Chicago keyboardist and composer Maxx McGathey loves Halloween. The funk group he’s led since 2011 is called Gramps the Vamp, a name that drummer Stevenson Valentor got from a database of Scooby-Doo villains—it comes from a 1977 episode where the gang investigates a vampire haunting a hotel on Skull Island. The band’s instrumental music is moody, comically brooding, and slightly campy. They call it “doom funk.”
In early 2016 Gramps the Vamp launched a Kickstarter to fund its second album, The Cave of 10,000 Eyes, which the band’s page said “follows the plot of a faux b-horror movie from 1969, telling the story of an un-explainable incident in a cave many years ago.” If you pledged $150 or more, you could pick a perk called Maxx’s Monster Movie Marathon—that is, McGathey would set up a projector in the backyard of your choice for a private creature double feature. One person even took him up on it.
Gramps the Vamp always plays on Halloween, and for the past few years all seven members have worn group costumes that McGathey makes on the cheap. A recent favorite look, which McGathey calls “Evil Gramps the Vamp,” is dark brown robes with green black-light makeup painted on their arms, hands, and faces to make them look like radioactive skeletons. He says the best costumes he’s designed were retro “space suits” made from white coveralls, electrical cables, army surplus shoulder harnesses, and aluminum foil. If it were more socially acceptable, McGathey would probably celebrate Halloween year-round.
“He wants to build a career centered on this holiday,” Valentor says. “I’d say he’s doing damn well.”
Toward that end, McGathey has begun writing music outside the band too. Over the past couple years he’s developed a specialty: composing scores to be performed live during screenings of classic horror movies. He started in 2017, when the Chicago Park District commissioned him to write new music for the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu as part of its free Campfire Horrors film series at Northerly Island (the movie’s vampire, Count Orlok, is probably the most famous Dracula rip-off). Gramps the Vamp performed McGathey’s score for the last screening of the series’s second season. Since then, McGathey and the band have returned to the Nosferatu score twice more: at Chicago Filmmakers in June 2018, then again at Campfire Horrors in October 2018. On Thursday, October 17, Gramps the Vamp will bring the Nosferatu show to Michigan, performing it at the Bay Theatre in downtown Suttons Bay.
Music Box of Horrors
Maxx McGathey and his ensemble accompany The Man Who Laughs at noon Saturday. Full schedule at musicboxtheatre.com. Sat 10/19, noon, through Sun 10/20, noon, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, $25-$35, most films 17+
Gramps the Vamp, Nitehost, Ovef Ow (as the Bee-52s)
Thu 10/31, 9 PM, the Owl, 2521 N. Milwaukee, free, 21+
Two days later, McGathey will be back in Chicago with a different group of musicians for the Music Box of Horrors, the Music Box’s annual 24-hour spooky movie marathon. The event begins at noon on Saturday, October 19, with a screening of the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, the next-to-last feature directed by famed German expressionist Paul Leni. German actor Conrad Veidt (the sleepwalking killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) stars as a carnival freak-show attraction whose ghastly, disfigured grin would later inspire the appearance of Batman nemesis the Joker. This summer, Music Box general manager Ryan Oestreich tapped McGathey to write a new score for the movie.
This is McGathey’s second year in a row presenting an original score at the Music Box of Horrors. Last year, McGathey pitched the Gramps the Vamp version of Nosferatu, but Oestreich turned him down. “I really liked it, but I was like, ‘I really feel like Nosferatu‘s been done—a lot,'” he says. “‘What I’d rather do is put you into something that we are already doing and maybe challenge you.'” Instead McGathey wrote new music to complement the 1927 Alfred Hitchcock murder mystery The Lodger.
The Music Box routinely screens silent movies with live accompaniment, but Oestreich says the performances are often one-offs—aside from house organist Dennis Scott, McGathey is the only musician he can recall playing twice. “We were just so excited to bring him back,” Oestreich says. “We had wanted to do The Man Who Laughs for a very long time, and we were really blown away by his work on The Lodger. So we were like, ‘You need to do this film for us—you need to do The Man Who Laughs.'”
McGathey, 30, grew up in Chicago’s suburbs, mostly the southwestern village of Plainfield. His parents shared their love of scary movies with him, and he ran with it. “Jaws is actually my mom’s favorite movie,” he says. As a teenager, he’d watch the likes of Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Alien with his whole family.
He began playing piano at age five, and took classical lessons as a preteen. As a student at Benet Academy High School in Lisle in the mid-2000s, he played keys in the jazz band, where he met Valentor.
“I always looked up to him,” Valentor says. “He was a shredding keyboardist way back in the day—and still is, absolutely. And just a fantastic improviser.”
By the time McGathey graduated high school in 2008, he’d formed his first extracurricular band, which started out playing classic-rock covers. He also loved jazz and funk, though, and while at Loyola University he cofounded Gramps the Vamp. “I really wanted to form a band that would be fun for house parties,” he says. “I just got the best musicians I could find, and we started playing covers of funk bands I was into at the time, like Lettuce and the Budos Band, or old stuff like Fela Kuti and James Brown.”
McGathey assembled Gramps the Vamp in summer 2011. Its lineup has morphed over the years, topping out as a ten-piece. Several members were at Loyola with him, including Valentor, and he recruited bassist Kevin Holt through Craigslist. They made their live debut on Halloween, playing a party at the home of alto saxophonist Nick Bush. “That set it off for me—I was like, ‘Well, I want to play funk, ’cause that’s what I’m into, but I want to make it darker. I want to make it more like you could get into it for Halloween,'” McGathey says. “That started off the whole trajectory of eventually finding what we call ‘doom funk.'”
As a bandleader and songwriter, McGathey knew he needed to account for audiences accustomed to groups with singers out front. As Gramps the Vamp developed its instrumental material, he encouraged members to imagine scenes that would help give the music vivid moods and intense character. “I’d be like, ‘This moment, you open a box and ghouls all spring out of the box, and they’re swirling around in the air,'” McGathey says. “All of my bandmates are like, ‘OK, let’s play that a little crazier and a little more swirly.'” This approach inadvertently prepared him to work on film scores. “It was easy for me to think visually in terms of movies,” he says. “That’s what directly led me to be interested in film and music.”
In August 2017, Andy Rosenstein of genre-blurring Chicago electro band Terrible Spaceship told McGathey that the Park District had put out an open call for local musicians interested in writing and performing a score for Nosferatu. McGathey submitted Gramps the Vamp’s catalog as well as a short film called Demonoid 1971 that includes some of his organ pieces. More than a dozen artists applied, but before the end of the month McGathey learned he’d landed the gig.
Movies in the Park scheduled the Nosferatu screening for October 27. “I work as a teacher and do some other day jobs and stuff, so I was working around the clock to get this thing done,” McGathey says. “I think working on something really intense like that gives you a lot of confidence in whatever you’re doing—it’s like, ‘You have to finish this thing. You don’t really have enough time, but you have to do a good job.’ Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.”
McGathey hadn’t seen Nosferatu in its entirety before he got the job, and though he promptly addressed that oversight, his viewings of the movie during the project were mostly piecemeal and obsessive. With notebook in hand, he’d watch each scene at least 40 times and sketch out ideas. In total, he says this added up to maybe 100 viewings of Nosferatu. He looked into other modern live scores for old films and found a lot of atmospheric material that didn’t jibe with his style. “I’m a melodic composer—I like themes, I like melodies,” he says. “I went back to what I do with Gramps the Vamp. ‘How would I approach this scene?’ I really did treat it in a groove-based way.”
He wrote for piano first, then worked in the other instruments Gramps the Vamp uses: guitar, bass, drums, glockenspiel, trumpet, and two saxophones. The deadline he’d given himself for arriving at a finished, notated score left the band a few weeks to rehearse, and they ran through it about ten times, with McGathey conducting and playing keys.
Because he wants to keep performing Nosferatu, McGathey has been tweaking the score over the past couple years, notably introducing a part for cello. “It’s more work in a small amount of time than any other musical project I’ve ever done,” he says. “But it’s cool because at the end of the day, you have it, and you can go take it to different cities and repeat it.”
Oestreich has helped program the Music Box of Horrors since 2015, when he became the theater’s general manager. He has a meticulous approach to booking the marathon: He takes care to include disparate subgenres (slashers, monster movies, trashy exploitation pictures) as well as films that aren’t necessarily horror but share some of its traits (thrillers, murder mysteries), and he combines popular titles (or work by well-known directors) with obscurities that will entice superfans. There’s also usually a silent movie.
Oestreich knows some attendees consider the traditional silent-movie slot an opportunity to take a nap or step out for a bite—but he’s also determined to change their minds. In 2015, when he booked Paul Buscarello to perform an organ score for Tod Browning’s The Unknown during a prime-time spot, he made at least a few converts. “Audiences came up to me and said, ‘I did not believe you, I thought this was a waste of my time, but I tried it and holy shit, it was great,'” he says. He thinks McGathey’s efforts will help build interest in keeping silent films part of the Music Box of Horrors.
For The Lodger, McGathey performed with Valentor and bassist Luc Parcell (of Chicago Afrobeat Project) under the name False Gods Trio. McGathey had built the score out of fragments of music they generated during improvisational sessions. “It wasn’t so much about the specific notes; it was more about the feeling that we were portraying at that moment,” he says. “That was a really liberating experience.” The Lodger screened about six hours into last year’s marathon, which all but guaranteed McGathey a committed audience who were already in it for the long haul; based on the reaction, Oestreich hopes that folks who were there will come back early this year to see what McGathey has cooked up for The Man Who Laughs.
Oestrich chose The Man Who Laughs in part because he knew that Todd Phillips’s Joker would debut in theaters two weeks before the Music Box of Horrors. In June the film was reissued on Blu-ray in a 4K digital restoration, but the theater is using a 35-millimeter film print. “We don’t do things only because they might be relevant at the time,” he says. “But sometimes I find we add a little extra texture to the programming when we lean in and talk a little bit about the current culture.”
For his score to The Man Who Laughs, McGathey sought to split the difference between the melodic focus he applied to Nosferatu and his relatively mood-oriented approach to The Lodger. He deliberately avoided listening to any extant scores for the film, including the one on the new Blu-ray. “I was less reliant on melody this time around,” he says. “But I think it makes it better, because it allows you to use melody to greater effect.” Because the film focuses on a clown, McGathey made sure his music would remind people of old-world carnivals: he wrote for violin, cello, accordion, and piano. His ensemble on Saturday will consist of violinist Annarita Tanzi of the Fox Valley Orchestra, cellist Alex Ellsworth of performance collective Mocrep, and accordionist Hope Arthur of Mucca Pazza.
Because The Man Who Laughs kicks off the Music Box of Horrors, McGathey probably won’t stick around for the whole thing. “I really have a lot of respect for the people who bring sleeping bags and stay all night,” he says. “But I don’t think I’ll be staying.” To be fair, he’s already put in his hours, and then some. “Horror is one of those genres that you can go down a deep, deep rabbit hole,” he says. “I don’t feel every genre is like that.” v