After a recent all-ages show in Milwaukee, Pit Er Pat singer and keyboardist Fay Davis-Jeffers took her turn hawking the band’s merchandise, including a secondhand T-shirt embroidered by drummer Butchy Fuego. He’d spent nearly two days stitching on the group’s name and an assortment of oddly shaped patches–it’s the only shirt he’s made so far, since Davis-Jeffers can do the same job in less than an hour. “One kid was like, ‘Shit, 15 dollars, I don’t have that much money,'” she says. But the next night in Minneapolis the band had better luck: “There was this thirtysomething guy who said, ‘Fifteen–that seems really cheap for this.'”

The members of Pit Er Pat put a lot of stock in doing things by hand–they’ve designed and silk-screened most of their own gig posters, and in 2003 they did the same for the covers of the initial run of their debut EP, Emergency. They spent much of last month sewing felt lettering, beads, ribbons, and feathers onto 200 promotional pirate flags, a nod to the skull motif inside the cover of their first full-length, Shakey, which comes out this week on Thrill Jockey. Everyone in the band has a busy creative life outside it: Davis-Jeffers is active in film and video, Fuego is working as a Foley artist for a five-part series by local animator Arthur Jones, and bassist Rob Doran runs an on-again, off-again design company called Wound Crust that creates clothing, housewares, prints, and textiles.

Pit Er Pat’s current 16-date tour is their first extended trip away from Chicago, and pushing a national release on a respected indie label will require lots more time on the road, away from those other pursuits. But that might not be such a bad thing. The band’s slippery, guitar-free art-pop has already benefited from the extra attention they’ve devoted to it since the release of Emergency: the songs on the new album are more fluid and flexible, the arrangements more detailed. As ever, Davis-Jeffers’s sweet, airy singing threads through her electric piano lines, which sometimes sound like a slowed-down music box; Doran’s melodic bass and Fuego’s bustling, off-kilter drumming give the delicate tunes harmonic heft and anxious energy. “I’ve stopped doing some of the things I was doing, but I think it’s something I wanted,” says Davis-Jeffers. “I was writing scripts for movies, I was drawing a lot, I would help friends with their movies. Rob and I started calling it ‘taking care of other people’s business’–instead of TCB it was TCOPB.”

Pit Er Pat itself started out as someone else’s business: guitarist and singer Josh Gleason assembled the group in 2001 to back him on his own songs. Fuego and Doran were old friends, and Davis-Jeffers knew all three, though not well. She’d studied piano since childhood but had taken long breaks from the instrument over the years; she’d never played in a band and had been making do with practice-room pianos since 1996, when she left her home in Vermont to go to college in Washington State. (She later transferred to the Art Institute, graduating in 2000.) She sat in on a rehearsal, and Gleason asked her to join after one tune.

“I got really freaked-out,” says Davis-Jeffers. “I said, ‘Maybe you guys should talk about it.’ Then Josh said, ‘Fay, what do you think we should call the band? What do you think about “Blackbirds”? Do you like that name? Hey, do you want to go to Midwest Buy & Sell? You need to get a piano.'” Luckily Doran and Fuego shared Gleason’s enthusiasm, and soon the quartet was playing the occasional gig. In summer 2002, when Gleason announced that he was moving to New York and leaving the band, Doran, Fuego, and Davis-Jeffers barely hesitated before deciding to continue without him; the rhythm section, with its experimental leanings, had already been chafing at Gleason’s relatively straightforward songs, and Fuego and Davis-Jeffers had started dating. The trio wrote five new tunes in two weeks–mostly loose instrumentals with plenty of room for improvisation–so they could play an Empty Bottle gig they’d already booked.

The band, still called Blackbirds, spent much of the subsequent year rehearsing and writing new material. “We were experimenting with different instruments,” says Fuego. “I had a laptop, Rob played melodica, and we used a lot of sampling. It wasn’t so song oriented.” Davis-Jeffers initially had doubts about her ability to play and write on piano with a rock band, much less sing with one, but through trial and error the group developed its distinctive personality.

In summer 2003 the trio recorded Emergency and burned 160 copies. Inside each silk-screened cover was an origami insert–a double-sided poster that folded up into a complicated sort of envelope. One copy ended up in the hands of Howard Greynolds, owner of Overcoat Records, who quickly signed the band. The trio changed its name to Pit Er Pat–a bit of text Doran had noticed in a painting by Chicago imagist Jim Nutt–after discovering online that there were already “hundreds” of acts called Blackbirds, and in early 2004 Greynolds rereleased the EP.

The trio began playing regular weekend gigs out of town and made arrangements for their next album, booking time at Key Club studio in Benton Harbor. Greynolds had intended to release the disc on Overcoat, but in summer 2004 he called the band with a change of plans: “He said, ‘I’ve got great news! Bettina wants to do your record,'” recalls Davis-Jeffers–meaning Bettina Richards, owner of Thrill Jockey, where Greynolds has worked for about five years. The band was excited, but worried about betraying Greynolds by jumping ship. “He gave us his blessing,” says Davis-Jeffers, and after a week of meetings with Thrill Jockey and each other, Pit Er Pat accepted the offer.

Like Emergency, Shakey was engineered by Griffin Rodriguez (aka Blue Hawaii) of the local band Icy Demons. Pit Er Pat spent more hours in the studio this time, and though the band’s basic sound has stayed consistent, some songs on the new record have multiple keyboard tracks, more sophisticated vocal overdubs, and other added details. Davis-Jeffers wonders if Shakey is too narrow in its focus, especially considering the freewheeling approach the trio took during its first year, but Fuego isn’t concerned. “Even if the structure is a bit more linear now,” he says, “I don’t think the songs are any less creative.”

Pit Er Pat headlines the Empty Bottle on Friday, March 4, and Shakey comes out on Tuesday, March 8–the same day Polyvinyl releases a Pit Er Pat/Icy Demons split single. Pit Er Pat’s next local show is at the Open End Gallery on Friday, March 25.

Pit Er Pat

When: Fri 3/4, 10 PM

Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

Price: $8 in advance, $10 at the door

Info: 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499

90 Day Hiatus

The 90 Day Men’s show on Thursday, March 10, at the Empty Bottle–a warm-up for a ten-day tour of Japan–will probably be Chicagoans’ last chance to catch the band for quite a while. Bassist Rob Lowe has joined New York’s TV on the Radio as a keyboardist, and singer and guitarist Brian Case has replaced Ian Adams in the Ponys.

Bob Mehr is on vacation.

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