Los Angeles band Drab Majesty perform at Chicago's Museum of Surgical Science as part of the Audiotree series Far Out.
"I don't want to be myself / Around anybody else," Matthew Lee Cothran mutters mournfully as he strums his guitar. Behind him and keyboardist Delaney Mills, his bandmate in North Carolina duo Elvis Depressedly, a bank of washing machines looks on bleakly. They're playing their lo-fi, depressive indie pop in the low-budget, depressive setting of a Laundromat, and the combination works.
Recorded in August 2016, the Elvis Depressedly video is the first in the Far Out series by boutique Chicago music company Audiotree—it was posted online in January 2017, as part of a cluster of five that launched the series. The setting is key to the Far Out videos: each one presents a touring or local musician performing in a location (usually somewhere in Chicago) that isn't a music venue. A Ping-Pong club, for instance, or a barber shop. Or the Museum of Surgical Science.
Audiotree had been contemplating the series for some time, but the first video came about almost casually. The Laundromat, Bucktown Bubbles, is down the block from Audiotree's studios. Tom Conway, chief cameraman and video editor on the series, simply walked in and asked the owner if his crew could shoot later that day.
"At first he was a little . . . curious," Conway says, laughing. But the owner agreed to let them give it a try, provided it'd take no more than two hours. So Conway and director-producer Shan Khan picked up Elvis Depressedly from their gig, set up the cameras, and shot an unassuming but charming video. "Laundry's done," Mills quips as the song ends and the camera pans up to the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Then Cothran "takes a call" at the pay phone, pretending to agree to provide the score for the next Toy Story film.
Far Out videos grew more elaborate over the course of 2017, but the basic concept remains the same: record a band in an unexpected spot that nonetheless complements its music perfectly. So far, Audiotree has recorded 14 acts playing one or two songs apiece. The session at the Museum of Surgical Science features Los Angeles's Drab Majesty performing downbeat retro new wave against the institution's gothic camp backdrop while wearing white robes and blue wraparound sunglasses. At Our Planet Automotive Services in Oak Park, English punks Basement blast away while mechanics lift up car hoods and check tires in the background. "We like when the venues can still continue their work," Conway says. "We want it to be absurd that there's a band playing there but the people aren't acting as if anything different is going on in their workday."
One of Conway's favorite shoots was for Chicago three-piece Lume, recorded without a permit (and probably not legally) at the Damen Silos, a huge abandoned grain elevator near Damen and 29th that's become a sort of street-art showcase. You can see cars coming and going in the background. "I swear there were drug deals going down there," Khan says. Because there was no power, they ended up lugging generators out to the site with the rest of their equipment, and curious passersby kept asking them what was going on. "It was fun, it was a blast, but it was a little nervous," Conway says.
For musicians, the Far Out series can be a chance to work with Audiotree with less contractual commitment than the company requires for many of its other kinds of sessions, which are generally monetized through Spotify (with proceeds split between the label and the artists). The Far Out series is more purely promotional—for Audiotree, for the bands, and with any luck for the businesses involved.
"It's been good for me to get people to listen to my tunes," says Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, a Chicago-based musical polymath who skips among pop, R&B, punk, hip-hop, and less categorizable genres. "Right when it came out, there were a lot of people who were hitting me up." Audiotree initially suggested that Ogbonnaya perform in Bucktown Bubbles, and Ogbonnaya had hoped to do a set on the Humboldt Park tennis courts. But when the courts proved too expensive, he and the producers settled on Bucktown Market in Wicker Park, a convenience store in Audiotree's neighborhood.
"I thought, yeah, this is vibrant and colorful," Ogbonnaya says. Some customers were driven away by the shoot, but a few shoppers continued to come through, stepping around the musicians to get to the counter. The band did four or five takes of each song. The lounge-jazzy riff on "Jingle Bells" that they use to kick off the "S Club 27" clip—its lazy swing juxtaposed with a reaction shot of a tiny excitable dog—almost justifies the series all on its own.
Conway and Khan have gotten a lot of positive feedback. YouTube commenters have been especially impressed that sound engineers R. Brok Mende and Rick Fritz managed to get studio-quality sound in a Laundromat, a service garage, and a barber shop.
Bands have also started to take notice. "The catalog that we've accumulated last year is really helping for us to get bigger fish this year. and we're hoping to work with bigger names," Khan says. For the first year of Far Out, the series was something that Audiotree pitched to bands. But Khan and Conway say they're now getting bands asking to participate.
Audiotree would like to film Far Out sessions more frequently, but so far the logistics of coordinating musicians and venues have generally kept them to one or two a month. They've scouted 30 or 40 new locations they'd like to use, though, and most of the owners at those places have expressed interest. It's just a matter of finding the right band to fit into a flower shop, a museum, or a silo somewhere in Chicagoland.