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It’s been two years since Cai Caudill wandered into Canterbury High School cradling a homemade ukulele and changed not only his life but the life of a fellow freshman he had yet to meet. Caudill had built the instrument with his father as a sort of science project, but he had no idea how to play it. By chance, he bumped into Rob Greene in the hall during finals week at Canterbury. Greene, who had been taking guitar lessons for several years, was impressed by the contraption, a kind of Hawaiian Frankenstein’s monster assembled using a cigar box and discarded guitar parts.
“We didn’t really know each other at the time, and he was like ‘that’s cool, man,’” Caudill said. “He started strumming on it and playing actual music. And I was thinking ‘that’s kind of neat.’”
So Caudill and Greene began hanging out together. Greene taught Caudill some things on the ukulele, and Caudill started singing. They made some recordings of cover songs, dove into writing their own and decided to form a band. They called it Secret Mezzanine.
“We started off as a ukulele duo,” Greene said. “Then we started adding other instruments. I switched to guitar and we just grew from there.”
Now, two years on, Secret Mezzanine play regularly at bars, restaurants and festivals in and around Fort Wayne. They also have an EP called Passing Dreams. For some gigs they bring on drummer Jacob Sherfield and bassist Ben Tarr. Sherfield works as a sales engineer at Sweetwater and has a degree in music technology from the University of St. Francis. Tarr plays bass with Soft N’ Heavy and guitar with B45s.
Secret Mezzanine (the name refers to a sign in the Canterbury High library pointing to a mysterious upstairs mezzanine) have a breezy sound that propels their songs regardless of the lyrical content, content that ranges from typical pop-song girlfriend stuff to subjects of a more philosophical bent.
With Caudill handling the lead vocals and Greene providing the bulk of the guitar work, the music is at once familiar and fresh. It’s a sound that appealed to judges at the University of St. Francis Battle of the Bands in late 2014. Secret Mezzanine won the battle, and the studio time that was the top prize.
For the battle, Greene and Caudill played two originals, “Electron” and “First Derivative Rule” along with a cover of The Strokes’ “Someday.” The two originals ended up on Passing Dreams, which they began recording at USF’s recording studio. But time in a professional studio proved to be inadequate to satisfy their desire to learn how the process of recording works, so they took over a spare bedroom in Greene’s parents’ house, set up a studio and hid themselves away.
“It allowed for more experimentation at my house because we didn’t have a time limit,” Greene said. “We weren’t taking up anyone else’s time. We spent off and on about two months on just one of the songs.”
“The cool thing was trying to figure it out ourselves,” Caudill said. “Like how music works or how it sounds to us. It really helped us playing live as well.”
They began to use the studio itself as another instrument, Greene said, helping them to decide everything from the length of a song to the final arrangements based on their ability to manipulate the equipment.
Greene said he puts a lot of effort into not sounding like other bands, even groups he cites as influences.
“If I’m writing something and I think it sounds too much like something else, I’ll try to change it or make it a little less derivative,” he said. “I want it to be something original. To a seasoned musician, it may seem simple and childish. It doesn’t really seem that way to us. It takes a lot to figure out the parts; we don’t always know where one chord should go to the next, what the natural progression is. Sometimes that helps us come up with interesting combinations we haven’t really heard before. ”
That Secret Mezzanine happened at all is a bit of a surprise to Caudill and Greene. Neither of them read music. Greene said he found taking guitar lessons tedious. Caudill didn’t even like music.
“The weird thing is [that] my mom is a music teacher at Deer Ridge Elementary,” Caudill said. “We’ve always had a bunch of instruments in our house. And my dad builds instruments as a hobby. I never really liked music. She would try to teach me piano or how to read I would like just really zone out and not pay attention. Because I guess if you grow up with something so much it becomes a burden.”
“That was the same with me and guitar lessons,” Greene said.
But that’s all over now. The burden has been lifted. Both Caudill and Greene play multiple instruments and contribute to the songwriting. They appeared on Julia Meek’s NIPR show Meet The Music a total of four times. They’ve played Rock the Plaza, at Deer Park Pub, Trubble Brewing and CS3, to name a few. And this summer they’re scheduled for Riverpalooza, Buskerfest, Living Fort Wayne Concert Series and at farmer’s markets in Fort Wayne and Bloomington, and various other events around town.
In addition to their own songs, their shows will often include covers of Dr. Dog, Paul Simon, Hippo Campus and others. Playing live affords the duo more time to try out new things and see the reaction. Or not.
“We mess around a lot more at restaurant gigs,” Greene said. “People aren’t necessarily listening. That makes it fun.”
If people aren’t listening, they should be. Secret Mezzanine have come a long way in a short period of time. And despite the looming demands of their senior year in high school and the inevitable “what’s next?” questions posed by parents, teachers and nosy reporters, Caudill and Greene are zeroed in on the coming weeks and months.
“We just want to play this summer as much as possible,” Green . “I have no idea what it would be like to tour. I mean I play a gig and get to go back to my parents’ house and sleep in a nice bed.”
“Maybe go to college,” Caudill said. “That’s kind of something we have sort of talked about it but we kind of avoid it until we have to. Check back with us in a year.”