Contract Killers

Assassins front man Joe Cassidy is the first to admit that his band has had an unusual career arc. The local quintet came together in 2001, got signed by Arista Records after a handful of gigs, and were poised to join a wave of 80s-tinged dance-pop bands destined for mainstream success. But a leadership shake-up at the label held up the release of their debut, and the young band spent more than a year engaged in a legal tussle over control of their music. This week they finally released You Will Changed Us on their own label, Chemicals Kill Records. “We’ve been a pretty hard band to be a fan of,” Cassidy says. “And we’ve had so much support from so many people, particularly in Chicago, that we wanted to release this almost to thank them. And, of course, to stop people from asking us, ‘When’s your record coming out?'”

A Belfast native, Cassidy started his music career as a teenager in the mid-80s, playing bass in the Manchester group B.F.G. before launching his own orch-pop outfit, Butterfly Child. He came to Chicago on a promotional stop in 1996 and recorded the band’s 1998 opus, Soft Explosives, here with locals like Tortoise’s John Herndon and Euphone’s Nick Macri. Not long after that he decided to settle here permanently. In 2001 Metro owner Joe Shanahan asked him to open a pair of shows for fellow Irishmen the Saw Doctors, which is how Cassidy met Aaron Miller, a Metro stagehand who played in the local group Marvelkind. They hit it off and began writing and recording together; early on Cassidy invited singer-guitarist Merritt Lear, a sometime Butterfly Child collaborator, to join the fold. (Cassidy and Lear soon began dating as well.)

By the end of the year, the group had expanded from a studio project to a proper band, with Marvelkind’s David Golitko on keyboards and Alex Kemp, formerly of Rhode Island indie-pop act Small Factory, on bass. The Assassins began playing live in the spring of 2002, and after networking at industry events like MOBfest and CMJ they attracted label attention; by the time they played their seventh show, opening for the Walkmen in LA in January 2003, they had an offer from Arista head Antonio “LA” Reid. “He was trying to find something that reminded him of the stuff that he loved in the 80s,” says Cassidy. “We weren’t even aware that there was this 80s New Order comeback in the offing. Of course the Killers and stuff like that were getting signed around then too, and they saw us as part of that scene.”

That spring the band signed a deal with Arista for one album, with an option for more. They had tracked enough material for a record on their own, but the label enlisted veteran producer Stephen Hague (New Order, Erasure) and Radiohead engineer Graeme Stewart to help them finish it. The band spent six weeks that summer at Hague’s Woodstock studio, followed by a trip to Virginia Beach, where Serban Ghenea (Jay-Z, N*E*R*D) mixed the album. The disc was slated for a mid-2004 release, and the band’s prospects looked bright: Reid was personally championing the group and pushing plans to market the Assassins in the UK before breaking them in the States. “He was listening to what we had, picking out possible singles, and talking about getting the Neptunes to remix some of the tracks–it was looking really good,” Cassidy says. “And then the whole thing went pear-shaped.”

Shortly after Christmas the band began hearing rumors that Reid was being ousted from Arista and that Clive Davis–who was forced to retire from Arista in 2000 to make room for Reid–was returning to run the label. Reid had an impressive track record that included hits by OutKast, Kelis, and Avril Lavigne, but he’d made a few expensive missteps–including signing Whitney Houston to a new $100 million contract in 2001–and by mid-January he was officially out the door. Davis immediately slashed staff, moved artists to different BMG imprints, and pruned the label’s roster. The reshuffling plan would have sent the Assassins to RCA, but after meeting with A and R man Jeff Blue–who steered the careers of rap-rock acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park–the group anticipated a bad fit and decided to bolt.

“We’d walked into a situation that was very corporate in the first place,” says Cassidy. “We all come from indie world, and to sign to a label like Arista took a lot of soul-searching in the first place. But we did it primarily because of LA Reid and his staff, because they were well educated about music, understood what we were trying to do, and wanted to take a risk. But that whole team was struck down when Davis came in, and we quickly realized this is not going to work.”

But getting out of their deal proved difficult. The band recorded 15 tracks but hadn’t delivered a finished album; because Arista had spent somewhere in the low to mid six figures on recording, it wanted to get some return on its investment before letting the Assassins go. “We just wanted to get the masters back and to have the right to rerecord some of the songs if we wanted,” Cassidy says. “Sure there’d been a lot of money spent, but we were saying, let’s be practical about some of the minutiae.” They negotiated through most of 2004 and early 2005 before arriving at what Cassidy feels is a fair settlement: the Assassins got the rights to their masters, but if they released any of the Arista-funded recordings, they would have to share a percentage of album sales with the label.

The band jumped back to work, cutting new songs at Cassidy and Kemp’s home studios. After a couple of potential deals with Polydor and Lizard King fell through they opted to release You Will Changed Us themselves. Five of its tracks come from the Arista sessions, and the band’s confident enough in their fan base–in the past 18 months they’ve opened shows for bands like Hard-Fi and New Order–that they pressed 8,000 copies, though it doesn’t have a U.S. distributor yet. (Next year they’ll release a version of the record with alternate songs and mixes in Europe, with distribution from UK-based Pinnacle Entertainment.)

Despite his experience in major-label limbo Cassidy is still hunting for a deal: the Assassins have two more records’ worth of material, and they plan to spend much of 2007 in the UK promoting the record and label shopping.

The Blacks Are Back

Local country-noir faves the Blacks have reunited for their first shows in more than five years. The classic lineup–guitarists Danny McDonough and Nora O’Connor, bassist Gina Black, and drummer James Emmenegger–played the Taste of Randolph Street festival last month. Their next gig, Saturday at the Empty Bottle, will be their last for a while, since Emmenegger–who proposed the reunion and encouraged the other members to set aside their grievances–is moving to California to pursue a thriving art career. The band recently recorded three new tracks at McDonough’s home studio, and though McDonough’s not sure when or how the material will come out, he’s not ruling out a new full-length Blacks album. “Making plans never really works out, with this band especially,” he says. “So we’re just rolling with things, seeing what happens.”

Blacks, Detholz!, For All the Sweet Children

When: Sat 7/22, 10 PM

Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

Price: $10

Info: 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Wigdahl.