Mickey at the 2011 Blackout Fest
Mickey at the 2011 Blackout Fest Credit: Chris Anderson

In the Reader‘s Best of Chicago issue last year, I wrote that I hoped the next “Chicago sound” would turn out to be glammy garage, pointing out two reasons it might: the already ascendant Smith Westerns and the yet-to-be-discovered Mickey. At the time Mickey had only released a criminally overlooked single on HoZac, “She’s So Crazy” b/w “I Am Your Trash,” and a somewhat hastily recorded EP called Electric Dreams, which came out in an edition of 500 on Philly label FDH. If you read Pitchfork at all, you know what’s happened for Smith Westerns since then: anointed as indie It Boys, they’ve released a sophomore album that got even more attention than the first. I figured Mickey would follow suit as soon as their first full-length hit the streets—and they were already recording it when I wrote my Best of Chicago bit.

What I didn’t know was that the record would take an entire year to finish. Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreamer was finally released on June 7 by HoZac—the group celebrated May 27 with a set at the Blackout—but the sessions had started back in March 2010. Mickey scrapped the first five songs they recorded—a big setback for a ten-song album—and after wrapping up tracking at the end of the year they mixed the entire thing twice, taking two months to come up with a version everyone could agree on. “If you’ve got good songs you might as well record ’em right,” says Mark McKenzie, aka Mickey front man Mac Blackout.

It’s an almost decadent amount of time for a band to work on an album, especially a band of self-described punks on a small label with only a tiny (albeit cultishly fervent) fan base. And if you were looking forward to the record, it made for an excruciating wait. But I can’t argue with the results.

“We don’t want to be another band playing like four-chord whatever up there,” says guitarist Troy Canady, aka Mick Swagger. “Everything has to be big hooks, big melodies, you know?” (He says he’s changing his stage name to T.C. Starchild: “All that Odd Future bullshit killed ‘swag.'”) Canady and guitarist Dirty D are the five-piece band’s two primary songwriters. They started with just a drum machine in 2008 but quickly attracted a rhythm section—currently drummer Christmas Woods and bassist Brent Zmrhal. They played their first show in spring 2009, opening for Nobunny at a house party in Bridgeport.

Should Chicago ever become the dirty-glam mecca of my fantasies, it will probably have a lot to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreamer. Whereas Smith Westerns derive much of their appeal from metaphorically dragging Marc Bolan’s quasi-mystical pop into a basement with a four-track, Mickey takes the grittiest leather-jacketed basics of rock ‘n’ roll and blows them up into sprawling anthems.

Both sonically and compositionally the band’s songs pair the starry-eyed sugar high of glam-pop acts like the Sweet with the leaner, more feral energy of the pub rock and punk that followed as styles du jour, at least for British youth culture. (Punk evolved in part from glam, a fact that often gets overlooked in the States—but Boot Power, a free series of bootleg online compilations, does a fantastic job illustrating the connections.)

Mickey stands starkly apart from the recent wave of acts who’ve shot to indie stardom with bare-bones tunes recorded at cassette quality—the band’s songs are almost comically overstuffed and polished to a high gloss. “We don’t want to be part of that lo-fi whatever,” says Canady. “Bands that record with a lot of reverb or tape hiss, they’re afraid.” Keeping track of the number of guitar overdubs is taxing, sometimes almost impossible—and they didn’t stop with guitars. “We put ourselves out there,” Canady says. “We have high-ass, gay-sounding backup vocals, man. We have violins on our record.”

Ironically this huge, plush-sounding album was recorded in a tiny basement space: the home studio of Mark Freitas, former organizer of Chicago’s Homocore concerts, member of the on-hiatus Rotten Fruits, part-time mixed martial arts fighter, and occasional performance artist. The studio’s “a sarcophagus,” says Canady, its biggest room just nine by 13 feet. At most, Mickey could track drums, bass, and rhythm guitar at once—everything else had to be laid down piece by piece.

Freitas guesses he spent well over 100 hours on the record, and he’s managed to capture the immense energy Mickey generate at their shows. Though they’ve dialed back the onstage chaos in recent months—”For a while,” Zmrhal says, “we were the drunkest band in Chicago”—they still play so hard and fast that they constantly risk flying off the rails, and Dreamer carries that same thrill of watching something nearly come apart at the seams. Freitas also played the traditional role of producer, helping to steer the direction of the album: he convinced the band to include the previously released but immensely replay-worthy “She’s So Crazy,” for instance, and arranged many of the overdubs. “I’d say there was at least a fourth of the record that I didn’t know was going to happen,” says Woods. “It was him adding strings, trumpets.”

“Every time I do a record I think it’s something special,” says Freitas. “This one feels a little more special. I keep on hoping that this is the one that finally . . . I’ve always wanted to record a record that actually makes its mark. This feels like it might be the one.”

The guys in Mickey don’t speak in quite such grandiose terms about Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreamer. Pointing at the album art, a hand-drawn portrait of the group by McKenzie, Canady says, “The cover’s cool because it’s like a cartoon. And the album, it’s fucking cartoon rock. It’s like 3-D Hanna-Barbera music or something. We’re not a superintellectual highbrow indie band. We play seriously, but we’re not like trying to be too smart.”

“I don’t want to be smart,” Woods adds. “I want to do what I do.” 

E-mail Miles Raymer at sharpdarts@chicagoreader.com.