Last October, when Low Skies played the Empty Bottle to celebrate the release of its debut full-length, The Bed (Flameshovel), the band had seen three multi-instrumentalists and a guitarist come and go in just three years. “It was always such a bummer to have new members come in and have to revisit all of these old songs and have to play them over and over so they could get the parts right,” says front man Chris Salveter, who formed the group with drummer Jason Creps in the fall of 2000. “It was really starting to wear Jason and I down.”

At the release party for The Bed, a five-piece version of Low Skies–rounded out by bassist Brandon Ross, his brother, guitarist Jacob Ross, and keyboardist Luther Rochester–performed material that’d been developed and recorded by a different lineup. But those same musicians went on to cut an EP together, I Have Been to Beautiful Places (Flameshovel), and when the band celebrates its release Friday at the Hideout–almost a year after it was recorded–everyone who played on the disc will be there to play the show. Given the history, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

In the summer of 2000 Salveter had followed his girlfriend here from Saint Louis, where he’d been taking classes at a community college, and enrolled at Columbia. He’d played bass in hardcore and indie-rock outfits since he was 13, but had recently picked up the guitar and written his first batch of songs; he wanted to develop them for a full band, and soon recruited Creps through a flyer he’d tacked up around town. In November bassist and keyboardist Spencer Kingman, who’d met Salveter through a mutual friend, signed up, and Low Skies spent its first year as a trio. In the summer of 2001 the band embarked on a leisurely west-coast tour in support of a self-released EP, playing just 12 shows in a month.

But Salveter’s girlfriend had moved to Minneapolis, and once the band got back to Chicago he packed his bags and followed, adding another school to his piecemeal college career. Low Skies played a few shows that fall, but by December Salveter had realized that he needed to make a choice: either live in the same city with the rest of the band or call it quits. He returned to Chicago that winter.

Unfortunately, once Salveter raised the stakes by moving away from his girlfriend, Kingman bowed out. Salveter’s search for a replacement led him to keyboardist Luther Rochester and guitarist Pete Wenger, as well as to a couple musicians he knew from his Saint Louis days, Japeth Mennes and Darrell Griewe, who both doubled on bass and guitar. But none of the new recruits ever came aboard as full-time members, and for the balance of 2002 the band made do with whoever was available: a Low Skies gig might be a five-piece affair or just the core duo. Salveter insists he was satisfied with the situation, though: “We always knew it was a temporary lineup, and I was happy with the way things were sounding,” he says.

That summer the band tracked and mixed the ten songs that would end up on The Bed at Semaphore Recording, paying for the studio time out of pocket. Low Skies’ debut EP had sounded tentative, as many debuts do, but The Bed was a different story. Thanks to Wenger’s woozy lap steel the album’s layers of dark, subtle keyboards, precisely articulated guitar lines, and clean chords felt like the melancholy sound track to an art-house western, and Salveter’s dramatic vocals commanded attention. His wide vibrato and occasional piercing falsetto inevitably provoke comparisons to Jeff Buckley, an influence he doesn’t bother to deny. “When I was developing my singing voice I was driving around in the car and singing really fucking loud to whatever I was in love with at the time,” he says, “and it was full cycle for Grace and Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk.”

In fall 2002 Flameshovel Records agreed to release The Bed, but repeated problems printing the sleeve art delayed the album for a year. Mennes and Griewe, busy with school and other projects, drifted out of the band’s orbit during that stretch, and Brandon Ross, another friend of Salveter’s from Saint Louis, took over on bass. In the summer of 2003 Wenger was asked to leave, but the split hasn’t left any lingering wounds–Wenger’s new group with Griewe, Fissure, opens the Hideout show. “We’re still friends,” says Salveter. “But we didn’t think he worked in the band context.” In August, three weeks before the band started a long nationwide tour–the Bottle show celebrating the release of The Bed was smack in the middle of it–Jacob Ross came aboard on guitar. He’d mixed both Low Skies records, and he’d been looking for a project since the demise of his group Ribbon Effect.

As soon as Low Skies got home they hurried back to Semaphore to get five new songs on tape before the tour buzz wore off–after playing almost every night for six weeks, the band was clicking like never before. To try to capture the feel of a show in the studio, they recorded everything, even the vocals, live to two-track without overdubs, playing each tune over and over until they had the takes they wanted. The band hadn’t originally intended to release the products of that three-day session; they thought of it as a studio experiment and as a way to get a different perspective on the new lineup’s creative development. But during the lengthy hiatus that followed the tour, everyone realized what a strong EP it would make. Compared to The Bed, the playing on I Have Been to Beautiful Places is tighter and the singing more controlled; the songs are more dramatic, but the band creates that energy with carefully deployed dynamics rather than relying on vocal histrionics from Salveter. Flameshovel agreed to do the honors again, and a release date was set for September 2004.

Salveter spent last winter in Minneapolis, giving his relationship with his girlfriend one last unsuccessful try, and the Ross brothers spent it traveling, but Low Skies managed to play a few times as a trio–just Salveter, Creps, and Rochester–before the singer moved back to Chicago this spring. The band has spent much of the summer on the road and intends to spend the winter writing new material. “I feel like we have a much better direction as a band now, and I feel more able to plan far ahead,” says Salveter. “It feels really good for everyone to be on the same page. We’re much stronger.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Elledge.