You probably know all about the two big nostalgia acts on this weekend’s Intonation bill: the 60s power trio Blue Cheer is stopping here for a rare performance, and acid-damaged Texas rocker Roky Erickson will play his first gig outside his home state in more than two decades. But there’s a quieter comeback happening early Sunday afternoon that may be of just as much interest to local music fans. Bill Dolan, the guitar whiz behind the mid-90s band Five Style and its successor, Heroic Doses, will play a set with two of his old musical foils, bassist Matt Lux and drummer John Herndon.
Dolan’s been off the local radar since 1999, when Five Style released its swan song, Miniature Portraits. “I guess that I’ve just been trying to figure out where I belong, in a way,” Dolan says. He’s spent much of the past seven years bouncing around the country–from New York to Seattle to LA–and playing music, most prominently as a touring member of the Fire Theft. But late last year he decided to return to his native Rockford, where he works as an instructor at a local “rock band camp” for kids and takes the occasional odd job “roofing and painting and crap like that.” He’s also been writing new songs, which he’ll perform at Intonation.
Dolan first started playing in Chicago in the late 80s as a guitarist in the punk outfit Speck. He moved here in 1992 after the band broke up, sharing a loft with producer Brad Wood, an old Rockford acquaintance, and Leroy Bach, who was then leading Uptighty. Through Wood, Dolan got to know Sub Pop Records honcho Jonathan Poneman and passed him a tape of Speck demos. Soon after, Poneman offered him a contract. “Five Style was really kinda cultivated by Poneman saying, ‘I’m gonna give you some money to record, go and put some people together,'” Dolan says.
“I’d gotten quite cynical over the years having heard every sort of thing done in the realm of rock guitar,” Poneman says. “But Bill’s playing was . . . the word that came to mind was imaginative. He also seemed to have a certain fluidity–he dabbled in a lot of different things musically, but it all came up as his own signature.”
With Five Style, Dolan came up with an inventive mix of genres, giving Meters-inspired instrumental funk a postpunk spin. The original lineup featured Herndon and Lux, who was soon replaced by Bach. By 1995, when they released their self-titled debut, keyboardist Jeremy Jacobsen had joined the fold. The album received positive reviews and sold respectably, but then things just sort of ground to a halt. The group didn’t officially break up, but Herndon was increasingly busy with Tortoise and Jacobsen with his solo project, the Lonesome Organist.
In early 1997 Dolan briefly tried to resuscitate the group with new members, but ultimately decided to can the project. Later that year he launched a new outfit, Heroic Doses, with Euphone drummer Ryan Rapsys and a rotating cast of bass players that included Lux, the Jesus Lizard’s David William Sims, C-Clamp’s Nick Macri, and Euphone’s Kurt Niesman. Heroic Doses’ sole album came out on Sub Pop in 1998, and the following year Dolan reunited with Bach, Herndon, and Jacobsen for Five Style’s second disc, Miniature Portraits. The album was a more collaborative and stylistically broad affair, making room for elastic R & B and acrid indie-rock soundscapes, but by the time the album came out Herndon and Jacobsen were busier than ever and Bach was touring with Wilco.
Dolan soon left for New York, where he continued to make music, briefly playing bass in the band Pisser. In 2001 Poneman contacted him to propose another project. Sunny Day Real Estate was breaking up, and three of the band’s members were looking for a guitarist to play in their new group, the Fire Theft. Dolan jumped at the opportunity: he’d become friends with the group’s drummer, William Goldsmith, when Heroic Doses toured with Sunny Day Real Estate. Dolan moved to Seattle, played on one track on the Fire Theft’s self-titled 2003 album, and later joined its touring lineup. In the meantime he and Goldsmith started their own project, Varicocele.
Dolan initially intended Varicocele–the name comes from the medical term for a varicose vein in the scrotum–as a departure from Five Style’s funk-soul hybrid. “When we first started playing I was deliberately trying to force myself back into my aggressive punk roots, so it was very influenced by bands like Die Kreuzen, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and the Germs,” he says. “We did a lot of that and then it sort of morphed–it was weird, it started gravitating back toward Five Style. It wasn’t so much funky but sort of groovy, and my playing was a little more influenced by people like Jimmy Page or Frank Zappa.”
The two recorded about 30 songs in Goldsmith’s basement and with producer Scott Colburn (Animal Collective, Arcade Fire)–“enough material for a record and then some,” Dolan says. But Poneman passed on releasing the songs, partly because Dolan was reluctant to tour and partly because he wasn’t sure Sub Pop could do right by the project. “I felt like I’d been a failure in not being able to find him a venue or the audience he deserved,” Poneman says. “It’s frustrating to not be able to do justice to what he does.”
Varicocele soldiered on, playing a handful of gigs in early 2005, but the death of Goldsmith’s brother derailed the project indefinitely. After a brief detour to LA, where he jammed with various musicians–“I was feeling it out,” Dolan says–he returned to Rockford last fall and hooked up with drummer Micky Rosenquist and bassist Karl Ropp of the Snaggs, a pop outfit fronted by Holland Zander, daughter of Cheap Trick singer Robin. That lineup has played three Chicago shows since September–the first, at the Hideout, was billed as a Heroic Doses gig–but Dolan also decided to look up his old bandmates Herndon and Lux. Since December the three have been rehearsing a mix of new songs and Varicocele material, and those tunes will make up their Intonation set. “It’s slightly bluesy,” Dolan says. “Johnny says it’s kinda jam-bandy, but I don’t know if that’s true. It’s got some roots elements with some jazz undertones, but it’s still me playing.”
Dolan got the Intonation gig thanks to a chance meeting with Jon Singer, an old neighbor who’s one of the event’s organizers. Singer checked out Dolan’s Hideout set and later invited him to play the fest. Dolan isn’t certain if the Herndon-Lux lineup will keep going after Intonation, but he’s been recording their rehearsals with an eye toward making an album. “They’re just demos, but they sound pretty damn good,” Dolan says. “If someone came to me now and wanted to put out an album, I might take six of the songs with Johnny and Matt and six songs I did with William and make that the record.”
Who that someone might be is still unclear, though technically Dolan is signed to Sub Pop. “I would love to work with him again,” says Poneman. “But my advocacy has always been more as a friend and a believer than a record label guy. So I’d want to do whatever’s best for him. In the end, I hold true to the belief that Billy will find his place–he’s too good to be ignored or denied.”
When: Sun 6/25,1:30 PM
Where: Intonation Music Festival, Union Park
Info: 800-594-8499 or intonationmusicfest.com
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.