Pit Er Pat, Lazer Crystal, Aleks & the Drummer
WHEN Mon 1/29, 8 PM
WHERE Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
When I ask Aleksandra Tomaszewska about the music that influences Aleks & the Drummer, all she can come up with is "strong female vocalists." I've been trying to think of a useful thumbnail description of her band for a week, and that doesn't help. But toward the end of our interview she makes a striking comparison between her music and a digital photo. "Every influence is like an individual pixel in a picture," she says. "An image is made up of millions of pixels, and one alone doesn't make the whole picture."
Most bands are easy to sum up: "church-burning black metal," for instance, or "a lot like Interpol." Trying to describe Aleks & the Drummer is like trying to describe a digital photo one pixel at a time--it's hard to get across the whole picture without piling up a lot of information. First off, they're a duo: Tomaszewska plays Farfisa organ and sings, and Deric Criss is the Drummer. They sound psychedelic, but not spacey or druggy or self-indulgent like a typical psych band. Criss favors Krautrock rhythms cranked up to punk-rock speeds, and Tomaszewska likes elaborate minor-key melodies and ethereal, abstract vocals. She often sings in nonsense syllables or her native Polish--they even cover an early-80s tune by the Polish pop band Bajm. I'm embarrassed to fall back on a threadbare music-crit device like the theoretical lineup, but for brevity's sake let's try this one: a Polish cabaret singer accompanying herself like a speed-freak Phantom of the Opera while Brendan Canty plays just the drum fills from Fugazi's fast songs. That's eight or nine more pixels right there.
When you can use words like emo or techno to describe a band, most people who've decided they aren't into those things will tune out right away. But because Aleks & the Drummer don't fit into one of those pigeonholes, it's tougher for a crowd--even a crowd with very specific loyalties--to write them off sight unseen. And sure enough, their audience is as hard to peg as their music. The 20 or so shows they've played since debuting in May include an appearance at the Three Million Tongues festival--Steve Krakow tapped them to open for Burning Star Core, White/Lichens, and semilegendary strangeballs Smegma--and a rare live-band set at the Funky Buddha's Outdanced night, where I saw a roomful of hip-hop heads and clubby hipsters go just as nuts for them as they would for a new Justice single. Last summer the duo played a neighborhood festival in Palmer Square as part of a lineup Criss describes as "a bunch of cover bands and funk bands." (Tomaszewska is less charitable: "It was Caribbean cruise music.") They had no idea how the crowd would react--it was mostly Mexican families--but they went over smashingly. "Some kids got up and started breakdancing," Tomaszewska says. And on Monday they're opening for Pit Er Pat on the last show of their residence at Schubas.
Aleks & the Drummer has only existed since late 2005, but Criss and Tomaszewska have been playing together on and off for about three years. Their first collaboration was in early 2004, improvising what Tomaszewska describes as "chamber music" in a group led by a mutual friend who had a roomful of "harpsichords and things." They not only never played any concerts, they never settled on a lineup, finished writing a song, or even picked a name. "It was basically one long rehearsal for Aleks & the Drummer," she says. Then in 2005 Criss assembled a more conventional rock band--guitar, bass, drums, keyboard--while Tomaszewska was in San Francisco for three months to work a design and photography job and spend time with relatives. He meant her to step in as front woman when she got back, but she didn't turn out to like just singing, and personality conflicts were already starting to crop up in the band. After a few months, Criss and Tomaszewska decided to strike out on their own as a duo.
Both see the downsized lineup as an essential part of the endeavor--they're happy not to have to compete with other players either personally or sonically. "There's only two of us, and only two opinions," says Tomaszewska. "There's no interference with what [other] people like and don't like." They have a running in-joke that makes Criss out to be a hapless cipher and Tomaszewska an attention-hungry diva--in one photo on their MySpace page, Criss is barely visible behind Tomaszewska, with a drawn-in arrow labeled "Deric" pointing at him, and several of the others are elaborate portraits of her alone--but it's hardly surprising that the photographer in the band would care more about promo pictures. (Criss is a software developer.) The band name isn't actually an ego trip either, though the two of them have different stories about how they settled on it. Tomaszewska says it's the result of an ultimatum: "I said if we didn't come up with something we're just going to be Aleks & the Drummer." Criss says he wanted something like Iggy & the Stooges and didn't quite get there. "She has to be at the front, so it would be Aleks & the . . . , but there's only one of me. Like, am I going to have the whole band to myself, like are we going to be Iggy & the Stooge?"
The duo setup does present some potential difficulties--"We have to sound full, so we can't keep it too simple," says Tomaszewska--but it also makes it possible to give the drums a bigger chunk of the available space, which in this case is definitely a good thing. Criss started drumming in high school after an epiphany courtesy of the Bomb Squad. "The first stuff where I ever paid attention to the drums was Clyde Stubblefield and John Starks as sampled by Public Enemy," he says. "I didn't have the James Brown records--I got Fear of a Black Planet." The other big influence on Criss is of course Krautrock, and you can hear both JB's skintight funk rhythms and the propulsive motorik patterns of Can and This Heat in his playing--it's more frantic and loose than either, but it never sounds out of control. "I'm sure it's not Rush-like precision, but I gotta know where I'm going," he says.
Though Tomaszewska does all the songwriting, she's more than happy to share the spotlight with Criss. When she e-mailed me to follow up on our conversation, she devoted a huge chunk of her message to the importance of drums to her musical vision. Criss's playing, she says, has "the intensity and power and victory that I always wanted in any music I make. Because then when you pour in something sad over the victorious, interesting timbres can fill your chest." (The whole message is like that, and the temptation to quote it at length is hard to resist.)
The "something sad" is Tomaszewska's ghostly singing. Her organ lines fill out the sound impressively, sometimes adding a kitschy goth element to the songs, but her clear, slightly melancholy voice is what holds the music together. Even more so than the up-tempo songs on their MySpace page, much of the duo's new material is furiously fast--without Tomaszewska's ear for dramatic melodies, it'd probably end up sounding like a weird take on artsy, hypertechnical thrash, a la Hella, if it weren't completely unlistenable. Instead what you get is a band that seems like the product of a Craigslist miscommunication that just happened to work out perfectly. It sounds bizarre when all you can do is read about it, but when you use your ears, it's enchantingly gorgeous.
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): photo/Marty Perez.