Local noise-rock band Den started with a fight. In summer 2010 vocalist Adam Harris, drummer Ian Piirtola, and bassist Ray Keenan played in a spastic hardcore four-piece called Neurons with guitarist Cole Mason. Creative differences between Mason and the rest of the group had started to bleed over into interpersonal tension, and on July 31, while they were driving to play a DIY show on the north side, something finally snapped.
Harris says Mason was complaining about arriving late, but the other three thought they'd get there in plenty of time. Keenan needled Mason—Harris remembers his taunt as "Tick-tock," but Mason recalls it as "I'm not your fucking alarm clock." The two of them already weren't getting along, and Mason raised a fist at Keenan. Piirtola pulled the van over and told Mason to get out. Piirtola, Keenan, and Harris continued to the venue, explained that Neurons wouldn't be playing, and returned to their practice space, which was in Harris and Piirtola's basement in Hermosa. Since they'd expected to be busy anyway, they started jamming.
Within a month Piirtola, Keenan, and Harris decided they had a new band on their hands. Neurons played one last show in September, and then the three of them focused their musical energy on Den—which meant they could go in directions that Neurons hadn't allowed. "I wanted to keep playing hardcore," Mason says. "And as Adam got more and more into drone, that's kind of what he wanted to do."
"We were just getting weirder," Piirtola says. And Den are pretty strange, at least for a posthardcore band—and not just because they don't have a guitarist. "Grindstone," the first track on Bronze Fog—their debut full-length, which came out in March 2011 on Harris's Retrograde Tapes label—opens with ominous, rattling drum fills and slow strokes of buzzing distortion, then segues suddenly into a crushing, propulsive roar filled with lunging electronic squeals, clashing cymbals, booming snare, sludgy bass, and strained howls fighting through a cloak of feedback. Other songs traffic in foggy atmosphere: the creepy "Cement Bed" sometimes sounds so loose and airy it's as though the band recorded it with microphones a mile away. There's even a muddied cover of Black Sabbath's "Symptom of the Universe."
Den's new three-song seven-inch, Electric Eyes, ranges even further afield, drawing on Krautrock and doom. The recording also sounds a bit more polished than their debut. The band celebrates its release with a show at the Burlington on Fri 11/30.
Den's music retains the volume and intensity of hardcore, as you'd expect from three guys who've already played the style for years—Harris and Mason started Neurons in 2008, recruiting Piirtola after going through a few drummers, and Keenan joined the following year via an ad they posted on Craigslist. But Den departs from hardcore's conventions in most other ways. "That got boring," Harris says. "We didn't want to do it anymore."
Early jam sessions helped Den evolve an approach that not only appealed to their expanding tastes but also took into account certain physical constraints. "Me and Ian are getting older," Keenan says—he's 30 and Piirtola is 34. "So it was easier to play slower."
"When we started Den," Harris says, "it was like, 'Oh my God, I'm so glad I don't have to be in great shape to be able to scream my lungs out,' like constantly flailing around and shit without losing by breath and feeling like I'm going to puke every time." He still wails like crazy, though he has help—with his electronic setup, he processes his voice to sound even more deranged and adds layers of harsh noise to the music. He uses a sampler, a Korg EA-1 synth, and four pedals for distortion and other effects, all run into a Behringer UB802 mixer; he recently added a Korg MS2000.
Some of Den's gear is just as cruddy as the band's music sometimes sounds. One of those four pedals Keenan found in a Dumpster, and Harris persists in singing into a microphone rescued from a sewer drain in the basement of a house where he and Piirtola used to practice, record, and host DIY concerts. The mike went missing after local hardcore group Duress played a farewell show in August 2010, and Den found it a couple months later; someone had obviously wedged into the drain on purpose. "It was just covered in sludge and nasty shit," Harris says. "It was all dented up and rusted with poop and whatever else. We call it the poop mike. I still put my lips on it and it still works."
It took Den about six months to put together a full set, and they played their first gig at defunct Logan Square DIY space Strangelight in January 2011. Because at first they booked most of their shows by relying on connections with the bands they'd known and the venues they'd played while they were in Neurons, they ended up the odd group out on quite a few hardcore bills. "If we're on a bill with three other hardcore bands, everybody's showing up to see hardcore," Keenan says. "And that's not us, so it's like they weren't really expecting to like it."
Den sometimes seem to enjoy being out of step with hardcore and its fans; they sometimes deliberately antagonize crowds by playing "The Coiled Cross," (see music player at right) a plodding track from Electric Eyes that doesn't sit well with hardcore audiences. "There was one show—I love quoting this to no end—some kid was like, 'That was soooo sloooow,'" Piirtola says.
"As soon as we were done," Harris adds.
Of course, plenty of people in hardcore like bands that color outside the genre's lines, and Den still has friends in the scene—among them Will Jarrott, who plays guitar in Mason's post-Neurons group, Cold Lovers. "I feel like Den are a pretty special band in Chicago, because they have the capacity to play punk shows and maybe don't feel obligated to play those more avant-garde shows," Jarrott says. "There's something to be said for alienating and feeling alienated at those shows and continuing to do it." Cold Lovers and Den have played together a couple times, and Mason gives his old bandmates a qualified endorsement: "Some of it's really cool."
Folks outside the hardcore scene have been more welcoming; BLVD Records cofounder Melissa Geils took an interest in Den from the start, and after she booked them at Late Bar in July she was won over. "They played the show and blew my mind—and also the minds of my label partners, Eric [Marsh] and Alex [Foucre-Stimes]," Geils says. "That night, all three of us were pretty much like, 'Yup, we need to do a record for these guys.'" Though Den are self-releasing Electric Eyes, soon they'll begin work on a full-length follow-up for BLVD—for which they plan to use an outside engineer for the first time, instead of recording themselves in their practice space.
Den would also like to see the Chicago scene shed its genre segregation, so that they can play shows with all sorts of bands on the bill. They may be attached to the poop mike, but they're not interested in playing for the same people over and over again. "I feel like a lot of things get cliquey, not just in punk and hardcore but in all the separate scenes," says Harris. "Listen to a lot of different shit and go to a lot of different shows. You don't want to go somewhere and feel like you're in fucking high school."