‘I would rather engineer a song than engineer a machine’


Joe Hagen, with his gleeful smile and ambling stride, is one of the most deceptively laid-back guys at Wichita State. I first found out about him at last year’s Final Fest. After watching him perform with his band, After Judo, I found out he had also helped create and run the entire festival.

When I brought this up during our conversation at Fairmount Coffee last Wednesday, Joe is quick to mention the two other WSU students who founded the event. “@xandramattek and @rynecarballo on Instagram,” he quickly adds, smiling to acknowledge the weirdness of dropping usernames in a real-life conversation. That’s just part of who Hagen is — humorous, but also business-cognizant and concerned that his friends get the recognition they deserve.

These attributes shine through Hagen’s approach to his time at WSU. He hit the ground running with a mechanical engineering scholarship and made sure to study French as well to fulfill his dream of being bilingual. By his junior year, he realized how deeply his passion for music ran and made a bold switch into WSU’s new audio production program.

“That was so much weight lifted off of my chest because . . . I’d always put music first anyways,” Hagen said. “Even though I was good at engineering, I would rather just engineer a song rather than engineer a machine. It was a principle of passion.”

Hagen’s passion for music naturally led him towards extracurricular involvement — most visibly in his role as a vocalist and guitarist in After Judo. The band grew organically after Hagen joined some dorm friends at a judo practice one night. Soon, musicians that Hagen met through his dorm, his classes, and the judo program began to practice together, well, after judo. Soon enough, they were performing in venues around Wichita.

The creation of the band, which pulled members from several different parts of the WSU community, resulted in a unique mix of musical tastes that inform After Judo’s sound.

“We all listen to everything,” Hagen said. “Flavio (Perez) and An (Nguyen) are big jazzheads. Everyone’s into rock, obviously — that’s why we’re a rock band. I’ve been listening to rap forever . . . Same with Rob (Mabrey). Ryne (Caballlo)’s got the acoustic singer/songwriter kind of taste.”

The result is a band that often jumps between and fuses musical genres.

“We have happy acoustic chords with hard drums and some jazz soloing,” Hagan said.

“It’s a mixture of everything. That’s what alternative is.”

Being in a band is extremely time-consuming and intense for an engaged student. Hagen said there’s a mutual understanding in the band that everyone contributes whatever they can. There’s no yelling at anyone who can’t make it to a practice, for example. Amidst “throwing musical ideas at each other” and working through the “very taxing” process of recording their debut album, Hagen said they keep in mind that “being in a band is a side project that we’re doing for fun.”

Even so, After Judo pushes Hagen to think deeply about the business and practical elements of the band. Through the process of making a record, Hagen notes, a band creates a tangible product by which they can spread their brand. He also cites that all his time behind the audio production console helps him develop professional skills as an audio engineer. He’s learned that the first thing to do in a studio is to make sure that “everything sounds good going in.”

“If you have good raw audio, you can always go back to something that’s good, no matter how hard you screw up later,” Hagen said.

Hagen’s journey into audio production started about six years ago when he set up a small, makeshift studio in his basement. He’d invite people over to record or set up shop wherever he could work.

“If you have the right space that doesn’t have any noise — doesn’t have a washing machine going, for example . . . it doesn’t matter where you are,” Hagen said. “If it’s quiet, you can record there.”

The drive to help musicians turn their ideas into tangible recordings drove Hagen from the start.

“I know people who have notebooks full of lyrics,” Hagen said.

“You can be an artist, you can be a musician, but you can’t live off your live art until you have something tangible to give people.”

Shocker Studios, a state-of-the-art facility acquired and supplemented by WSU last year, served as a perfect opportunity for Hagen to refine his approach and ultimately pushed him to switch his major to audio engineering.

“I toured it and was like, ‘This is freaking awesome. I’m going to use it all the time,’” Hagen said. “And I ended up using enough to the point where I wanted to use it all the time as my career.”

On top of using the studio to record After Judo’s new album, Hagen is also using it to engage the community.

From rappers looking to spit over instrumentals to folk artists, Hagen’s looking to put his growing skills towards helping other developing artists. He hasn’t let his lack of experience scare him away from working with others.

“You have to develop a taste over time,” Hagen said. “I’m still developing my taste, obviously — I’m going to school for it. I don’t know everything.”

For all the humility, Hagen undoubtedly has established a strong resume early in his college career. Perhaps the crown jewel, for now, is setting up the extremely successful Finals Fest last year.

Hagen, Xan Mattek, and Ryne Carballo set up the festival with very clear goals in mind. In a city dominated by age restricted venues, they wanted to create a space where all their college-aged friends could attend. They wanted to make a free concert where fees couldn’t prevent anyone from coming. Most of all, they wanted to bring overlooked artists attention.

“We saw so many good artists who would play for like 20 to 30 different people when they play,” Hagen said. “It’s nice to showcase local art. It doesn’t happen enough here.”

Hagen said he’s thankful for the opportunities WSU has afforded him.

“What is Wichita State? It’s a diamond in the rough,” Hagen said. “It’s helped me learn to live on my own. That’s the main reason people go to school, I think. It’s the main reason I went — just to step back from how I was raised and pave something for myself. Being away from home helped me pave a path for future me.”

Hagen’s has a twofold vision for WSU — that it continues to grow, but in a way that is student-oriented and values a fuller range of disciplines.

“My vision for WSU is to expand and be more welcoming to people who aren’t in business or engineering,” Hagen said. “It’s good to have a really strong engineering school, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of other programs. If you want to be a strong university, you need to have many strong programs.”

He’s most preoccupied with the school’s interactions with the private industry.

“I think something holding [Wichita State] back would be the expansion of the Innovation Campus. I’m not against it at all, but I think it’s being utilized in a really odd way that detracts from the education aspect of the campus and makes it more of a business,” Hagen said. “That’s going to probably be the downfall of the education aspect of the university. I don’t know what to do about it, but it’s something that I see happening. I love that there are new spaces and that the university is expanding. I just hope it’s for the right reasons.”

Hagen dismisses naysayers who say WSU has nothing to offer the community.

“People say that there’s nothing to do, but I’ve been finding things to do for two years. Maybe people just aren’t looking,” Hagen said. “You’ve just got to know where to look. You’ve got to find enough people who are like-minded so you can progress with them and develop your own community within the community you’re given.”