Ian Adams fell into his new band, the Submarine Races, ass-backward. First he got a record deal, then he joined somebody else’s group, and then he wound up being its front man and chief songwriter. Now, about a year and a half since the process started, the Submarine Races are set to release their self-titled debut, a disc of keening, spiky pop that displays Adams’s love for literate UK postpunk as well as the simple but sublime songs of Chuck Berry and 60s girl groups.
The disc, which comes out June 13, ought to help pull Adams out of the obscurity in which he’s comfortably resided for nearly a decade. An Ann Arbor-area art-school grad, he moved to Chicago in 1996 and first established himself here with the anorak-pop duo Happy Supply. In 2002 he joined the Ponys as a guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist, bringing a more arty sensibility to the group’s garage-punk skronk. Laced With Romance, the band’s 2004 debut, was a hit with fans and critics, but the grind of heavy touring and growing conflicts within the Ponys prompted Adams to quit that fall, shortly after the band recorded its follow-up.
There was a silver lining, though. Larry Hardy, owner of the Ponys’ label, LA-based In the Red, told Adams that he’d release his next project. “I said, ‘If you ever do anything else you better let me put it out,'” Hardy says. “If it’s a solo album, whatever it is, I’ll do it. And there aren’t many people I’d say that to.”
Hardy’s offer “was a total surprise because I didn’t really talk to him when I was in the Ponys,” Adams says. “I mean, I’d hung out with him when we played LA, but I didn’t know him that well. I was kind of an outsider in the Ponys anyway, because they’d been a band for a couple of years before I joined them. So it was weird, but nice, that he was interested.”
Shortly after quitting the Ponys Adams returned to his day job at a commercial photo lab, where one of his coworkers was Jeremiah McIntyre, former front man for the Afflictions. McIntyre had recently started rehearsing with drummer Paul John Higgins and bassist Steve Denekas. The three had first played together in the 90s in the Omaha-based outfit Radio Berlin, then moved to Chicago, where McIntyre and Denekas formed the Entertainment. After a disastrous tour in 2001, the band broke up and for three years the two didn’t even speak. In the meantime Denekas and Higgins formed Murdered, then joined DC punk vet Chris Thomson in the Red Eyed Legends. Denekas later quit that band to focus on the Countdown, a noise-pop duo with his wife, Tamar Berk.
By late 2004 McIntyre had reconciled with Denekas, and he invited Adams to join their new group with Higgins, then called Popsick. With him on board as a second guitarist and vocalist, they played a handful of high-profile gigs last summer, including slots opening for Maximo Park and the Dirtbombs. But in August McIntyre announced he was quitting the band and returning to Omaha to go back to college. “I wasn’t really sure what was gonna happen at that point,” Adams says. “I mean, I had this offer from Larry to put out a record. So I was thinking like maybe I’d try to do some solo thing. But there’s something so self-involved and horrible about that, that I couldn’t imagine doing it. And after playing with Steve and Paul, it was like, why would I even bother?”
Adams, who’d become the group’s de facto leader, didn’t want another guitarist to replace McIntyre. “I really like the tradition of trios,” he says. “There’s so many, from Buddy Holly to the Minutemen–even Led Zeppelin if you don’t count Percy. A trio always allows you some musical elbow room too. It’s not this huge washy wall of sound. I’m the only one playing guitar, so if I don’t want to hear guitar I can just stop. Truthfully, I think I was kinda burned-out on bands with two guitar players anyway.”
Rechristening itself the Submarine Races–a Jan & Dean reference as well as the euphemism for making out–the trio played its first show in September at Schubas, cobbling together a set of covers, instrumentals, and Adams originals. They recorded the show and sent the tape to Hardy to gauge his interest in the new project. “I knew he would come up with something really great,” says Hardy. “He’s such a good songwriter and I love his voice. I was pretty geeked to keep working with him.”
Hardy signed the band, even though without McIntyre they were starting nearly from scratch. After a flurry of writing sessions, by November they felt they had enough material to record. They did 12 songs at the small West Town studio El Goodo in two days, a pace that Higgins confesses was somewhat harried. “Three of the songs we played the whole way through for the first time during the actual recording,” he says. “At that point we’d only done like two shows as a trio, and we were already doing a record. It was weird.”
The songs on The Submarine Races are powered by Adams’s serpentine melodies, Rickenbacker leads, and adenoidal vocals, which blend the elegantly wasted plaints of the Only Ones’ Peter Perrett and the nervy quaver of the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano. Denekas and Higgins give a jolt to Adams’s originals, which are marked by his lovelorn lyrics, though Denekas chips in with a lacerating garage free-for-all, “Six Foot Two,” and the disc includes a cover of the Neil Diamond chestnut “The Boat I Row.” As a snapshot of a band in its infancy it’s a good, if not great, first effort. Though the album opens with an odd five-minute instrumental, “Theme,” that’s a moody wash of watery sounds, the remaining 24 minutes are engaging and suggest better things to come.
The band’s logged more studio time since then and have a pair of singles in the pipeline: a three-song seven-inch that includes a cover of the Minutemen’s “Party With Me Punker” comes out on Norah Utley’s Shit Sandwich label later this month, and San Francisco-based SmartGuy Records will release a split single with the British outfit the Masonics (featuring Mickey Hampshire of Thee Milkshakes) in August. They’ll do some limited national touring in the summer, starting with a short midwest jaunt next week, but they won’t be making the road their second home. All three members are married–Adams tied the knot with his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Palazzolo, in April–and Denekas and Berk have a 14-month-old son. Plus, the Countdown has finished an album that will be released in the fall on Invisible, the label run by Pigface ringmaster and former Public Image Limited drummer Martin Atkins; and the Red Eyed Legends are in the process of recording their first full-length.
“I’m not betting on a career out of this,” Adams says. “I don’t know that I’m cut out for some pro gig, or some rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. It’s pretty hard to do. But it’d be nice to keep writing songs at a level that I think is interesting. I’d just like to continue to be entertaining somehow–at least entertain myself and my friends.”
Submarine Races, Dials, Ladyfinger
When: Thu 6/8, 9:30 PM
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Info: 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.