Sharp Darts: A Smoldering Volcano of Rock | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Sharp Darts: A Smoldering Volcano of Rock 

Mt. St. Helens stopped caring about blowing up, and it was the best decision they ever made.

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Lots of punk rock kids leave the lifestyle behind when they hit their 20s and get real jobs, and if you were to run into Quinn Goodwillie or Jason Sprague or any other members of Mt. St. Helens out on the street, you might not guess they'd come up going to all-ages shows at the Fireside Bowl. Sprague works at a psychiatric facility in the north suburbs, Goodwillie works for a Chicago firm that makes custom learning software, and all the guys in the band are pretty clean-cut these days. But talk to them for five minutes or so and the Black Flag references start to slip out. They've abandoned punk-kid fashion, sure, but not their dedication to punk's DIY ethic--and they prove it with the kickass posthardcore rock on their new album, Of Others, due this week on local label Two Thumbs Down.

Mt. St. Helens started in 1997 with Goodwillie on vocals and guitar, Sprague on bass, Matt Fast and Sprague's brother Michael on guitars, and Ben Geier on drums. They were a bunch of suburban punks straight out of Geneva High School, amped about the thriving Chicago scene, and their lineup hasn't changed since--unless you count Fast leaving to go to college in Normal, then rejoining as a utility player on guitar, keyboard, and percussion. "I think our very first show was at the Fireside Bowl with Cursive," says Goodwillie. Other early gigs included plum opening slots for the Metroshifter, Elliott, and Planes Mistaken for Stars, but that initial burst of momentum didn't carry them too far. "It was a pretty awesome way to start," he says, "and then after that there wasn't anything for a while. And then there was drudgery. We got the wrong impression at the start."

They put out records, got noticed by punk zines like Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and made friends with better-known local bands, including the Ghost, Haymarket Riot, and Hey Mercedes--they even toured with a few of them. But they didn't cross the line that separates opening acts from headliners. They still haven't. They make a great opening act, though, and they haven't let it get them down that they can't command the top slot on any bill they want. "I don't know if it's stupidity or tenacity," Goodwillie says, "or the fact that we just like to barbecue together a lot. We just didn't break up. Reading the biography of your favorite band, there's always, like, stop-the-tour-van-on-the-side-of-the-road fistfight moments. Like Husker Du and Jawbreaker and Black Flag--there's always this punch-out moment, and we've never had a punch-out moment."

It took Mt. St. Helens two years to make Of Others, their fourth release and third full-length, and the easy camaraderie the band enjoys is actually part of the reason. At the time their practices were at Geier's house, where there was a grill out back and a grocery store that sold beer close by--they ended up throwing impromptu cookouts more often than they finished songs. Thankfully the album itself doesn't reflect that easygoing bro-down vibe--it does, however, demonstrate what musicians can accomplish when they spend a lot of time together and never drop the thread they picked up when they started out. I think Of Others is their best album yet. They feel the same way.

The songs on the new album wouldn't have sounded out of place at the Fireside in its late-90s heyday. The guitars are choppy and blown out, the structures tend to contain more than just verses and choruses and the occasional bridge, and the overall mood--unfocused aggression mingled with other, less aggressive emotions--harks back to a time when you could call a band emo without insulting them.

Sprague and Goodwillie specifically ask me not to call Mt. St. Helens emo, and I agree it's not the right term. Posthardcore doesn't quite get there either, but it's closer. There's not really a handy name for what Mt. St. Helens plays: the complex, punk-tinged rock popularized by Dischord Records and nearly perfected by Unwound. That probably works to the band's advantage, though--categories make it easier to talk about music, but by playing into existing loyalties they alienate at least as many potential listeners as they attract. In a perfect world, Of Others would reach people with all kinds of tastes: punks could get into the guitars, indie kids could enjoy the melodies, and post-rock types could sink their teeth into the tricky, shifting arrangements.

The band hasn't drifted far from its original influences, remaining largely faithful to a sound that's been slipping slowly out of fashion over the years. The biggest change has been to streamline the sometimes overwrought song structures--the new material relies more on nuance and less on flash. "There was a lot of deliberately trying to cram as much into two and a half minutes as we could," Sprague says. "I think it took us a while to settle down," Goodwillie adds.

Part of settling down for Mt. St. Helens has been letting go of the idea that they might still make a big break. They don't have a manager or a booking agent--they're setting up a modest promo tour for Of Others on their own--and they've only got a publicist because an old friend, Brian Moss of the Ghost, went into the business and took them on. Their new label, Two Thumbs Down, run by Steve Reidell of May or May Not and the Hood Internet, is still barely more than a name, so the band actually paid for the recording and pressing of Of Others. The bio they wrote themselves mentions their "small but devoted following"--the Beat Kitchen was full for their show at the end of August to celebrate the impending release of the disc--but as Goodwillie admits, even "small" is putting it generously.

Uncoupling from rock-star ambition has given the band a new freedom. "We were really caught up in, 'Man, I hope we can play with this band, and I hope they think we're cool, and I hope that after they hear us that they totally tell label XYZ to check out Mt. St. Helens,'" says Goodwillie. "It's to the point now that, man, you know, it doesn't matter. If that was what mattered we would've stopped playing a long time ago. I think we're more comfortable with kinda doing what we wanna do." Plus their low expectations mean that even small successes make them happy. "We were sitting around the other day," Goodwillie says, "and I was like, 'Dude, did you see that on Indietorrents a hundred people downloaded the album?' and we were like, 'Yes!'"

At this point, though, they probably wouldn't change much about the way they work even if nobody was downloading the album. They're making music they like, and none of them can see a good reason to stop. "We joke about it," Sprague says. "When the hell are we going to stop playing together? I don't ever get tired of doing this." After nearly ten years, in fact, it's apparently still at least as much fun as a cookout. "We've moved into a new space now," says Goodwillie. "We noticed that we're much more productive when there's no access to a Weber grill and beer."

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.

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