photos by Jeremy Farmer
review by Sheryl Witlen
interview by Jim Beckmann
When you understand how much a band embraces the music community they were inspired by it makes you appreciate them even more. The M’s sprouted from the cracks in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, recording in friends’ apartments and playing some of their first shows at a packaged local liquor store with bare concrete floors and rowdy, affectionate audiences. Having toured with the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wilco and the Electric Six, they are well respected amongst their peers and adored by some of the most elite within the music industry. With beginnings in the small town of Kalamazoo, Missouri Rob and Steve were the first to encounter each other before both made the jump to Chicago, keeping in touch along the way. Fate had big dealings in mind when Rob then ended up working with Joey in a random restaurant gig and Josh ended up working with Steve at a camping store. These small coincidences paved the path for the band we know and love today. Starting off by playing together for fun and moving on from being comrades to being business partners in a sense, they decided to start recording their music in a tangible way. First signed to Chicago-based label Brilliante, they recorded tirelessly in 2004 releasing three EP’s within the span of one year. Only a tight-knit ensemble can have access to this type of productivity and maintain their joy for the performance as well as the behind the scenes process that frustrates many of those who test the waters of musicianship. Their latest album, Real Close Ones, has been picked up by Polyvinyl Records, and the band recently performed their new material in support of Centro-Matic. During press interviews, the band members are candid and fluid, chiming off one another and feeding collective spirited energy that is The M’s. As Joey and Steve do so well in our interview after their in-studio performance:
Jim: You all do your own recording, right?
Joey: Yeah, Steve’s the big engineer. Steve taught all of us how to do stuff. I had a 4 track recorder at home when I met Steve, and I knew how to 4 track record.
Steve: We were all kind of 4 tracking when we met and so as we started making records, we started buying equipment and setting up our own little home studio with better amps and better microphones. Started bringing all of our stuff together and recorded every single one of our records.
Jim: But you did go into a studio for the last one?
Joey: (Name of album..Future Women?) we did in the studio. We have a place in Andersonville that was an old Salvation Army church and we met a guy who had bought the building and was using it as a storage facility but he was renting the stage, like where the pulpit was, you know where the pastor would preach from. He was renting that out to a couple of bands to practice and we found it and he said we can rent it. We fixed it into a studio.
Steve: It’s an amazing sounding room. It’s really tight for how big it is.
Joey: We call it the “Andersonville Salvation Icebox,” because the heaters have been out for two years. So we recorded a lot of Close Ones in the winter time completely bundled with no heat except for little electric heaters. 50 foot ceilings and a big room, unless you’re standing right in front of it your legs get hot and the rest of you is freezing cold.
Steve: But that’s what our sound is all about
Joey: It’s probably why some of our (?) amps have gone out more than likely because it is 30 degrees in there and their singing vocals, trying to play guitar can’t even feel your fingers.
Jim: You all are a pretty huge group. How many would you say is the core?
Steve: We actually started out as a four piece and just recently once we got done with this record, Real Close Ones, we added Glenn who would come on and plays keys and other things to flush out the record. Because the 4 of us didn’t have enough hands. We added him as an actual 5th member and it’s worked out great. We’ve tried a lot of experiments, you know with our horn players, string players, and other people. On this record it’s just horns and a cello player that are additions.
Jim: That’s a really full sound.
Steve: It sounds like the most stripped down record we made yet. Which is probably why we sound fuller.
Jim: On Future Women we used all 24 tracks of a tape.
Steve: Sometimes it would be up to 48 tracks because we used Protools stuff. There were some songs that had 16 tracks on them. So we took a different approach, spaced it out.
Joey: Yeah and we also could play the whole record as a band as a four piece and play all the basic parts for this record. I don’t know if that added to the sound being a little bit more cohesive.
Jim: Well how is that different from before?
Joey: Tracking and writing as we went.
Steve: We had the luxury of recording ourselves.
Joey: Exactly. That’s one reason why we do it. It’s easy for us. I don’t think we’d be very good under a pressure situation. Maybe we should try it some time to see what happens?
Steve: A lot of bands know exactly how it’s going to go play-by play as soon as they walk in the door, but then of course something inevitable goes wrong.
Joey: Even if we recorded a song in one day we’d go back and change stuff.
Jim: Before you went to your label Polyvinyl you had put out a bunch of EPs.
Steve: There is a local label called Brilliante and they put out our first EP. Basically our whole goal when we first started was we wanted to do this series of EPs, because we had these different sessions that we’d recorded these groupings of songs, four or five songs in each session. Then we would release them in that fashion, because it felt good. But time and money were just not of the essence. So ended up packing them on one album and that was our first one The Ms. Which is good that we did that, because that’s when we started getting some attention, when we put our first album out. We might not have moved up to Polyvinyl maybe. Kind of worked out.
Jim: Speaking of that you hooked up with Wilco pretty early on. How did that happen?
Steve: They’re just a really good band to be supportive to starting up bands. I actually think there was a fan in their ranks and they’d seen us and they’re just really good guys that try to help out other bands, especially bands that they like. I know Jeff’s son like us a lot too, which helps a lot because he had our CD in his car back in the beginning.
Joey: We actually did a tour with them and then we did a second tour with them out east and into Canada, which was a little more extensive and fun.
Steve: Yeah it was a blast, a good time.
Jim: Now you are going to be heading out on the road, you were saying [during the interview with Chery].
Joey: In September, we are making a short little jaunt to Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Jim: Then, of course you’ll come our way
Joey: Yeah, we’re hoping that in September or October. We’re still working on the booking.
Jim: And do you tour as a four piece?
Steve: Now five. Starting with this last tour. Ryan’s learned all of our songs faster than we have.
Joey: We can’t get rid of him now. We have to ask him what we do for certain songs. He’s a musical sponge. He’s a really cool guy.
Jim: Thanks a lot I appreciate you guys talking. We’ll definitely see you when you come back out.