The Plush album Fed is Chicago indie rock’s Smile, its Tusk, its Loveless, with singer-songwriter Liam Hayes standing in for Brian Wilson, Lindsey Buckingham, and Kevin Shields. It took Hayes almost three years to record and mix Fed, and along the way he not only spent more than a hundred thousand dollars on studios, engineers, and dozens of guest musicians but stretched many of his personal and professional relationships to the breaking point. In 2002, when Hayes decided the album was finished, it didn’t even see a stateside release–today it’s available only as a Japanese import.

But next week Drag City’s Sea Note imprint will release Underfed, an “official bootleg” of Fed–the same wistful, organ-splashed pop-soul tunes in the same order, but from earlier sessions, before Hayes started piling on the overdubs. And on Friday the key players from Plush’s golden era–Hayes, drummer Rian Murphy, and bassist Russ Bassman–will reunite for an all-ages CD-release show at the Open End Gallery, their first performance together since 1998.

This latest chapter in the Plush drama began in June, when Hayes showed up at a barbecue at Murphy’s place–Murphy had quit the band in 2001, before Fed was finished, and he and Hayes, longtime friends, had drifted apart. Also at the party was Drag City boss Dan Koretzky, who hadn’t spoken to Hayes in a couple years. Though they’d known each other since kindergarten, they’d had a falling-out in 2001, when Plush was recording for Drag City–the label had balked at the skyrocketing costs of Fed and walked away from the project.

Hayes and Koretzky started to talk. Their initial awkwardness fell away, and Koretzky brought up an idea he’d been kicking around for years. In late 1999 Hayes had given him a CD-R that was meant to serve as a sketch for the fleshed-out final version of Fed, and Koretzky had fallen in love with it. Drag City still couldn’t meet Hayes’s asking price for the finished album, but why not release the early recordings? “I went home and dug out that CD-R and listened to it for the first time in like five years,” Hayes says. “And I realized that there was something there, that it was a really good record in its own right.”

Most of the recordings on Underfed, made in summer 1999 with Hayes, Murphy, and Isotope 217 bassist Matt Lux, were engineered by Steve Albini and Bob Weston at nonstudio locations: in the Congress Theater, on the roof of a South Loop building, at an abandoned TV soundstage. The hushed, stripped-down renditions provide a counterpoint to the grandiloquent arrangements on Fed. “Obviously it’s the same songs, but it’s a really different reading of them,” says Hayes. “A lot of it was more relaxed because it wasn’t really supposed to be for anybody. It’s not aware of there ever being an audience.”

After finishing those early tracks, Hayes plunged into the overdubbing and rerecording for Fed, working obsessively for years despite mounting debt and self-doubt. “It went on just about as long as a record can go on for unless you’re Fleetwood Mac or something,” says Murphy.

After Drag City bailed out, Hayes borrowed money from family and friends and convinced Albini to extend him credit. After he finished Fed in 2002 he set out to find a record label with enough cash to offset his costs, but the labels that fit the bill didn’t show enough enthusiasm for the album to make him comfortable. “I had put so much into it–I wanted an assurance it was gonna be handled in a way that was gonna take that into account,” says Hayes. He’d worked before with Tokyo’s After Hours label and as a stopgap measure licensed Fed to them for a Japan-only release.

In retrospect Hayes’s perfectionism seems to have earned him a Pyrrhic victory–though Fed was finally done, it wasn’t going anywhere in the States. But Hayes wasn’t just an out-of-control eccentric–Plush’s debut seven-inch, back in 1994, had been so rapturously received in the UK that the pressure to follow it up with something wonderful was very real. “Three-Quarters Blind Eyes” had cracked the British indie charts and appeared on year-end best-of lists in Mojo and Melody Maker, and the B side, “Found a Little Baby,” earned a turn as NME’s Single of the Week. “Fed was supposed to be the great follow-up,” says Murphy. “There was definitely a desire for it to be everything that everyone wanted it to be.”

After attempting to realize Fed with a band in ’95 and ’96, Hayes decided he needed to work alone. In September 1998 he released a solo piano album, More You Becomes You, as Plush’s full-length debut. But shortly after its release, he returned to the Fed material and reunited with Murphy and Bassman (though Bassman would stay just a few months). “I had this idea of how the album was gonna be and was just waiting for reality to conform to my idea, which didn’t happen,” says Hayes. “That’s really what took so long.”

When the group began working on Fed in earnest in summer 1999, Hayes had already been living with the material for almost six years. “I wouldn’t say I ever got sick of those songs, but let’s just say you can lose perspective,” admits Hayes.

Underfed offers a look at what Hayes’s perspective was like before the process got out of hand. “I was really intimate with those songs, and for me there was something on Underfed that was lost in the translation [to Fed],” says Koretzky. “For this to finally come out on the label, it sort of puts the period at the end of the sentence.”

Hayes is happy Underfed is seeing daylight, but the new disc won’t rescue him from the debts he incurred making Fed. “How much do I owe?” he asks. “A lot. I still owe a lot. I don’t know how many copies or downloads it would take, but at some point Fed will come out here and I can only hope it will recoup.”

Hayes still plans to release his magnum opus in the States–probably after he puts out the new Plush album he’s working on, which he hopes to have in stores next fall. He just doesn’t think Fed is quite ready for the public yet. “Even after it came out in 2002 there was still more I wanted to do as far as the mix was concerned,” he says, laughing sheepishly. “And I still feel that way. There’s always those great records that are gonna live on or live inside of people. Is Fed one of those? I don’t think I’d want to answer that question until I can do just a little more work on it.”

“That’s the sort of quagmire this material is for him,” says Murphy. “I don’t know. It’s a beautiful set of songs. I know it means a lot to him personally and I know it means a lot to people who have heard it. When you have a thing like that I can see why it would be hard to let it go. You know, some of the great works never got finished and some got finished 37 years later, like Smile. Hopefully it won’t take Liam 37 years to get closure on it.”

What: Plush

When: Fri 10/29, 10 PM

Where: Open End Gallery, 2000 W. Fulton

Price: $10 in advance, $12 at the door

Info: 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.