And They’re Off

If you’d only heard the Race on CD, you might imagine them as moody young art students in parkas and pullovers, laboring over their melancholy music in a chilly loft within sight of the Oxford campus. In reality they’re based in Chicago–the local Flameshovel label released their third full-length, If You Can, on Tuesday–and when I met them a couple weeks ago at the Empty Bottle, they were bellied up to the bar and cracking jokes, dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops.

They do have roots in a college town, but it’s not quite so far away. Three of the four members–drummer Kevin Duneman, guitarist and vocalist Craig Klein, and bassist Jeremy Parker–attended the University of Iowa together in the mid-90s, where they played in bands that were all part of the same tight-knit scene. (Parker and Klein have been friends since they were kids in Buffalo Grove.) Duneman and Klein started working together as a duo shortly before they graduated in 1998, and when Duneman left for Chicago with noisy rockers Chisel Drill Hammer, Klein came with him. Even before Duneman quit CDH the next year, he and Klein had dubbed their evolving project the Race.

The pair recorded an eponymous EP, self-released in 1999, and a 2000 full-length, Chicago Ruins Everything, that never quite came out on the local Swey label. Those early efforts, says Klein, were “essentially just Kevin and I playing, duking it out.” In late 2001, as the band was mixing a second full-length, The Perfect Gift (Flameshovel), Chicagoan Steve Art came aboard as a bassist; Parker had moved back to town, and when he joined in late 2002, Art switched to guitar and keyboard.

With a full band to write for, Klein began generating new material at a furious pace: while living with Duneman in a dilapidated coach house in Bucktown last summer, he came up with close to 40 songs. At around the same time Duneman was doing session work for Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper, better known as local electronica duo Telefon Tel Aviv, and someone floated the idea of the two producing the next Race disc. “They said they owed me a favor,” says Duneman, “so I kinda cashed that in.”

The band began work at Telefon Tel Aviv’s Logan Square basement studio in October, and the sessions stretched through the winter. “We quickly realized how detail-oriented they are,” says Duneman. “They don’t do the typical thing of running a band through the studio and applying the same sound from one song to another. It’s a whole separate process for each track.” But Telefon Tel Aviv didn’t mastermind an overhaul of the Race’s sound so much as help them subtly refine their existing personality: the band had already experimented with computers on The Perfect Gift, and all the looped beats and programmed percussion on If You Can are Duneman’s.

The album is guaranteed to provoke comparisons to Radiohead, in no small part due to Klein’s ethereal vocals. “We’ve got those two basic things, a small element of programmed beats and a person singing sort of emotionally, so that instantly equals Radiohead,” says Art. “At this point they’ve become a cultural reference point for things that don’t even sound anything like them.”

Be that as it may, the Race sound a bit like Thom Yorke and company in other ways too: the songs on If You Can run together into a single extended mood piece, and the dreamy pop melodies glimmer through a haze of electronics. “We used to be like, ‘Let’s play in 5/4 for 17 measures and then meet up at this point and make it pretty,'” says Duneman. “Now it’s about an overall feeling instead of a series of parts.”

In late April the Race released an EP, Rose (Flameshovel), from the same sessions that produced the full-length. “Regardless of how long we’ve been playing, no one seems to have heard of us,” says Duneman, laughing. “So basically it’s like starting over with every record, and we figured we’d reintroduce ourselves with the EP.”

The band remains relatively obscure due to bad luck and an admitted lack of ambition. The Swey label went out of business shortly before the scheduled release date for Chicago Ruins Everything, and the album was never distributed–the band got it into a few stores and sold copies hand to hand at shows. And though The Perfect Gift was lavishly praised in the Wire and CMJ, the Race didn’t capitalize on their press by touring intensively. “We were pretty content to just make music,” says Klein. “We weren’t really concerned about doing all the stuff you have to when you’re a ‘band.'”

In the past few months, however, the Race has played high-profile opening sets for Interpol and Franz Ferdinand and made a well-received appearance at South by Southwest. And they’re currently on the first of three back-to-back national tours scheduled for this year. Duneman and Klein recently quit their jobs–Duneman worked at Hefty Records, Klein as a librarian–in order to spend the balance of 2004 on the road with the band.

The Race celebrates the release of If You Can with a show at the Empty Bottle this Saturday, June 26. Azita headlines (see Critic’s Choice).

Boas, No Boas

Until last week the scheduled opener for the Race and Azita at Saturday’s show was local buzz band manque the Boas, who were to end a nine-month hiatus. But an apparent falling-out between front man John Klos and keyboardist Jacob Smith has aborted the group’s return.

This isn’t the first implosion in the band’s history. The Boas formed in 2001 (under the name Mansion), and before two years had passed they’d released an EP and a full-length on Overcoat, shared bills with Guided by Voices and Mogwai, toured with Wilco, and played a much-hyped residency at the Hideout. But as the five-piece was preparing to record its second album last October, things came to a screeching halt: guitarist Jonathan van Herik, bassist Gabe McDonough, and drummer Graeme Gibson all quit the group, citing creative and personality issues.

A few months after the split, Klos and Smith–longtime friends who’d moved to Chicago together from Pennsylvania–quietly re-formed the Boas as a four-piece, with a pair of out-of-state transplants rounding out the roster. The band had been sending a fresh batch of demos to indie labels on both coasts and was prepping for its first show with the new lineup when Smith abruptly quit last week. Reached for his version of events, he declined to speak on the record. Klos wasn’t much more forthcoming: “We have broken up, but we have no further comment on the situation.”

The Boas have also canceled a July 16 Schubas gig opening for the New Year. Catfish Haven, who’ve recorded a split seven-inch with the Boas that has yet to be released, will replace them on the bill at the Bottle.

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