The Four Freshmen started out as a barbershop quartet, harmonizing, touring and recording since 1948. For 70 years, The Four Freshmen has seen 22 members work in the group since its original lineup. Stein Malvey is one of the members of its latest incarnation.
Stein sings second tenor and plays guitar in this enduring quartet. He describes himself as a “ bit of a musical chameleon” and his broad musical interests see him involved in other projects outside of jazz.
We speak to Stein and talk about his influences, his time in The Four Freshmen, and his gear.
Tell us how you got into music. What was one of the key moments that made you want to be a musician?
When I was a little kid, I loved the Beach Boys. My dad took me to see them when I was about four or five. I didn’t know exactly where California was, but I knew it wasn’t close to Minnesota. I realized they were travelling around, playing this music I loved, and that was it. I pretty much decided that day I was going to be a musician.
Who were some of your early musical influences?
I was 12 when I jumped ship from piano to guitar. I was really into the early Aerosmith records, and those riffs were fairly accessible and super fun. Soon after, I found a cassette of Led Zeppelin IV. I took it home, and the tape inside was actually Houses of The Holy. The first Zep song I ever heard was Song Remains The Same, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. That’s still my favorite Zep record. I’ve always loved a lot of different music, whether it was pop, heavier rock stuff, Motown, classic punk bands, etc. In high school, I heard John Coltrane’s recording of My Favorite Things, and that sort of changed everything for me. I went down the rabbit hole with jazz after that, even though I still listened to all kinds of other music.
You’ve got a Bachelor of Music degree in guitar performance from Lawrence University Conservatory of Music. What led you to pursue this degree?
Going to college was important to me, and music is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, so it was kind of a no-brainer. I was really lucky to study jazz composition and arranging under Ken Schaphorst and guitar with Michael Nicolella.
If there’s one invaluable lesson you learned from your time in university, what would that be?
Show up on time and prepared.
How did you end up as a member of The Four Freshmen?
I met The Four Freshmen’s former lead singer, Brian Eichenberger, about ten years ago when we were both living in Minneapolis. He had completed a solo record of songs in the vein of Steely Dan, Sting, and Stevie Wonder, and was putting together a band to play the songs live. A mutual friend recommended me, and we started playing together. The project was short-lived, but we remained in touch. Then in 2013, he asked me if I’d be interested in joining the Freshmen. Two weeks later, the four of us met in LA for tacos, and they offered me the job. They gave me about eight charts to learn and set a rehearsal date. In hindsight, the rehearsal was a very soft audition that was really about getting to know each other and preparing for shows.
The Four Freshmen go all the way back to 1948. How has the band today evolved and how does the current line-up continue the band’s legacy?
The crazy thing about this band is that it has been going non-stop for 70 years. It was never on moth balls, sold to someone else, etc. A person might leave the band, but someone else would come in, and it just kept rolling along as usual. We definitely honor the legacy of the group, and rotate in different songs from the group’s 70+ recordings. But we also incorporate new arrangements by different members of the current band. There are a lot of songs from the Great American Songbook, but also more contemporary songs, and originals, too.
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Aside from jazz music, what other genres do you enjoy playing? Tell us a bit about your gigs outside the Four Freshmen.
There’s so much great music out there, across the musical spectrum, I’m trying to take part in as much as I can. Living in LA is great that way, because there’s opportunity to collaborate with all kinds of different musicians. I’m in a rock band called Teen Judge, which is so much fun. I laugh so much with those guys, it’s like an ab workout. I like to call experimental, all-improvised stuff “adventure music,” and that brings me a lot of joy. I really love playing with singer-songwriters, too. Creating interesting guitar parts that support the song, singing harmonies, it’s kind of the perfect melting pot of my experiences.
If you could collaborate with any artist, past or present, who would that be and why?
I think Aimee Mann is among the very best songwriters anywhere, and probably my personal favorite at the moment. That would be pretty incredible. It would have been crazy to play with Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman, too.
Tell us a bit about your gear. What’s in the bag?
Well, there’s the Four Freshmen side, and then the “everything else” side. With the Freshmen, I play a Gibson ES-339 straight into a rented amp, usually a Fender Deluxe Reverb. Simple, and also, nowhere to hide! LOL.
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Outside of the Four Freshmen, I’m somewhat traditional in terms of guitars, and have a number of different Fenders and Gibsons. More and more, I feel like the Telecaster is the single greatest guitar ever made, because you can play anything on it. Moollon sent me a Classic T, and that’s been blowing my mind. I’m surprised more people don’t know about those. My buddy Chris at Belltower Guitars is almost finished with a “T-style” guitar built to my specs, and I’m really excited about that. A continuing adventure has been experimenting with different pedals to create subtle and not-so-subtle textures.
Amp-wise, I have a couple of vintage Fender amps, a Super Reverb, and a Vibro Champ. Lately, I rely on a Morgan AC40, which is just incredible. I also use a Divided by 13 LDW for the more Marshall-y stuff, and that’s another really great amp.
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What MONO gear do you use at home, in the studio or on tour?
I have both the dual and single M80 Electric Cases, a Vertigo Semi-Hollow Guitar Case, and the Tick. I have flown with all of them, and even had to gate check the Dual Case a few times, and not had a problem.
What is it that you like about your MONO pieces?
They’re so well designed! The way the guitar is supported, with the endpin padding, the neck cradle, etc., the bags have more in common with a hard case than an ordinary gig bag. I love how many storage spots there are, it makes it easy to keep track of the little stuff like capos and tools. For me, a gig bag with just one or two massive pockets makes it really easy to lose stuff, if that makes sense. Also, the pouch on the back, where you can tuck in the shoulder straps, is the perfect spot for setlists and sheet music!
So, what’s next for you?
The Four Freshmen are going to Japan and China in December, and I’m really excited about that! We’re playing four nights at the Cotton Club in Tokyo, and then two nights at The Blue Note in Beijing. Japan is an amazing place to play music, and it’s a thrill to be heading back. At this point, the Freshmen have kind of played everywhere except China, so that’s an exciting first for both me and the band.
Teen Judge is starting work on our second album, and we’re hoping our schedules will align for some touring next year. I’ve been co-writing songs with some different artists; one song, “A Part of Me,” was just released by Justin Levinson. I’m in the process of making some substantial upgrades to my recording setup. There are a handful of original songs I’m working up with some really great players and friends, and hope to release in the early part of next year.