By Sean Moeller
The letter "m" is at the halfway point of the most commonly used Latin alphabet. Well, if there was an "m and a ½" that would be the true center, but the first definition will do just fine. At the dead center of that standardized set of letters is the one symbol that the Chicago indie pop group The M's derived its name from. Right in the middle, halfway between "a" and "z" - the waist of the alphabet, where the belt cinches in snug. Small, chocolately, oval-ish candies share the name two times, but the curious point is that they chose the middle letter, the indiscriminant "m," the part in the mnemonic device that really gets the song rolling, though that's about the only excitement there can be for it so stuck as the middle child of the alphabet, not pampered and greatly ignored. It's the Jan Brady of letters - and now the point has been officially belabored. It does bear exploring, however, why a band that strives to function as a producer of the anomalous verse and chorus is okay with a name that could be recognized as standard and middle-of-the-road - literally and figuratively.
The four members of this six-year-old group of drinking buddies - formed in the summer of 2000 in the same way a hobbyist viewer of "Win Ben Stein's Money" might have organized a BYOB get-together that very same year - are not uncouth, but their music borrows some of the very characteristics of the light-hearted and aloof dreamer. They tend to wear sunglasses indoors - though lead singer Josh Chicoine insists that it's a practice only broken out "during house fires." There is proof to the otherwise in Monsieur Johnnie Cluney's factually accurate illustration just to the northwest of this period. (It could be northeast because of the formatting. I'm not good with science or algebra. No, wait, maybe it's gotta be your period.) These Windy City-ians are obviously professionals, but they turn what they do - the ramshackle way they strum on those jangly guitars and the lackadaisical, but ardent way they approach the next line (like a fox sneaking up on a squirrel, but to hug it hard, not to dismember) - into a form or style that is every bit happenstance and calculated. And the tunes they make carry the stripes of a hidden genius that you never see coming and you're not sure who deserves the most credit - the song or the man. I think it's the men - singing about future women and plans of the man, drifting into corridors of the evergreen 60s pop sound. There is nothing middling about the songs on "Future Women" (out this past February on Champaign's glorious Polyvinyl Records) - though they sometimes wander off and get caught in the brambles of their own free will. They always get dog whistled back to complete their mission and deliver a pocket of lines with resonance and an ambivalent air. The title track alone is evidence enough that the boring letter "m" doesn't fit their purposes. They're working with the minds of the mysterious, down there in the "x," "y" and "z's" if I were to guess.
"Morning comes and beckons us/To make a space and fill it up/On the way don't make a fuss/The morning beckons us/Beside the fiery lake/The urge to overcome/Beside the fiery lake/Build it up to fall apart/They're waiting for you to start/All the future women/All of them desire for you ."
The first two lines of this song are personal favorites of Chicoine, who has many to go on. They pull along like a mountain stream, looking for an ocean or lake. They aren't about women at all, really, according to Chicoine. They're attached to a greater spirit that encompasses more than just the tired thought of the female as the epic desire. Who and what are these future women and why should they be sung about?
"They're everything that you'll miss out on if you don't do what you love," Chicoine said. "Follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell (the famous writer, Sarah Lawrence College professor and James Joyce freak) says. What else is there to sing about? Oh yeah, everything."
Chicoine is attracted to the words of Dr. Dog, tourmates of The M's earlier this spring/late winter, "Wake up/Wake up/Wake up/You're only part of a dream/All the things in your heart like the things in your head/Well they're only/What they seem." There is a half-belief - in the narration of a lot of what he, guitarist Robert Hicks and bass player Joey King harmonize through - casting doubt that the clouds of sleep and the curtains of the dreamscapes haven't been completely drawn up. We're getting yanked into deeper territories than we'd bargained for and it gives the sound a brilliance that goes for its brainpower and its willpower. And this all started over beers. Sometimes the best things do.
"We never really thought much was going to happen with this and definitely weren't intent on 'making it to the big time,'" Chicoine said. "We were more content recording in our basement and making records, but everything has changed and that was a matter of just getting really positive re inforcement from our audience when we played live. It got our attention and opened up the possibility of making more records and doing it the way we wanted to. Being in a band has a certain time limit. If things are not really moving in a positive direction consistently and constantly, it's a difficult thing to maintain for very long. We were definitely not into slugging it out and touring for ten years to get the slight success that we have now. Besides that, the record industry, especially when you're playing rock and roll, doesn't have much room for a shit-ton of rock bands. Radio stations are taking away the format from the airwaves and there's a reshuffling of sorts happening. Rock music will never go away, but we're old as far as the median age goes and we're not getting any younger so we hope that this continues and grows as long as it can, but it pays to be realistic."
Little has changed in the band's practice routine, which fittingly includes long-neck bottles, a basement and a passion to write songs that they can live with and would want to live with.
"We're still in between caring deeply about this and how we perform, sound, etc. and not really caring that much," Chicoine said. "We started out playing in dingy package liquor store-type places with punk and garage rock bands, and while we want to get better and better, we still feel the need to maintain that random, devil-may-care attitude that makes live shows so great to be a part of."
Jonathan Demme, director of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," is a diehard fan of the group's. He probably even has a band T-shirt that he wears around the yard when he's trimming the hedges or picking up downed branches following a thunderstorm. The Man (aka Demme) is putting the finishing touches on a video he shot for the title track from the new record and the band is going out in July with homeboys Wilco for a short C anadian tour before getting to work on a new album. The Wilco tour (first the Impossible Shapes and now these guys, we're starting to feel like we've got that soft touch of a Wilco Midas here at headquarters) is a fitting end to an album cycle that's had nothing but upward momentum.
"We'd gone on tour with them in the fall of 2004 and always had it in mind to do it again, especially after a new M's record came out. This is really exciting and pretty convenient in that we aren't planning on doing much touring after the summer, so with the Wilco dates, we could stop touring on a definite high note," Chicoine said. "We've gotten to be good friends with all those guys through the years and so this will be a lot of fun for us. It's always great going out with bands that are your friends and better when you know that you'll be playing sold-out shows everywhere, with a band that we're not afraid to say are our mentors in a lot of ways."
Now, it's time to get back to listening to "Future Women," on repeat. This silence is killing me, but at least I'm following Joseph Campbell's advice.
Miscellaneous Josh Chicoine quotes:
*How do you listen to music? Is there anything you listen for? Is it how you write your own music too?*
"I try not to make listening more than it is. I just like to feel something when I listen and that's enough. Best not to get too analytical about these things. We all try to listen to as much different music as possible and are continually looking for new things or things that we haven't heard before. These all influence us, or not."
*There are bands that sound like 60s pop, but it's forced. You guys make your sound seem so fresh and effortless. How do you relate to the music that's come before your own? Do you look to it at all for inspiration or do you try to dismiss it as something not to be repeated?*
"I don't think that we purposefully try to sound like those bands, but it happens. It has to do with our tube amps and Steve's Ludwig kit and the equipment we use to record, our record collection, and what we think sounds good from song-to-song. It's a difficult thing to describe because it's hardly ever the same song-to-song. There are certain records that really strive for that lo-fi sixties sound like The Lily's, 'Better Can't Make Your Life Better,' or something, but we never sit around and talk about doing any particular thing. It's enough to write songs and hang around each other, come up with sounds and then record them. It's enough. The song generally lets you know what it wants to sound like sometime during this process."
*What things besides music occupy all of your minds? What are you guys into besides song?*
"I love soccer and have played since I was seven or eight. I played in college and I still play as much as I can. I'm super excited about the World Cup this summer. We're really all over the place with our interests. Rob likes Russian Literature and baseball, Joey likes beer and bars, (Drummer) Steve (Versaw)'s interests are pretty eclectic like mine."
*How'd you meet everyone else in the group? Has there been much turnover?*
"We all met through various jobs in Chicago. We are the only M's that are, ever were, and will ever be."
*Do you have any heroes?*
"Lots. People that have a great sense of purpose and act to achieve it no matter the cost. Those that live simply and righteously. Most dogs. Martial artists. Jet Li. Ronaldihno. Lon Bozarth of the Center for American Roots Music in Davenport, IA."
*What's the worst part of this lifestyle?*
"There is a fair amount of uncertainty in doing this. So much lies outside of your control that there ends up being a certain compromise you make with reality. You lean heavily on the 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' mantra. Is it a mantra? Whatever. You have to be strong and make sure that your buddies are strong too. There are many, many pitfalls."
*When are people going to be able to see that Demme-directed video?*
"Probably mid-June. We're working on it now and we're pretty close for sure. Can't rush the man."
*Are there things that you'd like to ask Neil Young that you might get the chance to someday?*
"Know any good BBQ places?"