Lithuanian art-rock genius Vyto B resurfaces with a cross-generational collaboration | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Lithuanian art-rock genius Vyto B resurfaces with a cross-generational collaboration

Chicago label Sanzimat International documents the Lithuanian diaspora with three new tapes, including one with the creator of 70s outsider classic Tricentennial 2076.

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Vyto B works on Gridlock, his collaborative album with Edward Anderson, at Anderson’s home studio in 2014. - EDWARD ANDERSON
  • Edward Anderson
  • Vyto B works on Gridlock, his collaborative album with Edward Anderson, at Anderson’s home studio in 2014.

A decade ago, Edward Anderson of Chicago indie bands the 1900s and Mazes used to trawl the Web for strange music. "It was a very rich era of blogs hosting crazy obscure albums and people uploading tons of stuff to YouTube," he says. On a late-night online expedition in 2010, he stumbled upon a YouTube rip of a song by a musician named Vyto B. "The second I heard it, I was just flabbergasted," Anderson says. "I couldn't even believe what I was hearing."

Anderson had found a selection from Tricentennial 2076, a sci-fi concept album about the future of "New America" that Vyto B wrote, recorded, and released to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. The only extant YouTube video of that record uploaded prior to 2011 is the borderline manic "Good and Evil Biorhythms," where Vyto pairs restless, densely syncopated piano with even more hectic singing—he delivers his lyrics about our uncertain future like a zealous auctioneer, so that I can't understand all of them even after dozens of listens.

This particular video uses a still image of the Tricentennial 2076 album cover. A stern but baby-faced Vyto is flanked by two background figures who appear to be levitating some sort of ornamental disk above his head—the figure on his left looks like Vyto wearing futuristic garb inspired by ancient Rome, and the one on his right is a mannequin. It was uploaded by user "strugatsky," who the account's links suggest lives in Tallinn, Estonia.

Anderson immediately wanted to know more. "I had no idea if he was alive, or from Chicago, or anything," he says. "I got to work the next day and just started investigating, investigating, trying to figure out who he was."

  • The entirety of Vyto B's Tricentennial 2076 has been uploaded to YouTube.

By the time Anderson heard him, Vyto B (short for Vytautas Beleska) had attracted a small international cult following for the music he'd been self-releasing since 1972. Even the most avid record hunters knew only the barest biographical information about him, though. His first release, the compilation First Chips Volume 1, collects a few solo songs and tracks by a handful of short-lived psych and garage bands that he'd played in over the previous few years. Issued on LP by Vyto's Clay Pigeon label (no one's sure how many copies were pressed), it's found its way into the hands of important collectors over the subsequent decades.

Record dealer Paul Major, an evangelist for unusual private-press LPs via his mail-order catalogs Feel the Music and Sound Effects, took a liking to First Chips. In a Sound Effects mailer that appears to be from 1989, he wrote about it fondly: "A most unusual find, and loose as hell." He was asking $125 for his copy, and these days the compilation commands an even higher price: a Discogs dealer in Italy has a near mint LP that can be yours for 2,500 euros. Tricentennial 2076 has prompted similar devotion from the collector community. In The Acid Archives, a weighty tome whose second edition (published in 2010) collects reviews of 5,000 hard-to-find rock LPs released between 1965 and 1982, editor Patrick Lundborg wrote that Tricentennial was "destined to become an 'outsider' favorite."

In November 2010, the blog Egg City Radio shared zip files for Tricentennial 2076 and a 1985 Vyto B cassette called Automatic Vaudeville. The post correctly surmised that Vyto was from the Chicago area, but it contained no other details about him. That same year, Anderson discovered not only that Vyto still lived in Chicago but also that he'd never stopped recording and performing. In 2009, Vyto and longtime collaborator John Devlin had launched Monday Club, a weekly series at a coffeehouse near Midway airport called A Place for Us. They performed music as Virtual Party and hosted an open jam session. After connecting with Vyto on Facebook, Anderson and his wife came to Monday Club to meet him in person.

The two men quickly became friends. "He would come to 1900s shows, hang out, and then he just started coming over to our house," Anderson says. "He's got tons of amazing stories. He's very gregarious and super fun to hang out with. At some point we were like, 'Hey, we're hanging out together, should we make some music?'"

  • The video for the Vyto B & Mazes collaboration "Calm," directed by Roommate bandleader Kent Lambert, was uploaded in 2016.

In 2012, Anderson and Vyto began a tentative collaboration. For the first year, they met infrequently, but at the end of 2013 they decided to make an album, blocking off regular times to jam and record. This week, they'll release Gridlock, an eccentric art-rock album credited to Vyto B and Mazes. Anderson is releasing it on cassette through his label, Sanzimat International, named in homage to Vyto's Clay Pigeon International (also called Clay Pigeon Productions or Clay Pigeon Records).

Sanzimat is putting out Gridlock in conjunction with two other cassettes. The lo-fi psych-pop record Era One is the debut of Chicago musician Nicole Baksinskas under the name Nik-Nik, while the eclectic antifolk album Catahua Blanca, allegedly recorded during a weeklong series of ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru, is the work of a Harvard anthropologist operating under the pseudonym T Stephen. Anderson has designated all three tapes part of a series called the Lithuanian Diaspora, since all the musicians are of Lithuanian descent.

Anderson's parents didn't emphasize his Lithuanian heritage while he was growing up in the south suburbs in the 90s. But recently he's noticed that he's long been drawn to other Lithuanian musicians. When he formed the 1900s in 2004, the original lineup included two Chicagoans of Lithuanian descent, multi-instrumentalist Michael Jasinski and violinist Kristina Dutton. Lithuania's population hovers around three million, but like much of the rest of northeastern Europe, the country spent almost 50 years under Soviet rule—and this drove emigration. According to a 2018 Economist article, 1.3 million Lithuanians live abroad, and 100,000 of them are in Chicagoland.

Chicago's large Lithuanian community has played a significant role in the Lithuanian diaspora. Valdas Adamkus of Hinsdale retired from his senior position with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1997, then ran successfully for president of Lithuania in 1998; according to the Tribune, Chicagoans raised $1.25 million for his campaign. Shortly after he left office in 2009, at the end of his second term, he gave a phone interview to Lithuanian radio program Margutis, broadcast by WCEV, a multilingual Chicago station that caters to several ethnic groups. The interviewer was Vyto B.

To Chicago's Lithuanian community, Vyto is hardly the mystery he's long been to record collectors. According to Robertas Vitas, chairman of the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, he's vital to it. Vitas met him about 12 years ago, when Vyto began volunteering for the center, and he'd known about him for much longer. "He was very prominent as a writer, composer, and musician," Vitas says. "In his generation, he's quite well-known."

Born in Chicago in 1952, Vyto began recording in December 1964, when as a 12-year-old he made a spine-tingling instrumental electronic song called "Time (Part One)," which appears on First Chips. In the five decades since, Vyto has been involved in a lot of different musical projects, and it's difficult to know the full breadth of his catalog. (His most recent new material came out in the 2010s.) Record collectors have only been able to document a few recordings, a fraction of the material Vyto claims to have released. "He told me crazy stuff that I was never able to substantiate," says Secret History of Chicago Music creator Steve Krakow. "Like, he moved to France for a long time, he released dozens of cassettes over there, and he was popular over there." Krakow profiled Vyto in a 2013 installment of his long-running Reader strip, which is one of the few published pieces I've dug up (along with a 2014 interview for It's Psychedelic Baby! Magazine) where Vyto shares his story.

Sadly, I couldn't get any details from the man himself. Vyto fell ill in 2016, and he declined to talk to me. No one I spoke with would share details about his condition on the record. I communicated with Vyto through Anderson, who passed along a few brief messages. "He was just like, 'It's all on the Internet—my life that you need to know is findable on the Internet,'" Anderson says. "He said, 'I send my love.'"

This week Anderson’s label Sanzimat International releases three cassettes in its Lithuanian Diaspora series: Era One by Nik-Nik (aka Nicole Baksinskas), Catahua Blanca by T Stephen, and Gridlock by Vyto B and Mazes. - COURTESY SANZIMAT INTERNATIONAL
  • Courtesy Sanzimat International
  • This week Anderson’s label Sanzimat International releases three cassettes in its Lithuanian Diaspora series: Era One by Nik-Nik (aka Nicole Baksinskas), Catahua Blanca by T Stephen, and Gridlock by Vyto B and Mazes.

As a child, Vyto studied composition under Vladas Jakubėnas, a Lithuanian expat who'd been a pupil of Austrian composer Franz Schreker at the Berlin University of the Arts in the late 1920s and early 1930s. When British bands brought their flavor of rock to the States in the 60s, Vyto got hooked and began playing in several bands, including Grand Fuck (a riff on Grand Funk Railroad). That group supplied First Chips with three primordial art-rock songs, including the florid ripper "Fire Mountain." Elsewhere on the compilation, on the hard-psych jam "Mind and Soul," Vyto teamed up with bassist Arvy Tumosa and drummer Denny Murray—both of whom also played in Mercury-signed rock act Lincoln Park Zoo. The eight-and-a-half-minute song was recorded live at a high school dance in Tinley Park.

Multi-instrumentalist John Devlin met Vyto in early 1973, shortly after the release of First Chips. Devlin had been attending a Friday jam session in the basement of Chicago Lawn Presbyterian Church, and one night Vyto dropped in to play—and he brought copies of the LP, which he was selling for $2. "I said, 'Hey, do you have any copies that I could borrow, and if you're coming back next week I'll give it back?'" Devlin says. "He lent me a copy to audition the album, and I listened to it a few times and decided, you know, there's something about this record."

  • Vyto B's first release was the 1972 compilation First Chips Volume 1, which collects early solo tracks and songs by a few of his bands.

Devlin bought the LP, and continued jamming with Vyto even after the church-basement sessions ended a few months later. In late 1973, Devlin played his first gig with Vyto at a dance held at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Gage Park (the building would later house the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center as well). "That was one of my moments that I felt like I'd arrived—to me, it was an incredible gig," Devlin says. He performed with Vyto on and off during the ensuing decades. "We actually played a lot of weddings—I always took a lot of pride in what we did, 'cause while we were never a regular band, we were able to play well together," Devlin says. "We did a lot of jamming, even at receptions, after the older people would leave. We'd rock the place."

Vyto kept starting new bands, sometimes with Devlin and sometimes without him. In the mid-70s, they launched the Martian Plan, which Devlin describes as post-new wave. In the late 70s, they formed Angelica, which had a song Devlin claims sounded like Double's 1985 soft-rock single "Captain of Her Heart." Virtual Party, whose name Vyto would later use for his Monday-night gigs with Devlin at A Place for Us, was originally a synthy experimental pop duo with saxophonist Scott Carlton in the 90s. The project that stuck around longest was the Band That Never Made It, an initially Devlin-less project that Vyto started in 1979. That year, Clay Pigeon released the Vyto B seven-inch "The Band That Never Made It" b/w "The Most Beautiful Tribe of Dolls." (The B side shares a name with a film Vyto says he released in 1981, though the only evidence of its existence I've found is a trailer on his YouTube page.)

Devlin says the original lineup of the Band That Never Made It petered out after about a year and a half. In 1981, Vyto recycled the name for a trio that did include Devlin, who soon recruited a drummer named Rick Trankle—he came aboard unrehearsed for a paid gig at a south-side grade school reunion. Between blocks of 60s classics, the three of them played Vyto originals, which quickly made a fan of Trankle. "They caught my ear, they were just so pleasing," Trankle says. "It was his, but it had that familiar sound and feel to it. When you hear music like that, you just naturally are drawn to it for whatever reason."

Within a year, the trio had landed a gig at Tuts in Lakeview, at the time one of the city's favorite rock clubs—but that was as close as the trio (or Vyto) got to mainstream success or fame. Devlin says Angelica attracted some interest from MCA imprint Infinity, though the label folded before anything solidified. In the early 70s, Vyto had run into famous Chicago radio personality Larry Lujack and passed along some of his music, but other than some encouraging words, that didn't lead anywhere either. "Larry Lujack actually called him," Devlin says. "He was saying, 'Man, Vyto, that song's a bitch!'" In the mid-80s, Vyto took off for Paris, returning to Chicago only sporadically and only sometimes playing with Devlin or Trankle when he did. It stayed that way for years.

Edward Anderson, best known for his roles in the 1900s and Mazes, began collaborating with Vyto B in 2012. - SIRPA K
  • Sirpa K
  • Edward Anderson, best known for his roles in the 1900s and Mazes, began collaborating with Vyto B in 2012.

Anderson, 41, grew up in Palos Park. His maternal grandfather was Lithuanian. "I'm more than 25 percent like him," Anderson says. "That's the part of my heritage that intrigues me and I feel like I have the most relationship to." He never enrolled in any Lithuanian cultural heritage class or attended a Lithuanian youth center, but as he got deeper into making music, he kept encountering like-minded artists of Lithuanian descent.

In sixth grade, Anderson started a band called R.O.M.C. (he'd rather not say what it stood for) with a buddy who had a drum machine and recording equipment. "Our idea wouldn't be, 'Hey, let's make a song today,'" he says. "We'd be like, 'Let's make an album today.' We'd open the attic and make an album. Every time we hung out, we'd make albums and albums." At the time, the biggest band Anderson knew in the south-suburban teen scene was Dyslexic Apaches, and front man Bruce Lamont (now of Bloodiest and Yakuza) took a liking to Anderson's group. He played one of their songs on a college radio station—Anderson thinks it was probably WXAV 88.3 FM at Saint Xavier University. "It was, like, the greatest moment of my life," Anderson says. "I still see Bruce. I'm always like, 'Thank you so much for championing my music when I was in sixth grade.'"

In high school, Anderson played in an experimental trio called Minotaurs of P with Michael Jasinski and Tim Minnick, both of whom would become part of the first 1900s lineup in 2004. The 1900s made their live debut in September 2006 and soon signed with downstate indie Parasol; the following year they released their debut album, Cold & Kind, and performed at Lollapalooza. By 2009, Anderson had put out another record on Parasol, this one by his side project Mazes. Both were lush and genteel, characteristic of indie rock at the time.

Anderson still tinkers with material for both bands, but not long after the second 1900s album, 2010's Return of the Century, he basically stopped performing live. The following year, while working on the Mazes record Mazes Blazes, he decided to start a label of his own to release it. He'd already met Vyto by then, and he wanted to reissue his friend's back catalog too.

Vyto B reissues on Sanzimat have yet to materialize, in part because Vyto has been more interested in his new music. But since launching his label in 2012, Anderson has built a catalog that includes enough archival material for such releases to make sense. Within its first couple years, Sanzimat had put out two such records: Coyote: Archives Vol. 1, a compilation of puckish home recordings made by artist and prankster Derek Erdman between 1994 and 2004, and Happy Alchemy, a collection of Nicole Baksinskas's 2004 bedroom-pop experiments with an Omnichord.

Anderson connected with Baksinskas in 2012, after digging through music files on the computer of Mazes member Charles d'Autremont. D'Autremont had run a home studio, and Baksinskas had recorded there. "We wrote some songs, and I kind of forgot about them for a while—for years, really," Baksinskas says. Material that Anderson found that night is included on the new Era One cassette. "It's pretty cool when someone else discovers your stuff and is excited about it," Baksinskas says. "And wants to release it."

In 1920, a Lithuanian musicologist, composer, and professor named Juozas Žilevičius moved back home from Russia with a few boxes of materials and established a Lithuanian musicological archive. In 1929, he relocated to New Jersey, bringing some of his rarest materials. Intending to return to Lithuania, he left the rest with a friend in the town of Gargždai, but World War II intervened. Though everything Žilevičius hadn't brought to the States was destroyed, he rebuilt his collection—and then some. By 1960, when he moved the archive to Chicago, it weighed about 3,000 pounds. Today the Žilevičius-Kreivėnas Musicology Archive is in the care of the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, which recently moved to suburban Lemont. Chairman Robertas Vitas says it's the largest such collection outside Lithuania.

Vyto began working with the musicology archive as a volunteer in the late 2000s. He'd help catalog reel-to-reel recordings, letters, films, vinyl, and other documents, and show visiting researchers around. "He was perfect for the musicology archive," Vitas says. "He's been involved in the Chicago music scene for many, many years—but also the Lithuanian music scene. Those Lithuanian American musicians, many of them he knew, he worked with, he collaborated with, and played events with—so he had that kind of content knowledge that is very rare."

Vitas says the archive likely contains some of Vyto's work too—most of its contents aren't yet digitally indexed, so it's impossible to be sure without an exhaustive manual search. Anderson says Vyto hasn't done a great job maintaining an archive of his own, so the Žilevičius-Kreivėnas collection might eventually let the public hear music of Vyto's that isn't available any other way. "I got some of it, but there's more," Anderson says. "I don't know who has it, or if it still exists—I have no idea."

Vyto frequently recorded rehearsals and live sets, and Devlin has some reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes of his work with Vyto. So does Trankle, who shared some digitized versions with me—I heard snippets of them playing Tuts in 1981, where they injected their fierce, borderline feral set with refined glam.

Anderson isn't the only person who's hoped to reissue Vyto's material. Moniker Records founder Robert Manis, who helped Drag City reissue recordings by Detroit protopunk band Death, has had the itch since discovering Tricentennial 2076 a decade ago. "I just thought this guy was Elton John on acid—it was so wild, and so flamboyant in a way," Manis says. "I haven't heard anything like it—even to this day, it's so unique."

Krakow thinks Vyto might not know where he's stored some of his masters—an obvious problem for any authorized reissue. Anderson says a friend of Vyto's has uploaded First Chips Volume 1, Tricentennial 2076, and the 1994 full-length Virtual Party to Spotify over the past year, but he doesn't know if Vyto gave his permission.

Manis talked to Vyto in 2012 about rereleasing some of his old work, only to discover that Vyto didn't share his enthusiasm for the project. "I tried hard to persuade him to get Tricentennial 2076 to be reissued, because I think it's a phenomenal piece of work, and I know people would love it—just getting it out on a label like Drag City or Numero would be really special," Manis says. "But he was so excited about the work he was doing at the moment. He's an artist, so he's always pushing things forward, doing things different. He didn't really want to revisit his old work."

In the early 2010s, Vyto picked up where he'd left off in the 80s with the Band That Never Made It, again as a trio with Devlin and Trankle. They played a few gigs, mostly at the behest of younger fans eager to spread the word about Vyto's history as an underground legend: Manis booked them for a Record Store Day set at Permanent in 2012, and Krakow tapped them for a summer version of his annual Psych Fest at the Hideout in 2015. Before Vyto fell ill in 2016, he and Devlin would travel to Trankle's northwest-side home and play in the basement every week. "It was a joy for me," Trankle says. "It almost fulfilled that dream of 'We're playing every week, we're putting on a show.' Those rehearsals were performance rehearsals—they weren't 'Let's jam.'"

Vyto also kept recording with Anderson throughout this period. "Sometimes we would get something new started," Anderson says. "Sometimes we would just mess with old songs, do crazy overdubs and stuff." Both of them are meticulous about refining their work, Anderson explains, which is partly why they hadn't released anything prior to Gridlock. It wasn't till Vyto gave Anderson the thumbs-up last year that Sanzimat sketched out a plan to release the freewheeling art-rock they'd cooked up together.

The two musicians developed a casual, well-balanced division of labor on the project—both sang, wrote lyrics, programmed drums, and played bass, drums, keyboards, and guitar. During the recording and production process, Anderson and Vyto would have long conversations about their Lithuanian heritage and the community they shared. "It was maybe one of the main topics of our conversations, for years," Anderson says. On the closing track of Gridlock, the dreamy "Celebrate (Visions of Doom)," layered overdubs of Vyto speaking in Lithuanian swirl through a dark, anxious interlude—Anderson says he's explaining an avant-garde Lithuanian opera that was staged in Chicago in the 70s.

"Celebrate" is a "mini opera" about Russia's attempts to overtake Lithuania, Anderson says, but despite its double-edged title and its chilly, anxious verses, the song manages a sardonic sort of hopefulness in its soaring choruses. Just before it fades out, Vyto plays a slow-building guitar solo that combines a meticulous, almost pastoral melody with a scorched psychedelic tone. "It was one of the best guitar solos I've ever heard," Anderson says. "That was the last thing we recorded."  v

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