When you make a habit of going to shows, talking to bands, reading local music blogs, and scanning the schedule of every half-decent club in town, it's always surprising—even a little disconcerting—when a record by a local band you've never even heard of before ends up in your lap. Doubly so when it's really good.
Neither I nor any of the music-savvy friends I asked had heard of Secret Colours until the band's publicist sent me a download of their new self-titled debut album a few weeks ago. Their initial incarnation—guitarist-vocalist Tommy Evans, drummer Justin Frederick, bassist Dylan Olson, and lead guitarist Dave Stach—came together about a year ago, and not till November 2009 did they arrive at their second and current lineup with the addition of Margaret Albright, who plays keys and tambourine and sings backup alongside Stach.
Aside from Stach, at 23 a veteran of suburban power-pop outfits Surround Sound and Bachelor Party Weekend, no one in Secret Colours has previously played in anything more serious than a high school pickup band. Stach is the oldest member, and Evans and Olson are just 20. Only now are they starting to find their place in the Chicago scene and make connections with other local bands—some of which, like the Great Society Mind Destroyers, make music similar to Secret Colours' dark, droning psychedelic rock, and some of which, like Gold Motel and Apteka, do not.
Evans was the catalyst for the band's formation. Though he and Olson played together in high school (aside from Frederick, who attended Batavia High School, everyone in the group went to Geneva High), Secret Colours' creative nucleus was a batch of songs he'd written and recorded on his own after graduation—as Stach puts it, "just being a little space cadet by himself in his bedroom." Evans met Stach through a mutual friend and shared the material with him. Stach brought in Frederick, a guitarist who'd previously only moonlighted on drums—and who sold a 12-string Rickenbacker to buy a kit decent enough for a full-time drumming gig. Evans and Albright, who live together in the South Loop, have been dating for seven years. "So I've always been in the picture," she says. "One day they realized that I could do the backing vocals for the song 'Popstar,'" the CD's bonus track, "and then I was in."
"It's more that we just wanted a girl to play tambourine onstage," says Stach, apparently mostly joking. "'Cause it just looks fuckin' sweet."
Secret Colours' love of psych-rock groups like the Black Angels and the Brian Jonestown Massacre—whose lineups tend to sprawl like their music—probably also helped this particular tambourine-playing girl get the gig. "All those other bands have one," says Frederick, "so why can't we?"
Lots of young, inexperienced bands start off playing opening slots on as many shows as they can, to figure out what they want their style to be, tighten up their performances, network with other acts, and get their name and music in front of people. It's not unusual for such a group to have three or four shows a month. That's not where Secret Colours have focused their energy, though. They figure they've played maybe 15 dates—including gigs before Albright joined—and only five have been in Chicago clubs. The rest have been in DIY spaces, the suburbs, or both.
Secret Colours instead chose to dive into recording a full-length album in a professional studio—a potentially expensive gamble for a group whose only demos were a set of bedroom recordings, but one that makes sense given that Evans is studying to be a recording engineer at Columbia College. Evans sold off one of his two Rickenbackers—a recurring theme for the band, apparently—to help finance the project. ("No offense to Rickenbacker," he says. "We love their guitars.") In March and April they spent about 18 days tracking and mixing at Studio Edison in Park Ridge and Gallery of Carpet in Villa Park. Tub Ring keyboardist Rob Kleiner, a friend of the band, runs Studio Edison—basically a pro-quality home studio—and he gave them a small discount. Gallery of Carpet, says Olson, offered Secret Colours a rate they could afford because the state of the economy has made it hard to attract clients. For everyone but Stach, the experience was a first.
Ten of the 14 tunes on Secret Colours are from Evans's original clutch of songs, which remains the core of the band's sets even now. He's been working on new material—this time involving the others—and they plan to release an EP by the end of the year. "What attracted me initially," says Stach, "is when I heard all these songs first that he did by himself, he did, like, everything. I thought it was really cool. Ever since then, he brings in the song and then the rest of us spice it up and make it sexy."
The album is pleasingly dense, with chiming acoustic guitars, swirling vocals, jet-fighter electric fuzz, and tom-heavy drumming. Secret Colours wear their influences on their sleeves—not just the Black Angels and the Brian Jonestown Massacre but also the Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3, and Stone Roses. Psych-rock bands are usually less concerned with blazing trails than with developing a customized combination of the basic building blocks—drone, noise, pop hooks—that similar groups have been using since at least the mid-60s.
Frederick and Olson both play sitar on the album, for instance—one of the hoariest of psychedelic cliches. And Stach and Evans are so committed to the psychedelic aesthetic that they've gotten matching tattoos of a simple op-art design made up of nested eccentric circles—long associated with psychedelia, it's appeared in artwork for the likes of the Monterey Pop Festival, Spacemen 3, and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It's on Secret Colours' album cover too, as a pattern on the dress of the model. It's a bit presumptuous for a band so young to declare themselves part of a club whose members have built such legacies, but Secret Colours aren't shy about that: this past Tuesday they digitally released a cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows," one of the most psychedelic songs by a little British band called the Beatles.