Kevin Tihista hasn’t slept for two days. A pensive, doleful-looking 36-year-old, he appears drawn and tired as he sips a beer at a quiet bar near his Roscoe Village apartment. “I’ve been up all night working,” he explains. “Writing.”
Tihista was 30 and had played professionally for a decade before he actually finished one of his own songs. But since 1999 he’s been working at a feverish clip, averaging three or four new ones a week. “Once I got it, I was a freak,” he says. “I didn’t stop. I was afraid to stop because I didn’t want to go back to where I was. I’m still afraid to stop. So I just try and write as much as I possibly can.”
Since 2000 he’s released three solo albums credited to Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror, including his most recent, Wake Up Captain (Parasol). With each disc he’s proven himself an expert composer of gossamer pop inspired by the melancholy hits of 70s FM radio, but those albums barely scratch the surface of his collected output: by his own estimate he has a backlog of nearly 600 songs. And he’s only recently sped up the process of releasing them. This week he begins a monthlong residency at Schubas, performing every Monday through January 31, and there he’ll be selling Home Demons, a 14-track collection of mostly home recordings. Parasol will officially release the album later this year, and British label Broken Horse will put out an edition with seven more tracks. Home Demons, Tihista says, will be the first in a multivolume series of limited-edition discs culled from his trove of demos and unreleased material.
The centerpiece of the album is a heartfelt take on the 1977 Dave Mason schmaltz-rock classic “We Just Disagree,” a cover that reflects his musical upbringing. “I love that crappy, sappy, crybaby shit,” Tihista says. “I grew up on that sorta stuff. Cat Stevens records to me were like lullabies. Same with Bread, America, all of that.”
Tihista was raised in Santa Cruz, California, the youngest of three children in a musical family; his mother was a well-known local jazz singer and his grandfather led a big band in the 40s. In the mid-80s Tihista was a fledgling adolescent metalhead when his brother gave him a copy of the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder. That same day he tore down his Motley Crue posters. His parents divorced while he was in his teens, and his mother and stepfather frequently moved around the Bay Area; he attended four different high schools in as many years and dropped out of the last. “By the time I was a senior I was like, ‘Fuck it, I don’t know anyone. I’m a loser.’ So I quit,” he says.
Tihista moved to Naperville on his 21st birthday to join a high school buddy’s band, Maus. The group never got out of the garage, but he moved on to play bass in Triple Fast Action until the band dissolved in 1998. Soon after, Louise Post recruited him into the latter-day version of Veruca Salt; Tihista cowrote three tracks for the band’s ill-fated 2000 album, Resolver; disappointed with the recorded results, he abruptly left the group. “I quit before the album even came out,” he says. “I’ve never even seen a copy of the record.”
But the experience of actually finishing a few tracks with Post spurred his breakthrough as a songwriter. At the time, he was living with his girlfriend, Tonya Berlin, in her mother’s Albany Park bungalow. Local musician and producer Ellis Clark, who’s played in and recorded the Chamber Strings and Epicycle, happened to live across the street; with Berlin’s encouragement, Tihista knocked on Clark’s door. “I just went over there and asked him if he wanted to record, like, three songs with me,” he says, “and those three turned into twenty-three songs.”
Tihista circulated the results of the Clark sessions, which Urbana-based Parasol wanted to release as a double CD, but Division One, an imprint of Atlantic, signed Tihista instead. Thanks to the success of a 2000 single, “Lose the Dress,” released by the British label Easy Tiger, he also snagged a UK deal with the Warner Brothers imprint Blanco y Negro. But Tihista’s major-label career was short-lived. Division One folded just weeks after it released his solo debut album, Don’t Breathe a Word, in September 2001, and Blanco y Negro stopped returning calls from Tihista’s manager. Parasol reissued the album in early 2002 and later that year released the remaining tracks from the planned double CD project as Judo.
Both records were well received in the U.S., but they caused a minor sensation in England; Tihista was championed by tastemaking UK music magazines like Uncut and Mojo, and he played his first-ever solo shows there in late 2002. He still hasn’t toured America, and he’s played only a handful of local shows. Part of the reason, he says, is “huge, huge stage fright. Actually, it’s more like fucking terror. Like fetal-position, curled-up-on-the-ground fear.” He admits part of his anxiety stems from the challenge of winning over small crowds unfamiliar with his work. “I can play here and play to no one,” he says. “But the last show I did in England [in December] was packed to the gills, and everyone was singing the songs–people are screaming out requests they want me to play. It’s fucking weird.”
In the meantime Tihista continues to stockpile songs, though he’s uncertain when he’ll begin work on his next studio album. “I have no clue,” he says. “I just write them, demo them, and put them in this big pile. And whenever it’s time to make the next record I’ll just pick out some songs to record. But once I get into the studio I really go into overdrive, and I’ll write even more freakishly than I do now. I’ll replace old songs with new ones and it’s crazy, it’s . . .”
He chuckles at his own enthusiasm. “I know it’s weird, but I went through all my teens and my 20s without writing a single song,” he says. “I feel like I have all those years to make up for.”
Kevin Tihista, Andrew Morgan, and Gray
When: Mondays through 1/31, 8 PM
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Lights Out in Logan Square
Earlier this week local promoter MP Shows severed ties with its flagship venue, the Logan Square Auditorium, canceling all shows at the space. A handful of those shows will go to MP’s other club, the Bottom Lounge.
MP Shows main man Brian Peterson, who had booked the venue since September, said disagreements with auditorium owner Saul Osacky prompted his decision. “I had some issues with the way it was being run,” Peterson said. “My contract with the guy was for until the end of the year, and so it seemed like a good time to take a leave of absence.” He hasn’t ruled out promoting concerts there again, but says he won’t do it full-time.
The Empty Bottle, which handled most shows at the auditorium before Peterson stepped in, says it will continue to book concerts there, though none are currently confirmed. Empty Bottle booker Pete Toalson says the club is also finalizing terms on a deal for its own satellite performance space.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.