Collectively Uninspired

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I know I’ve reached that age where I’m not really impressed that easily. Especially with music. I’m sure there’s bands out there I would have gobbled up four or five years ago, like MGMT, that kind of power pop that I kind of give a half a shit about now.

This is not about MGMT, instead, it’s about seeing one of my current favorite bands, Animal Collective, live, and how let down I am after seeing them.

In the past two and a half years, live music has changed for me from a spectator sport, to a breathing, visceral, transformative experience. There’s a whole raft of them that do that for me.

Animal Collective didn’t do that for me tonight. They were staid, stale, and relatively uninspired. That’s so odd to me. Their records brim with inspiration and contain this almost tangible quality. It invades your ears, nose, mouth and your imagination.

Tonight just felt like three dudes with samplers and delay pedals, playing for themselves.

There was a rather large heaping of their material off of the just-released “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, but it wasn’t proportionally placed throughout the setlist. Case in point: Excellent tracks “Summertime Clothes” followed by the classic “My Girls”. I feel had they been seperated, they would have resonated with the audience a bit more.

Okay, they’re not completely guilty: Avey Tare had moments of genuine enthusiasm and attempted to connect to the audience, may it have been a small hop or dramatic cymbal crash. That excited me. The new songs were enjoyable, but didn’t do enough for me to enhance my concert experience.

There was no material off of 2007’s superior “Strawberry Jam”, and a one song encore – Panda Bear’s “Comfy In Nautica”. It was Avey-less – apparetly he blew out his voice during the set. Or maybe he just wasn’t up to it.

The show wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t what I was expecting from one of the most exciting bands making music today.

Perhaps it was an off night. I’ll give them another chance. Let’s hope it’s different then.

Regrets, reminiscing and other embarrassments

Live music has become one of the cornerstones of my life as I creep into my mid twenties. There’s been countless great shows I’ve been to over the years, and I could write several posts about how amazing they all were, but let’s be honest – that’s not always that fun. Instead, I’ll engage you with moments of my musical repentance.

Here’s some concert experiences that I’d want a do over.

February 20, 2003 – Phish. For the most part, these guys blow chunks. Before this current breakup and reformation, Phish was dormant from late 2000 to late 2002. This was their first tour back , and being a junior in high school, thinking that jam bands were totally where it was at for two months, I thought it would be cool to try and snap up GA tickets for their show at Allstate Arena. Somehow, I did, and managed to piss off all the hippies I went to school with. Example:

Like, come on mannn, I’ll totally give you a hundred bucks for those tickets. That version of “Chalkdust Torture” on A Live One is the best thing I’ve ever heard! Totally dude, like, I totally, like, love Puh-hish. I mean, come on man, do you even smoke?

I forgot to mention some of them were pissed of the mediocre review I gave Round Room in my high school’s newspaper earlier that winter.

My best friend Jordan, who probably got an even worse dressing-down than I did, was my companion for this gig. We spent the night making our way through a sea of patchouli, hemp necklaces with those cute little blown glass trinkets, and my personal favorite – fainting hippies. I was not impressed, but Jordan didn’t seem to mind. He was totally groovin’ his way through tried and true classics like “Gotta Jibboo”. Really?

May 16, 2005 – The Mars Volta at the Riveira Theater. The Riv is a shitty venue, with piss-poor sight lines. It didn’t help that I actually payed to see the kings of pretentious art-rock. What’s equally embarassing? This glowing review of Amputecture I wrote a year later. Humiliating. You want a new Floyd or King Crimson? Listen to these turds. I’ll pass. Thanks.

October 3, 2005 – Foozer tour at the Allstate Arena. It was a dream bill – two of my favorite bands at the time, Weezer and the Foo Fighters – playing together at one show at the premier suburban arena. If only I could remember it. Largely incapacitated due to some incredibly strong prescription medication, this is more just a collage of moments than what should have been one of the happiest moments of my life. I remember next to nothing of Weezer’s set, save for their cover of ‘Big Me’, and that the Foos opened with “In Your Honor” and “Cold Day In The Sun” was somewhere near the end of the set as I wandered around the arena. Also, if you ask the right person, apparently I wanted food at a a ‘sit down place’, despite not having any money. I do not recall this.

August 6, 2006 – Missing the entire 17-member lineup of Broken Social Scene at Lollapalooza 2006 for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lolla ’06 was my inaugural festival experience, and I was still figuring out the ropes of how it all worked. I realized that you can’t see everyone you want, no matter how hard you try. So, I opted to see the Chilis, a group I had been “totally jamming to” since the summer of 2000. The show was alright, from what I remember, but because of the steel toe boot to the head from an errant crowdsurfer things are sort of fuzzy. According to my friend (and fellow obviate-er) Evan Thorne, who attended the show with me, he heard the THUD of when the boot kicked me in the head, and then turned around to see me down. I remember still feeling like i had control in my feet, but it was just easier to fall. I think I got pulled out of that one during the encore.

October 31, 2007 – Shouting “YEAH!” very loudly in a quiet room after Craig Finn explained before the live debut of “Lord, I’m Discouraged” that it was a “sad song”. Man, talk about a buzzkill. The dude next to me patted me on the shoulder and said “nice job” as I sunk my head into my shoulders. Ouch.

Gino-ology: Tracing the Development of Gino Scarim

He nails the guitar part in one take.

Gino Scarim looks surprised as he makes a series of clicks in a program called ProTools, editing the track he just recorded.

Behind him with guitar in hand stands Eric Grossmann, the guitar player of northwest-suburban mainstays The Brokedowns, who’s joking with his bandmates about being able to play the guitar part despite learning the song minutes before he recorded it.

Scarim listens to the playback on speakers above his head, and after some short deliberation with the bandmembers, decides it’s time to move on to the next track. What he’s doing isn’t making him a lot of money – but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

At 28, Scarim is responsible for two of the northwest suburbs’ longtime music businesses – record label Duckphone Records, which he’s run for almost a decade, and promotion company Decal Productions, which is responsible for booking local acts in local venues. In addition to this, he performs as a sound engineer at the Clearwater Theater in West Dundee, as well as at the Metro in Chicago, and he owns a recording studio, Red Door Studio in Fox River Grove.

Since Scarim’s operations are small, he admittedly doesn’t have much money to pack into promotion or touring for his bands, but there are some success stories. One of Decal’s early bookings was political punk band Against Me! in Elgin, in November 2003. The band went on to sign a major label deal and recorded their latest album with the producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Scarim looks more like a defensive tackle and less like someone who works in the sound business. He’s got a shaved head and a trimmed beard, is heavyset and stands a little over six feet. Physically, he’s a bit imposing, but the fact that he’s wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man kind of dispels the notion that he’d hurt anyone. His co-worker at Clearwater Theater. Co-worker D.J. DeNoon says, “He doesn’t drink, never had a cigarette, doesn’t do drugs and he tried to stop drinking pop.”

There’s no doubt Scarim loves music – that’s very clear when he talks about starting bands with his high school buddies. His musical tastes range “all over the charts,” and he says he likes hardcore bands like Converge, Dillenger Escape Plan and the Lawrence Arms. Taste doesn’t really factor in picking what bands to record. To him, what’s rewarding is providing a launching pad for those who are in the same position he was 10 years ago.

“I try to keep it real light, friendly – joke around. Productive and professional. There are so many added pressures in the studio. My studio is rather inexpensive, but the bands still get a higher quality recording,” he says. Scarim also says it helps if the bands have home recordings. That way he can get an idea of how the band sounds and see what direction he can help take the songs in.

There is no way to deny the influence of Scarim on this community. It’s not outside the realm of possibility to assume someone in his position could be difficult or out of touch. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There’s no discernable trace of and that’s what endears him to the people he’s worked with and worked for.

Jamison Butcher, one of Scarim’s former interns at Clearwater Theater credits Scarim for “single-handedly” nurturing the music scene and without him “it would have died out a long time ago.” Scarim’s former bandmate and co-worker Mustafa Daka says, “He will do whatever he can to help people and has done a lot, and is so humble he won’t admit it. He’s made a lot of things possible for a lot of people, and keeps things fun for a lot of people.”

“It’s somewhat generational. We were working with younger kids doing shows – high school type kids, kids are getting into music earlier – and it happened to be a good thing at the time,” says Grossmann. “In high school for me, there were no shows around here. People in bands weren’t the norm, now it’s the inverse; there’s a ton of shows all the time.”

Scarim carefully explains that his promotion company, Decal Productions, provides him his necessary income. It’s the reason he can keep the label and recording studio going. The success of the company allowed him to move to different venues – and as a result, present more shows. Duckphone Records is something he enjoys doing, but isn’t necessarily crucial to his income.

Only one of Scarim’s businesses allows him the freedom to not have to hold any other supplemental jobs. The music scene in this corner of the northwestern suburbs went from nascent to populous in a short amount of time. Once it was hard to find shows in the area – now Scarim’s company Decal runs seven shows a week.

“It’s weird,” he says. “The more involved I get, the more I have to be. They all transfer into everything. I couldn’t do one without the other. They feed off each other.”
Back in 1999, the northwest suburbs started to populate itself with high-school-aged kids starting bands inspired by their favorite ska-core staples, the Voodoo Glow Skulls and Slapstick, which later spawned regionally-known acts such as Alkaline Trio and the Lawrence Arms. For the kids in this area, however, there was one big problem – nowhere to record, or play.

That’s when Scarim took matters into his own hands. He founded Duckphone Records in 1999 to record his friends’ bands so they’d have something to sell at their shows.

It wasn’t an instant process by any means. When Duckphone formed, Scarim was working for the Classic Cinemas chain of movie theaters, where he became the youngest general manager in the theater’s history at the age of 19. Two days after he graduated high school, he accepted a job at the theater that paid him $19,500 dollars a year. It was good money, he says, but quit a year later after he was offered a position at musical instrument store Sam Ash.

“I bought equipment slowly – used stuff for a good price. I … never had a ton of extra cash,” says Scarim. “[I started in] my parents’ basement. They gave me an entire basement to do my stuff.”

In his parent’s basement, Scarim started with a basic four-track tape recorder that he ran into an Analog recorder.

Daka, or “Moose” as he’s known to most, used to be Scarim’s co-worker at Sam Ash and was a bandmate in their onetime band Slim Jim Conspiracy. He was instrumental in the early days of Duckphone, as well as when Scarim set out to start booking shows.

Daka and Scarim would take items discarded from Sam Ash – soundproofing and cables – and built a closet with those materials. Even if some of the materials were half broken, they’d try to use them. According to Scarim, they’d “Frankenstein” microphones where they took working parts of some and put them together with parts of others. They fashioned the closet into a vocal booth using found materials. When finances allowed, he would upgrade the equipment in his studio. The patchwork studio setup lasted for several years, until Scarim moved equipment into the studio he’d purchased in January 2007.

Scarim and Daka at first teamed up to find shows for their band. “Me and Gino did a lot of calling around, because a lot of VFWs and Moose Lodges wouldn’t do shows. When we heard bands playing places, we’d call and try getting our band on there,” he says. “We ended up playing a lot of Battle of the Bands so we could play.”

Moose had started booking shows at the Warp Skate Park in Elgin, which originally overwhelmed Scarim. “I was like, I can’t do what Moose does, having bands calling him all the time,” he says incredulously. “But then I started doing it independently of him.” Not long after, Scarim got in contact with Grossmann, who, like Scarim, was struggling to find shows for his band.

The pair heard through mutual friends that they both had wanted to book shows, so Grossmann took the dive and called Scarim. They held meetings at Denny’s in Carpentersville, about the direction they wanted to go in. There, Decal Promotions was formed as a partnership between the two. In 2003, the fledgling company scored big early – they negotiated a deal with Clearwater Theater, a fairly new venue that hadn’t invited may local bands to play. Decal began hosting shows on Mondays and Tuesdays. “Things snowballed from there,” says Grossmann. The success of shows at Clearwater led to slots at Penny Road Pub in nearby Barrington and Just For Fun Roller Rink in McHenry.

About a year ago, Grossmann left Decal to focus on his day job as an IT recruiter and on his new family. Scarim then took over full time.
But he’s not without help.

DeNoon, a co-sound engineer at Clearwater says, “Gino … told me how to set up and run sound. Before [him] I had never done sound – and he needed people who knew how to do it, so he taught me to run it when he couldn’t be there.” Because of his experience at Clearwater, DeNoon now assists bands he’s worked with on shows at larger venues such as the Metro.

Several years ago, DeNoon hit a rough patch where he was unemployed and didn’t have a place to stay. Scarim’s parents took him in. “The job I have now I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t because of Gino,” he says. “I wouldn’t be at the place I’m at now with a place to live without Gino and his family.” He pauses. “Wow,” DeNoon says. “I don’t even think he knows about this.”

Eddie Tsikretsis – the former bass player of Me, Myself and Eyepatch, one of Duckphone’s earliest bands – is far removed from his days on Duckphone’s roster. Yet he agrees that Scarim’s approach remains the same.

“He’s dealing with kids with no musical ability and he’s pretty awesome at that. He championed us the whole time,” Tsikretsis says. “The motivating factor is that he wants to see bands doing something, even if it isn’t his thing.” Scarim recorded an entire album for Me, Myself and Eyepatch, but the band disbanded shortly thereafter. “Gino gets good involvement from kids who have burgeoning interest and he incubates them,” Tsikretsis continues.

Back at the studio, Grossmann struggles to lay down a guitar track for another song, despite his earlier successes. Scarim calmly offers encouragement and provides direction on where Grossmann can come back in on the track. Eventually, after several more takes, the tracking is completed. He takes a seat and listens intently as Scarim cues up the track on the computer screen. After the playback is done, Scarim turns to the guitar player and smiles.

“Good job, Grossmann.”

Then it’s back to work.

Have You Seen My Dulcimer?

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In the fall of 2004, I started my freshman year of college at Northern Illinois University. I wasn’t a big fan of it – I missed my friends and I wanted to be at home – so every weekend, I went home. During this time, I talked to a bunch of friends back at home into starting a band. I thought it would be fun since I sort of ham-handedly played guitar, and it would be cool to get something together that sounded like my favorite band at the time – Broken Social Scene. So I did what any other eighteen year old at the time would have done. Formed a band.

Dos Ambuli began in late 2004 as the marriage between two types of people: those with musical talent, and those that didn’t. I was in the latter. The musicians of the group of the group were patient – our drummer and multi-instrumentalist tirelessly coached us through songs we tried to put together. I insisted we recorded every jam session. We eventually were able to put together one song called “Small Victory”, which, very succinctly was just that. We then decided to work on some other songs sketches in the following weeks. Near Thanksgiving 2004, however, our practices collapsed and the songs were shelved.

Then, in the summer of 2005, vocalists Brud Branson and Kelsey Pierson along with myself had decided to revisit the project with the use of Apple’s GarageBand software. Through one marathon session one evening, we churned out several songs in the program. Again, we shelved these to use at a later time.

In August of that year, Brud and I re-convened to record more with multi-instrumentalist Keith Pitner and Zach Golden on what would be our finest achievement: the song called “I’m a Baby Dinosaur”. Written by Brud and friend Chris Lindsey, the song one minute and forty one seconds of pop excellence, chronicling a baby dinosaur that loves watching porn. (We did a couple other songs that day, but seriously, nothing really compares.)

The song caught fire locally, mainly with high school students, leading me to be recognized at Target as the guy in the band that did “the baby dinosaur song”. Awesome.

Anyways, near the end of 2005, I sat down with the recordings and organized them to create our magnum opus, Poop In A Boot, based on a drawing made by Brandon.

So, mere days after I completed my college career, I wanted to share Dos Ambuli with the rest of you.

This is our sprawling avant-punk, twee-pop, indie rock, outsider music classic. Enjoy it. Share it with your friends.

Or just post in the comments about how shitty it was.

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Dos Ambuli – Poop In A Boot (2005) (104.3 MB)


Dos Ambuli is:

Brud Branson – Vocals
Kelsey Pierson – Vocals
Brendan Hilliard – Guitar, Background Vocals
Keith Pitner – Keyboard, Trombone, Random other instruments
Luke Mycyk – Bass
Andy Soderstrom – Drums

All These Kids Look Like Lambs Looking Up At Me

Amidst a sea of big heads and soft bodies, five men casually stroll out to the strains of a triumphant Ennio Morricone score. In this Milwaukee crowd, an eclectic group of teenagers, college students, 30-something paper pushers and baby boomers nostalgic for the glory days of rock ‘n roll, pepper the audience. It’s a strange sight to see, but they all have one thing in common: they are unified under the same feeling of absolute joy this band brings the minute it appears on stage.

The first four band members, all of whom lived in Minneapolis, aren’t all that disparate. The singer, had he not been wearing a Carling soccer jersey and a pair of jeans, would fit in perfectly as a CPA at a major corporation. His squarish, thick-rimmed glasses are the giveaway. The guitar player is a doppelganger for the Chicago Cubs’ Mike Fontenot, only Fontenot 10 years from now. The bassist, a Thomas Haden Church-looking dude, wears a silly smile and seems genuinely touched by the enthusiasm the crowd shows him. The drummer looks like Sting, if he was a mechanic from St. Paul. He’s poker-faced, the only band member that would really qualify as brooding and mysterious.

But the fifth guy, the New Hampshirian – the one who plays keyboards? Well, he stands out like a sore thumb. Then again, so would you if you wore a crisp black suit, black dress shirt, matching fedora and a red rose tucked into your front jacket pocket. The Dali-esque mustache doesn’t hurt either.

This is The Hold Steady, a rock band based out of Brooklyn with its heart planted firmly in the Twin Cities.

The members – singer Craig Finn, 36, guitarist Tad Kubler, 34, bassist Galen Polivka, 39, drummer Bobby Drake, 32 and keyboardist Franz Nicolay, 30, have spent a better portion of the past four years barnstorming the world in support of their three albums, released in consecutive years from 2004-2006 with a fourth due this summer. Their classic bar-band sound – think of the E-Street Band covering Thin Lizzy songs, paired with singer/lyricist Craig Finn’s sing-along stories about drinking, drug addicts, religion and the Mississippi River, have made them a favorite with fans and critics alike.

“Most indie rock bands are shitty to see live,” says Nicolay. “It’s not as big of a problem now as it was 10 years ago. There was an anti-performance ethos that I found really irritating and a little contemptuous of the audience.”

The Hold Steady set out to turn that trend on its head. In a February 2004 interview with Aversion.com, Finn explained that The Hold Steady was formed “as a reaction to dance punk and what’s popular, which is pretty contrived in my mind, it’s also a reaction against that dress-up garage rock kind of thing. The rock ‘n roll that has gotten big has been very postured and costumed.”

Anders Lindall, a freelancer and music writer for the Chicago Sun-Times who has followed The Hold Steady, echoes Finn’s statement.

“They are incredibly passionate about what they do,” he says. “Craig is so demonstrative and engaging. You [know] that you’re seeing something special.”

Lindall is right about Finn being demonstrative. In almost every song, he passionately acts out his lyrics.

Onstage, Finn wears a guitar, however he hardly seems to use it. Instead, he’s a flurry of wild arm gestures, excitedly hopping up and down in place, and strolling to opposite ends of the stage repeating lyrics out at the audience that he just shouted into the microphone. He’s obviously wired in to his performance. The instrumentalists are a ferociously tight quintet as they hammer through the band’s catalog of mammoth classic rock riffs and jubilant choruses with surgical like precision.

His voice, a throaty speak-sing, has been the target of many of the band’s detractors .To the uninitiated, it sounds like he’s shouting over the band’s music. To the band’s fans, he seems just like one of them a guy who’s realized his rock star dream. Finn’s animated stage presence coupled with his guy-next-door look has even led one rock writer to describe him as a “fanboy gone wild.”

The band’s lyrics are wildly literate – they’re more like epic stories than simple pop songs. Finn spent the first two records exploring the story of three characters he created – two drugged out guys and a girl that live in the Twin Cities. On the band’s third album, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, he moved to more universal themes of loss, hope and redemption. His eye for detail is evident on the song “Chillout Tent”, with the lyrics “She looked just like a baby bird all new and wet trying to light a parliament/ He quoted her some poetry/¨He’s Tennyson in denim and sheepskin/ He looked a lot like Izzy Stradlin.”

The Hold Steady are renowned to its fan base for its closeness. Post-show, it’s not unlikely to catch the band members hanging out with fans, knocking back a few drinks and telling stories. This “everyman” approach is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, a musician to whom the band is often compared.

Two of the band members in particular, Nicolay and Kubler, are specifically known for going out of the way for their fans.

“I want to meet the people that care about the same thing I care about – the music,” Nicolay says. “I want to reach out to them, [find out] why they care, what else we may have in common.”

The fans have responded in spades. A group formed on the band’s message board calls themselves the “Unified Scene.” Unified Scene members, named after a reference in one of the band’s songs, are known to travel from all over the country to see the band, sort of like Deadheads minus the chemicals. The Unified Scene wears matching navy blue T-shirts, each with a different number. It’s an all-inclusive group; even Hold Steady members have numbers.

For a band that has played on the Late Show with David Letterman and has been referenced on ESPN’s Sportscenter, I wanted to test the statements I had heard about it being “that easy” to get in touch with the band.

That’s when I sent Nicolay the e-mail. I was shocked (and somewhat thrilled) to have my interview request granted by a simple message to his personal address.

That’s all it took.

“They are totally down-to-Earth, regular guys,” Lindall says.

Nicolay provides a reason for the band’s responsibility to its audience.

“Each of us individually has spent so much time playing music that no one cared about and we appreciate that other people [now] do care about it,” he says.

Lindall provides an interesting perspective on the subject.

“[It’s an] extension of a longer tradition of American underground rock. It hasn’t been prominent in the past 15 years or more,” he says. “It hearkens back to a sense community of underground bands that really defined indie rock in the “80s bands and fans, college radio DJ’s, and zine writers were all part of one community who all saw each other as collaborators, not competitors.”

And there’s the live show.

“[The first I saw] was at Schuba’s here in Chicago … even then they had a small crowd in their hands,” Lindall says. “Every time they take the stage they throw themselves into these songs. [I’ve seen them] more recently in front of thousands at Lollapalooza, venues like that where the experience is not so intimate, [but] the immediacy of their songs still come across. The passion they put in their performance and the nature of this kind of music “classic rock n’ roll with a punk sense of energy that translates to a large venue or festival crowd really easy.”

With a highly anticipated album due in July, the band’s popularity is expected to rise. It remains to be seen if the intimacy at its shows can continue. Nicolay isn’t concerned.

“It feels to me that I give the same performance to 150 or 2,000 people,” he says. You’d like to think that the ideal is to keep that intimacy in terms of your connection with people. You try to make eye contact and be aware that 3,000 people are having this experience.”

Even at the band’s recent Milwaukee show, in a packed ballroom of more than 1,300 people, the intimacy is not lost on the fans.

During the midpoint of one of the band’s songs, Finn spots a college-aged girl with dirty blonde hair and blues eyes in the front row wearing a green, homemade T-shirt with the phrase “LFTR PLLR” in block letters. He points and smiles at the girl without missing a beat. She smiles back. The shirt is a nod to his and Kubler’s pre-Hold Steady group, Lifter Puller.

“[There’s] a real sense of connection that comes between the fans and the performance,” Lindall says.

After a post-show, late-night snack at a nearby diner, my friends and I made our way back to the car. In the distance, we noticed a small group coming our way. They’re hovering around a guy with glasses wearing a sport coat over a familiar soccer jersey. As our entourages neared each other, we let out a friendly “Heyyyy!” as he passed.

Craig Finn smiled and said, “Thanks for being a part of it tonight!” and continued walking into the brisk Milwaukee night.