Other Lives: Dr. David Altschul

The guitar hanging on his office wall explains why David Altschul, M.D., practices at Montefiore. During his neurosurgery residency at Montefiore, Dr. Altschul was moonlighting as the lead singer and guitarist of a garage-rock band called the Red Herrings. That piqued the interest of David Gordon, M.D., who helped train Dr. Altschul during his residency and was a fellow guitar player. “We made a friendly agreement,” says Dr. Altschul, laughing. “He’d help me get a job here, and I’d help him get into the band—and it worked out.”

 

‘The louder the better,’ says Dr. Altschul of the band’s musical philosophy.”

After-Hours Jamming

When Dr. Altschul—now an attending physician of neurological surgery at Montefiore and an assistant professor of neurosurgery and of radiology at Einstein—started his new job, both neurosurgeons brought their guitars into the hospital. “David was down the hall from me, so we would jam together between seeing patients or after hours,” says Dr. Altschul.

With two physicians and an architect on guitar, a computer programmer on bass and a Wall Street bond trader on drums, the Red Herrings rank as one of New York City’s best-educated bands. The group draws its inspiration from a wide range of musical genres, including blues, reggae and garage rock, with influences as diverse as Jack White, Radiohead, the Ramones and Bob Marley. “The louder the better,” says Dr. Altschul of the band’s musical philosophy. The Red Herrings play at clubs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Dr. Altschul grew up learning to play the piano, but switched to guitar in his late teens. He loved playing guitar-driven songs by artists such as Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. When he started medical school at the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center in 2002, Dr. Altschul formed his first band with two childhood friends, and the Red Herrings were born. His brother, Kurt, later joined the band as a guitar player.

The Red Herrings compose all their own songs and have recorded 30 of them to date. Dr. Altschul writes the lyrics—a task that has gotten more challenging over the years. He is married to Dr. Dorothea Altschul, a neurointerventionalist at Columbia, and the couple has three children, ages 2 to 6. “It’s easy to write lyrics when you’re young and single and experiencing the angst of dating and breaking up a lot,” he says. “But my life is pretty great right now.”

Still Playing After All These Years

One of the Red Herrings’ latest songs, “Going Gray,” explores a new topic for the 15-year-old group. “It’s amazing to me that the band is still alive and kicking given how busy we all are,” says Dr. Altschul, noting that all the members now have families and careers. “But it’s cathartic for us. Whenever we haven’t gotten together for too long a time, we all get itchy and say, ‘We need to play right now.’”

The group’s growing fan base includes actor Bruce Willis. Dr. Gordon is a close friend of Willis’ and has even appeared in some of the action star’s films. “It’s really wild when he comes to our gigs,” says Dr. Altschul. “The place is packed with our family and friends—and then there’s Bruce Willis! It’s a lot of fun.”

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Dr. Altschul with his band the Red Herrings rocking out at Arlene’s Grocery.

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