Letter-Perfect Pop

Josh Chicoine has a dark secret in his past, and its name is Jamestown. It’s the Chicago band he fronted after graduating from the University of Dayton and moving here in 1995. Jamestown became an attraction on the local frat-boy circuit, playing strummy tunes a la Dave Matthews in rock clubs and sports bars, but after four years or so, Chicoine says, he felt trapped and musically estranged from the other players. “It was a process of figuring out that I wasn’t into what the rest of them were doing at all,” he says. “I would see bands play at Lounge Ax and I would think, ‘How come my band isn’t playing there? Who are those cool bands?'”

Lounge Ax is gone, but if it were still open Chicoine’s current band, the M’s, would have no trouble getting gigs there. Over the last two years, they’ve gradually become one of the most talked-about rock acts in town, and Friday, April 9, at Schubas they’ll celebrate the release of their debut full-length. Three band members sing–there’s no designated front man–and all four write the beautifully constructed pop tunes that have earned the M’s frequent comparisons to the Kinks and T. Rex. Slinky guitar riffs are layered in interlocking patterns that sound refreshingly loose for all their careful placement; melodies zigzag unpredictably, then bloom into dead-on three-part harmony.

Five years ago, when Chicoine was looking for a way out of the jam-band world, he worked next door to Lounge Ax, selling outdoor gear at Uncle Dan’s in Lincoln Park. He struck up a friendship with future M’s drummer Steve Versaw, who’d moved to town from Kalamazoo the year before, but when the conversation turned to playing music, Chicoine started sniffing for patchouli: “He was talking about his stuff, but I didn’t want to go over and jam some Phish. You know–we were working at a camping store.”

Around the same time, the other two future M’s were having a similar experience. Kalamazoo native Robert Hicks–who’d played in the emo band Ordination of Aaron with Versaw back home–moved to Chicago in ’99 and got a job waiting tables at an Italian place in Lakeview, where he met Joey King, a fellow server recently arrived from Russellville, Arkansas. Before long they discovered that they were both musicians and avid four-trackers. “Joey had a whole album recorded when I met him,” says Hicks, “but I was leery about hearing it. You meet someone in a restaurant and you become buddies, and then he says, ‘Check out my band,’ and you never know what it’ll sound like.”

In both cases the concerns were unfounded: all of them, it turned out, were into a broad range of very melodic, highly detailed pop music. Hicks soon introduced his old bandmate Versaw to his new friend King.

By late 1999 Jamestown was history, and Chicoine brought the band’s keyboardist, Antoine Kattar, with him into a new project with King and Versaw called Sanoponic. Within a few months the band was playing out, using Chicoine’s connections to land gigs. “We were just trying to be a weird psych-pop band behind [Josh’s] songwriting, trying to orchestrate different weird things,” says Versaw. But they weren’t consistently able to pull off the baroque arrangements onstage. “Our CD sounded great,” says Chicoine, “but when we played live we weren’t even close to it.”

Versaw, Chicoine, and Kattar were all living in the house where Sanoponic rehearsed and recorded. As time passed, Chicoine, Versaw, and King began working together outside the band, and Hicks, who now had a full-time job, spent more and more of his free time writing with and recording the trio. Sanoponic dissolved roughly when the household did, in the spring of 2001: Chicoine and his future wife, Laura Ellsworth, got their own place, and Versaw moved into a Wicker Park apartment with King and Hicks.

The apartment came with a basement, and the four musicians conceived their next project to take advantage of it. “We had this idea that we were all going to start our own band and call it something different depending on whose songs we recorded,” says Versaw. They fitted out the basement as a home studio and began what became a continuous sequence of tag-team sessions. “You’d just go down in the basement and there’d be tracks [on the computer] with a guitar and drums, or with a keyboard and guitar,” Hicks says. “And you’d listen, and if you had a part you’d just put it down.” Versaw did most of the drumming, but everyone played everything else. They didn’t plan to play out at all, but then a couple of clubs called Chicoine about summer gigs for Sanoponic. Rather than explain that the band had broken up he took the shows, figuring that some version of the new project could fill in. Having settled on its current name, the new group made its debut at Martyrs’ in July 2001.

“People actually paid attention and listened,” says Hicks. “It felt like we had really taken over a room, that we weren’t just a side note to their drinking.” Emboldened by the response, the M’s reconsidered the studio-only concept and spent several months writing and rehearsing, determined to make sure their live show did justice to the recordings. That winter they reemerged, gigging around town and slowly gaining an audience.

In May 2002 they self-released an eponymous four-track EP, and within a few months things started happening. Schubas talent buyer Matt Rucins became a fan and began helping them land gigs; he’s now their de facto manager. They also impressed Joe Wigdahl of Brilliante Records, and last spring he and his partners agreed to reissue the EP with a pair of bonus tracks. Initially the band wanted to put out two more EPs of four songs each, but they were ultimately persuaded to combine all three batches of songs into the new album, which fulfills their handshake commitment to the label.

So far the M’s haven’t played much out of town–some weekend jaunts around the midwest, a few trips to the east coast–but a recent performance at South by Southwest attracted an enthusiastic crowd and raised the band’s national profile, and they’ll spend May touring the U.S. Looking to bring ever more complex arrangements into the live show, they’ll up the ante at Schubas with a full horn section.

MC5 Movie Stalled

The first local extended run of MC5: A True Testimonial, set to start Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, has been canceled, and a planned May 4 DVD release of the documentary by Private Music/BMG has been postponed indefinitely. The official hitch is that the Chicago-based filmmakers, David Thomas and Laurel Legler of Future/Now Films, don’t have permission to use the band’s music. Thomas and Legler’s sound track had been given the OK for a year’s worth of festival screenings, but at the request of MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer the publishing company, Warner/Chappell, has said no to further clearance. The filmmakers and the guitarist are currently at odds over several agreements relating to the documentary. Meanwhile on July 6, Kramer plans to release Sonic Revolution, a DVD of a concert by the surviving members of the MC5 in London last year that also includes a 30-minute British TV documentary and other archival goodies.

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