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Quite a Racket 

No Doctors/The Blues, Kind Of

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"I met this chick on campus two months ago," says Northwestern student Sean Pawley, aka No Doctors guitarist Chauncey Chaumpers. "She was like, 'Aren't you one of those No Doctors guys?'" Enjoying this taste of notoriety, Pawley chatted her up, asking what she knew about his band. Well, she said, "I heard you guys take acid every day and don't know how to play your instruments."

In fact, Pawley and company can play their instruments, but you'd never guess it from their performances. No Doctors shows sound spontaneous, like wrong notes strung together into spastic bar-band jams, with Pawley and saxophonist Nathan Sobaski (aka CansaFis) bellowing unintelligibly over the din. The eyes of the five members burn with the self-possessed intensity of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, but their bodies hang loose with the stoner slouch of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In what seems to be a parody of all-American dude culture, No Doctors warp toga-party raunch into an experimental, nerdy cacophony.

No Doctors have been working on this concept for four years--since Pawley, Sobaski, and guitarist Andrew Morrow (aka Elvis DeMorrow) were in high school together in Minneapolis. But they released their first album only a few months ago. All 1,000 copies of their self-titled LP (on the Minneapolis avant-chaos label Freedom From) have the same packaging and track list--but not the same music. Comparing the copy I received for review with one a friend had bought, I noticed that the arrangements differ: some tracks are more sluggish, some use fewer or different instruments. No Doctors won't acknowledge that there are two distinct versions, let alone reveal their motives. The only clue they'll give is Pawley's vague insistence that "the song is not the recording. It's like a spirit that manifests itself in all these different ways."

Pawley, Sobaski, and Morrow started playing together as Crotch Factor, then changed the name to No Doctors in 2000. They wailed on Pawley's guitar and Sobaski's viola--the lessons they'd taken in elementary school weren't much help--and diddled with a sampler and some turntables. "I was cutting stuff up on the fly and it was real chunky, some nasty, nasty shit," says Sobaski.

Sobaski and Pawley also ran a cassette label called Flaming Beaver. They scoured zines for musical oddities, and within a year had released six tapes of experimental electronic music and noise, one credited to Jim O'Rourke. ("We thought he knew about it, but it turns out maybe it might not've even been Jim O'Rourke," says Sobaski.) By their senior year they'd ditched Flaming Beaver to help Freedom From founder Matthew St-Germain with label tasks. Says Pawley, "Matt was older and knew more people, and we started hanging out with him anyway, so we figured we might as well join him."

Pawley was sleeping on St-Germain's floor the summer he finished high school; he and Sobaski spent two solid weeks coloring line drawings of bears in crayon for the cover of Colour These Bears, an album by macabre folkie Milovan Srdenovic. When they finished, says St-Germain, "we spray glued 600 of these color covers on over the weekend, working something sick like 20-hour days. Over this two-week period Chauncey came to know 'the pain.'"

Sobaski moved to Evanston in 1998 to go to Northwestern and Pawley arrived in '99, and they started recording No Doctors in Sobaski's basement apartment, in Pawley's dorm room, in a library stairwell--anywhere that seemed right. (Some of Morrow's guitar licks were recorded over the phone from Minneapolis.) Last winter Sobaski and Pawley took a quarter off from school; for the next three months they spent more than eight hours a day in the studio at university radio station WNUR, sometimes sleeping there overnight. "[The equipment's] just sitting there," says Pawley, "and none of the kids care. We had total free rein there, so we really took our time fucking around and experimenting with all sorts of different weird sounds."

Sobaski and Pawley would invite friends over to drink, then thrust instruments into their hands and ask them to play examples of what they thought a part should sound like, secretly capturing it all on tape. At five o'clock one morning Pawley, Sobaski, Morrow, and some others played a game they call musical telephone--one person would create a short melody, then the next would have to build off that snippet. They recorded some bits and deleted others, ending up with a song composed of 30 separately tracked parts (though of course there's no way to figure out what song on which version of the album it is).

For all this effort, many of No Doctors' songs sound like B.B. King's Lucille being chucked down a flight of stairs while a fourth grader excitedly practices his saxophone. But the band claims there's structure beneath the ruckus. "Usually I come up with the framework--lyrics and a riff or an idea of how the song should sound," says Pawley. "I like stuff that you really have to question which part is on purpose and which part is just chaos."

"And I conceptualize," says Sobaski. "I'll listen to a song sometimes and meditate upon it. Then I'll get an idea of, like, talking typewriters or mice walking backwards, and I want to replicate those sounds that were in my head."

"I come up with the part that you can catch," says Pawley, "and then he totally fucks it up."

Not that everyone can hear the design supposedly at work amidst their abrasive noise collages. Last spring No Doctors participated in a battle of the bands at Northwestern--a competition between Blink-182-style pop punkers and "noodle Phish cover bands," according to Pawley. One rival band was not amused by No Doctors' onstage antics.

"I had three dudes rough me up in an alley because they thought I didn't know how to play music," says Sobaski. One told him, "Every single person you know hates you," he adds. "Oh, it was great! He was slapping my face and I'd just come right back at him, and he'd slap me again."

But the next morning Sobaski woke up to a pleasant surprise. "There was a huge photo of us on the cover of the Northwestern paper," he says. "It looked like the whole article was about us."

No Doctors perform Friday, November 8, at 7 PM at the Fireside Bowl, 2646 W. Fullerton; 773-486-2700.

Peter Margasak is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.

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