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Canasta’s brightly lit pop rock is unmistakable to a Chicago music fan. Gearing up for promotion of their new record, The Fakeout, the Tease and the Breather, Matt Priest answered these questions for CHIRP Radio’s fab-collab with Coach House Sounds. Priest and his new line-up in Canasta were the latest band to jam in a charming coach house in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Hear the results when the session is release on June 21st at coachhousesounds.com and until then, catch preview tracks on CHIRPradio.org.
What the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in a basement?
My childhood home actually had a pretty big basement, so up until about age twelve, I used to plan these elaborate, maze-like haunted houses for the other kids in my neighborhood. But one Halloween, just after my dad returned from tagging along on an amateur archaeological dig, I made the mistake of using an actual human skull in my haunted house’s climax.
As my guests rounded the last corner, they came upon the skull on the ground, complete with rubber insects and beams of light pouring from its eye sockets. But the terror it induced would also serve as its downfall, as the very first kid to discover it completely freaked out and stomped it to pieces. Whoops.
Canasta has a long history in Chicago. Can you tell me about one time when you realized this was YOUR city?
As a sextet, there are very few things upon which all of us can agree. But a few years back, we were offered the chance to play alongside Barack Obama at a fundraiser for the then-Presidential candidate. When it comes to either political gigs or benefits, the band only plays if the cause is something we can all get behind 100%. And lucky for us, it just so happened that his campaign was one of those things.
The event took place at the Riviera Theater, one of Chicago’s most legendary venues, and also featured a set from the city’s rock n’ roll ambassadors, Wilco… two more aspects to the evening about which the band was unanimously stoked. Furthermore, Obama’s campaign had just started to take hold on a national level, so the energy throughout the hometown crowd was extremely positive and almost electric. The entire experience was one of Canasta’s proudest moments, as both a band and a group of six Chicagoans.
Describe a scenario where Canasta could be someone’s life coach and the top 2 life lessons you’d teach them.
We could probably offer some helpful advice to just about anyone who’s at a point in life where he/she is considering diving head-first into a scary, new endeavor… whether it be artistic, professional, romantic or whatever. Cuz when we started Canasta, most of us weren’t the sort of seasoned rockers who had spent our lives preparing in other bands.
The group originated organically – and somewhat offhandedly – so it was intimidating when things started going well and it came time to decide if we were serious about going a step further: making records, playing out, touring, etc. Obviously, we decided that we were. And since doing so, I’d say two of the most important things we have learned (though haven’t always remembered to observe, ourselves) are as follows…
1) Take chances. Often, the craziest things we’ve written into songs – the stuff it was far from certain we’d ever be able to pull off – ended up being our fans’ favorite moments, as well as our own. But if you do anything for awhile, eventually, things that once felt like risks will cease to. So be sure to keep from getting too comfortable; push yourself and continue to find new ways to take those chances.
2) Don’t get too caught up comparing what it is you do to the work of others around you. For starters, it tends to be a losing proposition… It’s easy to wonder why anyone ought to bother writing lyrics in a world that has already heard Bob Dylan or singing in a one that has already heard Sam Cooke. But more importantly, it’s just crucial to understand that the exact combination of elements you bring together and the precise way in which you do so is absolutely unique to you.
At the risk of invoking an overused snowflake analogy, rest assured it has never existed before and won’t ever be replicated again. And upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that you are the sole expert in your very own niche. Once you realize that, it becomes much easier to take full advantage of everything you have to offer the world. Cheesy, I know… But I’m pretty sure it’s actually true too.
Tell me about your CHS session—what did you like about it? Was there anything that surprised you or was spontaneous that came out in the recording?
To be honest, we’re notorious perfectionists about the structures and arrangements of our songs, so it’s not often you’ll find us recording a single-take live session to tape. But we did so here and it was actually kind of exhilarating. We were a bit out of our element though, a fact that seemed to manifest itself in nervy, amped-up tempos on a few of the tunes. That was scary at first, but I’d say it ended up adding an immediacy to those songs.
Also, I recall it being a fairly early morning session, which tends to lend the vocals a rougher, ramshackle quality… again, not the way we’d normally do things… but that gave the set a looseness that worked nicely too.
What’s happening? What are your current/upcoming shows or releases?
We’ve had a lot of changes to our line-up since the release of last year’s The Fakeout, the Tease and the Breather. So we were just recently able to begin work on the follow-up, which for the sake of expediency, will probably be somewhat shorter than a full-length. But in order to fund its recording, you can catch us playing a number of outdoor fests and street fairs this summer (which, for whatever reason, just happen to be far more lucrative than your average club gig).
We also just returned from Rock Island, Illinois, where we laid down a Daytrotter session, which should be posted online within the month. And we’re about halfway done with a ridiculously ambitious music video for The Fakeout single, “Mexico City,” which ought to be done by the middle of Summer. We can’t wait for folks to hear/see that stuff!
Chicagoans pride themselves on their summer music festivals. Whether it be mega-fests like Lollapalooza or The Pitchfork Music Festival that draw music fans in from around the country, or the myriad neighborhood street festivals which book local acts and world renowned performers on the same bill, the residents of the windy city are pampered when it comes to these fair-weather extravaganzas.
Now, we can add experimental music to the plot of our summer blow-outs. Debuting last year at the Viaduct Theater, the Neon Marshmallow Fest gives the oft-neglected crafters of experimental sound their own forum. While last year’s marathon edition eroded the ear canals of hardcore audiophiles with sets bleeding from day into night, this year’s festival scales back the endurance level while dialing up the sonic intensity with three nights of an augmented quad stereo sound stage at the Empty Bottle.
CHIRP Radio’s David Wicik got a chance recently to catch up with festival organizers Matt Kimmel and Dan Smith.
CHIRP: What is your background? How did you get into the experimental music scene in Chicago?
Dan Smith: I’m an MRI technician currently. As far as the music scene goes, I used to play a lot of piano, I didn’t really play with anybody, and then I started playing with this one guy and I thought I was doing some different things with instruments and sound and he was like, “Yeah that’s this whole other thing.” You know, I thought I had invented something, and he corrected me. So I started delving into the experimental scene more and more and I loved it.
Matt Kimmel: I do the video site Acid Marshmallow where I just video a lot of shows around town. Before that I had put out some records and worked on college radio and everything. And through the site I had videoed a lot of stuff. I met this guy (Smith) when I had booked him for a show at my old apartment and we’ve been chillin’ since then.
CHIRP (To Smith): So do you still perform?
DS: Yeah, I used to play as Red Electric Rainbow and have since dropped that. Now I just like to play by myself and collaborate with people more, and improvise when I’m playing by myself.
CHIRP (To Smith): Any recent collaborations we should know about?
DS: I play with my ex-roommate Ryan Schupak a lot, and I’ve played with two of the guys from Green Pasture Happiness a couple of weeks ago.
CHIRP: So I was going to ask about Acid Marshmallow since I assume that that was the jumping off point for this festival…
MK: Actually, this guy (Smith), last year, he had gone to the Viaduct Theater, where we had it last year, before we had the fest, and he talked to them about how it was such a great venue that we should have a festival there. And we were already friends at that point, and he had mentioned the idea of the fest, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s really cool, you know, there’s not anything like that in Chicago right now.” And he asked me if I wanted to help out. So we decided to go with it and it worked out pretty awesomely last year.
CHIRP: So what was the original inspiration then, to have the festival?
DS: There were a couple of artists I just wanted to see, and I thought it would be cool to bring them to Chicago and try to see if it would work, to see if people would respond to it. And they did.
CHIRP: You know, I feel like this is a feeling that a lot of music fans have, like “Oh man, if only I could bring these three artists,” yet for the most part the idea stops right there. So what you think helped you to follow through?
DS: Well I asked the venue and they said they were cool with it, and then I asked a couple artists and they were in, so I was like, “Well, I guess there’s no turning back now, I might as well try and make it happen.” I also got some advice along the way from people who had done shows before. I put in a ton of work. Matt put in a ton of work…
MK: There are just so many good artists in experimental music that don’t get a chance to play in Chicago. And just the idea of getting these guys out here that usually don’t have the chance, and just giving them a reason to have a bunch of people come out and see them. Experimental music can be tough sometimes, a lot of shows are not well attended. Touring it can be tough, a lot of venues won’t book it, it’s always alt. venues, and a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to tour. The fest gave people a good reason to come out to Chicago, and tour on their way out from all over.
CHIRP: That being said, how difficult was it to organize? Did you have existing relationships built up with these people?
DS: I really didn’t. Like I said, I’m pretty new to the scene. So, I started booking it before Matt was fully onboard, and I talked to a bunch of people that he knew that didn’t know me, and I mentioned that I knew him, and Matt was like, “Yeah, no, I’m involved it’s going to be cool.” But at the beginning there I was virtually unknown, just some guy sending an e-mail. But it seemed to work out pretty well, everyone was pretty responsive to the idea. So once I got a couple artists booked, it seemed to fall into place much easier. It actually ended up that more people wanted to play than we were asking.
MK: Yeah, I really think a lot of people want to play in Chicago, but don’t get the chance. So with the fest, it seemed like a lot of people were receptive because they just wanted to come out here.
CHIRP: How many of the acts playing the Neon Marshmallow Fest are local?
MK: Only two this year, right?
DS: There’s Beau (Wanzer), Sam (Prekop), Quam’s (Dave Quam aka Massacooramaan) deejaying, and then the Zerang trio (Michael Zerang, Michael Colligan and Jim Baker)…
MK: And Tiger Hatchery.
DS: And Tiger Hatchery, so we have five, and well John MacEntire’s deejaying.
MK: Yeah, definitely not as many as last year. The thing that we wanted to do this year, like our main objective, was we wanted to get people in town that have either never played here before, haven’t played here for like five to ten years, or like, the Chicago artists that are playing weren’t involved in the fest last year, like Beau. Except Tiger Hatchery is a return, but only on the idea that they had broken up. One of their members had left Chicago seven or eight months ago and he’s a really great guy and really supportive of the scene. He booked shows at The Mopery. And I wanted to just make sure that they had a chance to play in Chicago. But we just wanted to bring something very different, so people would have a chance to see something out of the ordinary. (Sunday headliner) Morton Subotnick is a very rare show. He just started playing again, he’s played two shows this year. But prior to that he had taken like a ten year break. And he’s a legend that a lot of people haven’t ever had the chance to see.
CHIRP: Describe the experience of an average festival-goer to the Neon Marshmallow fest. What is the energy level like?
DS: Well last year was like…
MK: A mindf#ck.
DS: Yeah, there were one hundred and five performances in four days.
MK: One of the days featured over thirteen hours of nonstop music. It was a true marathon. But last year, and this year, I think the cool thing about it is that even though everything falls under the umbrella of experimental music, there’s no one who is really doing the same thing as the other. So there will probably be some catchy, head-bobbing sets, and then there will be some walls of harsh noise. Another one of our hopes is that people who have heard of one or two of the artists, like Oneohtrix Point Never, you know there’s a lot of stuff on the bill, even on the Saturday bill, the night he’s (Daniel Lopatin) playing, that they would like, if they gave it a chance. And that’s the thing about experimental music, it’s really a great live medium. When you go to a performance, you really experience the music.
DS: You have to experience it live. A harsh noise wall live, it’s one thing to listen to it at home on your speakers and dismiss it, it’s another thing to go and hear it live.
MK: Yeah, and actually, the Empty Bottle has pretty great sound in my opinion, but we’re actually upping the sound. We’re getting extra speakers and extra subs. It’s going to be pretty incredible. Sets will be in quad stereo.
CHIRP: Can you describe quad stereo for the non-music geeks?
DS: We’re just going to move around more. You’re going to feel the music in other directions. Instead of just coming at you, you’re going to feel it behind you and beside you.
MK: Not just the left-right channel, a left front, a left back, a right front and a right back.
DS: It’ll be a more panoramic sound.
MK: And the Subotnick set, he’s doing his composition specifically for the quad stereo. So it will be…electric, it will be incredible.
CHIRP: If you had to pick one performer at the fest whose set is most likely to help you achieve Nirvana, who would it be?
MK: This is a toughie. They all probably could. I like all these bands so much. Subotnick is pretty f#cking incredible. He pretty much mapped out and invented the idea of a synthesizer. He’s been making music since the ’50s.
DS: Yeah, he really opened the door for what we hear out there right now.
MK: Yeah, I don’t want to cop out and call the headliner the one to make me achieve Nirvana. Really they’re all going to be great.
DS: Last time I saw Outer Space was pretty intense; it was just climax after climax, after climax.
MK: And he’s (John Elliott) actually, on top of using the quad stereo, he’s
actually bringing his own PA on top of it.
DS: Yeah, John really understands sound. All the tours that Emeralds did and all the shows he played, you can tell he really paid attention to what the sound guys were doing and then refined that and built on that, because when he plays live, you can really tell the difference. Sound is not good enough for him.
MK: I feel like that set is going to be very physical. But I think also The Rita set is going to be like that, as far as panic attack levels of bass. He’s (Sam McKinlay) like every sound at once, like a sheet of sound.
Neon Marshmallow Fest is currently underway (June 10-12) at The Empty Bottle (1035 N. Western). Tickets are still available for Saturday and Sunday night!