White Savage, Magas, Headache City, Attack Formation
WHEN Fri 7/13, 10 PM
WHERE Subterranean, 2011 W. North
INFO 773-278-6600 or 800-594-8499
The guys in White Savage can come up with some seriously bad ideas, especially when they've been drinking. A few weeks ago, while they were all out of town for a friend's wedding, a couple of them blackened the ceiling of a motel room with fireworks. But at least one of their drunken schemes has turned out well--the one where they decided it'd be great to start a punk band together.
About a year and a half ago, what would become White Savage existed only in the minds of Jim McCann, now the band's front man, and drummer Greg Sharp. "It was basically me and Greg hanging out a bunch of times and getting hammered and talking about doing a band--one of those things," says McCann. Sharp plays keyboards in the indie-rock outfit Chin Up Chin Up and used to drum in ZZZZ, and McCann played bass in the Baseball Furies (as Jim Hollywood) and guitar in the Tyrades (as Jimmy Ordinary). Soon Ponys front man Jered Gummere starting hanging out too, and the three of them spent a few months drinking together, quitting the band, kicking each other out of the band, and rejoining the band. They weren't actually playing music yet, but they did come up with a name, a T-shirt design, and a record cover.
Finally, about a year into it, they practiced. They'd recruited bassist Ryan Weinstein, who'd been in ZZZZ with Sharp and also played in the Returnables, and guitarist John Martin from the Austin band Zulu as Kono, who bartended with McCann at Delilah's. Martin left after two rehearsals and was replaced by Colin Smith of the Screaming Yellow Zonkers. (McCann has come up with a revisionist explanation for the substitution: "You have to be six feet tall to be in the band.")
Even with a rehearsal schedule, the project was still in spirit more "men's club" than band, says Gummere--the emphasis was on the hanging-out-together part rather than the songs. "It was funny," McCann says. "First practice, when Jered showed up, I had no idea what exactly he was going to do in the band. I thought he might play guitar, but then he showed up with half of a drum kit and keyboards and he was like, 'That's what I'm gonna do.'"
"When we first started playing," Weinstein says, "we definitely had a concept of what we were going to do, and I think our expectations were pretty low at that point. And it was kinda shocking how well things came together." McCann takes mock offense. "That's great," he says. "'This isn't as bad as I thought it was going to be.' In theory it's going to be fun to be in a crappy band with me." Within a couple months--even with Sharp and Gummere taking time out for their main bands--they were ready to play their first show.
White Savage debuted on New Year's Eve at the Empty Bottle. I missed their set--I'd stayed away to avoid the terrifically annoying headliner, Girl Talk--but I heard a ton about it afterward. "Best band in town," my friends told me. "Heavy." If I'd known who was in White Savage, I would've been there, but it's no accident I didn't. The guys with better-known bands are loath to use them to publicize this new project ("Featuring members of the Ponys and the Baseball Furies!"). The only White Savage release so far--a seven-inch dropped at the end of April by local garage tastemakers HoZac Records--doesn't credit any of the musicians at all. In fact, even the band's name is absent from the packaging. A 100-copy edition on white vinyl comes in an unmarked white faux-fur sleeve with just an illustration of an ape's head on its white center label.
That's not to say word hasn't got out. The white-fur edition sold out in three hours; a run of 400 in regular sleeves was gone in fourteen. The guys in White Savage don't seem to care all that much, though. It'd be going too far to say they're indifferent, but when pressed for details about the New Year's Eve show they don't focus on the borderline-delirious reception they got from the crowd but instead on their sound check--during which saxophonist Bob Johnson, who works door at the Bottle and had practiced with White Savage for the first time that day, had to boot a heckler. "We have the distinction of being the first band to be heckled before we'd even played, I'm pretty sure," says Weinstein. "And the dude had white dreadlocks," says Gummere. "We made fun of him all the way out."
The band's entire recorded output so far is three songs, and two of them are on the HoZac seven-inch. But White Savage make a hell of a first impression. They cut pure garage punk with artsy, angular no wave, coming across like an ill-mannered crossbreed of James Chance & the Contortions and a hundred Rip Offs rip-offs. McCann originally imagined their music might favor the Contortions, with a danceable feel and a lot of hooks, but the songs came out ferociously gnarly and way heavy on guitar. "It's hard, because I don't really know how not to play as much noise as possible," he says. Then he nods at Smith: "There's someone else in the band with that problem as well."
I did catch White Savage at an unofficial SXSW gig, their second show (their third was in Milwaukee just a couple weeks ago), and they're even better in the flesh than on vinyl. White Savage make Chin Up Chin Up and the Ponys seem sedate, but despite their brutal sound they have more to offer than just sensory overload--they're great for that righteous old-fashioned thrill of watching a bunch of guys go absolutely apeshit for four minutes at a time. Sadly, their hometown crowd might only get one more chance to experience that. Tonight, Friday the 13th, White Savage play Subterranean, and then they're leaving for a short west-coast tour. (Their seven-inch has been re-pressed and they'll have copies on hand.) But after they get back, Smith's heading to Yale to study photography. "And then we don't know," says McCann. They hope to record all six songs they've learned, including new versions of the three already in the can, but their plans aren't solid.
White Savage might keep playing without Smith, they tell me, but probably not. They've already rejected offers from a bunch of labels way bigger than HoZac--they won't name names--so it's not like they have any mercenary reason to keep going. Maybe they'll just get together and play a show or three whenever Smith's in town on break. They aren't too concerned with the future, except for what's happening once they're through with our interview. There are more rounds to order, after all, and a couple of parties they want to hit.
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): Colin Smith, Bob Johnson,Greg Sharp, Ryan Weinstein, Jered Gummere, Jim McCann photo by Marty Perez.