Last Halloween at Beauty Bar's Monday-night variety show, Salonathon, I happened to see a synth-pop group called Daan—a trio of svelte gay men who on this particular evening were decked out S&M style, in black hot pants, leather chest harnesses, chains, and studded codpieces. The moment they hit the stage they launched into a tightly choreographed dance that would've made a boy band blush—between the lascivious petting and pelvic thrusting, two members took turns literally picking up the third by the crotch. The front man made a beeline for the crowd, mike in hand, slinking smoothly through the crowd and between the rows of benches, and as he went he grabbed glasses of beer from strangers' hands and downed them—sometimes between his lines, sometimes when he was obviously supposed to be singing.
But Daan had a lot more going for them than sexy dancing and an unusual way of breaking the fourth wall. The music melded gritty quasi-industrial beats and paleofuturistic 80s synths into outgoing, hooky melodies, and because everything but the vocals was prerecorded (all three members sang), the band could concentrate on its stage show—in this case, a loosely sketched story about a leather-daddy vampire biker gang abducting an audience member (actually a friend playing along) and turning her into a dominatrix. Even taking into account the fact that dance clubs are generally pretty gay friendly, Daan's outrageousness pushed some boundaries. It wasn't just titillating—it was punk as fuck.
As it turns out, that Halloween extravaganza was just the tip of the iceberg. I soon learned that Daan had been putting on shows like this since early 2010, sometimes as many as two or three a month, every one with different costumes, dances, and songs.
During a show devoted to robot fetishes, one member attached "female" pieces of PVC pipe to his body with medical tape, and the other two screwed the "male" pieces into the sockets; later in the production someone tried to connect a dryer-vent hose he was wearing on his arm to one of his bandmates' dicks. For a 2010 Valentine's Day gig at Boystown bar Cocktail, one member played a butcher who rips out his bandmates' hearts—made of sponge and hidden under the men's shirts in ziplock bags, the hearts were soaked in stage blood, waiting to be wrung out. The band earned a reputation fast, and landed gigs opening for glammy Toronto synth-pop act Diamond Rings and Brazilian electronic rockers CSS.
Another thing I didn't know last Halloween was that Daan would only put on two more big productions before going on hiatus in early 2012. But now they're back, reinvented as Baathhaus—the first show for their new incarnation, which adds a live drummer, is this Friday at the Empty Bottle.
The three original members of the band—Dan Foley, Jesse Young, and Patrick Andrews—are all current or former theater people, but with the arrival of Jesse Hozeny from Pink Frost on drums, they're scaling back the onstage business in their performances. Previously nobody played any live instruments, but now all three will handle synths—not just triggering preprogrammed sequences but also playing melodies in real time. They'll also augment Hozeny's beats with a single drum they'll pass around. Many up-and-coming bands couldn't hang on to an audience through that kind of shift, especially after falling silent for nearly a year, but Baathhaus has always thrived on change.
Baathhaus has its roots in fall 2007, when Dan Foley, now 27, moved to Chicago from Ohio. He'd always wanted to try making music, and with a little help from Home Recording for Musicians for Dummies, he began creating tunes in Ableton. In November 2009 Foley made his live debut during a Wednesday-night variety show at Mary's Attic, the lounge above Andersonville bar and restaurant Hamburger Mary's. Backed by an iPod, Foley performed as Daan; he got the idea to add a second "a" to Dan from a New York Times article about Indian numerologists who advise people and companies to make slight changes to their names to increase their odds of success. "There's some celebrities over there that are in the Bollywood industry who had it done, and they fucking swear by it," he says. "They're rich off their tits now."
Jesse Young and Patrick Andrews were in the audience that night. Young had been friends with Foley for a couple years, and Foley had already talked to him about helping create a stage show (though they'd yet to get started). Young, 30, had moved to Chicago in 2008 to help former SNL cast member Nora Dunn with an adaptation of Augusta at the American Theater Company, but he was also interested in doing theater outside the format of the traditional stage play. Young in turn had recruited his friend Andrews to help with choreography. Andrews, 27, had moved to Chicago in 2005 after performing in town on a national Broadway tour of Fosse: The Musical. Foley's project seemed to promise to fulfill a desire of his own: "I always wanted to be a fly-boy go-go dancer," Andrews says.
Daan's butcher-themed Valentine's Day show at Cocktail called for so much fake blood that all three of them ended up drenched in it, and the stage was so slick they slipped around trying to dance.
Foley also has a theater background—he studied performance in college—but he hadn't stuck with it, and he felt awkward at Mary's Attic. He even told the audience. "I'd never met him," Andrews says. "And he was up there onstage by himself and he was so adorable."
Foley, Young, and Andrews began working together, though they weren't sure at first who was doing what. "I thought Patrick was going to choreograph other people, and we would sort of curate a show with other people," Young says. The day of Daan's first show as a group, in January 2010, they were still sorting out that confusion.
"Three hours before the show we choreographed four songs," Foley says.
"I had no idea—I didn't think that I was going to be performing," Young says.
"Right, and I thought you were," Andrews says.
"And you thought I was," Young says. "So I was like, 'OK, let's just do it for the show,' and then people lost their tits, as they say in the industry."
Soon they arrived at a more stable working arrangement and started firing on all cylinders, translating the sex, longing, and angst in Foley's aggressive synth-based music into a show that was part pop concert and part performance art. Their butcher-themed Valentine's Day show at Cocktail called for so much fake blood that all three of them ended up drenched in it, and the stage was so slick they slipped around trying to dance—but it was a hit. "People were salivating," Andrews says.