Not many would-be rock stars survived that brief period in the early 90s when major labels swooped down on Chicago--and as a bit player in two of the era's more troubled acts, Triple Fast Action and latter-day Veruca Salt, Kevin Tihista seemed a less likely candidate than most. But in September he released his first solo album, Don't Breathe a Word, on Atlantic Records' Division One imprint, and not only is it good--it's entirely different from anything he's played in public before.
Had it not been for his girlfriend, Tonya Berlin, the songs on Don't Breathe a Word might never have made it out of the bedroom the couple occupied in Berlin's mother's Albany Park apartment. By his own count, Tihista has written more than 300 dreamy pop songs, and in 1999 Berlin began urging him to share some with someone other than her. Conveniently their neighbor Ellis Clark, who'd coproduced and played bass on the first album by local Anglophiles the Chamber Strings, had a studio in his basement. "I wasn't looking to do anything with the songs," says Tihista. "But my girlfriend was like, 'Well, Ellis is right across the street, why don't you just go over there?' A couple songs turned into 30."
His friends and peers, among them Blake Smith of Caviar, the Webb Brothers, Triple Fast Action front man Wes Kidd, and Cheap Trick manager Dave Frey, loved what they heard and made an effort to spread the word to their contacts. Kidd moved to New York to work for Frey's Silent Partner artist management company, and Tihista became a client. "I don't get involved with anything on the business side," says Tihista. "I didn't even talk to any of those Atlantic people. I met my A and R people once at a show at the Double Door and I never talked to them again. Wes pretty much calls me up and says this is what's going on. I trust them."
In the fall of 1999, Smith passed a tape to Wyndham Wallace, who runs the British indie Easy Tiger, which had released the single that set the Webb Brothers on the path to popularity in England. In October 2000 he released Tihista's first single, "Lose the Dress," and last June Rough Trade released a six-song EP. Atlantic Records began courting Tihista, and by early August he had signed to Division One in the U.S. and the Warner-owned Blanco y Negro (which is overseen in part by Rough Trade owner Geoff Travis) in the UK. The record, billed to Kevin Tihista's Red Terror and assembled almost entirely from the low-budget sessions in Clark's basement, was released in the U.S. on September 18.
Not surprisingly, given the tragedy that transpired a week earlier, the release didn't capture the public's attention. Less than two months later, Atlantic shut down the Division One imprint, firing most of its staff, including Tihista's main supporters. Kidd and Frey were relieved that Tihista was cut loose from his contract with the parent company a few weeks later. At press time Kidd was still unsure of Tihista's status with Blanco y Negro. "I don't really care," Tihista says convincingly. "This stuff happens, especially for someone like me. My music is never going to get played on the radio."
Tihista grew up in a series of small towns in northern California with his mother and stepfather; he spent a lot of time in his various bedrooms noodling on the guitar. After high school he worked a series of odd jobs and lived with his mother, continuing the same routine in his spare time. In 1989, a childhood pal who'd moved to Naperville called Tihista to ask if he'd join a band he was putting together. "I packed up my car and a week later I was in Naperville," says Tihista. He arrived on his 21st birthday. "It was awesome. I had never really left my bedroom. I never really talked to anyone. To go from that to Naperville and hanging out in Chicago every night was awesome. I would work at Crow's Nest Records, we'd practice, and then we'd head down to Smart Bar every night."
That band, Maus, never ventured out of its suburban practice space, but Tihista's next group, Wood, which played "dumb, kind of grungy stuff," began landing opening spots in Chicago. In 1993 he finally moved into the city, but his social life remained confined to the Smart Bar, the occasional concert upstairs at Metro, and more drinking at the nearby Wrigleyville Tap. He knew Kidd, who had been playing with snotty metal-punks Rights of the Accused, by sight, but never actually met him until Kidd invited him to join Triple Fast Action.
He switched to bass and brought in fellow Wood guitarist Ronnie Schneider. Like Maus and Wood, TFA was resolutely hard-rocking, and though he liked Kidd's melodic sensibility, the band wasn't playing the music Tihista heard in his head. He'd always loved the Beatles and the Lovin' Spoonful, and in high school added the Smiths, the Cure, and Aztec Camera to his favorites. "I didn't listen to guitar rock bands," he admits. "It was weird that I played in those kinds of bands." He would occasionally bring song ideas to practice, but they were never deemed appropriate: "I can't write rock 'n' roll songs. It's always wimpy, crappy love songs."
When Triple Fast Action split up, Tihista went into the studio with Louise Post to record Veruca Salt's miserable Resolver, an experience he's reluctant to talk about. (He never performed with the band live.) He also tried writing some songs for himself. "I would always start a song, get a minute into it, and then it would get too hard and I'd give up," he says. "But then I actually finished a song, and then it was like I figured out how to do it. I haven't stopped since."
Tihista's melodies are subtle and he sings in a near whisper, shaping his hooks with a deliberate grace. Though the influence of John Lennon, Big Star, and contemporary pop sophisticates like Elliott Smith and Eric Matthews are readily apparent, Tihista's got his own style--and his own weak points. "Some people have taken jabs about my lyrics," he admits. "They're all pretty much the same song--crappy love, love gone bad, love gone good. So now I'm kind of fucked-up--I gotta start singing songs about cars or my dog, but I've been trying and I just can't do it, so you get what you get. I'm the happiest guy in the world, but for some reason I love tragic love songs."
It appears that he'll still have an outlet for them: Champaign's Parasol label, which had offered to sign Tihista even before the Easy Tiger single came out, had been planning a double CD of his material when Atlantic entered the picture. Sometime in the next two months the label plans to reissue Don't Breathe a Word as well as a companion disc, called Back to Budapest, of stuff originally intended for the double CD. The release seems likely to be a one-off, though; Tihista's aggressive management seems hot to place him with a higher-profile label.
For his part, though, Tihista says he's focusing on writing and recording, and claims to be indifferent to his commercial prospects. "If someone wants to put it out--I don't care who it is, that's fine. I just do it to do it."
Tihista is in his second week of a monthlong residency at Schubas; he plays every Monday through February 11. His present backing band features former members of Front of Truck.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.