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Transmission
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Music & Film Thu Apr 19 2007

Bands You Missed: Millimeters Mercury

Bands You Missed is Transmission's new semi-feature, taking a look back at notable Chicago bands that were big parts of a scene, but are hard to find information about. We're open to your suggestions, if there's a band that shaped a moment in your own personal Chicago history, let us know!

they are here to help!

(A quick opening note here: I am totally biased, because I played in a band that played lots of shows with mmHg, and they're all my friends. On top of that, I'm in a new band with Gabe now, and last week I think I probably humped Chris' leg at Carol's. So this is going to be a little glowing. Fair warning.)

Although Millimeters Mercury was officially formed in the fall of 1999, the band really took shape during the University of Chicago band explosion in 2001, when it seemed like everyone cool in Hyde Park had a band and played shows at The Cove. Founding members Travis Carter and Robert Voyer were joined by drummer Chris Vlasses and bassist Conor Loughridge (he of First Coat fame), and played their first full band show in October of 2001 at the Prodigal Son, a terrific venue on Lincoln that later burned down in a free bacon fire*.

Read on after the jump.

That original lineup soon entered Chris' basement to record The Mobius Trip, a debut record that, while somewhat hesitant, contained all the seeds of the mmHg sound that was soon to come -- catchy guitar melodies, tempo shifts, and sugar-sweet lyrics sung in great earnest. Seriously, "Half-Written" starts with -- no joke -- "You ... are pretty." Interestingly, a lot of girls seemed to go to their shows.

That lineup soon disbanded, though, and during a period of bass-player turmoil, the band released 2002's So Inclined, which, while still somewhat restrained, signals the moment mmHg realized they could pull off one of the greatest rock'n'roll tricks of all time: letting the drummer sing. "Too Close To You," with the majority of vocals by Chris, is such a standout track that it survived long after the band stopped playing any of the songs from So Inclined, and even got re-recorded again two years later on Turbo.

I left Gabe out of this one because it doesn't fit the chronology

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. The next year would first see mmHg add a permanent bass player and finally, finally, realize that they should probably record everything as fast and as hard as they played them live. The addition of Gabe McElwain gave mmHg the confidence to not only record with their distortion pedals turned up but also to write and play songs as crazy complicated as they could think up, and as full of hooks as they could make them. Even their older material took on a newer, harder edge as the whole band got tighter and more confident. This awesome live recording (check out the tape hiss!) of "The Sun is Falling" has almost nothing to do with the version on So Inclined. Similarly, the recording of "K.O. Star" from that same show is my single favorite mmHg recording, because it's the best representation of the band in concert -- all four members singing their hearts out to a song that is either about breaking up with girls or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out.

And once Gabe was in the mix, mmHg became an unstoppable show force. For a while it seemed like the band played some kind of crazy show every weekend, in venues as diverse as the Note to something in Brooklyn called the Galapagos Art Space. (They kept an obsessive show log which is a fun read if you're bored.) On top of that, being the fun-loving dudes they were, they struck up lasting friendships with lots of other bands, lending a party atmosphere to the many shows they played where the audience all knew each other and the bands they were seeing.

rock explosion!

During this heyday the band did what all good bands should do: they moved in together. Although the legendary apartment on Everett Avenue has since housed a legion of Hyde Park scenesters, for a long while people just called it the mmHg apartment, even though members of a dozen different bands lived there. The dining room was basically mmHg arts and crafts central, a testament to the insane amounts of effort the band put into promoting themselves and thinking up goofy visuals. They gave themselves each an 8-bit avatar for a planned Flash video game, for crying out loud.

abort, retry, fail

All this creativity led directly to the band's defining album, 2004's Turbo. Packaged in an honest-to-goodness 5 1/4" Sony floppy disk, the 12-song album was recorded in Butch Vig's Smart Studios in Madison, WI, and is polished to high shine. "I!D!M!" has one of my favorite lyrics ever: I'm not ready to tuck in my shirt! I was living in Madison at the time and the band slept at my place in between stints at the studio and Ian's Pizza, all the time buzzing with a nervous creative energy that drives the whole record forward as though they've got get it all out before they run out of time.

gunther_123.jpg

And then ... they ran out of time. They put out the record in June, and were done by August. Fuck. Grad school or something. They played their last Chicago shows around town, at the Bottle and Subterranean, and finally to a packed and emotional house at Schubas', and then went on an East Coast tour, and that was that. They dropped a couple more gems on The Farewell EP, like the amazing Gabe and Chris remix of "Not Too Fast," but aside from a couple secret reunion shows, shit was over.

in this photo it looks like they are reminiscing

So that's the mmHg story. Build it strong and burn it down. It's a good way to go. All the members of the band continue to do interesting musical things -- Chris and Robert are in Cola Wars, a band that finally just gave up and let Chris sing all the time, Travis is rocking out solo-style in Ithaca with Bitter Tea For Breakfast (check out "Warm Regards," you'll like it a lot) and Gabe started The Heaven Seventies, of which I am a member. None of this sounds really anything like Millimeters Mercury, and none of it can, because by the end only those four guys playing together could pull it off. Travis was pretty blunt with me when I asked him about it: "I won't start a new band," he said. "Nothing could ever top that."

Millimeters Mercury. It was sweet while it lasted, but now it's over. And you missed it.

*I may be making this up, as it is only what I heard and then decided would be the best end for a great venue that had a giant light up ELVIS sign.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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