District 97: Rock It From The Crypt

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Years from now, when Jonathan Schang sits down to write his memoir, October 15, 2013 will shine back through time at him as a red-letter day.

“We were touring North America with John Wetton,” the leader of District 97 tells Prog. “We were playing the Iridium in New York and John was trying to get in touch with [King Crimson founder member] Ian McDonald. Ian doesn’t do email, doesn’t even have an answering machine, but John finally got in touch, and he came down. So there we were, hanging out backstage at this world-famous club with two of the architects of prog, and during our second set Ian came on stage to play In The Court Of The Crimson King, one of the songs that got this whole thing rolling back in ’69. It was an amazing night, the night we saw our name up in lights on Broadway.”

It’s the sort of moment you’d wish for Schang and his Chicago band. Their hefty 2010 debut Hybrid Child struck a chord in prog circles, and what marked District 97 out as a refreshingly different proposition was the apparent dissonance between its charmingly geeky instrumentalists – drummer Schang, guitarist Sam Krahn (later replaced by current axeman Jim Tashjian), keyboardist Rob Clearfield and bassist Patrick Mulcahy – and their feisty, stage-savvy singer Leslie Hunt.

A fellow student at the band’s alma mater, the Chicago College Of Performing Arts, Hunt rose to brief fame in the US as a finalist on 2007’s American Idol. But this lapse into the Cowell Circle Of Light-Ent Hell was a red herring – Hunt’s a real musician, and she joined forces with D97 the year after appearing on the show.

Plugging their second album, Trouble With Machines, they played 2013’s Celebr8.2 in Kingston. There, live, the alliance made perfect, thrilling sense. Schang et al purveyed highly complex, tuneful hard prog, while their frontwoman was tenderly feminine one moment, tomboy-tough the next, her soulful phrasing calibrated for complex, modulating scales. Above all, though, she could dance to this odd-meter stuff.

“It comes naturally to her,” says Schang with a grin. “Occasionally we’ll count it out for her but generally she’s accurate, she just feels it. Her father’s a free-jazz drummer – he’s really good – so she grew up with esoteric music, Frank Zappa and the like. If you listen to her solo albums, there are some twists and turns in there too. This pairing has worked out better than I could’ve anticipated.”

Hunt was largely absent from One More Red Night, D97’s recent live recording with Wetton at a club in Chicago. A real learning experience, that tour is just one of the many tributaries that led to In Vaults, the band’s third album, and their best. But it nearly didn’t happen, and for all the u$ual r£a$on$. The days of labels lavishing money on bands who aren’t Muse are gone, and up-and-coming niche artists have to be more resourceful than ever. And when the idea of crowd-funding In Vaults first came up, Schang pushed back.

“It’s a model bands have been using for a while now, but I was dubious because I thought it would be like begging for money. I tested the waters with our fans and what I actually found was that they take a lot of ownership over the band – they want to help propagate its future. So instead of looking at it as going down on bended knee and asking for money, I’ve come round to seeing it as giving them an opportunity to be partners with us, and to help us bring some music into the world that hopefully people will enjoy.”

I like things that are unpredictable – not necessarily dissonant, but things that take your ear somewhere you didn’t expect it to go.

Nowadays it’s not enough to study music at Berklee, to graduate from the CCPA, to jam with John Wetton and Bill Bruford (type ‘Schang Bruford’ into YouTube for proof): it seems you need social media and fundraising smarts too. Schang boned up on what makes a Kickstarter project successful, and it paid off.

“When we raised $7,000 on the first day, I was flabbergasted. I thought, ‘If it keeps on like this, we could make a hundred grand!’ It slowed down but we raised $20,000, way over our 12-grand target. But the main thing was, it showed us the enthusiasm that’s out there for the music, and it did a lot to bolster my own fortitude .”

Recorded at Chicago’s I.V. Labs Studio with engineer Chris Harden co-producing, In Vaults is a lo-fi, live-sounding record, and its quality justifies every red cent of their backers’ money and faith. Even Ken Golden – head of the band’s label, Laser’s Edge – and mixer Rich Mouser got hands-on, helping them achieve a more dramatic aural panorama.

“On the first two albums we didn’t get the drum sound we wanted,” says Schang, “and we really strove for that this time. Rich and Ken are both real audiophiles and they helped us. It’s a good job we did well on the Kickstarter because we went way over budget, but I think it was worth it. It’s definitely the best-sounding album we’ve done.”

It’s also the grittiest. Hybrid Child gave us the catchy, relatively throwaway pop-prog single I Can’t Take You With Me; Trouble With Machines had the crunchy Open Your Eyes. Here, as the enigmatic 12-string acoustic guitars of brooding opener Snow Country emerge out of nothing, the trademark hooks come, but mediated through extra thought and character, dredged up from down deep.

With an average grand old age of 30, the band are in a different place than seven years back. They’re old friends, a close-knit bunch, but events have scattered them across the Chicago area. Hunt’s due to give birth to her second child this autumn, and the others are also dealing with their own ‘stuff’ too.

“As you get older, life throws a little bit more at you,” says Schang, “and that comes out in the songwriting. Good things happen as well, but maybe you get a little more, well, cynical. Death By A Thousand Cuts is the most personal song I’ve ever written. It’s about a relationship, the cycles you go through. You might love each other but you find yourself tearing each other down rather than building each other up. There’s no one grave injustice, but a series of little things that does the damage.”

The song’s a driving, aggressive sequel of sorts to fan-favourite Termites from the first album.

We went way over budget, but I think it was worth it. It’s the best-sounding album we’ve done.

In Vaults sees the band refine their signature blend of unconventional melodies, dense musicianship and restlessly inventive song structures, all the while making it cohere. “All of us have an aesthetic where we’re searching for the lost chord, I guess,” says Schang. “I like things that are unpredictable – not necessarily dissonant, but things that take your ear somewhere you didn’t expect it to go, and when you get there, it makes sense.”

That’s exactly it. Through a series of clever altered chords, Handlebars touches the stars, drops to earth with an intense, Crimson-informed guitar/organ instrumental before crashing out on a climactic, unresolved build. A Lottery starts as an uplifting pop song, then morphs into something darker; moody On Paper has a big chorus, but the guitars take blues riff tropes and warp them. Mulcahy’s Learn From Danny concerns itself with China’s Great Leap Forward, and that Kickstarted budget has stretched to a string quartet, which enriches closing 11-minuter Blinding Vision, penned by keysman Clearfield.

Alongside the usual influences – Yes, Crimson, UK, Genesis – Schang’s been listening to The Beatles and Simon And Garfunkel, inspired by the long songline at the heart of The Boxer. Leslie Hunt’s had a freer rein over her vocals too, taking charge of Mulcahy’s A Lottery and Schang’s own Takeover.

“She changed the chorus melody on that to what you hear now, and I think it works like gangbusters,” Schang says. “One of the great thrills of being in a band is that element of collaboration. A little change like that can make a song.”

They have a few shows lined up before Hunt’s due date, after which they’ll lay low, with a view to touring the album in 2016. “I’d really like us to go back and explore the UK and Europe more thoroughly,” says Schang. “We think this album’s strong, and we hope it’ll generate enough interest that we’ll get some viable offers for next year.”

They deserve them. They deserve more red‑letter days.

In Vaults is out now on Laser’s Edge and is reviewed in this issue. For more information, see http://www.district97.net.