December 12, 2013
By Mike Killeen
Ask Casey Wojtalewicz what he was known best for while attending college, and you get a pretty straight answer.
"I imagine I was mostly known at Saint Ben's and Saint John's for my political and environmental activism," Wojtalewicz said. "But I was always playing music. To me, (music) was just something 'on the side.'
"To myself, and likely to other people on campus, music always seemed just a hobby. I didn't think it realistic to pursue it as a career. That was just a dream," he said.
But the dream has become a reality. Wojtalewicz, a 2011 graduate of SJU, has traded his activism for a set of drumsticks for the group Cayucas.
The group has released a CD, "Bigfoot." The CD was named one of the top 50 albums of 2013 by Paste Magazine, and songs from the CD can be heard on commercials from Bose and Verizon.
How Wojtalewicz went from point A to point B is an interesting story.
Armed with a degree in peace studies, Wojtalewicz left SJU to work as an apprentice in the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which initially started to keep new coal power plants from being built and has transitioned to shutting down plants and moving energy infrastructure to more sustainable sources, such as solar and wind power. He started his gig with the Sierra Club in July 2011 in Los Angeles.
"My superiors in Los Angeles started talking about keeping me on after my apprenticeship - which was slated to be six months long - in late August 2011," Wojtalewicz said. "I hadn't considered staying in L.A. after the apprenticeship, but the city had really grown on me and I was more open to it at this point.
"As I considered staying in L.A. longer, I opened up to the idea of pursuing music and even acting (he received a theater scholarship to CSB and SJU, and acted in plays here along with performing in the improv troupe, Attention Starved Children). I asked my manager, Byron Gudiel, if he thought it foolish of me to turn down a job offer to pursue my passion for the arts.
"He told me these dreams don't fade with age, and if going after music is something I'd like to try that then was the time," Wojtalewicz said. "I give so much credit to Byron and am very grateful to him for seeing and respecting my aspirations as a person, not just looking at me as a good organizer to hire at all costs. He gave me the courage to make the leap."
Wojtalewicz, who received his first drum set at the age of 12, taught himself to play ("I credit the Presidents of the United States of America and their single 'Peaches' with getting me started," Wojtalewicz said). At SJU, he played in the bands Sleuth! and the Van Gogh Brothers. When Wojtalewicz left the Sierra Club in Los Angeles, he was playing drums with a band called Dylan Trees when he was spotted by Zach Yudin.
"After a few months, we (Dylan Trees) started to gain traction in the local music scene - which is pretty saturated, as you can imagine," Wojtalewicz said. "Zach ended up coming out to watch us play at one of our shows in Santa Monica. He was looking to move Cayucas into a live performing group at the time, as it had been his solo project.
"He (Yudin) dug my playing style and asked me to join Cayucas. I was impressed that he was already signed to indie label Secretly Canadian, but always the organizer, I didn't budge until I heard more about his plans and his timeline for Cayucas - 'Where do you see the band being in six months?' - before I decided to join.
"They had tried out a few drummers, and I think they weren't the right fit. I think my style, which has been described as loose and laid back, worked better with the music," Wojtalewicz said.
Since he joined the Cayucas, the band has shrunk to brothers Zach and Ben Yudin, Wojtalewicz and Russell Henson, who joins the band on guitar for tours and shows.
Wojtalewicz describes the Cayucas' sound as "vintage beach pop. It's the Beach Boys meet Vampire Weekend with Beck-sounding vocals."
The Cayucas begin a tour Feb. 4 in California, which runs until the end of the month, when it reaches the East Coast.
"I've enjoyed trading the 9-5 for my current work schedule," Wojtalewicz said. "It's been an incredibly liberating and fulfilling tradeoff, honestly. It was a risk leaving the comfort and security of a consistent salary, and I've had my time on the grind. But the experience continues to teach me a lot about myself. The real tradeoff, to me, was money and stability for the opportunity to pursue a dream. I'd rather sacrifice money for a dream than a dream for money.
"It feels rewarding to pursue my dream. I'm not rolling in dough at the moment, but I'm doing what I love. I feel exactly where I'm supposed to be."
Wojtalewicz looked back on his days at SJU fondly. He recalled a time when he interviewed then-SJU President Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, for The Record, the student newspaper. Reinhart died Dec. 29, 2008.
"I asked him questions for about 30 minutes, and after I thanked him for his time - he was on his way to the Mayo Clinic - wished him well and moved to hang up the phone, he turned it around and started interviewing me," Wojtalewicz said. "He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I rambled on about law school, LSATs, plans, planning, plans. He basically told me to not stress so much over forming the perfect plan, as there are infinite number of ways things can unfold. Instead, he told me, try to be present every day, and enjoy them to the fullest. Opportunities will present themselves to you. He was right.
"The liberal arts education helped make my leap of faith possible. Even the idea of such a leap was born at school. I left CSB and SJU feeling well-rounded and grounded enough to land anywhere, start anything and make ends meet."