Radar Eyes didn't come together by accident, but the band probably owes its continued existence to chance. In late 2006 drummer Shelley Zawadzki and guitarist-vocalists Nathan Luecking and Anthony Cozzi were all playing in an aggressive local noise-punk band called Night of the Hunter, which had embarked on a seemingly cursed recording project. Working with engineer Kenny Rasmussen, probably best known at the time as the bassist for No Funeral, they produced not the album they'd intended to but instead a series of dead reel-to-reel machines, all of which had expired during the sessions. They were already frustrated with the way the band was going and had started a three-piece side project that was toying with a psychedelia-drenched strain of garage rock when Night of the Hunter front man Jeremy Kitchen snapped an anterior cruciate ligament onstage at the Mutiny in late 2007. The side project, which had just played its first show as Radar Eyes, stepped in to play a gig that Night of the Hunter had booked. Soon the first band split up altogether.
It's kind of a dark origin story, but the inspiration behind Radar Eyes' music is even darker. "Anthony and I were phasing out of deep depressions at alternating times," explains Luecking, 27, a grad student in social work at the University of Chicago who works at a runaway hotline call center. "We were kind of burnt out on punk rock and more sinister music and wanted to play something more poppy and fun." Radar Eyes sound the way they do because "we needed something to keep our spirits up and avoid suicide."
"Jesus," says Zawadkzi, 36, who works at a south-side library. It seems to be only half a joke, and she only half laughs at it.
"I just wanted to play something that that would bring me to a more positive place," Luecking continues. "I don't know. The energy I put into it was something that would soothe and comfort me rather than feed into my aggression."
Luecking and Cozzi, 34, a union bricklayer who's between jobs and working door at the Empty Bottle, do all the songwriting for Radar Eyes. Luecking had only just begun working on his own material when the band started, and Cozzi had mostly limited himself to bedroom four-track sessions. But now they each bring songs to the group more or less finished—Luecking's tend to be poppier, Cozzi's more psychedelic. In part this is a reaction against Night of the Hunter's process, which consisted largely of jamming until somebody came up with something worth keeping.
In fact, they have a bit of a bias against jamming, though you could be forgiven for concluding otherwise from listening to their self-titled cassette on the local Plustapes label, released in March, or the seven-inch that's coming out in July as part of HoZac's Hookup Klub subscription series. Their sound draws heavily on heady bands like the Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3, and most of their songs rely on a slim handful of chords—qualities that usually mean you're in for nothing but sprawling go-nowhere freakouts with pretensions to transcendence. Radar Eyes prefer more structure in their music, though, and Luecking and Cozzi build surprisingly sophisticated hooks from simple component parts. It actually makes perfect sense that they cite the Ramones as a big influence.
"When we first started the band, I was listening to a ton of Chicago garage," Cozzi says. He gives shout-outs to Alex White, Disappears, and especially the Ponys. "Those were super simple songs," he says of the Ponys' first record, Laced With Romance, "but there was a layer of noise to it too."
The Radar Eyes cassette has more than a layer of noise to it: the music sounds like it's coated in several inches of distortion, reverb, echo, and feedback. That was only partly by design: the group decided to hold their Plustapes session at their old practice space, using yet another vintage eight-track machine and once again enlisting the help of Rasmussen, who'd started playing bass for the band about four months in. (Lucas Sikorski, 28, who used to play guitar with Shopping, took over for him early this year.) Cozzi acted as a sort of producer to Rasmussen's engineer, but the experience he'd picked up four-tracking didn't get him as far as he'd hoped. The practice room had such ridiculously high ceilings it was almost shaped like a silo; sounds bounced around its airspace crazily, and Cozzi's choice of technique did little to tame them. "I did all ambient mikes," he says. "I didn't close-mike anything. And I didn't take into account that the cymbals were going to be the loudest thing in the room. I mean, we play pretty loud, but the cymbals still cut through everything. I don't know what I was thinking."
Cozzi credits the mastering job, by Plustapes' Kumar McMillan, with rendering the recording listenable, but it still sometimes feels like being trapped in a huge windowless box with a bunch of trash-can lids ricocheting around. Which, depending on your taste, isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Radar Eyes are definitely more pop than punk, but despite the candylike hooks the music hasn't totally shaken the grimness it was supposed to ward off. The contrast between the two is probably more powerful than either alone could ever be. "I was really messed up about seven or eight years ago," Cozzi says. "Lots of drugs and stuff like that. A lot of the songs lyricwise come out of that stuff. I stopped getting fucked up all the time, but I still think like that—I still have those thoughts, really negative and dark thoughts. That's where a lot of the writing has come from. It was always kind of like, I'm alone in the world and everything's fucked up and everyone's out to get me. I try to throw a bright side in, maybe a smidgen of 'everything's OK.'"
"My experience is similar to Anthony's," says Luecking, "and now I feel like I'm in a place where I'm comfortable enough with who I am to write a song that's really cheesy and weak to a certain degree and feel all right with that. I want to embrace it. I want it to have a sweetness, but if it's juxtaposed with a dark side I think it makes it more interesting."