Student Artist Spotlight: Shaan Shuster ’23 on his award-winning band

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Hanoi Ragmen has performed in established venues in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Shaan Shuster ’23)

It’s a Saturday night in Washington, District of Columbia’s Howard Theatre, a 1,200-seat historic venue in the heart of the city. A seven-piece band takes the stage playing alternative rock ballads inspired by the works of Peter Gabriel and Queens of the Stone Age. There is a familiar face standing behind the keyboard: Shaan Shuster ‘23.

This was not Shuster’s first time taking the stage at a venue like this, and it won’t be the last. His band Hanoi Ragmen has performed at established venues in the District such as Union Stage and the DC9 Nightclub — and has amassed well over 50,000 streams on Spotify.

Shuster’s journey to this spot started in 2019 when he first joined Hanoi Ragmen as a senior in high school. A group of friends from his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia were on the hunt for a keyboard player for their new band. Having taught himself the keyboard in 8th grade, Shuster decided to join.

“I bought a keyboard kind of cheap, and just kind of figured it out,” Shuster said. “It’s something that actually clicked for me.”

In addition to Shuster on the keyboard, the band is composed of Gabe Harr on vocals and rhythm guitar, Beck Moniz on vocals and bass, Max Powell on vocals and lead guitar, Nathan Argust on drums, Kostia Howard on tenor saxophone and Dillon Miranda on guitar. 

To get its foot in the door, the group reached out to small venues, nightclubs and restaurants to see if it could have a chance to play. Though a slow process at first, Shuster said that the group has had “exponential growth” with its performances.

“You might just send out, you know, fifty emails and maybe hear back from a few,” Shuster said. “But as you build up a kind of resume and you play more and more shows, that gives you a little more credibility.”

The group’s performance lineups are primarily composed of original music in the alternative rock genre. In 2019, the band released its debut EP “Game.” on Spotify and Apple Music, followed by its first full-length album “The Oldlight” in 2022. 

From humble beginnings performing at neighborhood events, Hanoi Ragmen now has accolades to its name for its original work. 

“The Oldlight” went on to win Best Rock Album at the 2023 Washington Area Music Awards (colloquially known as The Wammies). “Foolhearted,” a song on the album, won Best Rock Song. Another song, “Animalisms,” has accumulated over 20,000 streams on Spotify. 

According to Shuster, writing for these projects has been a collaborative effort among his band members. He writes his keyboard pieces to supplement the compositions of the rest of the group and vice-versa.

“It’s cool to see everyone being able to contribute to their own parts and also to the vision of the band,” Shuster said. 

Having a group of friends as bandmates is a perk of the job for Shuster. During the school year at their respective colleges, members of the group practice on their own and share ideas and recordings over text. When they are back together in person over breaks, things run as if they had never been apart.

“It’s really difficult to come up with an original idea and put yourself out there, but being surrounded by other people who can support that vision helps with that dimension,” Shuster said. “Having that group around me has really helped.”

As Shuster and his bandmates graduate from college at the end of this semester and move on to bigger things, Hanoi Ragmen will follow them wherever they end up. The group’s goal is to live in close proximity to each other and continue with the momentum that they have generated. To Shuster, this is merely the beginning of the group’s musical journey, and he is excited to see where things go.

“I feel incredibly fortunate that we’ve been able to take it this far,” Shuster said. “I think it’s a testament to the other musicians in the band … who really carry that forward.”

On August 12, Hanoi Ragmen will be performing at the district’s Black Cat, a venue that is known for featuring the best local, national and international independent and alternative music. 

Follow the band on Instagram at @hanoiragmen.