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Band to Watch
Michael Guarrine is an old-timer by some people’s standards–he’s been playing music in Chicago for nearly a decade. But only with To the Rooftops, the debut by his current band, Watchers, has he finally made his mark. The group’s music most obviously integrates elements of Gang of Four, A Certain Ratio, and Eno-era Talking Heads, but compared to other contemporaries who take cues from 80s postpunk–like New York’s Radio 4, !!!, and the Seconds–Watchers have a more natural feel for the funk.
When he moved into the city from Mount Prospect to attend Loyola in 1994, Guarrine was just one of the kids who avidly followed the doings of what Weasel Walter has called the “now wave” scene–bands like Trenchmouth, the Scissor Girls, Lake of Dracula, and Jaks, who played a mix of fierce herky-jerky rhythms, splintery guitar, and rumbling bass influenced by the British and American postpunk of the previous decade, New York’s no-wave scene in particular. Guarrine’s first band, Assembly Line People Program, was more or less a Trenchmouth homage, aping that band’s manic style and slate gray guitar, and never generated much local interest.
But Guarrine got a lucky break when he escorted a college girlfriend, a big Blur fan, to Detroit to see the Britpop icons in 1995, and she persuaded him to slip guitarist Graham Coxon a mix tape. (A roadie pal of hers introduced them to the musician.) Guarrine began corresponding with Coxon; eventually he passed along a tape of his band, and Coxon was impressed. Assembly Line People Program went on to open five shows on Blur’s 1997 U.S. tour, and Coxon invited the band to London to make a record for his Transcopic label. That album, Subdivision of Being, was released in England and Japan, but Coxon had no U.S. distribution. After a tour supporting an album most people couldn’t find here, the band threw in the towel.
Guarrine was soon back at it with a four-piece, the Hex, featuring future Watchers bassist Chris Kralik; they made an EP called No Car for Troubleman and dissolved after about a year. Guarrine and Kralik started to brainstorm about what direction to go from there, and Guarrine brought up an idea he’d had before forming the Hex. “I thought it would be really cool to take the dissonance of Assembly Line but change it so people could move to it more, make it funky,” Guarrine says. In the fall of 2000 he met guitarist Ethan D’Ercole, a Chapel Hill native who’d cut his teeth in ska bands and could help Guarrine construct the sound he was after.
Rounded out by Assembly Line People Program drummer Ted Danyluk, the new band began practicing that fall. The members didn’t always agree on what they were trying to do. “I was bringing in more melodic ideas, and Ted was more on the math-rock tip,” says D’Ercole. “Early on I had some song ideas that I was excited about and they got shot down immediately, and four months later I put them back on the table and they were OK.” In July 2001 Watchers played their first show, but they still felt something was missing. “We were always looking for another element to serve as glue for the songs,” says Guarrine. To that end he brought in Ty Jiles and Nicole Irby, a pair of his coworkers from the Daycare Action Council of Illinois who sang in their church choirs, to sing backup for some of their shows. He dubbed them the Action Council.
The band began recording a demo in March 2002, and the process proved unusually difficult. They booked time at Clava, the studio operated by Perishable Records, but engineer Andy Bryant, home from school for spring break, had to leave before the band finished. Elliot Dicks took the helm for one day; the sessions were eventually completed with Kris Poulin. Shortly after finishing in late April, Guarrine suffered a massive seizure and had to be hospitalized. Tests failed to pinpoint the cause of the attack, but stress was the likely culprit; he spent nearly a month recuperating.
When he was ready to play again, Guarrine resumed his search for the “glue.” He found it when the band invited Jamie Levinson, a friend of D’Ercole’s, to add hand percussion–congas, tambourines, shakers–beefing up the groove and also freeing the guitarist to play more tuneful parts. Since Levinson joined last summer Watchers have built a solid local following, undertaken a short east-coast tour, and attracted the interest of several indie labels. Last November they agreed to make an album for Gern Blandsten, former home to Ted Leo and current label for Radio 4. Danyluk, who had no interest in the grind of steady touring, announced that he was leaving the band, but he did agree to play on the record, which the band recorded at the Key Club studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in December. Since his departure Levinson has taken over on drums and Damien Thompson has joined as percussionist.
To the Rooftops is far more controlled than the band’s live gigs, where the intense rhythms tend to overwhelm Guarrine’s subtle melodies and D’Ercole’s guitar. “When you’re playing punk shows the vocals are the first things to get lost in the mix,” says Guarrine. “The live show is this energy thing and people are paying their money to have a good time, but now we have time to show what these songs are all about.” Onstage he wails crazily, but on the album he sings with a cool restraint reminiscent of David Byrne or Gang of Four’s Jon King. The harmonic, textural, and rhythmic range of D’Ercole’s guitar playing is also more apparent on disc. Although the band claims a strong soul influence, what’s dominant here is funk: each instrumentalist adds to the web of polyrhythms, giving the singer a roomy pocket to work in. Occasional contributions from the Action Council and from brass and horn sections just gild the lily–Watchers’ core gets the job done handily.
The band celebrates the release of To the Rooftops with a performance Friday night, May 2, at Metro. Party of Helicopters (see Spot Check), the Eternals, and the Apes also perform.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.