Chapter 24: Chicago (Rich Fessler)
“Rich’s band Bear Claw just finished recording with Steve at Electrical,” Jet says to me over the phone. “Sick Room Records is going to release their album, and Southern Records will distribute it, so you’ll probably be able to find a copy easily.”
“What does it sound like?” I inquire.
“Bear Claw? Rich and this other guy Rob play bass, and [Scott] Pico is the drummer. No guitars.”
“Wow, that sounds pretty intense,” I say.
I would find out later that the idea for this instrumentation came from Rich, who claims that—as a bassist—he always hears second bass lines in his head when composing. It was an idea he had previously seen used only once before—at a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin show—where Matt Cheslin and Alex Griffin both played bass, providing the English dance-pop group with a thunderous rhythmic assault. With two basses, a band could force people to feel the music throughout their bodies while listening…and that would be Bear Claw.
I found their album, Find the Sun, a few weeks after it was released, as I was shopping at Vintage Vinyl in Fords, New Jersey. I put it in my car stereo as I rolled out of the parking lot and cranked the volume, hoping to be pummeled. I couldn’t have been more pleased with what I heard. The different bass tones are enough to fool a casual listener into thinking they’re listening to a guitar-rock band. In fact, I was under the impression that at least a handful of tracks had overdubbed guitar parts.
“You mean there’s no guitar, at all?” I ask Jet.
“None. Not-a-one,” she responds, matter-of-factly.
“Are you sure?” I implore.
“Yeah I’m sure!” she exclaims. So, what do you think, it’s awesome, right?”
“I think I have to see them.”
It’s been a little over one month since I was last in Chicago. I just drove east across the state of Illinois from my aunt and uncle’s place in Gelena, and now I’m sitting outside Jet’s building, waiting to meet Rich Fessler from Bear Claw. The pair arrive in Jet’s sad excuse for a car and park behind me. Rich is wearing an oversized, black Swervedriver t-shirt and baggy khaki pants. He is a tall, preternaturally skinny fellow. We shake hands and head upstairs to Jet’s second-floor apartment; her cats meet us at the door with a series of shrill yowls. While Jet whisks herself away to get us some water, we take a seat on the antique blue couch that I called a bed on my last stop in town. She returns with two glasses, and plops down on the other side of the room to knit. As Rich and I talk, she occasionally interjects.
I look at Rich and begin by asking when he moved to Chicago.
“We all grew up outside of Joliet,” he answers, referring to the full band. I’ve moved a couple of times, I’ll go between the suburbs and Chicago depending on what the car situation is, and what the job situation is.”
“I stopped in Joliet for an hour or two,” I tell him. It’s an interesting place.” I hadn’t actually found it interesting at all.
“It’s pretty boring,” Rich counters. Most people remember it because of the state prison there. That’s the prison that was in Blues Brothers.”
“That’s right, isn’t it? I didn’t even draw the connection. I was making the Jesus Lizard ‘Rodeo in Joliet’ jokes in my head.”
“There is no rodeo in Joliet,” he laughs, as he delivers the first line of the song.
“I’m sure the house-parties out there differ a lot from venues in the city.”
“Oh, yeah. I’d actually rather play in a basement than on some super-high stage—somewhere that is right up next to people.”
“What venues in Chicago have you played?” I ask.
“Anywhere from really small places like Phyllis’s to Double Door and Metro and Beat Kitchen.”
“Do you prefer one to the other?”
“I like the Beat Kitchen lately,” he answers. “They’re under new booking and they seem really…they work with bands really well and, you know, they don’t try to jerk you over with the money or anything. They have a decent sound system and a good-sized room. I don’t really care for places that are too big.”
“There’s a video of you playing the Metro…”
“Yeah, yeah…” he shrugs. “It’s kind of a weird stage. I’d always wanted to play there because I’d seen so many good bands there, and good shows, that I’d always wanted to play there—but it’s just ridiculous. Like, I just remember looking over at Rob and thinking it didn’t even feel like we were playing together.”
“It doesn’t seem like a very personal space,” I observe.
“Yeah,” Rich agrees. “The Empty Bottle is alright too, but I don’t like the stage at all. I mean, it’s kind of high for one, especially for how small the room is. The angle is weird. There used to be the Fireside, also—it was a bowling alley for a long time, and then—I want to say in the 1980s—they started hosting shows. They built a stage just off to the other side—if you look to the right when you’re facing the stage, you could see all the lanes. They just blocked all the lanes—they’d have bowling a couple times a week, but it was mostly a venue. That was one of the coolest places to see shows, just because you had all these younger people who really cared about the music. When I was going to shows in the mid-‘90s, it would be packed. It was hard to breathe. Everyone was sweating to death. It was just such a fun time because everyone cared so much—but then it just started fading away for some reason, and not many bands played there anymore. Bear Claw played there a couple times—but they stopped doing all-ages shows, and that kind of pisses me off because there’s nowhere left to play those shows.”
“How long ago did you get back from your tour?”
“About two weeks ago,” he says. “That was kind of rough.”
“It was fun, but I think it could have been planned a little better. It was our first big tour, so you’re always going to run into problems as you do anything. I think next time it will be a lot better. We met a lot of cool bands—especially this band from New York called Pretendo. Their drummer [Steve Calhoun] used to be in Skeleton Key, and he’s a great guy. We stayed with him at his place in New York for three days and he showed us around.”
“Your first time out is probably going to be the most hectic and frustrating.”
“Actually, not so much,” he ventures. “I mean, every city is going to have good clubs and bad clubs, depending on your viewpoint. Clubs vary from person to person, and what they personally prefer. It depends on the crowd, mostly. I would say that at a lot of the shows, there weren’t that many people there, but the people who were there were receptive. There were people who drove from out-of-state to come see us at shows where there were maybe three people watching. Then we’d play shows and there would be, maybe, one hundred and fifty people. The last show—in Columbia, Missouri—was really good, and lots of people showed up.”
“That all could be said for your hometown, too, I would think…places garner different people and different responses. Do you notice trends in Chicagoans as far as their respect for local culture and bands are concerned?”
“I’d say at different clubs it will be a little bit different, because each will cater to different crowds. Some clubs will have more mainstream music for the most part and, so, if you have a band that’s doing something totally different, most people just don’t get it a lot of the time. People, they don’t often open up themselves to a lot of different things—they just kind of stick to what they’re used to and enjoy. I think radio has numbed a lot of people.”
“But Bear Claw has been on the radio…” I put forth.
“Just, uh, college radio,” Rich clarifies.
“There’s no way that we’d be on mainstream radio stations. WLUW [Loyola University], they’ve helped us out quite a bit in Chicago.”
“I don’t know anything about local radio here other than a sliver of information about WNUR [Northwestern University],” I admit. Does college radio in Chicago rival the mainstream at all, or are they just considered outsiders?”
“Most people just tune into the major radio stations.”
At this point, Jet looks up from her scarf and chimes in, “The kids around Northwestern listen to college radio stations a lot. My friend Jason works at a record shop in Evanston, and he gets a lot of kids who come in for stuff that they’ve heard on WLUW. There’s a couple other college stations, but WLUW has been putting on record fairs for the last couple years—they have been trying to get small labels, who have a title to distribute, to come there. They and WNUR are the ones that college kids will listen most often to.”
Rich and I look at each other and smirk as Jet sits Indian-style on the floor with yarn in her lap, needles in hand. She furrows her brow in recognition that we’re making fun of her. She then tries a diversionary tactic by stating, “Rich has his own record label…”
I turn to Rich and ask, “Does he?”
“Yeah,” he says softly. “I wouldn’t call it too much of a label yet. I’m just kind of getting it off the ground.”
“What’s it called?”
“Ear Flaw Records.” Rich sighs, “I’m a nerd so I do things like that with my time. The label is just starting out. I started about a year and a half ago, and—I don’t know—it takes a lot of money and a lot of work. I have three releases right now. The first band, they were called Blaked, but they recently broke up. The second one is a band called Worker and Parasite.”
“They’re awesome,” Jet says, as she begins filing through her music library for copies of the albums in question.
Rich continues, “I played bass on half of their songs in the studio. They also recorded with [Albini]. They’ve gone through a lineup change so they’re reworking some of their songs. The third band is called Paper Bullets. They’re a punk band that plays quite a bit around town but nothing really outside of Chicago yet.”
“I always imagine that the conversation in which you tell a band you want to release their album might sound awkward,” I tell him.
“Paper Bullets I met when we played a show at Bottom Lounge. I just really liked the way that they sounded, so when I saw an advertisement somewhere that they were playing last August, and I went to the show and enjoyed myself. The third time I saw them, I asked them if I could put out their album. I don’t think they took me seriously at first—so I pursued them once again, and they decided to work with me. I don’t know, I think the label has a lot to go through yet, but I’m glad I started it.”
“Are there pressing and manufacturing plants close by?”
“No—for the compact discs I work with a friend out in Omaha, Nebraska through a place called Media Services. They do a really good job. I went to Dorado Press in California for the vinyl jackets; I like their work a lot. For the vinyl pressing, I’ve had some trouble with that—so I’m still dealing with it…”
“Some of the records are skipping, and I’m still trying to fix the problem even months after it was released. Which reminds me—I need to call them tomorrow…”
“Do you have any other secrets you’re keeping?”
“Um, yeaaaah,” he says, reluctantly. “I have a couple other bands. One is called All Limbs Intact. As of right now it’s just an instrumental band: we’re still trying to decide if we want vocals or not…Jet’s shaking her head no, but that’s our decision, not hers.”
“They’re so great,” she adds.
“It’s just a standard four-piece lineup,” Rich continues. “With that band I play guitar and get to break out all my effects, so I’ve got two amps going and twelve effects boxes.” He takes a breath before continuing. “I’ve been trying to start another band since before Bear Claw, where I’ll switch between bass or baritone guitar, and incorporate cello and violin, classical piano, or more classical instrumentation. I’m thinking of a cross between Rachel’s and Shellac and the Oxes—noise meets classical sounds. It’s really hard to find cello and violin players that will not only play in a band like that, but will be able to play in a band like that.”
“You mentioned Shellac—so I should probably ask the question I’ve asked Tim and Jeff,” I preface. “Do you think that Chicago has an aesthetic attributed to it by people outside of the city, who hear bands like Shellac and think, ‘that kind of sound is a hallmark of this city?’”
“I think there’s more bad bands that have come out of Chicago than good bands,” he states bluntly. “And I think people have seen that, too. There have been incredible bands like Shellac, Jesus Lizard, Naked Raygun—all those bands I like. I think people will go to the local bands’ shows just because they’re playing, you know? There’s a little bit more diversity in Chicago’s music, but not a whole lot. Everyone is just kind of used to doing the same thing here, no one is really trying to do anything new. It’s a little bit stale right now. I think in an outsider’s perspective, if they think that’s the Chicago ‘sound’—there are bands that are influenced by those main bands, but don’t necessarily sound like them.”
“…Like Quatre Tête?” I ask.
“Exactly. Quatre Tête is a really good Chicago band. I could say that you could hear a little bit of influence from a couple Chicago bands, but Quatre Tête have their own thing going—and I think there are some bands that will start coming out soon who have their own sound, and it will inevitably shift the definition of the city’s music. I like Sequoia; they don’t play out much, but they’re really good. Then there’s a band called Darkmoor…Pete [Aimaro]—from my old band Hello Operator and the singer, Lain [Weck], from my old band Generator 9—they’re in that band together now. There’s another band we’ve played with in Milwaukee, called Volcano—they’re a three-piece, and they’ve incorporated keyboard sounds. They’re just guitar, bass and drums for the most part, and really experimental—especially the drummer, he does a lot of jazz-type drumming. It’s noisier-type music, and then he’ll incorporate these weird sounds, like taking a nylon-tipped drum stick and gouging it into his cymbal to make a screeching sound.”
“There was a band that used to play around Wilmette called Goiter,” Jet looks up from her knitting to add, “and they were basically just high school kids. The drummer in that band would take a weed-whacker to his cymbals.”
“Goiter were really good,” Rich picks up. “They were all, like, fifteen to eighteen years old at the time. There were eight people in the band, I want to say, and they were all really talented. Goiter, I think, were kind of influenced by Tortoise and Dianogah, and more jazzy stuff. It was refreshing to hear something like that, especially from younger people. It makes you believe that…” he pauses, “maybe music is not dying?”
“If you don’t mind,” I venture, “I’d like to shift gears a little and talk about Chicago. Do you have a lot of pride for the city?”
“I would say I have pride for the bands that work hard and believe in their music,” Rich says, “but as far as the city helping music—especially with the all-ages club situation—I don’t like how they stifle that. There really needs to be a club like that—otherwise, music is just going to be force-fed by the radio, and every band is just going to sound the same. It’s bad enough right now.”
“What do you think is the local government’s motivation to keep all-ages venues down?” I inquire.
“I just don’t think anyone really cares enough to open that kind of club. The Bottom Lounge will have maybe one all-ages show a week. And there’s a place way up on the far north side that no one can really get to—but it’s only open during the summer. No one seems to be invested in the music—it’s just the money, and how much money a place can bring in. I’d say that’s true for almost anywhere, you know, the way people treat bands…when we were on the road—I’d say at one-third of the places we played—we didn’t even make a dollar. That’s really tough—if you have an out-of-town band coming in to play, at least give them some gas money.”
“There were places that refused to pay you?”
“Oh, yeah,” he asserts.
“Wow.” I’m taken aback.
“Yeah. And, going back to a place like the Fireside Bowl, I don’t know the story or anything, but I would guess that the owner [Jim Lapinski] just got sick of having all-ages shows because it was more of a hassle for him. He had to get a license, and not many people were coming to shows. From a club’s standpoint, you’re going to make more money off liquor sales than ticket sales—so as far as needing money to exist is concerned, that’s why the decision might ultimately have been made. I’d say that Chicago doesn’t totally care about the arts, but…you know…I don’t get too much into the political side of things—it just frustrates me.”
“I’m sure it’s like that everywhere.”
“Yeah, probably,” Rich agrees.
“Now that you’ve seen a bunch of different cities, are you schooled enough to compare and contrast local culture?”
“It all depends, honestly. When we were on tour we didn’t have much time to go around the cities and explore them to the fullest. Being locked up in a club and then going straight to sleep doesn’t help with giving a true impression of each city. I feel that in Chicago there’s a lot of diversity between different cultures. I enjoy living here, and seeing different people and the wide variety of artwork that they make. In New York, we were there for a couple of days and it seemed like a really cool city—but there are too many people there. Even though you have different backgrounds and cultures and such, I felt like I couldn’t enjoy anything, because I was sort of anxious all the time. That’s just my view of it, of course.” He laughs and reaches for his glass of water.
“So even when your own culture is in the margins, you feel that this is your home,” I suggest.
“I like Chicago. I just feel like it’s home,” Rich says. “Anytime I am away—like when I moved back to Carbondale and tried to get the band going quicker—I just remember moving back up here and driving into the city. I had been gone for months, and it was such a good feeling. It just feels like home. There’s a cool vibe about it. Everyone kind of does their own thing, and at times, it still feels like the people are working together.”
“When you’re not working or practicing or performing, there’s surely a lot to enjoy,” I state, curious to know more.
“I just walk around sometimes. I keep to myself, though—I’m that kind of person. I just observe the way that people interact. I do my own thing. I’m locking myself up at home lately because I’ve gotten into web design, which only adds to my nerd factor.” He starts laughing again. “I’m trying to build an online band calendar that’s going to be a public space where people will have a log-in for their band, and they can post shows that will be sorted by date. Eventually, you’ll be able to browse other countries, cities and states—or search by age group if you want all-ages, or twenty-one and up. Or, you could look for a certain band. I want it to be a database-driven website that will host this public thing—no banner ads or anything, my intentions are not to make money off it.”
“That’s really noble.”
“I think so.”
“There’s nothing really like that now, that I can think of,” I say as I think about how I find shows back home. “I mean, aside from a weekly paper or something…”
“Right, yeah,” Rich finishes. “There’s nothing like it that I know of.”
Jet again places her needles and yarn softly down at her side and looks up over the steamer trunk coffee table at us sitting on the couch. “Well, if I may interrupt—” she begins, “even those papers tend only to the notable shows. You can’t go in there looking for just anybody, unless you want to shuffle through the fine print and really search every ad. If that club didn’t run an ad for that weekend, you have no clue who is playing—that’s my experience. As an audience member, I don’t find any of the current band lists that are available to people to be informative or organized. As a band member, I think it’s difficult, at times, to get any news about your band to the public. It’s certainly a void that could be filled.”
Rich adds, “Every time I’ve seen Bear Claw in a paper, it’s said something to the extent of, ‘Two-bass band, like Dianogah.’ We sound nothing like them whatsoever—I just don’t understand that. Similar instrumentation doesn’t mean that two totally unrelated bands are the same. He adopts an announcer’s voice to illustrate his point: ‘The Beatles had drums, bass and two guitars, they must sound like Metallica’. But, yeah, I think the website—and having the bands interact firsthand with it—will be a lot more useful. Especially the different search capabilities—because you could get twenty different newspapers—or, you could go to one centralized space online. People won’t only be allowed to list their own band’s shows, they can list any show.”
“I like that. It’s a lot more useful than stapling fliers in this modern technological age.”
“The whole promotion of a show—it’s kind of rough, because you don’t want to be the whore and shove fliers down people’s throats. You have to do something, because you need to let people know you’re playing a show. I feel that word of mouth isn’t working as well as it used to. It just doesn’t feel like people talk about what shows are going on, what nights—they just kind of do their own thing, and go home at the end of each day.”
“Bear Claw is a relatively young band. What’s the easiest way for you to get the word out—Internet?”
“Well—we just have our e-mail list, and I’ll hang up fliers in a couple record stores around town—but for the most part, other bands we know and friends that they bring along will be in the crowd. I think that the radio helps out a little bit. I think that if bands could get their music to a college radio station and have them play it, and talk about their shows, it always helps.”
“What’s the future for you and for Bear Claw look like right now?” I ask.
“We’re going to take a break. We really want to start writing new songs and try to get another album out—but I think since we’ve been playing so many shows, it’s starting to become like a routine, and it feels lately like I’m not living life,” Rich laments. “I’m just stuck in this motion of things, and, you know, if you’re not living and experiencing different things, how are you going to be creative?”
“You need to draw from life all those little things that inspire you on a daily basis,” I suggest.
“What about the future of Chicago?”
“It’s a city,” he says, laughing.
“With people!” I add.
“I love it. This is my home, and I think it’s a great city to live in. One thing I don’t like is the gentrification. All these condos are going up everywhere and the yuppies are moving into neighborhoods—then those areas become new, ‘cool’ neighborhoods. It bothers me. Wicker Park is kind of a trendy place right now. It went from a bad place to a yuppie place, and now they’re all trying to shut down the Double Door—they went to court about that and Double Door survived. They were going to turn it into a Banana Republic, if they’d have won. There were a lot of people fighting it from around town. I’m glad it’s still open, because even if it caters to mainstream music for the most part, they’re willing to help out Chicago bands. They’ll give local acts a Tuesday or Wednesday show, sometimes Thursday, and you can work your way up. It’s a really great place, with a good sound system.” He pauses. “I just hate the condos going up because it takes away from the character of the houses and apartments,” he says.
“But, you live in a condo,” Jet reminds him.
“I do live in a condo, but I rent from…” He stops, exasperated. “I do not own the condo.” He takes a sip of his water. “You have to figure that a city needs to build up—you know, it can only move out so much, and since the suburbs here are spreading out so much already, it’s like you have to do something to build the city up. You are going to lose some buildings that add character to the city. It’s a shame. All the new buildings are so boring to look at…the city is going to turn into a Wal Mart.”
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