As children growing up in different towns at different times, Kevin Makinson, Mike Zittle and Todd Palmer all gravitated toward one particular favorite hobby – music. In the age before Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the only way to channel your favorite rock star was to pick up an instrument and start playing.
For years they balanced their love of music with their studies, work and family, playing in various bands and practicing on their own. But it wasn’t until January 2009 that the three men, all affiliated with Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, found an opportunity to combine their musical talents by playing covers of their favorite rock songs.
Their department had a beach-themed winter party, and they decided to form a band to perform beach cover songs. At first it was just a good opportunity to jam together, but since then they’ve performed together four times, and have formed the band “Bremsstrahlung,” which is a radiation reference, and sort of an in-joke with the band.
“We also considered ‘The Spent Fuel Rods,”” Makinson joked, but they decided on something a little more obscure.
The band covers groups ranging from Collective Soul to the Beatles, Cheap Trick to Jimmy Buffett.
Rock and roll isn’t exactly something people associate with nuclear engineering, which is part of the appeal, the band admits.
“Let’s face it, we’re supposed to be nerds,” Zittle laughed.
Because their department colleagues turn out for most of their performances, the band says they benefit from a built in audience that helps them pack venues like Bombs Away Café without being a well-established band.
The men all play in other bands as well, and have such busy schedules that getting ready for their occasional gigs isn’t easy.
“Were a typical band. We don’t practice much and we don’t have many gigs, but we’ve got a ton of gear,” Zittle said.
Playing covers of classic and modern rock makes it a little easier, although for Makinson, the youngest group member, he sometimes finds the occasional rehearsals a lesson in music history of the last few decades. They try to pick “timeless” songs that a diverse crowd will enjoy, and often find 20-year-old grad students singing along with 40-something faculty members at the shows.
They also choose songs that they can sing, and Zittle and Makinson split the vocal duties, as Palmer doesn’t sing.
“We pick a song because we like it,” Makinson said, “but more importantly we pick songs based on our ability to sing them.”
Their next gig is their second-annual performance at the departmental winter party, and after that, when time allows and audiences begin demanding that Bremsstrahlung makes another appearance. Until then, they just need to find time to practice.
About the band:
Kevin Makinson, a Ph.D candidate in radiation health physics, took piano lessons as a child, and by 14 was playing bass. At 18 he started playing guitar, and in college became involved in everything from jazz to rock and roll party bands. A native of Richland Wash., Makinson also grew up in the shadow of Hanford, where his father worked as a nuclear engineer. Radiation Health Physics seemed a natural fit, and so did Oregon State. Being a member of Bremsstrahlung has helped him improve his singing voice.
“I know I’m a lot better than I was six months ago,” he said.
Mike Zittle, nicknamed “Zeppy,” began his classical musical training by studying piano at age 5 and later drums at age 7. He participated in the marching, concert and jazz bands as well as the percussion ensemble, orchestra and choir from elementary through high school, but his real dream was to become a rock star, so at 17, he moved to Hollywood to pursue life in the limelight. While he attained some success as a professional drummer, his marriage and growing family made him realize Los Angeles was not the place to settle.
“I moved to LA to be a rockstar, and I made enough money playing in a cover band to drum my way out of LA,” he said. He ended up in Corvallis, where he is the assistant radiation safety officer at OSU. He also teaches drum lessons, and can be reached at email@example.com
Todd Palmer did his undergraduate work in nuclear engineering at Oregon State, and returned in 1995 for a tenure track job. Now a full professor, he’s only recently started playing music in public. Like Makinson and Zittle, he grew up playing music, but it wasn’t until he was 40 that he started performing with a couple of musical cousins in Washington.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to start doing this before I’m too old and frail to get on stage,’” he said.
He enjoys educating his students about the important things in life, like the band “Rush.”
~ Theresa Hogue