If you hung out in Chicago clubs six or seven years ago, you probably noticed that the city's underground music scene seemed to be undergoing an invasion of weird kids from Columbia, Missouri. In broad terms they almost fit into the dance-punk thing that was the flavor du jour at the time, but the music they made was noisier than the Rapture-lite Gang of Four disco going around, and they dressed in a proudly trashy way that made electroclash fashion look weaker than it already was. They were everywhere, spinning records and playing in what seemed like dozens of bands—among them Warhammer 48k, the Waterbabies, and Mahjongg.
Mahjongg keyboardist and vocalist Hunter Husar was part of the Columbia crew that moved to Chicago in fits and starts around that time, but he can't explain the origins of its style. "I don't know where the fuck that came from," he says. "But there were a lot of extreme statements being made, I think. I guess it is a pretty plentiful town in a lot of ways. There was a really good scene there around a place called the Ranch. It was like a DIY, all-ages venue, and that aesthetic stayed with us."
Not only have Mahjongg stayed weird—Husar dressed for our interview in a gold mesh muscle tee under an unbuttoned monstrosity of a shirt that looked like something a Miami coke dealer would wear to the beach—but they've stayed punk, at least in spirit. I met Husar and drummer Josh Johannpeter at Johannpeter's place in Garfield Park, a live-work space that contains a studio designed by engineer Benjamin Balcom, built by Mahjongg, and also used by other bands associated with the Columbia diaspora, like Lazer Crystal and Cave—a self-contained setup befitting a group that's reluctant to engage too intimately with the music industry. (The other two members of the band, Mikale De Graff and Dan Quinlivin, couldn't make the interview.) "I guess we've always had a shitty attitude about hype," says Johannpeter, "and trying to really, you know, street team and, you know, 'Hey! Check us out, man!' I don't know. We're kind of bad about that."
Attitude explains as well as anything why K Records—better known for twee indie rock than noise-streaked electronic dance music—put out their 2008 album Kontpab and release the upcoming follow-up, The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger, on July 20. Label owner Calvin Johnson—who met Husar in 2003 on a music message board at MakeOutClub, an early scenester social-networking site—has followed the proudly self-sufficient model of early hardcore for almost 30 years now, sticking to an aesthetic that favors the handmade and the lo-fi and booking tours heavy on DIY spaces. He also shares Mahjongg's love of freaking out the squares. The group's relationship with Johnson is tight—last fall they recorded and toured as his backing band the Hive Dwellers.
Early Mahjongg releases, like 2005's Raydoncong, combine postpunk, African street music, Italo-disco, and noise. With Kontpab they began a transition to a more electronic sound, and with it came a new division of labor within the band. Guitarist, bassist, singer, and founding member Jeff Carrillo had moved to Nashville in 2007 with his fiancee, who'd found a job there; they got married in 2008, and he left the band after a European tour that fall. After that Mahjongg moved away from guitar-based styles and toward dance music, particularly house and drum 'n' bass. Aside from Johannpeter, the remaining members are now all multi-instrumentalists, and split sound-making duties (with the exception of drumming) more or less evenly—everybody contributes vocals, and Husar, De Graff, and Quinlivin trade off on guitar, synth, computer manipulation, and auxiliary and electronic percussion. "It was a big change to become Mahjongg without Jeff," says Johannpeter, "because he played guitar like a motherfucker and sang like a motherfucker. We didn't replace that. We went different instead of trying to find another guy. It didn't really seem like an option."
Mahjongg's September 2008 single "Free Grooverider," produced by Johnson and released as a seven-inch (a different version, called "Grooverider Free," appears on Paper Tiger), was something of a statement record. Earlier that year legendary drum 'n' bass DJ and producer Grooverider had been sentenced to four years in prison in Dubai after getting busted for possession of about two grams of pot. (He ended up getting pardoned and released before "Free Grooverider" came out.) The band's self-described "protest song" on his behalf—the vocoder effect on the vocals makes it tough to parse the lyrics, but the band does drop his real name, Raymond Bingham—signified that their dedication to dance music had deepened, and that they were willing to make a dance track that both in form and feel was much closer to real drum 'n' bass.
Though Husar and Johannpeter are the only founding members of Mahjongg still aboard, on Paper Tiger there are still echoes of the punked-up dance squad the group used to be. More significant, though, are moments like the jacking house cut "Miami Knights," featuring vocals by 1900s singer Jeanine O'Toole. They sound legitimately like golden-era Chicago house, which was driven largely by small operations, like Trax Records, that devoted themselves to stuff too weird to be taken seriously by the mainstream music industry. "That's how I feel about footwork," Husar says. "Like right now if you go to a place where they're playing that music, it's like, 'This is really weird. This is fucking crazy.' They just think it's the shit."
That's also a good way to describe how lots of people feel about Mahjongg's strange hybrid.