School before rock

School before rock
Dan Griffin Photo: Kaleigh Tait

Balance. Discipline. Leadership. Advocacy. Empathy. Focus. These are the values and skills Dan Griffin has been learning at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law. They also form a big part of his former life as a rock star in the making.

Thoughtful, pleasant, and soft-spoken, Griffin was a member of the award-winning indie band Arkells. He is also very lawyerly in the care he takes framing his answers to questions, like why he decided in October 2011 to step back from Arkells and pursue his legal studies just as the band seemed poised to break through to the big time. The Arkells announced Griffin was temporarily leaving the group but would rejoin them on stage when he could. He was replaced by Anthony Carone. The band had recently released its second album Michigan Left and was still humming from the success of a 2010 Juno Award for New Group following its 2008 debut Jackson Square, and would also win a second Juno in 2012 for Group of the Year.

The band had played some big gigs too, including headlining a Burlington, Ont., show before 12,000 people in June 2010 and being asked by Them Crooked Vultures to open the group’s Air Canada Centre show in Toronto a month earlier. Arkells would go on to perform for CBC TV’s George Stroumboulopoulos and Jian Ghomeshi in the fall of 2011 and, earlier this year, toured with The Tragically Hip — without Griffin.

Never mind school of rock. This is school before rock.

To Griffin, his decision came down to taking the skills he learned in one area and transferring them to another. With Arkells, it was the complexity of the business side of music — dealing with managers, agents, record labels, and studios — that made him recognize the value of a legal education. He had also worked summers in a law firm in mortgage remedies and debt and saw how those skills could apply to the music world. “I thought that pursuing something like a law degree in particular could really enhance that,” Griffin says. He adds he felt a lot of people in the industry could benefit from the legal skills of someone like him who had first-hand experience. “This is my hope — that I could combine those things and offer something unique.”

The decision wasn’t easy, but then life seldom is. Griffin says you have to take opportunities as they come and even though the timing wasn’t perfect, he knew he had to move on.

Arkells — named after a street in Hamilton, Ont. — formed as a group of McMaster University students who came from different parts of Ontario. Mississauga, Ont., native Griffin, the keyboardist, was indeed a key part of the band. The Hamilton Spectator’s Andrew Baulcomb, who accompanied the band on its American tour in 2010, called Griffin “the musical glue that holds everything together” and the group’s “Renaissance man” who could play several instruments, sing, and compose songs. Grant V. Ziegler, editor-in-chief of Texas’ North Lake College’s News-Register, panned Arkells’ Nov. 7, 2012 performance as music “suited for over-privileged white kids” but singled out Griffin as “the most animated of the group and received well-deserved and loud ovations for his enthusiastic playing.”

The performance part of music is something Griffin enjoys, both as a member of Arkells and solo artist since his 2011 release Leave Your Love. Again, he cites the transferability of skills from the concert to the legal arena. “I think whether it’s up on stage, or on my own, or even standing up and giving oral submissions for a moot for a case in school — I get the same sort of thrill,” he says. “I get the same joy. It’s a challenge in all of the worlds. But I think the elements are the same. I think it takes courage and it takes confidence but I think ultimately it’s one of the most satisfying things to put yourself out there and see what happens.”

Griffin has been having his share of success since releasing Leave Your Love, available on iTunes and through his web site A mellower, more introspective work, the album is tinged with folk writing influences from the likes of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. One song, Lorne Park, was used in an episode of the TV show Rookie Blue that aired last June. And the opening track Stars and Satellites was the music of a Canadian Tire Christmas commercial. “Especially since I’ve been in school, I’ve been open to licensing opportunities because I think it’s one of the few ways that I can remain active while I’m at school,” says Griffin.

Chris McDonald, an ethnomusicologist at Cape Breton University in Sydney, N.S., who specializes in popular music studies, says Griffin’s decision to continue with his studies falls into line with today’s indie music scene. “It’s almost like education becomes your day job . . . and working on the music is sort of your night job,” says McDonald, who wrote the 2009 book Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown. McDonald says the Westdale university district may explain Arkells’ emphasis on education. Griffin, who studied philosophy, calls McMaster a formative influence on Arkells. First, it taught the band members about balancing their studies and music, and the importance of discipline and organization. What they were learning also provided content for songs like The Ballad of Hugo Chavez on the album Jackson Square.

Now more than ever, McDonald adds, music is a lottery where “one in 10 million makes it. It’s very difficult to professionalize. You can professionalize in other areas but [in] music, it’s really, really hard to say I’ve got the training, I paid the dues, I’ve done this, and I’ve done that. You really don’t know who’s going to make it.”

In his decision to pursue a legal education, Griffin is following in the footsteps of his father Michael Griffin, a partner with his brother-in-law Jack Goodman in Goodman & Griffin, a real estate and mortgage firm in Mississauga. The pair met as law students in Windsor, Ont., and the elder Griffin married Goodman’s sister. Griffin says his father plays guitar and his mother sings so he was surrounded by music growing up. His father also taught him the valuable lesson that you don’t have to choose between music and law, and how to balance the two.

Bruce Elman, former dean at Windsor law, says Griffin’s family is well grounded in the law and in their connections with the school. The elder Griffin remains a generous donor to his alma mater. Goodman’s daughter also graduated from Windsor in 2008 and his son is in his third year.

Francine Herlehy, assistant dean of student services, says the younger Griffin impressed her with his work ethic and how he “takes nothing for granted. He remains humble, curious, and best of all, creative.”

Christopher Waters, who was associate dean when Griffin started law school, says despite his legal pedigree, “he never had a sense of entitlement about being at law school. He’s an unassuming, friendly guy who dived into the study of law and worked hard in his first year.” Waters says Griffin “never gave the impression that he would rather be doing music and was at law school because it was the ‘sensible’ thing to do.”

And yet sensible is exactly how Griffin pursues life and the opportunities that come his way with a maturity and wisdom that belies his 27 years. Although “letting go of a part of your life is never easy,” Griffin says his time with the band was valuable in itself. “I think there was this feeling even when we were building that no matter what, it was free ice time and it was something that we would be taking for the rest of our lives.”

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