If over the past couple months you've frequented certain bars and cafes in Wicker Park, the Ukrainian Village, or Logan Square—the Hideout, Atomix, Rodan, the Empty Bottle—you may have noticed in each of them a small square of clear glass with the words frontier returns 09.04.10 screen-printed on it in silver ink. There's nothing else to the message, so newcomers to Chicago could be forgiven for not realizing it's about a local band—especially since it's a band that hasn't played a show in nearly eight years.
If you do remember Frontier, you probably also remember their penchant for audience-confounding stylistic shifts—a survey of their discography, which includes one seven-inch, four full-lengths, a remix EP, and an assortment of band-made eight-track cartridges and cassettes, turns up everything from jazz-influenced post-rock to pure feedback noise to live-band house music. They had a fondness for elaborate packaging too: the CD art for a live album recorded at the Bottle used lenticular printing to create a motion effect, requiring a special case similar to the one for Tool's Aenima, and the CD version of the album Heater came in a slim silk-screened cardboard box that opened like a Zippo lighter.
Even if you had all those discs, though, you still might not recognize Frontier on the street: onstage they were shrouded in dry-ice fog. According to drummer Mike Tsoulos, the sole member of the final trio lineup who still lives in Chicago (these days he tends bar at the Burlington, the Rainbo, and the Flat Iron and drums for Rabid Rabbit), the band's stage show made its members practically anonymous. "For years, even after we stopped, people had no idea who was in the band because of the lights and the smoke," he says. And they never took any traditional promo photos to help clear things up—part of a general reluctance to jump through the hoops rock bands are supposed to.
When I suggest to Tsoulos that Frontier were messing with their audience by skipping from genre to genre and hiding their faces, he takes exception. "I don't know about 'messing,'" he says. "It was more us doing stuff that we liked." But these choices did prevent them from developing much of a casual following—their crowd was heavy on musicians and never exactly huge. Tsoulos remembers a show during their Empty Bottle residency—a Sunday-night series that ran for most of 2000, where Frontier would often segue out of an electronic DJ's set or invite respected jazzers like Ken Vandermark, Jeb Bishop, and Jeff Parker to sit in—where he could afford to buy the entire audience a round of drinks with the money in his pocket.
The fans Frontier did have, though, were often very well placed. Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman put out Heater and the live album on his Tug-o-War label. Teacher, author, and jazz promoter John Corbett wrote a Critic's Choice on Frontier for the Reader in 1996, shortly after he began cocurating the Bottle's improvised-music series, praising the band's "synaesthetic" live shows and connecting its MO to "acts as diverse as Tortoise, Brise-Glace, Flying Saucer Attack, Main, Jesus and Mary Chain, and This Heat." And Steve Krakow, aka Plastic Crimewave, whose taste in music is so well respected that Drag City gave him his own imprint, discovered Frontier shortly after moving to Chicago in 1995. "I think 'psychedelic' was still kind of a dirty word," he says. "I was desperately trying to find bands in town that suited that sort of thing, and as far as I know they were one of the only ones going. Frontier was definitely pushing it and going for a derangement-of-the-senses kind of vibe."
But Frontier isn't reuniting to capitalize on some groundswell of belated popularity. Tsoulos says Saturday's show is happening simply because it finally can. "That's basically the only time the three of us are going to be in town," he says. Guitarist Stephen Wessley now works as a rare-book seller in New York, and bassist Kevin Ireland runs a motel on a two-lane highway in rural Kansas. They're coming back to Chicago this weekend for the wedding of a longtime friend, Mark Ferguson, who runs Hard Boiled Records at Roscoe and Damen. They met him at the same time they met one another—in 1986, as freshmen at the University of Chicago. Part of the proceeds from the door will help pay for Ferguson's honeymoon—he hasn't decided where he and his new wife will be going, and says it depends on how much the show makes.
Frontier will play three sets spanning all their material. Tsoulos is trying to secure guest appearances from Krakow and Bloodiest's Eric Chaleff on guitars and Kevin Drumm on laptop, among others. "I don't even remember who I asked," he says, "probably because half the time it was in bars late at night." Their first and only rehearsal will be on Friday.
Two previously unreleased Frontier albums will be available at the show in limited runs. One has a set of propulsive, aggressive post-rock songs recorded in 1994 on the A side and what Tsoulos calls an experiment in "multiple-input resonance" (aka droning guitar feedback) from 2003 on the flip. The other is a complete album, with everything from psychedelic space folk to drum 'n' bass, recorded in 1999 at Clava's old location in a theater school at 18th and Ashland. "It's probably been turned into condos at this point," Tsoulos says. He lucked out and found a pressing plant that does affordable small runs, so he's got just 100 copies of each. He says he doesn't want unsold vinyl taking up room in his basement.
An Affair to Remember
"Twenty Three," the first track from California Wives' new self-released EP, Affair, has an electronic tinge—a blippy synth that sounds something like an 80s-era Casio approximating a harpsichord—but otherwise it's a lightweight but structurally sound indie-pop tune that's about as breezy, chilled-out, and effortless-sounding as they come. You'd never guess the group arose out of its members' shared taste for booming electro.
Three of the band's four members—bassist-vocalist Dan Zima, drummer Joe O'Connor, and guitarist-keyboardist Hans Michel—grew up together in north-suburban River Forest, and in late 2008, during a postcollege period when all three lived at home, they made lots of trips into the city to hit the clubs, frequently crashing with a friend who shared an apartment with their eventual fourth, Jayson Kramer. Kramer, who grew up in Mundelein, shared their affection for bloghouse, the noisy, high-energy subgenre of dance music popularized by the likes of Boyz Noise and Crookers.
Zima, O'Connor, and Michel had just decided that their cock-rock-inspired group, Javier & the Bear, was a failure. "We played a retirement home," says Michel. "That was our big accomplishment."
They pulled the plug on it and started the band that would become California Wives, playing one show under that name as a trio, on New Year's Eve 2008 at Lilly's. Kramer—who'd previously been what he calls a "weird electronic folk" band called Within This Forest that had recorded a five-part suite inspired by The Old Man and the Sea—came aboard in January '09, playing synths and some guitar and stepping in on lead vocals. By spring everyone had moved into Chicago. At first the idea was to highlight bloghouse as an influence. "Originally we tried to fit that in with guitars," says Kramer. "At one point we had a Kaoss Pad. That lasted about two practices."
For guidance they looked to bands that had successfully bridged rock and dance music: New Order, Blur, and Madchester acts like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. At first they made demos in Michel's basement, but none of those songs ended up among the five on Affair. "We all have pretty strong personalities," says Michel. "And we all have, y'know, a pretty strong artistic vision of where each song wants to go, and I think that's to our strength when we're sitting around a room and trying to work things out. But when you're sitting around a mixing board in my basement, that's not necessarily such a great thing. It ends up with a lot of blowup fights over two seconds of reverb."
For the EP, California Wives ended up recording at Gravity Studios and mixing at Engine, working with Michel's former roommate Brett Mohr. The blend the band came up with is significantly subtler than just throwing keyboards or glitchy electronics in with some guitars—the ratio of organic to synthetic changes from song to song, and the simple, clever arrangements thoroughly blend the scrappy feel of indie pop with the propulsive rhythms and glossy flash of disco. "Twenty Three" and opener "Blood Red Youth" have some of the easy charm of Phoenix, but the band's not a one-trick pony. In among the frothy cuts are relatively moody songs like "Purple," where they indulge their love of shoegaze and come off sounding like a fizzier My Bloody Valentine.
Saturday's show at Schubas, which doubles as an afterparty for the North Coast Music Festival, is a release party for Affair.