Zelienople, Odawas, Jorma Whittaker, Mike Tamburo

WHEN Thu 11/16, 9 PM

WHERE Gunther Murphy’s, 1638 W. Belmont


INFO 773-472-5139

Mike Weis and Matt Christensen, two-thirds of the local band Zelienople, got a taste of the big time early in their careers. They first played onstage in the short-lived X-Feline, led by cellist Eric Remschneider, who’d recorded and toured with Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, and their second gig was a sold-out Metro show opening for the Cranes in early 1997. That was enough for them to decide they weren’t interested.

“There would be band meetings where they talked about what you should wear,” says Weis. “And there were colors that you were supposed to imagine in your head that corresponded to each song.”

“We got to do all of those things a band wants to do right away, like play Metro,” says Christensen, “and it was good because early on we realized it was just a bunch of bullshit.”

The two of them, along with Christensen’s old friend Brian Harding, had already started Zelienople, and since then they’ve stuck to making music at their own pace–they play out inconsistently, never tour, and haven’t ever bothered recording in a proper studio. Most people have no idea who they are, but over the past few years their haunting, homemade drone pop has emerged as one of the most distinctive sounds in the city.

In the past four years the local label Loose Thread has released two Zelienople albums and reissued another, and since 2005 the group has put out a series of discs on tiny labels from Finland, New Zealand, and Oklahoma: Ink, Ghost Ship, and the brand-new Stone Academy. The more recent tracks, all based on patient, elegant long tones, switch between ghostly acoustic songs and hazy, hypnotic instrumentals.

Weis met Christensen and Harding in 1995 at their Rogers Park practice space. Their music caught his ear from out in the hall. “I was standing by the door listening,” he says, “and Matt opened it and I kind of fell in, Three Stooges style.”

“We weren’t really playing anything,” says Christensen. “We had probably taped the keys down on a keyboard, got stoned, and laid down on the floor.”

Soon the three were practicing together, passing instruments around and recording almost everything they came up with. At first they didn’t consider themselves a band, but after spending a few months with X-Feline, Weis and Christensen decided to make Zelienople their main gig. It’d be another year or so before they got around to playing a show–at the invitation of a friend, they debuted at the Wicker Park space Charybdis in 1998. Throughout ’99 they gigged frequently at Lounge Ax, and after that club closed in January 2000 they became a regular presence at the Empty Bottle.

Though Zelienople had piles of rehearsal recordings, they didn’t decide to make an actual album till 2001. Their debut, Pajama Avenue, came out the next year on Loose Thread, run by another friend from the Rogers Park practice space.

Early on the group had used lots of electronics–banks of keyboards, programmed percussion, sequencer loops–but on Pajama Avenue the bass and drums play simple, regular patterns, the synths flesh things out a bit, and Christensen sings in a withdrawn whisper–it sounds like an anemic version of late-period Talk Talk. Sleeper Coach, released in 2004, puts more emphasis on floating, swirling textures–subtle electronic washes, drifty clarinet lines, and guitar figures awash in reverb. “Those first two records were very calculated and really pored over,” says Christensen.

“Early on we would rehearse songs for live shows, but the recording process was one layer at a time,” says Harding. “Mike would do a drum track and then we’d play around with guitar to go over it.”

“We would write songs for shows and then we’d scrap them,” says Weis. “For the next show we’d write a whole new set. That’s still pretty much what we do.” After recording Sleeper Coach the group decided it might be nice to play songs from their albums instead, and to help realize the layered tunes they recruited guitarist Neil Jendon, an old bandmate from X-Feline. The plan to develop a proper repertoire ultimately failed, but Jendon stuck around–he was a regular onstage till his amicable departure last month and appeared on at least a few tracks of every subsequent release.

By this time Zelienople had given up the Rogers Park space–they’d been practicing mostly in basements and apartments–but in 2004 Weis bought a house, which let them turn up their amps and stretch out. In part to help Weis, the band’s main percussionist, better contribute to the increasingly drone-based music, Christensen started building simple electric instruments that could be bowed or struck–the “ski bass” consists of guitar pickups and suspension cables mounted on a NordicTrack ski, and the “artillery shell” is a foot-long spent casing fitted with a contact mike. The completely improvised Ink was recorded in spring 2005, largely as an excuse to use these new toys, and marked a major turning point for Zelienople: they switched from the elaborate stacking of overdubs to live one-take sessions. Originally released on the Finnish label 267 Lattajjaa in an edition of 100, it sold out quickly and was reissued this March by Loose Thread.

The subsequent Ghost Ship, on the New Zealand label PseudoArcana, was a leap into pure drone, entirely instrumental and with even the percussion confined to washes and textures. Last month’s Stone Academy, released on CD by Digitalis and on vinyl by Root Strata, restores songlike structures to the picture, but not the rock-band underpinnings of the early discs.

More recordings are on the horizon–the band has an EP in the can that’s scheduled for release on Time-Lag, and a second album is forthcoming from Good Stuff House, Weis and Christensen’s side project with Souled American guitarist Scott Tuma. And Zelienople is finally developing a reputation that extends beyond the midwest: Pete Toalson at the Empty Bottle says that “both national and international touring bands have started asking about them recently.”

It doesn’t seem likely that Zelienople will try to capitalize much on that interest. All three members are married and in their mid-30s, and Harding and Christensen both have children. Out-of-town gigs have been limited to weekend trips to cities like Detroit, Indianapolis, or East Lansing, and no one’s agitating to play more. When I ask how Zelienople’s recordings have been selling, Harding answers, “We have no idea. We all have day jobs.”

A Final Protest

Last Friday morning during rush hour a man set himself on fire near the Ohio Street exit on the Kennedy. He hadn’t been officially identified at press time, but members of the local jazz and improvised music community say they’re certain it was Malachi Ritscher, a longtime supporter of the scene who recorded more than 2,000 live shows. Bruno Johnson, who owns the free-jazz label Okka Disk, received a package Monday from Ritscher that included a will, keys to his home, and instructions about what should be done with his belongings. Johnson, a former Chicagoan who now lives in Milwaukee, started making calls and discovered that though police won’t confirm it was Ritscher until they get the results of dental tests, an officer told one of Ritscher’s sisters that all evidence points to the body being his. Ritscher’s car was found nearby, and he hasn’t shown up for work since Thursday. What’s more, on Ritscher’s Web site Chicago Rash Audio Potential, a compendium of invaluable show postings, artwork, and photography, are a suicide note and an obituary. Both indicate that he was deeply troubled by the war in Iraq and pinpoint it as a motive for suicide (though no method is specified). A note found at the scene of the immolation reportedly read “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

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