Watchers, Eternals, the Jai-Alai Savant
WHEN Sat 6/2, 10 PM
WHERE Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
On May 9 the Watchers were two days from the start of a two-and-a-half-week tour and short a bass player. Founding bassist Chris Kralik had quit three weeks earlier, and his replacement, a friend of a friend named Mark Hurst, was on his way to Chicago from his home in Lawrence, Kansas--he doesn't drive, so front man Michael Guarrine had to go out to pick him up. Once Hurst arrived, the band would have time for just three rehearsals. That would have to be enough to get him up to speed on the songs the Watchers planned to play on the road--most of them from the new Vampire Driver, which came out in April on Gern Blandsten.
Kralik left to go to school for electrical engineering, and according to guitarist Ethan D'Ercole there are no hard feelings. "The timing was just terrible," he says. "Like any Watchers pursuit."
Six years in, Guarrine and D'Ercole are the only members left from the band's original lineup. They're on their third drummer, Jess Birch (percussionist and keyboardist Damien Thompson joined to replace Jamie Levinson, who'd switched roles to take over from the band's first drummer), and now their second bassist. So far they've lost a member shortly after finishing three of their four releases--the kind of thing that makes the customary promotional tour a giant pain in the ass. It can't be easy to integrate a new person into the Watchers on short notice: they play an electric mix of punk, funk, and neo-no wave, and their live shows are famously tight. But when I say maybe they should stop making records, they think I'm kidding.
Hurst, it turns out, has fit in fine so far, according to Guarrine, and he says he's willing to become a permanent member. But the Watchers' recent tour was a fiasco. For the first time ever, they canceled shows. After a gig in Brooklyn on the 18th, Guarrine looked at the rest of the schedule--a nine-day loop down to Atlanta and back to Illinois with only five shows--and reckoned it'd cost $700 in gas to cover the miles. The shows weren't going to make them nearly that much, and on the days off they'd be spending money just to eat. (Guarrine says they've since fired their booking agent.) Already in the red, the band decided to pull the plug and head straight home. They went back out to play Indianapolis and Cincinnati, but ended up dropping three dates--almost a quarter of their tour.
There's no question that a Watchers show is the best advertisement for a Watchers album, but Vampire Driver is the kind of spark-throwing record that can get by on its own merits. The lead track, "Chess Champion," gives you an idea of the group's MO. It starts with a twitchy, stuttering drumbeat, joined by staccato funk bass and skritching guitar that lock into a groove together when Guarrine enters with his propulsive, uptight vocals. The Watchers borrow the nervous energy and alienated-modern-man vibe of Talking Heads, as well as the combination of deep funk and panicky punk the Heads popularized, but they're way more aggressive--they also draw from lesser-known bands on the late-70s New York art-punk scene, especially James Chance & the Contortions, who injected howling noise into James Brown-style R & B. The Watchers served as Chance's backing band on short tours in 2003 and '05, and he contributed his skronking sax and distinctively deranged vocals to tracks on Vampire Driver and its predecessor, the Europe-only EP Rabble.
The new album sounds coherent and spontaneous and comes closer to the band's onstage energy than anything they've released--which is strange, since everyone was rarely in the studio at once during its recording. This winter Jason VanHoose, one of the guys who own Volume studios, noticed he had a month shaping up pretty empty and decided to offer the Watchers the whole block at a discounted rate. "Jason said, 'Here's the keys, go nuts,'" says Guarrine. The band moved in all their gear, plus a vibraphone and a "junk kit," which included cowbells, PVC pipe, and a traffic pylon. Because everyone lived or worked close to the studio's location at the time--Thompson works literally across the street at Dusty Groove--there were only a couple days in the entire month when nobody dropped by.
"We would all come in--sometimes together and sometimes individually--and lay things down and build the tracks," D'Ercole says, "and more often than not, not know what we were going to hear when we heard that track again." Songs not only gained but sometimes lost parts and layers. With so much time to try out different ideas, the band also brought in guests--not just Chance but guitarist Kevin Kujawa, who plays with D'Ercole in the Mannequin Men, and Wayne Montana and Damon Locks of the Eternals.
The Watchers play a release party for Vampire Driver this Saturday at Schubas, and knowing how good it's bound to be, I feel a little bad for the folks who might've turned up at those canceled shows. But at least this time they can hear something almost as exciting on their speakers at home.
The Race Is On
When the Race cut their last tour short in the fall of 2004, it wasn't just because they'd run out of money--they'd more or less run out of reasons to keep being a band. The malaise didn't lift once they'd returned home either. "We just didn't play together as a group," says guitarist and front man Craig Klein. "It was kind of a passive-aggressive thing. Or maybe not aggressive. Just passive." As his bandmates drifted off into new pursuits, Klein kept on writing material, even though he had no clear idea who or what it was for. He toyed with the idea of developing a solo act or even playing Svengali to a girl group. Last year he started recording demo versions of the songs, backed by little more than a drum machine, and then decided the thing to do was to resurrect the Race.
This time the group took a very different form. In its first incarnation the Race had often collaborated with the electronic act Telefon Tel Aviv, and Klein began working with one member of that duo, Joshua Eustis, who spent two and a half months helping him fill out his sketchy demos with expertly produced layers of keyboards and beats. Guitarist Alfredo Nogueira, a friend of the TTA guys from their days in New Orleans, contributed sparingly but crucially. The album they made, Ice Station (Flameshovel), could be taught in indie-rock class during the unit on blending intimate songwriting and computerized backup.
The new Race sounds like the Postal Service gone goth: the default mood for Klein's songs seems to be a romantic kind of bummed out, an elegant mix of longing and loneliness. On Ice Station Klein's lyrics are all about Siberia in one way or another, though they're generally metaphorical enough that without a hint you wouldn't know which frozen wasteland he was talking about. Klein just liked "the idea of bearded men," he says. I ask him if he wrote the music with bearded men in mind too. "To be totally honest about it," he replies, "I don't think so. I'd like to say I had this grand vision, but I didn't really at all."
The Race plays a release party for Ice Station Saturday at the Hideout. The band doesn't have a fixed live lineup, but for this show it'll be Klein, Nogueira, and Eustis plus the rhythm section from the old Race, bassist Jeremy Parker and drummer Kevin Duneman.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Newberry.