With their jingle-jangle melodies, vintage cardigans, and puppylike stage personas, Very Truly Yours seem harmless, maybe even a bit precious. But in their own way, they're rebels.
"I wouldn't say our music is revolutionary or anything," says singer-guitarist Kristine Capua, "but it's certainly different. Aside from us, I can't even think of another straight-up indie-pop band from Chicago. Maybe they're all in hiding, I don't know. But our style of music has just never really fit in here."
When Capua says "indie pop," she means something more specific than pop played by indie bands. To borrow a turn of phrase from KRS-One, if pop is something you do, then indie pop, or twee, as it's sometimes called, is something you live. It's music custom-made for cult devotion, with a philosophy rooted in the DIY tradition of punk but an aesthetic indebted to the Rickenbacker guitars, la-la-las, and lovelorn lyrics of the mid-60s.
Initially popularized by early-80s Scottish bands like Orange Juice and the Pastels, indie pop soon found its niche among bookish daydreamers and hopeless romantics on both sides of the pond—in the late 80s the flagships of the scene were Sarah Records in the UK and K Records in Olympia. Twee devotees still recognize one another by their retro thrift-store couture and have built secret societies around hard-to-find seven-inches and handmade fanzines—though they acknowledge the Smiths and Belle & Sebastian as wellsprings, indie pop's most beloved pioneers, like Beat Happening, Heavenly, the Field Mice, and Tiger Trap, are much more obscure. And the fans, who seem to prefer their heroes on a modest scale, jump at any opportunity to share their passion with others in the know.
Indie pop has waxed and waned over the years, but right now it's enjoying a significant revival in the States. Labels like Magic Marker, Cloudberry, Bus Stop, and Slumberland are carrying the torch, and New York City's Popfest—where, back in May, Very Truly Yours was the sole band representing Chicago—is one of a growing number of annual indie-pop events, which includes gatherings in San Francisco; Athens, Georgia; and Northampton, Massachusetts.
The midwest has been passed over by this revival, though, at least so far. Chicago hosted the not-entirely-twee Cardigan Festival in the mid-90s, and there was a Chicago Popfest in 1997; some of the earliest stateside indie-pop labels were based in the area too, like Picture Book Records in Barrington, Sunday Records in Rolling Meadows, and Parasol in Champaign. But those labels are defunct now—except Parasol, which has moved on to other things—and the city has become an indie-pop desert. Of the Chicago bands that Capua knows, only Canasta might qualify as twee, and even that would be a stretch.
Formed in August 2008 from the ashes of a band called the Lorimer Sound, Very Truly Yours had managed only a handful of sparsely attended gigs before February, when they landed a slot opening for Brooklyn indie-pop heroes the Pains of Being Pure at Heart at a sold-out Schubas show. Jennifer Reiter, half of the indie-pop promotions group Colour Me Pop, had a hand in setting up the concert.
"I'd been dreaming about a band like Very Truly Yours since I moved to Chicago six years ago," she says. "But it's just very difficult for a band like them to get on bills in Chicago with artists that are like-minded or share a similar musical knowledge and background."
Capua, 25, got into indie pop in college when an old bandmate introduced her to Heavenly; Very Truly Yours guitarist Lisle Mitnik, also 25 (and Capua's boyfriend), followed a more traditional path, progressing from the Beatles to the Smiths to Belle & Sebastian. The rhythm section—bassist Dan Hyatt, 39, and drummer Andy Rogers, 33—is old enough to remember when the genre-defining C86 compilation came out in the UK. But whether they were around for Chicago's previous indie-pop bubble or not, they all agree that the present lack of a local scene is a hardship. There's an audience here, but it isn't a cohesive community—and the absence of other bands is a big problem too. "If we ever really want to grow in Chicago," Capua says, "we have no one to really latch onto and build a fan base with."
That made nabbing a gig with a Pitchfork-approved national act like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart even more crucial. Reiter understood that, and helped Very Truly Yours onto the bill as a sort of parting gift to the band. In May she moved Colour Me Pop to the greener pastures of London.
Reiter had been trying to promote indie-pop shows and club nights here for years, without much success. "I knew it would take a while to build up a following in Chicago," she says, "but I didn't anticipate that there wouldn't actually be an indie-pop community to tap into. . . . I just got tired of being the most enthusiastic person in the room."
Very Truly Yours have an uphill climb ahead of them if they hope to rekindle Chicago's old affection for indie pop, but their new pals the Pains of Being Pure at Heart have inspired them by example. Though the Pains got an initial boost from Brooklyn's relatively supportive scene, they quickly transcended their niche to become a band that can fill midsize venues all over the country and even abroad.
"I don't feel like we'd ever have to blow up like the Pains did in the past year," Mitnik said in early May. "But they played Popfest last year and weren't really anybody, and now here they are touring the world. I don't really have any lofty dreams that that would be us. But playing Popfest certainly represents the best opportunity we'd have to reach that wider, sympathetic audience." (Popfest organizer Clyde Barretto was already sympathetic: in 2007 he released an EP by Mitnik's solo project, Fireflies.)
The past four months have been the busiest in the band's brief history. Hoping to fill out their sound, in March they recruited Katie Watkins, 26, from local folk-pop duo Katie & Pat to play keyboard and sing backups. April was dominated by the recording of a new EP, Reminders. And in early May, they finalized plans for a weeklong tour—six shows in six cities, culminating in a prime-time slot at Brooklyn's Cake Shop on the final night of Popfest.
By the third day of their 1,000-mile journey they'd been humbled by an equal parts unruly and apathetic crowd at a dive bar in Akron. They were playing right before the bar's karaoke night was scheduled to start, and people didn't want to wait—a few of them started chanting "You suck!" through an open window behind Rogers's head. "I'm really looking forward to a more receptive audience," he said with a laugh.
"Best-case scenario for Popfest?" said Watkins. "The venue is packed, the sound is pristine, and we play flawlessly and get signed to a label. Worst case? Everyone hates us. But even if they did, twee kids are way too nice to say so."
After a final warm-up show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Very Truly Yours rolled into New York City on Friday, May 15—a couple days before their show. The band's east-coast gigs had drawn modest but enthusiastic crowds, but those were small potatoes compared to Popfest, whose lineup included cult heroes like Rose Melberg (Tiger Trap, the Softies) and reclusive Swedes the Radio Dept.
Very Truly Yours were in their element, rubbing shoulders with indie-pop devotees from around the world and dancing to DJs spinning Tullycraft and Black Tambourine. When they took the stage at 9 PM on Sunday night, after an exhausting weekend of camaraderie, it was for a tightly packed crowd of kindred spirits.
"Hi, we're Very Truly Yours from Chicago," Capua said sweetly, provoking the sort of respectful applause usually reserved for war veterans. The band broke into its opener, "Homesick." Mitnik's guitar was jangling beautifully, Capua was cooing with confidence—and then something went sickeningly wrong with the sound system. Distracting bursts of static peppered the mix, and Watkins's keyboard went completely mute.
But the band soldiered on, playing through the rest of the song. Soon the technical problem was fixed and the set picked up steam. A cover of the 6ths' "Falling Out of Love (With You)" got the crowd firmly on their side, and the response to their set-closing one-two punch—the title track from their new EP, "Reminders," which they'd self-released earlier in the month, and the infectious "Pop Song '91," from a 2008 split EP with the Understudies—was the kind of enthusiastic ovation the band could only dream of provoking back home.
"I was really surprised when people in the audience were singing the words to 'Pop Song '91,'" Capua says. "That was great. Overall, it was just nice to be able to have an empathetic audience, and to be surrounded by people who are just as passionate about indie pop as I am. When it was over, I was somewhat sad, because we were going home, and it was like, 'Well, now what?' In New York, we didn't have to beg our friends to see us. The shows were sold out because people genuinely wanted to see them."
"Playing is much easier when you're working with the crowd's energy rather than fighting it," Mitnik says. "So far, though, Popfest hasn't caused the sea change that I secretly hoped for but didn't exactly expect. It's actually been somewhat frustrating, having played all over the place, to then have trouble getting a gig back here in our hometown. But it's OK, because I understand . . . this is what 99 percent of bands go through. At the very least, it was nice to transcend just being a band playing some songs, and feel like we were really part of something greater."