Sharp Darts: Band of Bros | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Sharp Darts: Band of Bros 

A growing fan base is just gravy when you love your bandmates like Mannequin Men do.

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Mannequin Men

Black Lips, Selmanaires, Mannequin Men, Get Drunk DJs

WHEN Fri 9/28, 8:30 PM

WHERE Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie

PRICE $15, $13 in advance

INFO 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401

Most guys who play in rock bands get the horny-virgin eagerness out of their systems while they're still bashing away in mom and dad's garage--by the time they've got a proper audience, they've graduated to the obligatory rock-star attitude. Not Mannequin Men, though. Their PR calls them "Chicago's drunkest, snottiest, and most amp-ruining dudes," but catch them offstage and it's a different story. After four years and two albums, including the new Fresh Rot (Flameshovel), they're still overflowing with greenhorn enthusiasm. It's so uncool it's charming.

"You should love your band," says guitarist and lead singer Kevin Richard. And it has to be uncritical, unconditional love--if you overthink your music, he says, "you've already killed it before you've done it."

Except for guitarist Ethan D'Ercole, who plays in Watchers and put in time with a handful of ska outfits in the 90s--Isaac Green & the Skalars, Skavoovie & the Epitones--nobody in Mannequin Men has been in another band that anybody's paid attention to. As a result they're totally psyched to be playing in this one. When they're really clicking they can write five new originals in a single rehearsal, then play them all at a show the next night--and they'll drop whatever they're doing for a gig booked just hours in advance.

When you're between 16 and 19, says D'Ercole, "you feel music in such a strong way." D'Ercole is 33 and his bandmates are in their mid- to late 20s, but they harness that kind of teenage intensity on Fresh Rot. Its snarly, bleary-eyed, girls-and-garbage protopunk is saturated with adolescent melodrama, and the boys tease fraying threads out of their tightly knit sound to make it feel disheveled and dangerous--the music's to-hell-with-it malaise is as seductive as the hot dropout you couldn't resist in high school even though you knew you'd probably end up with an STD.

Mannequin Men even got the album art for Fresh Rot by acting like ballsy kids who don't know any better. Richard wrote to internationally renowned and influential graphic artist Gary Panter, whom he'd never had any contact with before. At that point the only thing the band had out was last year's Showbiz Witch, which they'd released themselves. But Panter liked what he called their "real Caterpillar tractor-y sound," says Richard, and offered to do the cover illustration for a rate so low the band decided to pay him more than he asked for.

Bassist Rick Berger and drummer Seth Bohn met hawking creepers and punk T-shirts at the Alley, and in 1999 they started a casual band together called the Dots, which covered the dickens out of the Television Personalities. They were sharing a place in late 2001 when mutual friends introduced them to Richard, a ska fan from back in the day who still has a concert ticket D'Ercole autographed for him at a Skavoovie show in '98.

The next spring Richard was browsing at Hi-Fi Records and bumped into D'Ercole, who worked as a clerk there. D'Ercole recommended some records, Richard liked them, and a music-nerd friendship blossomed. In the fall of 2003 Richard would start working there himself, but not till after he went through a hellacious breakup and set up a sleeping-bag fort on the floor of Bohn's apartment. Soon he and Bohn started talking about making music together, even though Richard had only ever played in high school band. "We were totally geeking out on Wipers records," says Richard. "We thought, 'We can do this."

Berger was still constantly hanging out at the apartment, even though he'd moved, and in no time he was part of the fledgling group too. "I never sang before, but I'll try," Richard told his friends.

Berger, Bohn, and Richard had their first show in October 2003, but D'Ercole had already been watching them play for months--Mannequin Men shared a practice space with the Watchers--and was plotting a way in. He even taught himself some of the guitar parts. "I already know the songs," he remembers pleading. "Please let me be a part of this."

After one rehearsal with D'Ercole and one band meeting to talk it over, it was a done deal. "I remember this one practice where Kevin gave me a piece of paper telling me I was officially in the band," says D'Ercole. "It was so cute."

It's only gotten cuter since. "We just love each other so much," says Richard. On one tour when the band had to double up in motel beds, Berger woke up with a suspicious bruise he didn't remember getting. "I gave Rick a hickey," says Bohn, though he doesn't remember giving it either. "We're homocore," adds D'Ercole, "without the touching."

Of course you'd never guess any of this from seeing Mannequin Men live. Onstage they've got a cocksure swagger and chips on their shoulders--the kind of thing you might find off-putting if you're not used to sausage-party garage-rock shows. "I love when people are yelling at me," says Richard. "Playing shows should be a shoving match."

But they're "well-meaning and honest, heartfelt people," says Flameshovel co-owner James Kenler. "That's a great foil because they're emotionally effective. . . . Kevin's got a real personality that's entrancing and captivating." And when Richard ends up cut and bleeding all over his shirt, Kenler says, "it's totally normal and not contrived."

Even by punk standards, Mannequin Men don't have a stage show--no matching shirts, no syn-chronized guitar moves, no tricks with lighter fluid. They're just four dudes in T-shirts spazzing out. "We don't think about what we're doing before we go up there," says Richard. "You can't look up and try to figure out where you are, keep track of who's in the audience. . . . We never had an argument about what we should sound like or what we should look like."

They did have at least one brief lapse of judgment, though, before they settled into their no-nonsense approach. At a Subterranean show in the trio days, Bohn came slinking down the spiral staircase during a cover of Wire's "Heartbeat" wearing a half-laughing, half-crying theater mask. "It was the worst attempt at shtick ever," says Richard.

Though Mannequin Men play regularly in town, drawing bonkers crowds, they admit that outside Chicago people see them as a new band--the dark and dreary Showbiz Witch, recorded in one day and mixed the next, didn't even attract much attention here. But Fresh Rot might grow legs. It sounds a lot punchier--they spent four days tracking and two mixing this time--and it's got an actual label pulling for it.

Of course, that might end up a mixed blessing--Flameshovel is known for releasing quieter, more introspective records by bands like the Narrator and Low Skies. Kenler thinks Fresh Rot could be a "tough sell."

"People are like, 'We can't classify where this fits," says Richard. "They think it's too dumb for the indie kids and too smart for punk kids. That's just bullshit. But it's an empowering thing to have people against you." The feeling that people are writing Mannequin Men off, he says, only makes him play harder.

"They're capturing the essence of being in that stage where you're young and going out," says Kenler. "It brings me back to my own personal punk-rock roots of going to shows."

A few blogs and online magazines have already gone off the deep end over the new album, and named Mannequin Men its artist of the day for August 23, praising their "loose-limbed pizzazz" and "all-hands-on-deck gang-vocal attack." Plus they've been on the road a few times with the Black Lips, who headline the Fresh Rot release party on Friday, and that's put them in front of some pretty big new audiences.

But Mannequin Men don't see Fresh Rot as their one shot, and they're not about to pack it in if it fizzles. "We'll make another record," says Richard. "We don't care."

Miles Raymer is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Top to bottom: Kevin Richard, Rick Berger, Seth Bohn, Ethan D'Ercole/ Elite Electro Photographic.

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