On Dec. 10, 2021, over 50 people flooded a basement two blocks south of campus. Even with people crammed inches away from vocalists Ollie Grcich and Lucas Hallal, people were listening through open windows from the yard outside.
Rain poured down. A tornado warning sounded. Everyone was drenched in sweat, and the sound system was so low-budget, Hallal was manually hitting switches throughout the show.
That was Street Pennies’ debut.
The blues funk rock band started as a cover band, debuting in a humid basement. Now, over 30 performances later, on the first day of September, Street Pennies performed for the last time on The Bluebird’s stage. In that time, they have released an EP, honed their skills and gained memorable friendships.
The Start of Street Pennies
Before their final performance, the band hung out at bassist Jack Wanninger’s home. The band members occupied wooden, lawn and folding chairs in his backyard. They discussed the many changes they underwent in the past two years: ego highs, confidence lows.
Former trumpeter Abe Plaut is unsure if a band like Street Pennies would’ve survived outside of Bloomington without the local house show scene, which the band was born in.
“It was a particular combination of conditions, and I honestly don't know if that exists elsewhere,” Plaut said. "It also took Bloomington Delta Music Club to make Street Pennies happen, and I don't know if there's a BDMC in many other places.”
The band met gigging with Bloomington Delta Music Club, an IU club that organizes musicians to perform gigs around town. Most of the members of Street Pennies originated from the blues rock channel of the club. After being thrown together for a performance, the band decided they couldn’t stop playing together.
“I had been itching to put together a band, and I love the blues,” Grcich said. “We were standing off to the side while other people were performing and I was like, ‘Dude, I think we really should do something.’”
The band only expected to perform a few house shows. However, before they could return from winter break, they were surprised to find they were headlining at infamous bar and music venue, The Bluebird.
Royally unprepared, the band rehearsed for eight hours the day before the show.
On Jan. 16, 2022, they performed for the first time at The Bluebird.
Street Pennies: Live at The Bluebird
The band has always been a blues band. They performed older, classic songs, but also pleased crowds with modern and mainstream hits. Audiences erupted when the band performed songs like “Kilby Girl” by The Backseat Lovers, “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon and “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani.
Grcich was persistent to highlight women artists, so they performed songs by Florence and The Machine, Aretha Franklin and LaBelle. Rock songs were a necessity: they performed “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles and “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand, but Hallal also regularly enjoyed serenading the crowd with songs like “Sleepy Time Time” by Cream.
Most of the time, the vocalists dominated the stage, but bassist Jack Wanninger and saxophonist Nate Cook performed captivating solos, Cook not hesitating to take his solo to the edge of the stage and play to the crowd.
During softer songs, Hallal, guitarist Johnathan Hasey and Wanninger often rested on the floor as Grcich sang.
For a few songs, keyboardist Mike Carter would abandon his keyboard to take over the drum set while drummer Mason Bose picked up his guitar. Hasey committed to multiple riffs as the main guitarist since Bose switched to drums.
Rockstar dreams and the weight of the world: the side effects of being in the band
“Our success came from timing,” Grcich said. “It was right out of COVID.”
Grcich said the band would not have been as successful as they were without some of the original members that have since left the band and pursued their careers in other locations. Arthur Guirlet played the drums, Abe Plaut played the trumpet and Ryan Cook played the saxophone.
“We were able to do so much with so little time, and they were such an integral part of it,” she said.
Guirlet, the inaugural drummer of Street Pennies, was visiting Bloomington as an international student from Paris, double majoring in mechanics and musicology. He said being in the band taught him so much about himself and his friends.
“I definitely learned way more than in five years of being in high school or doing a bachelor's degree,” Guirlet said.
Guirlet described the process of performing as an emotional rollercoaster. There was so much excitement before the show and so many people praising their performance after that he felt like an imposter, as if he wasn’t as good of a performer as they perceived him to be.
“I would go back to my apartment alone in my room,” he said. “All of a sudden, I was all by myself and I would feel alone.”
Being a member of the band had a higher social expectation than trumpeter Plaut had expected, but he found it much less stressful than the ensembles he was involved with at the Jacobs School of Music.
There, Plaut said the music was tightly arranged and everyone showed up to perform what they had already perfected, but rehearsals with Street Pennies were less strict. The band rehearsed in their homes and were able to be more casual with their performances, often letting solos take over songs.
Grcich said she had gained confidence while being in the band but also became hyper self-aware and struggled with her public appearance, especially with people recognizing and approaching her. She’d be noticed at the grocery store and in classes, and she said she felt like she was expected to dress as she does on stage. She said she felt praised for her body instead of for her vocal skills.
Grcich said being a woman in the music scene felt like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. The men in the group felt differently. Vocalist and guitarist Lucas Hallal said being in Street Pennies felt like he was on top of the world. He said he liked being recognized.
However, Street Pennies was more popular than any one of its members.
“It just means that our brand as a band is powerful enough where it’s bigger than just the people we are,” Wanninger said.
Wanninger joined BDMC with a bass guitar and not many connections to people on campus. Now, most of his friends are creative people in the music scene. He said he wasn’t expecting any creative musical experiences in college but has since gained confidence throughout the past two years in the band.
While recording, Wanninger said the band would have moments of doubt. Jason Davis, their producer at Fort Wayne recording studio Off The Cuff reminded them how unique they are as musicians.
“The thing is: you're still a wizard,” Wanninger said, quoting the producer. “Ninety-nine percent of people can’t do what you’ve done or will never try.”
In the beginning, Wanninger was bogged down with anxiety about equipment and dropped a lot of money on unnecessary additions. He said he had to realize sticking with the equipment he was comfortable with was more important. Carter said he started with no confidence and a heavy case of imposter syndrome. Hasey had been playing for years but had never performed with the same group consistently.
The band got to know each other off the stage as close friends and formed bonds outside of their passion for music, which was new for Hasey.
“To be able to get to know the musicians around me made a difference because you can learn their styles and how to play better with them specifically,” Hasey said.
Cook joined the band after his brother and former Street Pennies saxophonist, Ryan, had graduated and moved away. He performed his first Street Pennies show before he moved into his freshman dorm.
Playing with the band was daunting at first, Cook said, but he’s now comfortable and his confidence has risen. He had been playing jazz music in high school up until this point, which he called formal and uptight.
“Now I’m a lot more go with the flow,” Cook said. “I feel like this band has taught me to not be super uptight musically and personally. It's okay to let loose a little. If things don't go exactly as planned, that's ok.”
Bose, the drummer, started as a guitarist. After Guirlet traveled back to Paris, the band searched for drummers and had temporary replacements, but Bose stepped up to the position.
Being in the band helped Bose with his social anxiety and public speaking, he said.
“(I) saw a lot of shows at The Bluebird but didn’t think I'd ever be playing there, but here we are,” Bose said. “So that was really cool, I got to live out some childhood rockstar dreams.”
“Street Pennies”: The EP
It didn’t take long for the band members to want to write original music. Their self-titled EP was released Sep. 8. Grcich and Hallal wrote most of the lyrics and the band collaborated on the rest.
“We wanted to make sure all the bases were covered musically,” Grcich said. “We never want to be locked into one box.”
The EP is rooted in blues and funk but has influences of indie rock and alternative. The EP was recorded within two weeks at Off The Cuff.
It was Wanninger who said it should be named “Street Pennies.”
“I thought our songs were a good musical expression of ourselves, our thoughts, where we were at that point in time as a band,” Wanninger said. “This is our product, this is who we are, this is what we’ve made.”
The EP is grounded in heartbreak and discusses the different ways that love affects people and their lives. Everyone in the band was going through their own relationship changes and channeled their heartbreak into their final project together.
“I've never seen a time where heartbreak doesn't produce something fire in terms of music,” Carter said.
The EP starts out with a gritty rock song: “The One.” With deep bass from Wanninger and a guttural tone from Grcich, the song screams “You can try, but in my eyes, you’ll never be the one.”
“Last Night” is a peaceful plea to a past relationship. Gut-wrenching lyrics question what to do, what to think and what to say to a past love.
Another song on the EP, “Birds,” is about how to manage life after heartbreak. The sentimental song stands out from the rest as a soft indie track.
“When I listened to the music, I was like, ‘That’s definitely the Street Pennies vibe,’” Guirlet said.
Retired Pennies: Where are they now?
Since members have graduated and moved out of Bloomington, the band had no choice but to break up. The remaining Pennies: Hasey, Cook, Wanninger, Hallal and Carter, have broken off into their own band: Prices.
Grcich graduated this year with a degree in merchandising and a marketing minor. Now, she’s moving to Chicago to pursue a career in marketing and is dating Bose, who graduated in 2022. She’s performing acoustic shows and writing music but hopes to form a band soon. He’s working in tech in Chicago and playing bass, guitar and drums in an original indie band.
Bose said he made sure all of his new co-workers knew about Street Pennies.
“Getting off the stage for too long gets me antsy,” Hasey said. “I want to have that opportunity again, so I hope to be able to continue and play music, not only just with these people, but with this community.”
Plaut moved to Washington D.C., where he works for a nonprofit organization. He's been playing trumpet in scattered gigs around the city, especially with other Jewish artists. He said he misses the band members more than anything.
Ryan Cook is living in Indianapolis and studying at IU’s School of Dentistry.
Back home in Paris, Guirlet is performing in his brother’s band and studying for his master's degree in music management and administration and aims to work in management at a label someday.
“I definitely learned a lot about my friends in Street Pennies, about myself, about how I can handle different kinds of situations,” he said. “One of the main takeaways from my year abroad is how I learned to start something new.”
Since 2019, Carter has been writing and releasing music as a solo artist, Just Mike, and is looking to start a second band with another group of friends.
Carter said performing with Street Pennies gave him the confidence that he would be okay without school and dropped out.
“It’s weird. At the end of this, I feel like I can do anything,” Carter said.