Virgo Four Resurrection (Rush Hour)

Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders, aka Virgo Four, are Chicago natives, but their unique brand of house doesn’t square with most people’s ideas about the Chicago-born genre. Their beautiful, moody instrumentals have more in common with the electronica Warp Records released in the early 90s than with typical club music, and they’ve always had a bigger following overseas than at home. Resurrection, a deluxe five-LP set of 30 unreleased tracks Lewis and Sanders recorded between 1984 and 1990 (the single-disc CD version has 15), came out last month on Netherlands-based label Rush Hour. Excepting reissues, it’s the first release from the pair since a compilation track in 1993.

Lewis and Sanders grew up on the south side. In elementary school they played together in a four-piece band. “I didn’t even have a drum set then,” Sanders says, laughing. “I used to play on my mom’s Tupperware.” By the time they reached high school in the early 80s (Lewis went to Mendel Catholic, Sanders to Saint Ignatius Morgan Park), American dance music was undergoing a postdisco renaissance. On radio mix shows and at school dances, DJs were combining soul, Italo, electro, and even new-wave records. Sanders’s father, a commercial artist, played the organ and owned a large jazz collection, but his son was drawn to Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Electronic music, Sanders says, “was the new thing. It was cool.”

In the early 80s, Lewis and Sanders bought their own synthesizers and began recording tunes to four-track. Several local labels turned down their material, but in 1989 Larry Sherman of Trax Records relented—he’d taken a pass when they approached him a few years before, but since then his best-known acts had moved on to other deals.

Sherman dubbed the duo Virgo Four because he thought their music sounded like the tracks Marshall Jefferson, Vince Lawrence, and Adonis Smith had made as Virgo. Despite a lack of promotion (“Larry didn’t do anything—I mean, literally nothing,” says Sanders), their first two EPs, Do You Know Who You Are? and Ride, were licensed to Radical Records in the UK, which put out a compilation of all eight tracks on CD and cassette that same year. Lewis and Sanders had released Ride as M.E. (after “Merwyn” and “Eric”), and their follow-up on Trax, “Winter Days & Summer Nights”—an R&B-flavored 1990 single with vocals by Yvonne Gage—was billed to M.E. as well. Finally, in 1992 they returned to deep house as Ace & the Sandman with the Let Your Body Talk EP on Trax subsidiary Saber Records.

Lewis and Sanders never planned to pursue careers as musicians. By the time Trax Records declared bankruptcy in the early 90s, Lewis had graduated from college (he attended NIU and National Louis University) and begun teaching math. Sanders, who studied at the School of the Art Institute, painted murals and dabbled in photography before moving on to acting and theater production; he was recently a set artist for Million Dollar Quartet. But the two have continued recording songs as a creative outlet—they used to number the tapes they’ve been amassing since high school, but at some point past 200 they lost count. Says Sanders, “We never stopped!”

In 2010 Rush Hour began reissuing the Trax back catalog. In March 2010 the label put out Virgo—which, like the 1989 Radical release, compiled the duo’s first two EPs—but Lewis and Sanders didn’t learn about it till it had already hit the presses and label boss Christiaan Macdonald contacted them via Facebook. Some Trax artists were upset by the Rush Hour reissues, Sanders acknowledges, but he insists Virgo Four weren’t among them. “We didn’t feel like we were losing out or missing out or anything,” he says. “I mean, we don’t own the rights to it. It seems like nobody knows who owns the rights to it.”

Macdonald happened to ask if the duo had any unreleased material. He was dumbfounded when Sanders described their stash of hundreds of tapes. “I think he didn’t believe us,” Sanders says.

The next time Macdonald was in the States, he spent ten days at Lewis’s house, lying on the couch and listening to tapes one after the other. He eventually chose 50 favorite tracks, then narrowed them down to the 30—none of them previously released—that appear on Resurrection.

Lewis and Sanders are both surprised that anyone still considers their earliest recordings relevant. Sanders likens the experience to “singing in the shower, and then somebody put it on YouTube.” Macdonald explains that there’s “a new generation of young kids who are digging back.” The popularity of indie-friendly groups like Hot Chip and Hercules & Love Affair, both of whom draw obvious inspiration from 80s house music, would seem to bear that out.

The recordings on Resurrection have more to offer than just a bump of nostalgia for fans of analog instruments. Because Lewis and Sanders played their parts live instead of using a sequencer—for the most part they improvised during their jam sessions—the electronics aren’t locked to a sterile grid but rather imbued with palpable emotion. When there are vocals—sung, not sampled—they’re simple, with themes ranging from high school angst to hopeful visions of the future.

Minor-key synth strings contrast with a poppy bass line on the song “Sex,” which offers a teenager’s earnest perspective on its subject: “Everybody wants it, everybody needs it,” Sanders sings on the chorus. “Let the Music Play” and “Sexual Behavior” sound ahead of their time, with 90s house beats and jazzy keys—possibly because the duo had upgraded their gear.

“Lost Inside of You” and “In My Mind” have relatively sophisticated arrangements, in contrast with their somewhat muffled sound quality, and their monotone vocals are reminiscent of early industrial music. “Untitled” and “213,” the most upbeat tracks, are also relatively short—under four minutes—as though to encourage repeated plays.

Lewis and Sanders worked with a limited amount of hardware—in their Trax days, they would’ve used the home tapes that make up Resurrection as demos, redoing the material in the studio—but they still managed to coax an incredible variety of sounds from it. Some of their tracks are downright trippy. On “Silence,” reversed vocals swim among snare hits and hand claps. On “In the Valley” static cascades over warped bass tones. “Moskaw” obviously takes inspiration from Telex’s 1979 single “Moskow Diskow,” but here the clacking train sounds are paired with a darker melody.

One surprise is “Deep Blue,” a slice of beatless ambience that evokes a picture-book ocean with shimmering strings and meandering low notes. Another is “Knightro,” a speedy acid track that builds over heavy kick drum.

“I Have Always Wanted” is the collection’s high point—both its emotional peak and its most striking track. It sounds a lot like contemporary melodic electronica, with drum-machine congas accompanying melancholy, cinematic orchestral sounds. “It’s Hot,” which appeared in a later version on 1993’s Lost Trax compilation EP, approaches this anthemic territory as well.

To support Resurrection, Sanders and Lewis are playing the Sugar Mountain music festival in Australia at the end of the month, then heading to London where they’ll record a Maida Vale session for BBC Radio 1. They’ve also got a show booked in Amsterdam on May 27. So far no local Virgo Four gigs have been scheduled.

Sanders hopes to turn the new attention into songwriting or remixing work. Lewis, on the other hand, remains shy about local publicity. He explains via e-mail, “I do not want to become more public than I am now.” Despite his mixed feelings, he admits, “It is just good to get the music out of my closet and into the public consciousness.”