Downtown Ann Arbor’s thriving music scene attracts crowds of University of Michigan students to bars and music venues each weekend to see live bands perform.
Some Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy students may be surprised to see a familiar face onstage as faculty member Kaj Althaus performs with his band, Toed.
“For me, it’s just a huge, cathartic, emotional release, especially if it’s been a long day or a long week, to be able to get together with the band,” said Althaus, a Michigan Data and Policy Fellow with the Ford School’s Youth Policy Lab.
Althaus dabbled with guitar in high school, but his sights at the time were set on athletics. He went on to run track as an undergraduate at U-M.
After receiving his master’s degree in public policy from Pennsylvania State University, Althaus returned to U-M and started singing and playing guitar at open mic nights.
“Post-COVID, I was trying to perform as much as possible, because you never know when something like that might happen and you might not be able to do it again,” he said.
It was at one of these open mic nights that Althaus saw the band Toed. After their performance, Althaus approached band members and asked if they’d be interested in playing together.
After a few “jams,” they realized their styles and musical tastes were similar and Althaus officially joined Toed as their lead singer. Althaus said despite being a band member, he remains unsure how the name Toed came to be.
“The origins are still kind of, like, I don’t really know. It’s just kind of goofy and people seem to like it, so we just kind of ran with it,” he said.
Toed has released several original songs on streaming platforms like Spotify, and they are currently working on recording more. Their funk-rock style takes inspiration from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince, Primus and Stevie Wonder.
“We all have big influences through other music, obviously, which helps inspire us to write and make styles and sounds and our original music,” he said.
Althaus has traveled with the band to perform at independent music venues across the metro Detroit area. They recently played at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, and at Hop Cat and PJ’s Lager House in Detroit.
The more he plays in front of crowds, Althaus said, the more comfortable he feels onstage.
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“I think most onstage performers or musicians get stage fright, at least early on. But it’s kind of like anything else in life; the more you do it, the more it becomes just like second nature,” he said.
While Althaus rehearses with his band every weekend, scheduling can be tricky with four working professionals. His fellow bandmembers include students at Wayne State University pursuing Ph.D. programs.
“We’re all working professionals, so it’s not like we’re trying to tour or whatnot. I mean, that’d be awesome if we could one day scale to that, but it’s unlikely,” he said.
Althaus hopes in the future the band will be able to venture outside of the Detroit area to large venues throughout the Midwest. While he is passionate about his work with U-M’s Youth Policy Lab, he said playing with his band gives him an outlet to truly express his creativity.
“It’s kind of like when somebody finds peace when they’re gardening or running or whatever. … It shows just this sense of comfort and relief and purpose. It all kind of coalesces when you get to get together and play with a band,” he said.
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Since I have only been with the Youth Policy Lab for a little under a month, I would have to say my first day in the office stands out. Meeting everyone else in the lab was exciting and motivating. It was awesome to hear about everyone’s research and how they are just as passionate about youth development and needs as I am.
What can’t you live without?
Music. I spend most of my free time listening, writing, and studying music. I also love going to concerts. I’m not sure how I would spend my time without it.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
What inspires you?
Musically: Musical acts that have influenced my style (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Wonder, Radiohead), personal relationships, competition, and the desire to learn new things and challenge myself. Professionally: Knowing that everyone can and should be able to grow up comfortably to reach their potential.
What are you currently reading?
“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
During grad school, I interned at the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. During this time, I would have to say my mentor and deputy director of the commission, Matthew Kleiman, had the greatest influence on my career path.