All Smiles, Sea Wolf, Bronze
WHEN Sat 5/19, 10 PM
WHERE Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
INFO 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401
WHEN Sun 5/20, 6 PM
WHERE Reckless Records, 1532 N. Milwaukee
California indie rockers Grandaddy, who split up in late 2005, are what you call OC famous–though millions of people have heard them, it’s been mostly by accident. Their songs have turned up in TV commercials and on movie soundtracks and the like, but the band’s actual fan base is relatively small. At the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the Hancock Center last week, I was the only one who recognized former Grandaddy guitarist Jim Fairchild, currently the sole constant member of the band All Smiles. And that’s totally cool with him.
Meeting up at a tourist trap was my idea. Fairchild, 33, moved to Chicago just this past August, after his girlfriend, Natasha Wheat, was accepted into the School of the Art Institute. I thought he might like to see some sights, especially since he’s kept his head down for most of his time here. Throughout the winter he practically hibernated–he was born in California and calls the midwestern cold “awful”–and this spring he’s kept busy building out a storefront in Ukrainian Village into a living space. Music is all he does, and he’s mostly broke. He didn’t play his first show here till January, and even his monthlong Monday residency at Schubas in March was pretty low-key–at that point few people in Chicago were aware All Smiles existed or that it was related to Grandaddy, and his brand-new debut album, Ten Readings of a Warning (Dangerbird), was still more than a month from release.
Having a couple of drinks while looking out over the city, it turns out, is an experience not unlike listening to Fairchild’s record: laid-back and pleasant and from time to time absolutely breathtaking. Ten Readings is mostly quiet and, despite Fairchild’s abstract lyrics, almost shockingly intimate–it’s an old-school home recording, with a fragile, diaristic feel. He wrote and recorded most of the album in the summer of 2005, while he and Wheat were house-sitting in Portland, Oregon, and he says the eight-track tape machine he borrowed for the project was the same model Elliott Smith used for the similarly bedroomy Either/Or.
Fairchild was in a delicate state at the time. Grandaddy front man and songwriter Jason Lytle wouldn’t officially announce the band’s demise till January 2006, but Fairchild says things had gotten ugly long before he went to Oregon. He’d been in Grandaddy since 1995, and he knew that the breakup, when it came, would not only cost him a job but upend the entire structure of his life. Tensions within the group had already damaged some of his most important friendships, with guys he still says are like brothers to him. “To be totally honest, I went through probably two years–and this was while the band still existed–of hating Jason,” he says. In May 2005, a friend who works part of the year on Alaskan fishing boats offered Fairchild the house-sitting gig, and he and Wheat decided to get out of California for a few months.
The couple had to get rid of a lot of their stuff to make the move. “It got me thinking, What really is most important to me?” says Fairchild. He’d been writing his own songs for years but never recorded them, in part because he was too intimidated by Lytle’s talent to take his own efforts seriously. But with Grandaddy on the wane, he really wanted to do something with all that material–he wanted to have his own band, even though the idea of it freaked him the fuck out. “I’d never sang in front of people. I was always scared about that,” he says. “I was in a really good band with a really great song-writer for a long time, and I thought people would constantly assess it with that as a barometer.”
During his time in Portland he got to be friends with Menomena drummer Danny Seim. “He was really instrumental in me gaining confidence,” says Fairchild. “We met right before we moved to Portland. He and I would go ride skateboards on Friday mornings. We got to talking, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I would love to come over and play with you.’ That was really scary, because I respect him a lot as a musician. But he was super supportive. I remember the first time he came over I was totally petrified. I couldn’t imagine playing my songs in front of people.”
Fairchild pushed through his fear, though, and started developing the material for Ten Readings. He played everything himself except the drums, and the other friends who came over to sit behind Seim’s stripped-down kit included Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney and Joe Plummer from Modest Mouse. Weiss especially is usually a hard hitter, but all the drummers adapted to Fairchild’s arrangements and the songs came out subdued, the way he wanted. “I think that I just needed to get to a point in my life where the music was representative of everything else that was going on, which was like, restraint. How do you learn how to do whatever you do with less?” he says. “Having been in Grandaddy so long, which was really full-color arrangements and wide-screen interpretations of Jason’s songs, that was good.”
Most of the tunes on Ten Readings combine the modest pop grandeur of the Beatles’ White Album with Big Star’s mash-note sentimentality–in a lot of ways Fairchild takes after Elliott Smith, his friend and a former Grandaddy tourmate. (“I almost feel like somebody could almost devise an exact methodology to prove that he was the best of our generation,” he says.) He uses lots of long, complex chord progressions–sometimes they last the whole length of a verse, without repeating once–but his vocal melodies are simple and hooky, the kind you can find yourself trying to sing along with before you even know the words. Even on the disc you can sometimes hear a nervous catch in his throat, but he’s actually a decent singer, with the kind of ultramellow delivery that Californians have been perfecting for the past 40 years.
Fairchild generally limits himself to acoustic guitar, piano, and the occasional fuzzed-out electric-guitar solo, and when there’s drumming, it’s gentle. But the arrangements on Ten Readings aren’t meant to be the definitive versions of the songs–so far, he estimates, All Smiles has had eight or ten different live lineups, with personnel including Plummer and members of California bands Earlimart, Everest, Great Northern, and Built Like Alaska. For his release party on Saturday–the album officially came out April 24–he’ll be backed by bassist Dave Osborn, drummer Alance Ward, and guitarist and keyboardist Gary James, who all play with locals Sharks and Seals. (For his Reckless in-store the next day, he says he’ll probably play some songs with the band and some solo.) Fairchild has no plans to restrict himself to a steady band in the future–partly because he knows “so many rad musicians” and partly because he’s still feeling the same restlessness that brought him here. He’s not sure yet if he’ll be staying in Chicago after Wheat finishes school in December. “I was in this really static situation for 11 years,” he says. “I know what that feels like, and I want to know what something else feels like.”
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Hayley Murphy.