The 1900s have only been playing live shows since September, and their debut EP, Plume Delivery, doesn't come out until May 30. But they've led a charmed existence so far. They landed a deal with Parasol Records shortly after their first gig, the EP's enjoying positive advance notices on indie-rock tip sheets and MP3 blogs, and they sold out a recent headlining gig at the Hideout.
The band's sweet, keyboard-swathed pop shows a strong 60s influence and puts coed vocals front and center, a formula that's worked for bands like the New Pornographers, Belle & Sebastian, and Broken Social Scene. But, guitarist and singer Edward Anderson argues, the band also works because it's a group of "friends, lovers, and ex-lovers." Most of its six members--Anderson, drummer Tim Minnick, bassist Charlie Ransford, multi-instrumentalist Mike Jasinski, and vocalists Jeanine O'Toole and Caroline Donovan--have known each other since childhood. O'Toole and Ransford once dated, and Anderson and Donovan are still an item.
Growing up in the southwest suburb of Palos Park, Anderson took an early interest in making music: when he was 11 he and a few neighbors started messing around with a crude home-recording setup. "It was like a really old drum machine and some acoustic guitars and a tape deck," he says. "One guy would write lyrics and we'd just improvise whole albums on the spot."
Anderson was classmates with Tim Minnick, who got into music while playing percussion in the school band. In high school the two formed a noisy experimental outfit called M.O.P. (short for Minotaurs of P) that included another classmate, Mike Jasinski, on guitar. But after graduating in the mid-90s the three friends went separate ways: Minnick to art school in England, Jasinski to Carbondale to study recording and composition at SIU, and Anderson to the University of Oregon to study anthropology and folklore.
In 2001 Anderson returned to Chicago, where Minnick was playing with the eclectic local roots-rockers Forty Piece Choir. Anderson soon joined the group as a seventh member, but his ambition to play a larger songwriting role in the band soon got him kicked out. ("I kinda overstepped my bounds creatively," he says.) The following year he joined Plane, a postpunk combo led by Edgars Legzdins, who'd recorded Forty Piece Choir. Plane frequently played with local power-pop band Turner Joy, and Anderson became friends with that band's bassist, Charlie Ransford.
"I'd run into Ed at shows and we'd hang out," says Ransford. "And he always talked about doing something together. He had these ideas kicking around. We'd all been in situations musically where it wasn't exactly what we wanted. So finally we thought, 'Let's do a band, but let's do it right.'"
"We didn't quite form the band out of desperation--it wasn't like it was our last hope or anything," says Anderson, who's 27. "But I don't want to be a rock star at 40. It was more like, 'Let's take everything we've learned and all get together and do it the right way.'"
In the spring of 2004 Anderson, Jasinski, Ransford, and Minnick began playing together, bonding over their mutual obsessions--which included Velvet Underground bootlegs and Daft Punk singles--at Anderson's home studio in Logan Square. Their long late-night jam sessions led to a three-song demo of Anderson's finely etched pop songs.
But the band wanted to fill out the tracks some more, adding strings and female vocals in particular. "We had just been imagining these parts for months when it was just the four of us," says Minnick. "We knew the band had to add something else." Through mutual friends, Anderson met Jeanine O'Toole and Caroline Donovan, roommates who'd grown up together in the south-side neighborhood of Mount Greenwood singing in Catholic church choirs and high school musicals.
Anderson approached the two about joining the 1900s shortly after the demos were finished in the summer of 2004. "I remember we spent a long time on the deck at this dinner party talking about music and what the band would be," says O'Toole. Neither she nor Donovan had been in a group, but both were sold after hearing the demo tracks. "I totally loved it," says O'Toole. "I remember telling Caroline, 'This is a band I would totally listen to.'"
Soon after, Anderson brought the two into his home studio and asked them to improvise their vocal parts. "We knew how to sing in arrangements, having done it in church and school and everything," Donovan says. "I sing second soprano, so I always naturally sing harmony parts."
Anderson also brought in violinist Kristina Dutton, another old Palos Park acquaintance, who is also a member of Smallwire and Andrew Morgan's band. By May, with Jasinski producing, they began work on Plume Delivery, which kicks off with O'Toole singing the pulsing, organ-driven "Bring the Good Boys Home" and closes with the jangly miniature "Heart Props." They recorded the EP over a series of weekends at a studio at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Minnick works as a Web programmer for a bioterrorism-preparedness program in the school's department of public health. "After 9/11, as part of Bush's plan to fund bioterrorism-protection efforts, they built this big studio to record lectures and do webcasts," Minnick says. "It's federally funded, so it's a really nice setup."
The band handed the tracks to engineer Graeme Gibson for mixing in September, the same month they played their very first gig, opening for Bobby Conn at the student union at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The show was sparsely attended, but one of the folks in the crowd was Geoff Merritt, owner of Urbana-based Parasol Records. O'Toole, who worked at Parasol when she was living in Champaign, had sent him a copy of the demo, but Merritt says it was the show that sold him. "Usually, first shows are fun but sloppy, especially with a band that has seven members," Merritt says. "I just kept thinking of Roxy Music, where they practiced for ages before they went out and played. It seemed like these guys had done the same thing." Less than a month later, the 1900s had signed a deal with the label. Since then Dutton's left to devote herself to her other projects, and the band's brought in two adjunct members, viola player Whitney Johnson and violinist Andra Kulans.
The 1900s are set to begin recording a full-length with Gibson this summer. "We're planning on making it more of a big production, so it probably won't be coming out until next spring," Anderson says. In the meantime, the band will be playing various gigs to promote Plume Delivery, including a guest spot in I.O.'s Late Night Late Show on April 29, a show at Metro on May 12 opening for Brad Peterson and the Bon Mots, and an official release party June 3 at Schubas. After that, they'll head east for their first tour.
For Anderson the growing attention is gratifying but also a little unsettling. "The response has been pretty incredible, almost weird as far as everyone being super helpful and friendly, and other bands asking us to play shows," he says. "We've kinda been looking at each other like, 'What's happening here?'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.