influences would be more of a classic rock, 60s and 70s stuff that my mom shoved down my throat. And thank God she did," Dan said. "But then I'm also a die-hard reggae fan. And jazz. And John Bonham [of Led Zeppelin] is my guy."

At small moments throughout their repertoire Dan's eclectic tastes can be detected, particularly his love of Bonham evinced by the heavy snare in songs like "Eleven."

"I'm more of a modern rock guy," said Aaron, who played trombone for many years before taking on bass. "I have a hip-hop influence, too. I'm a member of diSiac [a campus dance company], and I'm always listening for new music for my choreography." Aaron's hip-hop influences creep up in his twangy thrumming from time to time.

"I'm also really into Brazilian music," Dan added. "That's my thing now."

"Individual songs are our influence, more than any particular band is," said Tim, explaining that Fabled covers a wide variety of songs from Rage Against the Machine to The Jackson 5 to Phish.

"Oh Phish! That's what I forgot," Dan said. "I love the whole jam band thing."

Tim explains that his own musical sensibilities are peculiar. Although he was schooled in musical theory and has played flute for 12 years, he has taught himself all he knows about guitar. In fact, he often plays his guitar like a flute, skipping from note to note with a winsome randomness that lulls a listener into a reverie, like at the beginning of "Opposite of Reason."

All the band members find that listening to music is a necessity, but performing is even more fulfilling because of the challenge and the feeling of connecting with an audience.

"If you're performing, you're playing for someone else," Matt said. "I look at the concert in general as a sharing. A mutual exchange. I think by losing yourselves in the audience, and they losing themselves in you, you almost form a relationship with them."

They describe a variety of thoughts they experience onstage.

"When I'm up there, I'm really just listening to Matt, Tim, and Dan play," Aaron said. "I'm sitting there, trying to keep the foundation going, letting them be free to breathe. I'm actually in awe a lot of times. The sounds and the harmonies that they create are really beautiful."

"I can listen to our music," Tim said. "And that's something I'm proud of."

The students

These ambitious musicians are also dedicated students and campus leaders. Tim just retired from his position as president of Tower Club. Aaron has football and the dance team. Matt is very active in arranging events within the English department, is the incoming president o f Tower Club, and a member of the Glee Club and the Katzenjammers. Their ambition is applied to all their endeavors, musical and otherwise.

"We're all Princeton kids, which is great, because it means we all have the motivation to succeed," Dan said. "We all have that drive."

Aaron, Matt, and Dan have returned to campus to continue their Princeton education this fall. Tim is putting his chemical engineering degree to work at Merck Inc., and coming down to rehearse with the band as often as possible.

Though Aaron and Tim are rarely encouraged to bring their instruments to lab, they both say that engineering is an instrument in the music of their souls.

"I've always loved making things and seeing how things work," said Aaron, whose sister Audrey Ellerbee '01 majored in EE. "I used to take things apart all the time. I remember taking apart my Walkman® to see how it worked. I like engineering because I like the feeling that there is a real purpose, a real, tangible need to fulfill."

"Engineering is something that I can always feel productive at," Tim said." It's tough sometimes, but it's not like philosophy or religion, where there is always another question to every answer. I can always get someplace. That gives me a sense of security."

To hear some Fabled tracks and learn more, go to

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