Motorhome lives less in a loft than in an environment. Outside a van covered in painted yellow daisies sits patiently. Inside, in a converted bank building in west Lakeview, two band members live with a couple of friends in a cozy and cluttered warren of rooms. Paintings by guitarist Josiah Mazzaschi and bassist Kristen Thiele are arrayed in the hallways: the rest of the available wall space is covered with painted flowers and trees. Art, musical equipment, and shelves of CDs and knickknacks mark the space, as do two biggish dogs and at least one cat.
Unfortunately the Motorhome environment is about to be disrupted: the gentrification of the Lincoln-Ashland-Belmont intersection is forcing them out. They’ve been evicted. The move is symbolic of this transitional time for the band, who are on the verge of releasing their first album, Sex Vehicle, on New York’s Dirt records. Even in the overheated hotbed of creativity that has been the Chicago rock scene over the past two years, Sex Vehicle should command attention: it’s an extremely ambitious 21-track psychedelic song cycle of arresting performances and beguiling tunes, put together with a refreshing lack of pretension. Motorhome attempts and largely pulls off a difficult trick: creating a sonically imposing album that never falls into the zones of testosterone freak-outs or indie noodling. Mazzaschi is a sound geek who has a different guitar effect for every song, running his instruments through all manner of pedals and studio treatments to construct five- and six-minute sonic thrill factories. At the same time, with a disarming matter-of-factness, he confesses to being a bit uncomfortable with his masculinity; with no little help from Thiele, who writes about half the songs herself, the band undercuts the muscular nature of the guitar attacks with tape snippets, moments of delicate ballads, and interludes of homemade four-track whimsy. And anchoring the assemblage in the real world is far more than its share of straightforward rock dreaminess: Thiele’s “Whole in My Head,” with its ethereal vocalizings and trippy guitar tracks, is probably the most delectable of these, but there’s also Mazzaschi’s by turns rumbling and extravagant “Sweet Valentine” and a coursing rocker called “Superstar.”
Thiele and drummer Laura Masura, an athletic pounder, met two years ago. Masura had grown up in Elk Grove Village among a circle of music-mad teens (“Everyone played an instrument”) that included Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha and Hardvark’s Bob Rising (formerly of Poster Children). Thiele was an exile from the University of Miami, newly arrived in town to study at the Art Institute, when she met Masura in a bar one night. They learned to play together. Thiele eventually met Mazzaschi, an Art Institute student who was looking for a rhythm section and was impressed she came with a drummer.
They evolved out of some punkish beginnings and created a much denser and more ambitious music influenced by psychedelia and the earsplitting guitar attack of the British shoegazer bands. “I used to think that the guitar was so done,” confesses Mazzaschi. He retreated into pure electronic music until My Bloody Valentine woke him up. “I went, wow, there’s still a lot you can do with a guitar.”
A bit guiltily, Thiele and Mazzaschi worked on old-fashioned songs while taking an Art Institute class in experimental sound manipulation. But a cheerful affection for the strange remains in the band–treated vocals, static, and pops, buzzes, and snorts from a vintage synthesizer dot the record. To make their first single, “Whole in My Head,” last year the trio hooked up, happily, with Kingsize studio’s Dave Trumfio, who oversaw the recording of Sex Vehicle too. “We really liked his style,” says Mazzaschi. “He’s definitely into quirky sounds.”
Yet this noveltyesque penchant is put into context by a deep concern for atmosphere. Vocals are deep in the mix, with only this or that phrase–“When I wake up,” “Do you love me like I do?”–emerging. “I like sounds with a visual quality,” says Thiele. “In sound class I tried to make sounds that became places, that had a spatial quality.” While Mazzaschi’s guitar-slinger effects mark the band (“Anything I write, he sees an orchestra behind it,” says Thiele. “He foresees these sounds”), the group remains a unit: “I’m not a [Billy] Corgan-type figure,” says Mazzaschi. “We all work together on interpretations, and all write our own parts.”
Does Motorhome have any problems? Well, there’s Masura’s alleged stage fright, though her flailing drum attacks and rambunctious behavior don’t give much evidence of it. There are also Mazzaschi’s stress attacks–ask him about any song, straightforward love ballad or no, and the answer comes back to anxiety. And then there’s the move–just as the group begins getting the word out on its record, most notably by means of a record-release party July 22 at the Double Door. But all of this is just part of the road Motorhome is currently traveling on. “What we’ve done,” Mazzaschi says, “is try to end up farthest away from the place we started from.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.