Here's our latest installment from our man in the windy city. To save your brain short-circuiting with should-I-click-it hyper-link options, all related links are included at the end of this article...
There's a lot to sink your teeth into for Drowned In Chicago #4: a recap of the summer festival action (all photos below courtesy of Nicole White & Eleonora Collini); a rumination on DIY venues by way of the Way Out Weird showcase; a quickie interview with ambient artist & shadow dweller SECRETWARS; and a roundup of the latest and greatest music percolating in the deep, dark depths of the indie music underground. The Cubs, White Sox, and Fire may be hapless embarrassments, but the local music scene won't ever let Chicago down.
Fests, Fests & More Fests
The summer musical festival season came and went in Chicago as regular as clockwork. Big names, big stages, all the usual headaches, but nothing, thankfully, like the tragedies that occurred at Pukkelpop or the Indiana State Fair. In both cases severe weather collapsed stages, resulting in widespread injuries and a few deaths. If you've bristled at the thought of muscling your way through prison camp-like conditions just to catch a glimpse of your favorite artists at super fests, go ahead and add safety concerns to your “Reasons To Skip Cattle Call Fests” list.
Happily, Chicago is a big town that loves small fests. Besides local behemoth Lollapalooza (which experienced its worst rash of flash mob fence jumpers in history:), the general tenor of the town hews towards lovingly curated boutique music affairs, like Blackout and Neon Marshmallow. Even the now-international Pitchfork Music Festival (coming to Paris in October) is smaller than its globetrotting brand would suggest.
Blackout Fest went down in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, showcasing more than a dozen bands in the industrial confines of the mysterious Velvet Perineum. The brainchild of the event, former 'zine turned label HoZac Records, curated the three day music spectacle. Mostly punk, mostly rock, mostly psych, mostly garage; and mostly talent drawn from the area, remaining true to Blackout's original mission of being a platform for the independent music scene in the Midwest.
Highlights at Blackout included a ballsy early set by local greaser punk outfit Mickey. The frontman has the look of an unemployed dad in the 70s who stumbled into his son's rock n roll wardrobe, a raunchy amalgam of beer gut, leather, and skinny jeans. Extra points awarded for being the first act (possibly the only?) to venture scaling the PA towers on either side of the stage. The punk saxophone demons K-Holes came on strong as well, as did the Friday night headliners the Spits. A fest dedicated to punk rock would be incomplete without a little mischievous moshing, and a nice crowd jostled in front of the Spits for some good injury-free fun.
Another jewel of the Chicago summer fest scene was the second annual Neon Marshmallow. This year's edition incorporated all the same face melting noise, electronic mayhem, and experimental film as last year, but moved to a different venue. Goodbye Viaduct Theater (we'll miss your edgy black boxiness – not your wonky location), hello the Empty Bottle (loving your full bar, and nightly visits from Chicago's famous “tamale guy”). A great location for a premiere mix of minimal wave youngbloods & legends.
Highlights included the set by the Baker/Colligan/Zerang Trio. Jim Baker, a local avant-garde pianist (who apparently plays upstairs at the Beat Kitchen every Monday), planted himself behind a keyboard that looked like an old-fashioned telephone operator switchboard. He fiddled with the inputs/outputs, while playing some far out space piano – and the rest of the trio just got weirder. A gentleman seated behind a snare drum scraped styrofoam across its surface for a “fingernails-nails-on-a-challkboard” vibe. Later he used a vibrator (the dildo variety) to vibrate his way through a snare solo breakdown. In back of these two, a man hovered over a hotplate and chunk of dried ice, using the former to heat up metal trinkets that would give off whining noises when plunged into the latter. If this set sounds like a lark, it was; but it was also a completely serious and moving sonic investigation into the limits of jazz/noise improvisation. Powerful stuff.
Telecult Powers had another memorable set, involving vintage mid-20th century film strips set to music. Across a suspended white bedsheet, and old Encyclopedia Britannica educational documentary advertised the wonders of modern agro-science. The buzzing drone soundtrack imbued the images with layers of intense paranoia. The entire performance took place in the pit below the main stage, in a little cockpit of candles and intrigue, so you had to muscle in to get a peek at the ground level performance, which only added to the mystery.
Award for the best set goes to the last night's headliner, Morton Subotnick. The man is a pioneer of mid 20th century electronic composition, with shades of Xenakis. Subotnick didn't try to overpower the listener with avalanches of disparate textures. He concentrated on one sound unit – a really interesting sound unit – and explored it from a million different angles, before building up the composition out of this basic unit, and earning complexity gradually, rather than stealing it in one fell swoop. A sight to see, a sound to savor. Kudos to the Neon Marshmallow braintrust for bringing him on board.
The Chicago summer fest season comes to an unofficial close with the North Coast Music Festival at the beginning of September. Last year's inaugural edition, written up in Drowned In Chicago #1, was an enjoyable mish mash of electronica, hip hop, and jam bands that looked to be competing for the mantle of “the next big local super fest.” This year's edition hews decisively towards the electronica end of the spectrum alone. That's just as well; with the smaller boutique musical events doing their jobs so well, who needs or want another sloppy musical buffet like Lollapalooza?
Way Out Weird
New venue announcement – sort of! Local blog Cream Team & QRO Magazine teamed up this past April to present the Way Out Weird showcase at the VFW Blackhawk Post #7975 on Milwaukee Ave. In a town starved for reliable DIY venues, could the veteran of foreign wars-approved location become more or less “untouchable?” Previous DIY venues in the city of Chicago have been shut down for a variety of factors – some legitimate, some bogus – and always with the baseline assumption on behalf of the authorities that these types of experimental spaces should not exist. The music scene can't expect law enforcement to understand the importance of performance spaces that split the difference between practice spaces and full-fledged, licensed venues: but surely, it's not too much to ask that law enforcement “look the other way” once in a while?
If it did, we'd get more wonderfully amorphous events like Way Out Weird, a night of curious noise, karaoke, and cheap beer. Cream Team & QRO Magazine hosted New Haven’s EULA, a knotty, kamikaze three-piece punk rock riot, on tour in support of its new album Maurice Narcisse. The local band Names Divine also made an appearance, rolling 7-8 members deep, exuding a 21st century, post-apocalyptic, hippie aftermath vibe....complete with Theremin! Adding to the mayhem was Chicago's beloved Shattered Hymen. The aggro-noise bombshell wrestled with a miked-up sheet of aluminum for a good 3 or 4 minutes before the match was called as a draw. Finally, Supreme Cuts closed the night with a DJ set – the electronic artist is having his “debut” performance at the Empty Bottle shortly, but if you were lucky enough to make the Way Out Weird late night party, you'll remember where you saw him first: at a DIY joint!
A Quick & Dirty Interview with SECRETWARS
SECRETWARS is the solo project of Chicago native, Jose Alejandro Rodriguez. QRO caught up with the self-proclaimed “shadow-dweller” to discuss the electronic music scene, his other band Panda Riot, LSD vs. vitamin D, and the sights & sounds of his epic double album Double Fantasy Vacation. Watch for his upcoming EP Tropical Depression, dropping early September on Cheng City Records.
DiS: You came to electronic music from a more live instrument background, right?
SW: Yeah, I began back in 2002 with drums and percussion, then occasionally picked up the bass through 2004 and up. I never had the intention to make "ambient" or "electronica". But I ended up crossing paths one faithful night in 2007.
DiS: Oh yeah, what happened on this night of extreme faith?
SW: I just got in touch with the whole Garageband format and started to uncover a variety of sounds that pleasured my ears. So, I wrote 5 songs that I thought were OK but not ready for the world. I felt like my time is still on the horizon. I have no idea where those songs are...
DiS: So new technology platforms became a jumping off point for a new style of music for you?
SW: Pretty much, I never knew about this form of software until that point, since playing in and out of "Garage-rock" bands I wanted to look for a chance of scenery.
DiS: In Panda Riot you handle percussion. I was at one of your live shows recently – I think I saw a sort of panel of buttons at the end of a pole...I'm assuming its a synth/drum thing?
SW: With Panda Riot I use a handful of samples based on the song, to complement the ambiance, and also to give a smooth and easy transition from Point A to Point B. We're debating on whether to keep [the upcoming Panda Riot album] a full length, or maybe go with an EP. We'll definitely shoot out some details as soon as we come to terms. We always mix it up with some "light electronica" but mostly it's all well rounded to compliment our [mostly live instrumental] sounds.
DiS: Tell me a little about the evolution of Double Fantasy Vacation. Did you plan on a double album from the start?
SW: I didn't really think of creating a double album at first. It was just a pure joke among peers, and that joke grew on me. I guess I was pretty scared at first because it was something that was unknown, almost alien. So, I began production in December of 2010 and wrapped everything all up in June 2011, leaving singles, bands and ex-girlfriends along the way.
DiS: I'm looking at some of the titles for the tracks, which include references to skywriter, canyons, caverns. Vision upon vision of grand natural expanses. And the music itself has a sort of 'vast' quality as well – did the double album help preserve that?
SW: Yeah, if I would have gone with an EP – 8 songs or so – instead of a double album, the message would of been different and not in that context of it being grand. DFV was more of a gateway to emotions, frustrations and reflection on a lot things going on in between months of production.
DiS: Speaking of EPs, you have one scheduled soon, titled Tropical Depression. Is it with material from DFV?
SW: Tropical Depression is the aftermath of DFV. For the EP I will be exploring new options, maybe some vocal work, live instruments (instead of MIDI's) and a possible special guest. There's endless possibilities really, I could shift this within the coming weeks, who knows.
DiS: What's your singing style? Meatloaf? Thom Yorke? The dude from Coldplay?
SW: I would say a combination of the dude from Meatloaf and Sammy Hagar.
DiS: One of your previous releases was called Beautiful Day To Be On LSD: do you use LSD, or other substances, as a creative catalyst? or for recreation?
SW: Well, I know when I create music, I don't partake in any drug activity, I know for several artist it enhances your ability to pick up on internal feelings. I have yet to try it. For now, it's all pure vitamin D.
DiS: Vitamin D? Is that the hot new drug on the street? If so, where can I score some?
SW: Cheng City Records will provide the goods at the next show. Say Vitamin D and you'll get your dosage.
DiS: Sweet – we'll look forward to checking out Tropical Depression, watching it go platinum, and seeing you on VH1's Behind The Music "telling all" about your Vitamin D habit.
Notes From The Underground
Hot tunes in the summer time: if you made it out to see any of the live acts below, then you're a few steps ahead of the game. If not, catch up!
The five-piece post-doom Anatomy of Habit have an almost intimidating amount of rock n roll experience under their belt (check out their biography on Facebook) and they unleash all that pent up sonic tension with a certain malevolent charm. Dark, deranged, industrial, goth (minus the make-up). A recent bill had the band opening for the hyped-up Danish hardcore kids Iceage, but Anatomy of Habit have seen too much in their travels to be wowed by bubblegum buzz bands. Pro tip: best heard while wearing black.
Whether Daniel Knox is playing solo keys, a duet with a country saw, or alongside his full Americana backing band, the artist enchants with his smoky deep vocals and wry sense of humor. The descriptor 'singer/songwriter' has been much maligned as of late, as a sort of default category assigned by lazy music journalists to whatever pop tart without a band that comes down the pipeline. But Daniel Knox is a singer/songwriter in the finest sense of the term, crafting each song like an overfilled cup brimming with personality and soul. His latest album Evry Man For Himself (sic) mixes equal parts comedy & tragedy into a boozy rag time martini.
Round-the-bend psych garage rockers Radar Eyes have been gigging hard around Chicago in all the usual cracks & crevices. Fans love them for their ability to balance far out psych noodling with the straight-ahead instant gratification of power punk. Think: Ramones on acid. I couldn't find any good online streaming options (Myspace is too depressing) – but I did find this dynamite Coach House Sounds session. If you like what you see & hear, watch for their full length album soon due sometime this winter.
White Mystery, the bro/sis ballz-out garage rock duo, was kind enough to answer “A Quick Six” back in Drowned In Chicago #2. Back then, they were anticipating the release of their sophomore album Blood & Venom. Since then, the album has dropped to critical acclaim and the band has enjoyed cross-country tours. The blitzkrieg blues-rock sensibility is hard to dislike. Obvious predecessors include the White Stripes, but White Mystery is no tribute band. They have a raw licks mentality & punk attack that is all their own (not to mention red-headed afros, which are pretty damn awesome).
Is that ukelele I hear? A sweet, winsome strum leads more than a few songs by Good Evening, very likely the only band in Chicago with regular tap shoe solos. There's a “Roaring 20s” vibe to this band that sets them apart at first glance, but the real bread & butter is their commitment to the natural tones of live instrumentation. Hard to imagine this band using synthesizers. Violins, piano, the warm tug of a bass guitar, dreamy vocals: speakeasy textures are woven into memorable contemporary compositions on their latest album In Public.
Fests, Fest & More Fests:
Way Out Weird:
A Quick & Dirty Interview with SECRETWARS
Notes From The Underground