Professor Music Profile: Zoe Kontes

This past week I got a chance to sit down and talk music with Professor Zoe Kontes, Classicist and founding member/bassist of Kenyon’s now-defunct, all-professor cover band O! The Humanities. The task I laid out before her was not to simply choose five of her favorite albums, but five albums that have special sentimental value, five albums that represent a specific time in her life and that bring her back to that time with each listen.

Before she locked herself away in the hills of Ohio, Kontes led a very exciting life in the vibrant music scene in Durham, North Carolina while teaching at Duke University. Durham is the home of Merge Records and Kontes was lucky enough to live in the area during a pivotal time for the label. The rest, I will leave up to her.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.


Durham and Chapel Hill for years have been the center of indie rock. Particularly, there’s a club called the Cat’s Cradle where I spent an inordinate amount of time–it’s a music heavy place. People are into music. There are lots of bands that live there. There is a long history of great bands and I just happened to be there when things were really changing for Merge. They had just signed a band you may have heard of called the Arcade Fire.

Album #1: Funeral – Arcade Fire (Merge Records; 2004)

It was absolutely huge, mayhem. Nothing like this had ever happen to the Merge guys before. Suddenly this record is just going platinum, Canadian platinum! I think I remember that it was platinum in Canada.

I had just moved to Durham when they came to play for that album. They played in September at the Cat’s Cradle, which has about a 600-person capacity and you can see basically any band you wan–it’s indie rock heaven, it really is. In places like New York or LA you can’t just roll up to the club and see Arcade Fire, you need to buy tickets months in advance, but here you can. I did not go to this show, however. I had the flu and couldn’t go, but that record was just such a big deal. I don’t think that any other label had had this happen to them. [Their music] is ubiquitous now, but at the time this was incredible.

Album #2: Gimme Fiction – Spoon (Merge Records; 2005)

I had not listened to Spoon before. They had been around a while but only recently had they signed to Merge. I didn’t really know them. Gimme Fiction was amazing. They held their CD release party at Mac’s house [Mac McCaughan: front man of indie powerhouse Superchunk and co-founder of Merge Records] before the concert at the Cat’s Cradle. Some of the people, meaning some of the band, ended up coming to my house afterwards. The one thing that I remember, which is the funniest part of this whole story, is that the manager of Merge Records, my friend Spott, was coming through my front door and sees one of the band guys falling literally headfirst, down all of the stairs. I was then supposed to drive him back to the [tour] bus but I thought, “Nah, I’m not driving” so I gave him twenty bucks and called a cab. That’s how I treat rock stars. I did apologize the next time I saw him.

Album #3: The Sunset Tree – The Mountain Goats (4AD; 2006)

I’ll go with The Mountain Goats only because they are now on Merge, but they weren’t at the time. John Darnielle moved to Durham either the same year as me or the year after. I had listened to the Mountain Goats for years. We went to lunch at this place called The Federal that we used to love. We were talking about classics because he knew I was a professor and he majored in classics in college and he puts Latin on some of his albums. I knew what an amazing rock star he was, but I was trying to play it cool so I asked him if he was going to do anything more with classics and his response in his typical self-deprecating way was, “Well I’m kind of doing this music thing right now, but we’ll see.” We’re Facebook friends now and when I got tenure I posted that as my status and he liked it. That was the best thing about tenure.

Album #4: Ágætis byrjun – Sigur Ros (Fat Cat; 1999)

I had never listened to them before. I’m choosing them because, first of all this was the time I started listening to them, but I went to see them at the Carolina Theater. I had just returned from a terrific weekend with all of my Bowdoin friends. It was the most amazing musical experience of my life. Seriously. It was so beautiful and I don’t know if it was partially because of my state of mind, which was not enhanced by anything, I was just in a good place. It was absolutely beautiful. It’s beautiful on your computer, but when you listen to it live it’s enchanting. After the show, Spott introduced me to Derek (coincidentally the manager of the Cat’s Cradle), who then became one of my best friends. We use that date to commemorate the friendship: September 7th, 2005

Album #5: Night Ripper – Girl Talk (Illegal Art; 2006)

He was not anywhere near as big at the time. He was just a biochemical engineer who mashed songs together. One of my former students and I went to go check it out. She was my music protégé and my archaeology protégé. Anyway, we went to check him out. First, I dragged her to this horrible party, but we both knew we needed to get out. He was playing at the Local 506, a teeny tiny club run by this great guy named Glenn. I didn’t know anything about Girl Talk. It wasn’t like I could have looked it up on the Internet at the time. He comes out and there’s nothing on stage except his set up. He’s wearing a hoodie, big sweatpants, and big sneakers. This very intoxicated woman gets up on stage and starts dancing. We’re thinking, “How is this possible?” Then he starts taking off his clothes, which is what he does, this is his thing, but it’s happening now in this teeny tiny little club. It wasn’t long before another person got on stage, and then another person and another person. We thought “Oh. This is fun.” So of course, we then got on stage. By the end of it he’s wearing just boxers and maybe a sweatband. I was standing next to his computer and the heat was incredible. We danced for two straight hours. It was so much fun.

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