Sophomores in Space: Meet the Faces behind Ufology

Courtesy of Catherine Borthwick

On Aug. 29, a horde of first-years (and fellow upperclassmen) gathered on Noyes Circle for a serenade, one of Vassar’s oldest traditions. The stars loomed in the night sky above, and on that lawn, the strangers that had surrounded me for the past few nights finally started to feel like friends. 

Three students, exuding that cool confidence that only rockstars possess, walked on the stage in front of us: two blondes with guitars and a brunette with a drum set. The beginning notes of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” rang out, and the audience began to sway back and forth. College is typically the time where many of life’s core memories are formed, and this was undoubtedly my first. 

I told this story to the students behind Ufology, the band that captured my attention the night of the serenading. “That’s what we are about!” gushed Catherine Borthwick ’24, the bass player. “Some bands here are really fun, some are really serious, but we just want people to have a good time.” 

With a laid-back demeanor and easygoing style, I’d be convinced that Borthwick hailed from the West Coast––she’s from New York City. Borthwick is a current environmental studies major with a correlate in Studio Art. She is also a student fellow in Davison House.

She met her fellow bandmates, Sam Lytel ’24 and James Mannix ’24, last spring in their First-Year Writing Seminar. The class focused on interpreting divine occurrences and the trio was fascinated by the various otherworldly  experiences mentioned, the most prominent ones involving UFOs. The students had all heard about each other from mutual friends –– so one day Catherine emailed Mannix asking him to “jam,” and before long, Sam joined the group too. 

From playing their instruments in the Davison basement to writing research papers in the library together, the three students soon began to click as both musicians and friends.

James Mannix ’24, a Redding, Pennsylvania resident, is the small-town boy of the group. “Honestly, the only thing significant about Redding is that there’s a spot on the Monopoly board named after it,” he joked. He is a cognitive science major and a student fellow in Noyes. Mannix is the drummer and classically trained In terms of songwriting, however, he calls himself the baby of the band, and hopes to learn enough guitar and vocals to compose his own music in the future. 

Sam Lytel ’24 plays the guitar and appears to be the lead vocalist of the group. He grew up in Cooperstown, New York and is a potential math major. Lytel began to make his own music in high school, soon after he learned to play the guitar and sing. 

Lytel was the songwriter behind “Precious Time,” creating a demo in his voice memos before sharing with the band. As with most of their original music, Lytel will make a drum beat using digital production systems and then Mannix will then either recreate it note for note or adjust it for his live drum set. Borthwick also wrote music during high school as part of a student-led theater production, but hopes to compose songs with the band. “It will be interesting to start with a seed of an idea and then work on it together,” said Borthwick.

Ufology had their debut during the 2020 First-Year Experience Concert. The night was a memorable one for the band. Not only was it their first live performance, but five minutes before they were scheduled to play, the sky opened up and a storm poured down around them. The band grabbed cables and amps, setting up their equipment under a tent to finish their set. They had spent the past four days frantically pulling it together, so they intended to see this gig through, rain or shine.

Rather than evacuating, the crowd of students huddled in a mass under the outdoor tent, determined to hear the band play. “Everyone was underneath the tent because it was literally pouring out—on any side, if they stepped out, they would get drenched,” said Mannix. “We knew we were going to get shut down, but we were like, ‘go, go, go!’” he added. They played “Precious Time,” an original, “Karma Police” by Radiohead and started Cage the Elephant’s “Cigarette Daydreams.” 

Recounting their first performance, the three friends bounced off each other: there was laughter, excited interruptions and Mannix’s ardent gestures demonstrating the intensity of the rain. On stage they are smooth and suave, swaying and crooning and hypnotizing the audience—an intimidating presence. Here on the lawn of Joss Beach, they were goofy, chaotic and animated young people.  

Borthwick appeared to be  the pseudo-manager of the group. While the communal-bandmate chemistry is electric and fun, it is Borthwick’s jovial assertiveness that took them from practicing in the bike shop in the Strong parking lot to performing on a stage on Noyes Circle. Sam claimed that when Catherine manages something, it is more accurate. Catherine claims that she took on this role to make up for a lack of musical skills. The boys immediately—and passionately—disagreed with that statement.

In addition to the bike shop, the band also practices in Skinner and Blodgett. “If there is a place to practice, we will be there,” said Mannix. 

As for what is next for Ufology, they have one destination in mind: outer space. In all seriousness, the trio is unsure of what their future holds. They are each complex individuals with diverse interests. Lytel and Mannix are both varsity athletes, and hope to pursue careers outside of music. However, if they become a famous band, they have every intention of continuing to play once they graduate. With a style, energy and chemistry like theirs, I have no doubt that they will. 

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