The way Brett Naucke sees it, synthesizers and chili are a natural fit. "Synths in general can do what you want, and that's the whole point of them," he says. "It's like, I want these components and this, I don't want this, and I can patch it up any way I want.
"With chili—I'm gonna go out on a limb on this one—you kind of build it from the ground up. You can put a ton of different shit in chili. Or cook it for five hours and it tastes way different than if you cook it for two hours. Or if you put ground beef instead of chicken, or fucking onions, or stuffed peppers, or this spice versus this spice. It's going to be completely different."
Naucke, a Chicago noise artist and creator of experimental-music label Catholic Tapes, is half the brain trust behind the First Annual Synthesizer Chili Cook-Off, which takes place this Sunday at the Empty Bottle. Its premise is simple: Each musician will prepare a chili and use synths to perform what Naucke calls a "sonic interpretation" of it. The audience will pick the winning combo.
If Naucke's synth-chili comparison feels a little forced, that's probably because it had nothing to do with how the cook-off actually came about. "I never really thought about this until I'm saying it right now," he says. "They're your own creations of how you want them to sound, how you want them to taste. That makes a whole lot of sense."
At first the idea of a synth-chili cook-off seemed ridiculous to him, though, and that was a big part of its appeal. "There's no way you can do this and not be humorous," he says. "I'm not going to deny that it's just a totally fucking stupid idea. It's just awesome."
This cook-off has been in the works since November, but the inspiration took root last winter. That's when Naucke started chatting about chili with his friend Beau Wanzer, a local DJ and producer who makes music under his own name and as part of Mutant Beat Dance and Streetwalker.
"In the winter I'm kind of insane about chili," Naucke says. "For a while, I was making like one a week, or one every ten days or something, and just going through recipes." He and Wanzer developed a routine centered on food and music, particularly music involving their favorite kind of instrument. "I would make chili," Naucke says, "and he would come over and just hang out and listen to synth records and stuff."
They often talked about chili or even about holding a chili cook-off, but it wasn't until a few months ago that the idea of a synth-chili cook-off popped into Wanzer's head. He'd just gotten off the phone with Naucke—as he remembers it, they were both making chili as they talked—and suddenly there it was. "That was basically how that came to fruition," Wanzer says. "I mean, the idea is obviously ridiculous, but I think that's why it's going to be fun—it's just because it's pretty absurd."
Wanzer booked the Bottle date, and he and Naucke sat down and kicked around ideas till they'd settled on some ground rules. First, obviously, the chili must be homemade. Competitors must use analog synthesizers for their sets—no laptops or MIDI—and drum machines are allowed. The music can't be prerecorded (though short samples are permitted), and it has to be a unique composition that reflects the contestant's culinary creation.
Audience members are encouraged to try each chili during the corresponding performance, then vote for a favorite. Ballots will be distributed only at the beginning of the cook-off, to prevent latecomers from skewing the results toward the final few competitors, but other than that Naucke and Wanzer haven't given much thought to their electoral process. Ballot-box stuffing hardly seems likely, given the low stakes. The prize is a trophy and the privilege of being the only competitor eligible to compete in the next cook-off—if and when it happens.
Wanzer and Naucke have settled on five competitors, inviting three other musicians they know to be talented cooks: Alex Barnett, Andy Ortmann, and Jeremiah Fisher.
They all know one another from experimental shows around town, and they're connected by a web of collaborations: Catholic Tapes and Ortmann's Nihilist Records have both put out Barnett's solo synth work. Wanzer jams with Ortmann, and Ortmann plans to release Naucke's next full-length on Nihilist. Fisher is the only other permanent member of Ortmann's long-running experimental project Panicsville, and Barnett and Fisher play together in Oakeater, a brooding noise trio with Seth Sher from Ga'an that also has a couple releases on Nihilist. (A split LP with Oakeater and Mamiffer—whose lineup includes Faith Coloccia of Everlovely Lightningheart and Aaron Turner of Isis—comes out Tuesday on SIGE Records.) And in November, Ortmann recruited Barnett, Wanzer, and Fisher to help perform his piece Composition for Four Motorcycles and Four Synthesizers at an East Garfield Park gallery called New Capital—and despite valiant attempts at ventilation, the space was so flooded with engine exhaust that people complained of burning eyes. Ortmann says that this spring he wants to present a sequel scored for four synths and 400 bees.
Because the cook-off is a competition among friends, that means plenty of smack talk. "It's gotten to the point now where it's like texts from all of us, like, 'Just refining my recipe, you're going down,'" Naucke says.
There's already been a squabble over who would get to sample a favorite bit of dialogue from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which gleefully flogs a running gag about chili made from the flesh of murder victims; Wanzer claimed dibs after persuading the others he'd thought of it first. Naucke is looking to poach audio from an episode of The Simpsons where Chief Wiggum makes a batch of chili for a cook-off using the Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango, grown by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.
Though most of the musicians are keeping mum about what they're actually going to put in their chilis, Ortmann is dropping hints. He has a reputation among his friends as a man with unusual tastes and a perverse sense of humor—when he comes to cookouts, Naucke says, he often slaps a few whole raw squid onto the grill next to the hot dogs. "Everyone I talked to about it early, everybody always mentions, 'I'm not eating Andy Ortmann's chili,'" says Wanzer. "So I'm interested to see Andy's set and his batch. Hopefully it doesn't have laxatives and shrimp in it."
That doesn't seem to be Ortmann's plan. "I've been trying to price out bear meat," he says. This might have something to do with how he wants his set to sound. "It'll be soft and cuddly," he explains. "But it'll also have big claws."
Barnett has a tougher task ahead of him. He has to try to complement his creepy, minimalist music—which Naucke describes as sounding "kind of like a girl running away from something in a horror movie"—with a chili. "Basically, the only thing that I've worked out for this is that my chili and my set need to be suspenseful," he says. "So I have to figure out a way to make a suspenseful chili.
"There's going to be a Swamp Thing hiding in the chili, and somebody will get that," he jokes. "I have some loose ideas of how that's going to happen, but I'm trying to be discreet."
For Fisher, the cook-off will be just his second solo synthesizer performance. Because he has yet to develop a style the other musicians can anticipate, he's a wild card.
"I feel the music thing is going to come really intuitively—sit down a couple nights with the synthesizer, come up with something that matches the chili as far as, like, meat-type descriptions," he says. "'Oh, that's smoky chili,' and then you can kind of come up with a timbre that's smoky."
Wanzer and Naucke, who are organizing the cook-off, don't care to reveal much about their sets or their chilis. Naucke says he's been tweaking his recipe for about a year, and that his music, which he calls "pretty" and "dramatic," will have to be modified significantly to make sense alongside it. "Calling a chili 'dramatic' is really funny," he explains.
He and Wanzer still have to come up with a useful estimate of how much chili each person should make. They also need to enlist people to serve the chili, which they plan to set up near the usual location of the merch tables. To simplify cleanup they'll use plastic cups.
Wanzer is building the winner's trophy, though he's tight-lipped about what it will be. Comedian Nick Bahr will emcee the cook-off and help collect ballots. Wanzer's Streetwalker bandmate, Elon Katz of White Car, will record the show through the Bottle's sound board. If it turns out well, all five contestants will chip in to help Wanzer and Naucke release it. They haven't picked a format, but in any case they hope to use the winning recipe in the artwork or liner notes.
Naucke knows this cook-off is something of a trial run, but there's a reason its title contains the words "first" and "annual." As far as he's concerned, the idea is too good to fail—and too good to use just once.
"I would personally like to do more," he says. "I don't want to wait until next January—I want to book one in April. I'd like to book one before this even happens, because I know it's going to work, and I know it's going to be fun—and if it doesn't, then the next one's going to be better."