“The producer was able to see through me to be like, ‘You don’t sound like you believe any of this.’ I love that psychology”: District 97’s Leslie Hunt took singing lessons before she tracked Stay For The Ending

District 97
(Image credit: Milk Punch)

District 97’s fifth studio album Stay For The Ending is another exercise in blurring the lines between prog and pop. They have their fans, and the seasoned musings of Bill Bruford, to thank for that, as vocalist Leslie Hunt and drummer Jonathan Schang told Prog.

It can feel a little clichéd when a band, returning with a new album, cite it as their best work yet. Yet, after a decade and a half of writing progressively angular but lofted, pop-iced compositions, Chicagoan quintet District 97 can’t be accused of such lazy marketing tactics with Stay For The Ending. From its glinted production to Leslie Hunt’s stunning vocals and the record’s deft balance between accessibility and adventure, their fifth album finds the band reaching lofty new levels. So, what has changed?

“We’ve been listening to some of the feedback that we’ve gotten thus far, having been together for 15 years,” says Hunt. “Our fans have been excited for us to explore our less technical side more, and that’s resounding feedback. It allowed us to bring in some more melodic, maybe a little more straight- ahead ideas into the music.

“Sonically, I think the record hits in a way that’s a little more reminiscent of some of the other genres that we all listen to,” she continues. “We were all coming in with these non-progressive rock influences, which I think is why it’s pretty unique sounding.

“You wouldn’t listen to Stay For The Ending and instantly rule it out from being an alternative rock or an indie record because of all the other influences that we have, and people have been really responding to that.”

Their receptiveness as writers extends beyond leaning towards the clamour of their fans, too. “All the really helpful feedback I’ve had from Bill Bruford over the years has seeped into my writing,” says drummer Jonathan Schang. His long-standing relationship with one of the most seasoned and accomplished percussionists – whose illustrious CV includes stints in Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and his boundary-pushing project, Earthworks – is only just starting to feel less surreal.

“All the albums he did with Yes are just absolutely seminal for me. I never would have thought that he’d be someone I have lunch with and talk about Brexit with. It means a lot just to have the validation of somebody that I hold in such high regard. It wasn’t at the front of my mind, like, ‘Write something Bill would like,’ but it’s definitely resulted in there being more space on this album than we generally have had in the past.”

With more space for their songs to breathe, District 97 have found it easier to weave in new styles and textures, taking the band to new territories. “Life Cycle is my first attempt at a true ballad,” says Schang. “As a band, we’ve had contemplative sections on other albums, but not to this extent. 

The band write songs for me to sing that are the highest quality and hugely challenging, so I went back into voice lessons

Leslie Hunt

“We’ve been playing Matte Kudasai by King Crimson in our sets and so I wanted an original song that could fulfil that role. It has proggy elements to it, but it’s coming from a jazz vocabulary; I actually played brushes on the drums for the first time ever in the band.

“The working title for Crossover was Gamelan Song,” he continues, “as it was inspired by the Javanese gamelan style of music. That was coming through a King Crimson filter, because the songs on Discipline have a lot of that influence. I’ve always found it very striking, and it helped give the song a world music feel, which I really like.”

Stay For The Ending’s sonic narrative is rife with spicy, knotted turns, but the record is much more than that. For every complex arrangement is a simple, insatiable hook. That balance can help District 97 appeal to a wider audience. “It’s always been our goal to branch out beyond the prog scene,” Hunt says. 

“There’s such an undeniable family-like and accepting audience in the prog world, and it’s a scene we are super-honoured to be a part of. But we’ve always hoped to create something that had more crossover potential because that would be more aligned with how we identify as musicians and individuals.”

In the four years since their last LP, Screens, the ground beneath Hunt has also shifted for the better. She feels her voice is finally at a point where she can do her bandmates’ compositions justice and ice them with the grandeur they deserve. “I’m in better vocal shape than I’ve been in a long time,” she says. “The band write songs for me to sing that are the highest quality and hugely challenging, so I went back into voice lessons.

“I’ve also experienced a giant career shift where I’m no longer in a vocally taxing profession. I opened a music school and now I’m able to focus a lot more on the students vocally exercising in a healthy, therapeutic way. I’m no longer doing gigs on the weekend where I’m singing for five straight hours either. So I feel really vocally awesome.”

“I think we also owe a lot to our producer, Noam Wallenberg,” Schang adds. “He was great at getting the best performances out of Leslie, recording her in a pristine fashion and also having a strong intuition for how to treat the vocals production-wise.”

Hunt reports: “He was bringing up some really cool things, like, ‘I can hear you thinking on this take.’ He was really good at having me not thinking about my singing and he was able to see through very subtle inflections to be like, ‘You don’t sound like you believe any of this.’ I love the psychology of that. It was really helpful.”

The relationship between Schang as the heartbeat of the band and Hunt as the icing shouldn’t be understated. “The drums are very, very much a part of my entire interpretation of the song in my body,” Hunt says. “As a frontperson dancing, his parts have been hugely informative. My movements onstage are very much Jonathan-oriented.”

For Schang, it’s a cyclical relationship. “Leslie’s vocals often dictate any special extra sizzle I want to put on a certain section. They’re often just as oriented to our musical shifts and the whims of whatever time signature we want to switch to.

If somebody is married to an idea, it’s within their rights to preserve that. But it’s never bad thing to still be open-minded to ‘...but check this out’

Leslie Hunt

“She’s not just floating over the top of the intricacies of the band. She’s very much a central part of the music, in the gnarly with us. I always have her voice in my head when I’m writing.”

The band have come a long way since their 2010 debut, Hybrid Child, and they’ve long since outgrown their roots as Schang’s creative side hustle outside of his work accompanying modern dancers and ballets across Chicago. Now they’re in a hugely collaborative frame where everyone’s input is welcome and able to spin the songs in new, unexpected directions.

“We have quite a few hooks that wouldn’t exist if we all weren’t open to suggestions,” the vocalist believes. “With Divided We Fall I wrote a verse over something that was intended to be an instrumental riff, but that was the quickest that I had come up with something after I heard it; I was hearing such a distinct rhythm within it. Luckily, everybody was cool with it.

“If somebody really is married to an idea, I think it’s within their rights to preserve that. But it’s never a bad thing to state what you picture happening and still be open-minded to ‘...but check this out.’”

The record benefits from that open-mindedness: confidence and cohesion flow through Stay For The Ending’s 10 tracks. They’ve never sounded more convincing and self-assured than they do here. The fact that the album’s beginnings came from listening and learning from their fans, as well as exploring sounds outside of the prog remit – equating to a better representation of the music tastes behind the work – makes the success of the record even sweeter.

Phil Weller

You can usually find this Prog scribe writing about the heavier side of the genre, chatting to bands for features and news pieces or introducing you to exciting new bands that deserve your attention. Elsewhere, Phil can be found on stage with progressive metallers Prognosis or behind a camera teaching filmmaking skills to young people.