CHICAGO — You might know Cameron Krutwig as the freshman center with the old-school game, slinging precision passes from the post during Loyola-Chicago’s incredible Final Four run.
Next to Sister Jean and head coach Porter Moser, Krutwig is one of the more recognizable characters on the Ramblers. He might not put Michigan’s Moritz Wagner on a poster Saturday night in San Antonio, but he has the skills and craftiness to keep Loyola rolling.
But to really know Krutwig is to hear him sing a rendition of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” from The Jackson 5, in which he mimics Michael Jackson’s high-pitched voice as his buddies sing backup. Or how about Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe”?
To understand Krutwig’s musical styling, think Bing Crosby or Michael Buble — think anything involving Christmas music.
Think: The Six Cheersmen.
Haven’t heard of them? You’re not alone, but you’re missing out.
For the past three years, Krutwig and four of his childhood friends and former basketball teammates from Algonquin, Illinois — Jack Nickoley, Mason Materna, Brian Rechtsteiner and Cooper Schwartz — have released Christmas albums as “The Six Cheersmen” (Krutwig is credited with the name).
They became so popular at Jacobs High School that their songs played in the hallways between class periods and at the holiday basketball tournament held at the school. Outside of Algonquin, few have heard their, uh, unique sound.
— cameron krutwig (@camkrutwig) December 24, 2017
The tweet pinned to the top of Krutwig’s Twitter profile has nothing to do with Loyola basketball, Sister Jean or the Final Four. It promotes the latest Cheersmen album.
“We’re a hit around here,” Nickoley explained. “With Cam’s publicity on Twitter now, our album’s gonna skyrocket, and all of a sudden, here we go.”
The critics are less convinced of the group becoming a mainstream success.
“Oh, it’s terrible,” Jimmy Roberts, Jacobs High School basketball coach, said. “I played it for my uncle and his friend and they’re like, ‘This is the worst stuff I’ve ever heard.’ “
“It’s horrible,” said Conrad Krutwig, Cameron’s older brother. “I give him crap all the time.”
“They’re working on their harmonies,” Kevin Krutwig, Cameron’s father, said.
“A lot of people will text us and say, ‘This song is so bad,’ and we’ll just laugh at it. Obviously, we’re not that good.”
Loyola-Chicago freshman Cameron Krutwig
None of which has discouraged the group from making music.
“A lot of people will text us and say, ‘This song is so bad,’ and we’ll just laugh at it,” Cameron Krutwig said. “Obviously, we’re not that good.”
“None of us have any musical talent whatsoever,” Nickoley said. “It’s pretty bad. I don’t know if you’ve listened.”
There are actually five members in The Six Cheersmen. There was a sixth, Brad Demkovich, but he left the group after the first album in 2015. Think of him as Stuart Sutcliffe, better known as the fifth Beatle.
The friends conceived of the idea of recording a Christmas album as juniors in high school, when they were hanging out in Schwartz’s basement and in search of something to do. Someone brought up Buble’s Christmas albums and how easy it seemed to cover well-known songs. The Christmas theme was an easy sell for Krutwig, a Christmas baby (Dec. 21) who loves the holidays like none other.
“We just like doing dumb stuff,” Krutwig said. “We’re buddies, we hang out, we do fun stuff together, so we said, ‘You know what? Why not?’ “
“All of us knew all the songs,” Rechtsteiner added, “so we thought, ‘Why not sing them and sound like a bunch of idiots?’ “
They brainstormed a name, trying to incorporate every member and Christmas. Christmas cheer + six friends = The Six Cheersmen.
Recording equipment consisted of free software and whomever had the best smartphone. (“I think I had an [iPhone] 7,” Materna recalled.) Once the songs were recorded, they uploaded them to SoundCloud and, voila, an album was born.
“It’s not a very good production zone,” Krutwig admitted. “There’s like a chair there. We use a phone and just SoundCloud. Thanks to SoundCloud, because without them, it wouldn’t be possible.”
“No editing,” Rechtsteiner added. “Like a live performance.”
The first album was labor-intensive, taking nearly five hours to record.
“Mainly because we got off topic and ate a lot of food in between,” Rechtsteiner said.
Song selection proved relatively stress-free. They put their own spin on Christmas classics like “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Wonderful Christmastime” and “Silent Night,” which Nickoley sings in a key that, well, you should probably just listen for yourself.
“It’s just ear-scratching, just horrible,” Krutwig said. “A lot of people say that it’s like their favorite one, but it is so bad.”
Roberts, Jacobs High’s basketball coach, called Nickoley’s rendition, “One of the worst things you’ve heard in your entire life,” and yet he couldn’t stop listening to the Cheersmen. He sent the tracks to Steve Wallace, a social studies teacher at the high school. Wallace put minute-long segments on the school speakers for the daily alerts telling students to find their next class.
The Cheersmen had no clue.
“We were hanging out in the halls and they played the passing period music and we were like, ‘Oh no, is that really “White Christmas”?’ ” Schwartz said. “We released it the weekend before, so it was on Twitter, so [the students] recognized it. They were like, ‘Is this you guys?’ We were like, ‘It sure is.’ “
The Cheersmen followed their debut with two additional Christmas releases. The third album had its own production challenges, as the friends had scattered around the country: Krutwig to Loyola, Materna to Lawrence University, Schwartz to Michigan, Rechtsteiner to Alabama and Nickoley to South Carolina, with both Krutwig and Materna playing college basketball.
“Our first year, we did a lot of group singing,” Krutwig said, “but as we’ve progressed, as we’ve matured, we’ve done more solos and stuff like that.”
Asked if Krutwig fit a voice category, Rechtsteiner replied, “Yes. Bad.”
“It is diverse,” Schwartz said. “He can hit the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.”
Krutwig’s musical taste, like his basketball game, is old school. He’s a big Motown guy, especially anything Jackson and The Temptations. The Beach Boys are high on his list. He likes “the crooners,” according to his dad, and has extensive knowledge of songs released decades before he was born. When Roberts and his fiancée, Stephanie, were struggling to pick out music for their wedding, they enlisted Krutwig’s help.
“He’s like Spotify,” Loyola assistant Bryan Mullins said. “He knows everything from what my dad knows to what these guys are listening to in the locker room. A throwback, for sure.”
Krutwig’s teammates are aware of his music IQ, but most haven’t heard The Cheersmen.
“I’m glad you reminded me,” guard Clayton Custer said Tuesday. “I think I’m going to go listen to it after practice today.”
It’s no “One Shining Moment,” Custer.
The Cheersmen always will be part of Krutwig, not so much for the music but the bonding with friends. Nickoley, Rechtsteiner and Schwartz traveled to Atlanta last week to cheer on Krutwig and Loyola in the South Regional.
“Words can’t describe the feelings that we were going through,” Nikoley said. “Me, Brian and Cooper were up in the rafters and I’m sure he could hear us just screaming from up there. That’s something I’ll never forget.
“My voice is throbbing after those two games.”
Thankfully, Christmas is nearly nine months away. There will be a fourth Cheersmen album. Some hits from the past probably will be recycled, as they’re running out of Christmas material.
As for the possibility of a live performance, “We’ll see what the fans want,” Materna said.
The friends will all gather June 1 for Conrad Krutwig’s wedding. While Conrad must first consult his fiancée, he sounded open to the idea of allowing his brother and his friends to perform.
Nickoley doesn’t think Conrad could afford The Cheersmen, especially after Cameron’s rise to fame with Loyola.
“I hope,” Cameron said, “it goes nationwide.”