Ellen Bunch grew up around music, but a lot of it was the kind of music most people flee from. Her father, a professor of music, moved the family repeatedly to follow teaching gigs in Minnesota, Texas, and Chicago (at Roosevelt University). Though he played mostly low brass like trombone and tuba, he did much of his composing at home on the piano. “He does avant-garde stuff, so he kind of beats the piano,” says Bunch. “You can hear it across the house. It’s like bom, bom, bom, bom. He would choose churches based on who had the best organ and music program so he could write for them.” One postlude he composed, which required extensive work with the church’s organist, cleared out the congregation somewhat faster than intended. “As soon as it started, people ran,” she says. “It was just so loud and insane.”
Bunch, 33, took up music as a kid, and by the time she finished high school in Corpus Christi in 1994 she’d earned a diploma in piano from the Texas Music Teachers Association—a certification she’d been working toward since sixth grade. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in ’98 with a degree in photography but soon returned to music. In 2001 she moved to Chicago, where for most of the past decade she’s been translating her inherited love for the avant-garde into an indie-rock idiom. She played electric piano with ZZZZ from 2002 till that group’s breakup in ’05, and since then she’s led Reds and Blue, singing from behind the keyboard.
Bunch started the band with drummer Theo Katsaounis, bassoonist and flutist Annie Coleman (who also sang), and Peter Croke, a busy bassist who at the time played in Rollo Tomasi and Hanalei and now plays in Tight Phantomz, Head of Skulls!, and Sleep Out. Katsaounis, who’s at least as overbooked as Croke, left in 2006 to concentrate on his other projects, which currently include Locks, A Tundra, D. Rider, and occasionally Joan of Arc. He was replaced by former Reader employee and current Time Out Chicago associate music editor Areif Sless-Kitain, a veteran of D.C. posthardcore bands Bluetip and Regulator Watts who also plays in I Kong Kult with the Eternals’ Wayne Montana. Sless-Kitain nearly quit the band only a couple months later, after a disastrous Reds and Blue one-off in Hamtramck, Michigan, during the Tigers’ 2006 World Series run—the audience consisted almost entirely of A Tundra, who’d driven up with them. But Coleman, whose tastes run more to country and traditional sounds (she still plays in the Golden Horse Ranch Band), turned out to be the other member to leave; she had her last show with the group in June 2007.
The current three-piece version of Reds and Blue isn’t simply the same band without bassoon. In the original setup, Bunch brought songs in basically finished, and her compositions were challenging not only for audiences but for her bandmates as well. “When we started playing together,” says Sless-Kitain, “the songs were just weird as fuck. I’ve been playing drums—you know, I’m 33—I’ve been playing drums since I was eight years old. And I remember talking to people and saying, ‘I don’t know if I can play this shit.'” Coleman called their music “Bartok rock,” and the shoe fits—the band’s style weds melodies and structures far outside rock ‘n’ roll’s blues-scale verse-chorus comfort zone to a strain of indie-leaning pop played with visceral, even aggressive energy.
Since then Bunch has opened up to the idea of writing as a group, and though the music on Reds and Blue’s forthcoming album, Son of the Stars (out August 17 on Addenda Records), still defies easy categorization, its experimental elements are tempered by more pop. Bunch is relieved to have loosened her grip on the band’s reins. “It feels a lot better, ’cause when you grow up playing the piano you’re like, everything has to come from it,” she says. “I have to have the rhythm, I have to have the bass, I have to have the melody. I have to keep it all interesting. For me to be like, ‘I don’t have to do all that, and these guys can totally bring in great things,’ you know, it’s helped my ears to open up and relax.”
Son of the Stars has been a long time coming. When Coleman quit, the band retired several songs in which the absence of her vocals left too big a hole to plug, and most of the rest required extensive reworking. Half the album consists of songs written after her departure. It’s the group’s first proper release—at shows they’ve sold copies of two different CD-Rs, one recorded at Phantom Manor with Tight Phantomz front man Mike Lust in early 2007 and the other cut at the Shape Shoppe with Griffin Rodriguez in early 2008, but both were more “demo-y” according to Sless-Kitain. From the day they walked into Experimental Sound Studio to begin tracking Son of the Stars to the day the record comes out will be almost exactly a year. ESS is best known for facilitating improvised music and sound art, but the group had a friend, engineer and musician Jacob Ross, who worked there and had a good grasp of what they were trying to accomplish.
Once the basic tracks and vocals were finished at ESS, overdubs by a large cast of the band’s friends began at Phantom Manor: flute from Coleman, guitar from Montana, trombone from Herculaneum’s Nick Broste, saxophone from Yakuza’s Bruce Lamont,
synth more guitar from Sless-Kitain’s old Regulator Watts bandmate Alex Dunham. Experimental musician Nick Butcher contributed to “Philosophy” and “Frozen White” with what Bunch calls a “weird setup”—a guitar, a Casio SK-1, two cassette machines running tape loops, and, weirdest of all, a kiddie turntable playing handmade records he’d made of glue that had been allowed to harden on actual vinyl LPs. Their “grooves” were actually the troughs between the raised impressions of the original grooves.
“I feel like for us, it’s kind of been a slog, and now shit’s finally falling together,” Sless-Kitain says. “When we did the record, we were just kind of like, ‘How have we not done this already? Let’s do it and figure it out.’ And like, I wasn’t sure if oh, are we going to be able to find a label to get behind this because we all have jobs and stuff and aren’t able to jump on the road and tour.”
Sless-Kitain calls it “serendipitous” that Addenda—the vinyl imprint of local cassette label Plustapes—took an interest. “Most of their stuff is way more garage rock. And we don’t sound like that,” he says. “We don’t even have a guitar.” Label co-owner Kumar McMillan had been bugging Sless-Kitain to let the label put out something by I Kong Kult, but when presented with an already finished Reds and Blue album, he agreed almost immediately to issue it.
On Friday the band plays a release party at Schubas, but plans for an east-coast tour later this year are in limbo now that Sless-Kitain has accepted a gig drumming for the Eternals on a fall tour of Brazil (Tim Mulvenna left the band earlier this year). For now audiences outside Chicago will have to wait to see Reds and Blue live. But if there’s anything to learn from the group’s unrushed development, it’s that patience has its rewards.