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Feature Fri Jul 11 2008
First Coat, 2003-2007
Hyde Park's First Coat was probably the most beloved of all the bands that came up during the University of Chicago's music renaissance early this decade, combining solid songwriting, experimental flourishes and the instantly-memorable voices of singers Conor Loughridge and Becky Stark to achieve pop-rock-folk perfection.
After starting out as the Shifty Men of Business and then Drexel, the band's lineup solidified for their first proper recording as First Coat in 2003 with Loughridge, Stark, guitarist Will Long, bass player Sean Mahan, and drummer Tom Gaulkin. (Fair warning: Long and Mahan, as well as eventual drummer Paul Brannon were all also in my band during this time, but let's face it, First Coat was infinitely better.) That record, Great Lakes Disorder, stands as the definitive document of this version of the band, with a folkier, rootsier sound that particularly comes to the forefront on Loughridge-penned tracks like Nobody Loves You and Lime, and a bluesier shift on Becky's contributions like Mermaid and Weatherman, which stands as one of the most popular songs in the band's repertoire.
Nestled within and between these relatively straightforward tracks, however, are hints at the more experimental direction First Coat would eventually take, and the record ends with the mild pop of "Money On You" devolving into the cinematic, ethereal opening of "Planets and Stars," which itself resolves into something else entirely — twice over.
With the departure of Stark for California and a new drummer in Paul Brannon, the newly all-male First Coat settled into Chicago's Semaphore Recording to produce 2006's Move Like Sparrows, released on Loud Devices. Fusing rock elements with Loughridge's newfound love of unconventional song structures and deeply personal lyrics, the album is just 8 tracks long, but manages to present itself as a complete whole, as somber tracks like "Drunk Online Shopping" merge seamlessly with the seemingly cheery Britpop of "Listen To Your Kids".
More disclosure: I shot a video for Artichoke, which is here:
After another year or so of shows, graduations and jobs and wanderlust took their toll, and the band dissolved.
There's much more to this story, of course — the band continuously played raucous live shows during its entire run, at venues from U of C basement parties to Martyrs'; and as with all the Hyde Park bands, the First Coat story is really the story of every band on the Mr. Hyde label, and of a moment of inspired creativity that captured an entire group of musicians. But that's all unimportant now — you missed it. What remains, however, are two records that are among the finest ever put out by anyone in Chicago.
(Oh, fine, one more disclosure: Will Long is in the Heaven Seventies with me, but we make dance music, not folk pop makeout songs. So there.)
Breaking Circus, 1983-1988
Breaking Circus circa late 1987. (L-R: Todd Trainer, Steve Björklund, Flour, and fill-in guitarist Phil Harder.)
"Vital and vibrant." That's how Steve Björklund describes the Chicago punk rock scene of the early 1980s. "During that period, I saw the Ramones play twenty-five times," he tells me. "There was a different cool gig to go to 4 times a week, equally balanced between UK/Euro bands, touring US bands and local bands."
By the mid-'80s, however, that scene had begun to wane and unravel. Bands broke up and reconfigured, with a number of the community's key players and musicians started to work on new ideas and develop new sounds as a means of moving on and pushing the music forward into fresher terrain. The blast-furnace minimalism of local punk titans The Effigies still proved a formidable influence in the years that followed. But in taking stock of the expanded musical landscape, certain artists started to look beyond the limits of three-chord punk — particularly taking inspiration from the post-punk racket being made by the likes of UK outfits such as Gang of Four and The Three Johns.
Björklund, who started the band Breaking Circus with bassist Bruce Lange in 1983, was one such figure. Previously, he'd been the frontman for one of Chicago's premiere early-'80s punk outfits Strike Under; as well as having briefly passed through the ranks of the band Terminal Beach (which also featured future Naked Raygun and Pegboy guitarist Jon Haggerty). As he began working on new songs and material, he dubbed his new music project Breaking Circus, and — with he and Lange supported with the rhythmic backing of a Roland TR-606 drum machine — set about recording the band's first EP, The Very Long Fuse.
The resulting EP was released in 1985 on Gerard Cosloy's independent label, Homestead Records. As demonstrated on the college-radio favorite "(Knife In The) Marathon," Björklund was moving into slightly more melodic territory with some songs — branching out to write tunes that involved something akin to conventional rock-ish riffs and hooks. Still, other tracks evidenced the crafting of a sound that would soon be specifically associated with the Chicago underground scene &mdsah; a bulldozing and noisy "industrial" rock sound that was also being pioneered by Steve Albini and his band Big Black. (Björklund had, incidentally, known Albini very well at the time, and had even worked the soundboard for Big Black when the band toured the East Coast.)
By the time The Very Long Fuse was released, Bruce Lange had exited the picture, leaving Björklund as the group's only remaining non-mechanical member. When it came time to turn Breaking Circus into a viable, proper band, Björklund packed up and relocated to Minneapolis. There he eventually hooked up with drummer Todd Trainer and bassist Flour (aka Pete Conway), both of whom were then working as the rhythm section for the band Rifle Sport. With a full trio lineup in place, the Circus roared into peak creativity mode, touring and recording at every opportunity. They quickly recorded and released their debut full-length album Ice Machine in early 1987, and followed it up with the Smoker's Paradise EP by year's end. Both releases showed the band honing their sound -- tightening it up into a triple-time assault of serrated guitar gnaw and jackhammering rhythms. Lyrically, Björkland howled and muttered about the omnipresence of danger, trouble, psychic shocks and turbulence, at one point croaking something to the effect of feeling like "a piece of burned-black toast threaded on a rusty wire." All such bombast and bloodletting aside, the band also proved pleasingly adept at lateral stylistic moves — from the sinister swagger of Ice Machine's "Song Of The South" to the sardonic lounge-ish swing of "Shockhammer 13."
Despite having a couple of impressive new records and a fair amount of highly positive indie-press attention to their credit, Breaking Circus soon unraveled and ceased activity in 1988. Todd Trainer and Flour both continued to play in Rifle Sport — the latter eventually releasing solo albums on the Touch & Go label, while Trainer would later record under the moniker Brick Layer Cake and also man the drumkit in Shellac. Steve Björklund briefly played in a couple of other bands before eventually turning his attention to electronic music. He currently resides in Chicago.
Breaking Circus's discography was only printed once on its initial vinyl run on the Homestead label, and has yet to be reissued on CD.
Tom Spacey, late '90s-2001
Tom Spacey was a five-piece spacerock act formed in the late '90s, with Cory Osborne on bass, Hammond organ, and vocals; Adam Thompson on guitars, vocals and piano; Daniel Cline on guitars; John Meseke on drums; and KC Saint John on synthesizer and theremin. They started out as The Gnomes, but it was immediately obvious to the group that the name needed to go. They wanted a name that evoked time and space. So why not...Tom Spacey? The name fit their sound well, and also brought to mind Pink Floyd, an obvious influence and touchstone for the band.
On their only recording, 1998's mars is eden, My Bloody Valentine came through loud and clear as an influence as well, with swirling guitars and built-up walls of sound forming aural landscapes for the listener to explore — this was definitely an album to listen to with headphones on. The first two songs, "silly things," "drone" and "the lost dutchman," flowed into each other on rafts of synth, theremin and guitar feedback. The interplay of echoes and ethereal vocals added to the sense of weightlessness and space the band strived for as well. It all combined for a very trippy experience, perfect for chilling out in a darkened room with the recreational drug or drink of your choice.
Not to say their live shows weren't any good. But they were different. In person, the wall of sound was at the forefront, occasionally drowning out Osborne's sometimes flat vocals, while the synth, theremin and oscillator battled it out with the feedback loops. But the band suffered from a lack of exposure and a relatively infrequent performance schedule. Tom Spacey managed to perform at the Metro and Double Door a couple times (helped by the fact that Saint John worked at the former while in the band), but never as a headliner. The band finally broke up in 2001 (ironic, no? Space, 2001? Never mind.)
While researching this piece, I discovered that Saint John, Thompson and Meseke have continued on together as American Cosmonaut, with guitarist/vocalist Jesse Evans and Lee E. They play more straightforward guitar-driven rock, and released a three-song EP in 2003.
A Special Mux
To hear a sample of tracks from each of our three missed bands this week, head on over to Muxtape and stream our very first Bands You Missed Mux.
About the Authors:
Nilay Patel is a guitarist / producer in The Heaven Seventies, as a well as a video designer and writer. He previously wrote about Millimeters Mercury in a Bands You Missed feature.
Graham Sanford is a writer, editor, and former radio DJ who lives and works in Chicago. He's never been in a riot or ever owned a skateboard, but has sometimes had occasion to feel like a piece of burnt-black toast threaded on a rusty wire.
Andrew Huff works deep into the night at his West Ridge two-flat, writing and editing and playing with the cats. He spends more time online than is healthy; follow along at me3dia.com. He is the Editor and Publisher of Gapersblock.com.