The Difference a Year Makes | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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The Difference a Year Makes

In the past 12 months, Champaign's Living Blue have scored a deal with Minty Fresh, wowed Little Steven, and caught Hollywood's ear. But at SXSW, they were still jamming econo.

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Two songs into the Living Blue's set at Latitude 30, a gust of wind blows open the big bay windows in the front of the Austin club, letting the music spill out onto the sidewalk. As pedestrians stop to peer inside, it proves to be a nice bit of accidental promotion for the Champaign band, playing its first-ever South by Southwest gig as part of a showcase for its new label, Minty Fresh.

As drummer Mark Schroder and bassist Andrew Davidson bang out protean rhythms in the background, rooster-maned guitarist Joe Prokop rocks back on his Cuban heels and peels off a succession of wildly propulsive riffs. On the other side of the stage, singer Stephen Ucherek flips up his shirt collar and drops his head down to sing, losing himself in his desperate howling. The room, only half-filled when they began, is packed as the last bit of feedback fades away. Following the show they pose for pictures, mingle with their label bosses, meet their LA-based attorney for the first time, and chat up prospective managers and booking agents. A few hours later, they load up their 1979 Ford Econoline and head for the banks of the Colorado River--where they'll spend the night in the van. "It's funny, we had all these people coming up to us going, 'Omigod, you're getting so huge, you're doing so good,'" says Ucherek. "And it's like, 'C'mon, we're sleeping in a van for chrissakes.'"

The Living Blue aren't an overnight success--they labored eight years for the right to sleep next to their amps in Texas. But since last April, when they released their second album, Living in Blue, they've had a whirlwind year. The band formerly known as the Blackouts won a national talent competition, got their songs tapped for inclusion in TV shows and a movie, and landed a new record deal. This week they will start recording their third disc in Chicago at Gravity Studios.

Prokop, Ucherek, and Schroder all grew up in Odell, a town of about 1,000 halfway between Chicago and Springfield. They met in high school nearly a decade ago, and by the late 90s all were living in Champaign. With a changing cast of bassists the Blackouts played college clubs until 2001, when the band "bought a bit of recording equipment, did five songs, pressed up a hundred copies, and called it our EP," says Ucherek.

The glorified demo caught the ear of Chris Broach, singer for Braid and the Firebird Band and owner of Deerfield-based Lucid Records. Lucid released the Blackouts' 2002 debut, Everyday Is a Sunday Evening, an energetic garage-rock pastiche that showed how heavily in thrall the group was to the Nuggets and Pebbles comps. Their 2004 follow-up, Living in Blue, was produced by Adam Schmitt, a cult figure in power-pop circles, who captured the band as it rapidly developed out of its embryonic phase. "With the second record we started to introduce some of that 60s California sound, some cleaner but more technical psychedelic things, a little folk, even some new wave," says Prokop.

Last April, after the release of Living in Blue, on a whim the band decided to enter a nationwide talent competition sponsored by the syndicated radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage, hosted by E Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt. After advancing through the Chicago regionals in June they played at the finals in New York, where they impressed the panel of judges--among them Dictators singer Handsome Dick Manitoba, Rascals drummer Dino Danelli, Hollywood rock weirdo Kim Fowley, and Van Zandt himself--and shared the top prize with a Boston band, Muck & the Mires. That scored them a broadcast of their performance on MTV2, along with a slot at Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival in New York, where they shared the stage with reunited heroes like the Stooges, the Creation, and the New York Dolls.

At the outset of the contest, the Blackouts learned that their music would be used in the WB teen drama One Tree Hill. Mark Schwann, the show's creator, heard about the band from Prokop's brother-in-law, a childhood friend, and ultimately three songs from Living in Blue were featured in two episodes of the show. The good news snowballed from there: Schwann helped the Blackouts find their lawyer, David Ferreria, who started negotiating with labels, which ultimately led to the signing with Minty Fresh in the fall. "We liked the fact that they were music fans first," Ucherek says of the savvy Chicago indie. "But the main thing was that they had confidence in us. They wanted to sign us and get us right into the studio. Other people we talked to, especially majors, they want you to come showcase and send demos and this other bullshit. We didn't see why we should do that after so long together." That Minty Fresh has tended to specialize in more offbeat pop acts like the Aluminum Group and Papas Fritas is a plus, says Ucherek. "We didn't want to be just another garage band on a garage label. We don't want to be pegged as revivalists."

Before signing with the label, the band made a couple of shifts: it changed its name to avoid being confused with a number of groups, including 80s Seattle postpunks the Blackouts, and added bassist Andrew Davidson to replace Pat Olsen, who'd left to pursue his own projects. The new lineup will spend five days at Gravity, recording a handful of songs written and road tested in the past few months. Several, including the Zeppelin-style stomp "She Bleeds Pink" and the high-velocity punk tune "The Beat of Her Drums," were previewed at SXSW.

"I think being a band and going through and making records instead of playing the game has helped us," says Ucherek. "I mean, we know bands that have lawyers and stuff before they've ever even recorded. We got a lot of confidence now that we feel like we've actually earned."

Before making the trip to Austin, the band was featured in Alternative Press as an up-and-coming act and learned that one of its songs had been picked up for the MTV reality series Power Girls. Another is slated for a forthcoming feature film called Waiting. Minty Fresh co-owner Anthony Musiala points out that while the band's previous successes make the label's job easier, they don't render showcases like SXSW irrelevant. "The reason for them being down there is that pretty much outside of the Chicago-Champaign area they're fairly unknown," he says. "When you have a show like that, where the majority of the people are somewhat connected within the industry, it's a great opportunity for exposure."

There are more immediate benefits too. "I was on my way back to the van after seeing some shows in Austin and a bunch of different people recognized me," says Prokop. "One guy even gave me three dollars for no reason. He was pretty drunk, and we were talking and he was like, 'Man, you guys are great! Here, take three dollars.' So yeah, I guess playing South by Southwest really does pay off."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Doug Coombe.

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