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Everything's Coming Up Kittens

His duo Houses got signed on the strength of one song, and next week they'll play their first show—at CMJ in New York. But things weren't always this easy for Dexter Tortoriello.


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Last month a Chicago band called Houses hit the charts at the Hype Machine, a massively popular online aggregator that tracks which artists and songs more than 1,500 music bloggers are posting about. Their track "Soak It Up," an airy, infectious bit of electronic pop, reached number six on the Most Blogged Artists chart the week of September 13 and number one on the Most Favorited Music chart on September 11—a notch above Brooklyn duo Ratatat, who'd just played the Riviera.

Given the rate of churn at the Hype Machine, this isn't necessarily remarkable—lots of little bands have managed blips like that. But "Soak It Up" was just the second song Houses had ever posted online, and the boyfriend-girlfriend duo—multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Dexter Tortoriello and vocalist Megan Messina—have only been a band since May. They haven't even played their first show: Houses' live debut will be Wednesday, October 20, at back-to-back CMJ showcases at Santos Party House and the Delancey in New York. On Tuesday their debut album, All Night, comes out on Lefse Records, whose catalog also includes indie darlings like School of Seven Bells and Neon Indian.

"It doesn't seem real yet," says Tortoriello. "We haven't even practiced."

It's a Sunday in mid-September, and he and Messina have all the gear they'll use for their live set spread out on a tabletop in Messina's new Glen Ellyn apartment: a Behringer mixer, an Akai MPK25 MIDI keyboard controller, a melodica, a tambourine, two Shure Beta 58A microphones, and a couple of MacBook Pros.

"I brought all this stuff over today to start," he says.

Tortoriello, 24, met Messina last year, and their relationship—like their band—took off so quickly it might've been charmed. But things haven't always been so easy for him. Growing up in the western suburbs, he says, he got addicted to heroin and crack in his early teens.

"I was in and out of rehabs and halfway houses my whole life, pretty much," he says.

Things got so bad that in 2006 Tortoriello dropped out of Columbia College and moved west to get clean in California, where a new drug-rehab facility had offered him a "scholarship." But he didn't stay there long.

"I just kind of bounced around halfway houses out in California, and had some serious medical issues," he says. "I was having seizures all the time, and I came home to get an MRI." When he got back to California, his things had disappeared from the place he'd been staying.

The staff tried to persuade him not to leave, but he'd been off drugs since March 2006 and decided to take his chances. Tortoriello called on his AA sponsor, Jesse Logan, a former counselor of his who'd moved to Salt Lake City. Logan, who's now 34, invited him to crash on his couch, and in October Tortoriello took him up on it. Logan was starting his own halfway house, which he called Safe and Sober Living of Utah, in the southern SLC suburb of Sandy—a local restaurateur, Kreg Van Stralen, had provided the house, and they operated without a license, offering "rooms for rent." Tortoriello pitched in too, doing renovations and making a website.

"We wanted to give back what was given to us, as far as recovery and sobriety," Logan says. "It just kind of took off from there."

In addition to making sure Tortoriello stayed sober, Logan—who'd played guitar on 2004's You Made Me by Buckcherry front man Josh Todd—helped his friend develop his musical voice. Tortoriello had grown up playing in metal bands, then transitioned to drone music in high school, but he didn't know much about writing songs. "I would just repeat three chords before Jesse taught me about prechoruses and bridges and shit," he says. Logan also gave Tortoriello a left-handed Seagull acoustic guitar, which he started using in a solo project called the Hospital Tapes that he'd had going since March 2006.

Safe and Sober Living of Utah didn't pay, so Tortoriello worked a string of second jobs. In early 2008 he was hired at the Apple Store in Salt Lake City, but by then he'd been away from his family for close to two years, and he was starting to feel like that was too long. Just two months in, he told his coworkers he was moving back to Chicago. Logan closed Safe and Sober Living not long after.

Tortoriello managed to get another Apple Store job once he returned, this time in the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. Messina, 23, was working at the Apple Store in Deer Park, and in April 2009, when a break-in temporarily closed that store, she went to work at the Woodfield location for the day.

"I remember he came up and shook my hand," Messina said. "I thought he was really cute. We worked throughout the day and I heard later on, 'Oh, he thinks you're cute.' I was like, 'Oh, really?' It was like eighth grade all over again."

Tortoriello and Messina began dating immediately. In August, Tortoriello lost his job for giving a customer a "huge" discount on a computer. "I thought he seemed like he needed a break, and I wanted to boost my sales," he says. "It got back to corporate." He decided to see this turn of events as an invitation to do something dramatic.

"I had been introduced to this website, the Help Exchange," he says. The Help Exchange, aka HelpX, helps volunteers seeking short-term accommodations find places to stay in exchange for a few hours of work a day. The jobs don't pay (except in food), but volunteers can choose where they want to go from a database of hosts.

"It was always something that kind of just hung out in the back of my mind," Tortoriello says. "If you ever lose everything, if you ever go completely broke, this is what you'll do. You'll find somewhere and you'll go."

The idea appealed to Messina too.

"Prior to meeting him, I was already set, in my mind, to get the hell out of here eventually," she says. "Not just work a retail job, but actually get out and see the world."

The couple spent the first three and a half months of 2010 living together, for the first time, in a little cabin in the tiny town of Papaikou, Hawaii. They worked for and lived on the property of a local artist, Suzy Papanikolas; among their many odd jobs, they laid PVC pipe to reroute rainwater for farming and helped her build a website and mend clothing. In their free time, Messina painted and Tortoriello pursued a solo avant-noise project called the Rainbow Circuit. They had to hitchhike eight miles to use the Internet.

In mid-April the couple returned to Chicago; Messina needed to earn money again to keep up with her car payments and student loans. Tortoriello continued to make new music, but it was anything but noise. Using samples of old Hospital Tapes tunes and field recordings from Hawaii, he mapped out a dreamy electronic pop song, "Endless Spring," on his laptop.

At that point things started happening fast. On May 4 he opened Twitter and SoundCloud accounts under the name Sun House—a tribute to one of his favorite bluesmen—but after realizing it'd sound exactly like "Son House" out loud, he quickly changed the handle to Houses. On May 6, a show called The Pop and Lock on CHUO in Ottawa became the first radio program to broadcast the new tune. On May 18, Pitchfork posted "Endless Spring" as part of its regular Forkcast feature. Three days later, Lefse signed Houses, and Messina became part of the group.

"When I got signed, they asked me who else was in the band, and I just said her," Tortoriello says. "We'd never even talked about it, but I figured if they were going to put me out on tour. . . . I figured that I'd want her to come."

Tortoriello wrote the rest of All Night, whose ten tracks include both "Endless Spring" and "Soak It Up," in about a week—he had lots of free time, since he's on unemployment and living with his parents in Hanover Park. Within a month he and Messina, now a part-time secretary, finished the album, working in Logic Studio on his laptop at his parents' house and in the basement of a friend's place in Carpentersville where Messina briefly lived. They don't have any immediate plans to enlist help onstage, but for their live debut they'll get an assist from 19-year-old visual artist Alan Jensen, who's created a video projection to accompany them.

"Neither of us are entertainers," says Tortoriello. "If it was just us with white lights, people would be like, 'Wow, that's fucking boring.' So we're gonna give everyone something to look at."

While the band's in New York, Tortoriello will also add a little instrumental zing to the CMJ shows of Lefse labelmate Tom Krell, aka How to Dress Well (see Sharp Darts). He and Messina might also visit the main branch of the New York Public Library, where "Soak It Up" is serving as the soundtrack to a video montage of images from an exhibit called Recollection that celebrates the photography collection's 30th anniversary.

After CMJ, Tortoriello plans to see if he can support himself just making music. "My unemployment got extended for another six months," he says, "so if in six months it hasn't taken off, I'm going to have to start working really hard. Or get a job."   


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