Live in Chicago, Day 1: The Chamber Strings

photos by Jeremy Farmer
review by Sheryl Witlen

The Chamber Strings have been through it all — or shall we say vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, producer Kevin Junior has been through it all. Divorce, depression, addiction, and, nearly, death. Most writers draw upon one of these experiences and filter it through their art leaving a path of war-torn lyrics and heartbreaking melodies so staggering that it garners attention and accolades from journalists and music snobs alike. Global record releases and tiresome tour treks later and the band breaks up. Or at least takes a break. It is an event of both beauty and grace that we are lucky enough to have The Chamber Strings with us in this day and age of artistic awakening. Bands such as Beirut and Arcade Fire broke down the doors of the traditional rock/indie band with the typical combination of guitarist, drummer, singer and bassist, and introduced a whole new generation to the viola, organ, harpsichord and glockenspiel — but it should be noted that The Chamber Strings were there first. As in nine years ago first. Formed in 1997, the band released Gospel Morning on ISM Records, a small label based out of Washington, DC. The album drew upon musical genius and grace that unfolded so seamlessly from one track into another that it struck a chord with producer Thom Monahan. Monahan jumped on broad for the bands’ sophomore release, Month of Sundays which saw the band encompass and own their sound on a whole new level, incorporating full orchestral string and brass arrangements. This should have been a highlight for the band who found themselves criss-crossing the country with the likes of Travis, Wilco, Dandy Warhols and the White Stripes, but alas, dark days awaited Junior. Years of doubt and despair loomed and lurked within the Kevin Junior’s world and ultimately caused the band to take a break. It is only recently, in 2006 that the band, currently comprised of Anthony Illarde, Carolyn Engelmann, Jason Walker and Tim Fowler, returned to their roots, tackling not only the stage, studio and fickle music community alike, but also Junior himself. It is only with blood spill and heartache that Kevin Junior could transform into the musical coup d’etat he is. The Chamber Strings are once again united and a force to be reckoned with. We are all in for quite the ride as they re-discover the modern and ever changing music scene that they left behind only a few years ago. Fads may come and go, but this band set the standard so message to new kids on the block testing out those same waters… be prepared. Junior is back and this time he is taking no prisoners.

Interview by Jim Beckmann

Jim: It sounded great, and really different from the bands we’ve had today. Like Cheryl said, you do have an original sound, but also unlike a lot of the bands we’ve had today, a lot of younger bands, you definitely have a lot of influences they don’t have. That was pretty clear when you were in the control room and were talking about an Al Green sound in a particular song.

Kevin: Yeah.

Jim: So where do those influence come from, I mean you’re not that old of a guy, you know?

Kevin: (Laughs) That soul stuff comes from my childhood. All my parents listened to was Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, that kind of stuff. So all that soul stuff was just what I was hearing around the house and that stuck. I think when we were growing up we [Kevin and his friends] probably had a mutual love for it, Around ten or eleven, I discovered the Stones and really got into you know a lot of sixties British invasion, The Kinks, and then I think at some point around puberty we really embraced punk and new wave. Anthony, especially, was in a lot of punk bands when he was a kid and we have loved a lot of punk bands like Johnny Thunders…

Anthony: And it really comes out!

Kevin: I think probably the one think that we initially liked — ’cause we’ve know each other since we were teenagers — was like probably Johnny Thunders and Stooges and the early seventies, pre-punk and glam.

Anthony: Yeah.

Kevin: We definitely bonded over that. We had mutual interests like the Pretenders and the Beatles and Beach Boys and lots of “B” bands. But you know, as far as our record collections go, I’ve always been like “Check out this Al Stewart record” and he’s like “Check out this Can record.”

Anthony: “I’ve got some Al Stewart records for you.”

Kevin: Yeah, it’s like it could go from Al Stewart to Can — as long as it’s got something…

Anthony: A really good hook to it.

Kevin: Yeah, it could be a repetitive or noisy. You know, I’m sure we saw each other at Einstürzende Neubauten shows and the next week we’d see each other at Lords of the New Church. It doesn’t really make much sense.

Jim: I assume that’s what helps make the sound not derivative, the presence of those influences, at least in sensibility.

Kevin: I didn’t know where to go when I first started writing songs, so one minute I was being influenced by Bob Dylan and the next minute something sweetly tuneful and then really raucous like Exile on Main Street, and it takes a couple of years to really from your songwriting.

Jim: And now you have a better sense of that?

Kevin: I think it’s been that way for a long time. When the Chamber Strings formed, I wasn’t looking back to anything.

Anthony: He knew where he wanted to go.

Kevin: When we were playing with Epic Soundtracks, that was a really great thing for the both of us because we were playing with someone who was like, “I’m playing Laura Nyro, Carol King, and Todd Rundgren.” That’s the kind of stuff that we had been dying to play for ages. So to have the opportunity to play with someone who wrote such great songs like that, it was a starting point and a huge change in the way we approached making records.

Jim: Now you a demo that’s up on your MySpace page, and you said that you have a whole album worth of songs, is that right?

Kevin: The record is written. [Anthony excuses himself.] It’s a little frustrating because I want to move on and sometimes I feel a little stifled, but it’s like we need to get rid of this one thing first.

Jim: I imagine it’s harder to shop around an album that’s already written because then the label can’t to tell you what to do with it.

Kevin: (laughs) They’re not going to tell us what to do anyway! It’s written but not recorded. We’ve done demos of six songs as a full band and there are demos for another four done by myself. What we want is to get into a studio and start right from the beginning and go straight through. We’ve got it all worked out and arranged, right down to every string arrangement and brass arrangement. It’s all on paper.

Jim: This is the original group from A Month of Sundays, right? You all sounded tight in the studio today. Will you record with them?

Kevin: Yeah, we’d want to do it the same way. Whereas the first record, Gospel Morning, was really a solo record with me bringing people in and out. I was working with Ellis Clark and producing the thing together. He was playing bass and Anthony played drums on most of it. But when the record was finished the lineup changed a couple of times until I got these guys.

Jim: You joked earlier about whether or not labels were still around, but have you thought about just doing it yourself? There are more opportunities to do that now.

Kevin: We have thought about it, but we just don’t make a lot of money, and I really want this record to be on analog, on tape, and I want to make sure we’re using a good studio, with good mics and equipment. Once I get a date set to record a record, it goes pretty quickly because I know what’s going to happen every day, but it really comes down to money. I’d be happy to do it ourselves, but it takes a little scratch to do it right.

Jim: Yeah, I hear Engine’s a good studio! (laughs)

Kevin: I’d love to make it here! (laughs)

Jim: Well, thanks so much for taking the time.

Kevin: Oh, yeah. I love Seattle and hope to make it back soon.

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