Tomorrow's Cult Band Today; Drop Trou, Go to Jail | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Tomorrow's Cult Band Today; Drop Trou, Go to Jail 

The Busy Signals won't mind a bit if you don't discover their new record for 20 years.

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Tomorrow's Cult Band Today

The Busy Signals have plenty of ambitions, but making it in the music biz isn't one of them. The local five-piece takes after record-geek favorites like the Kids, Protex, and the Boys--late-70s and early-80s also-rans who played electrifying melodic punk and power pop but barely got within spitting distance of commercial success. "We're ripping off bands that at their most popular were only marginally popular," says drummer Frankie Jensen. "Groups that put out a couple great singles, maybe did one album that no one can find anymore, and that was it. It sounds fucking ridiculous, but that's our goal ultimately."

Though they formed just 18 months ago, the Busy Signals seem to be well on their way to cult-band status. Their first single, released in September on Atlanta's Douchemaster Records, has sold out two 500-copy pressings and attracted a steady stream of praise, including features in Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, Terminal Boredom, and Teenage Depression. The record also showed up on multiple year-end best-of lists, including my own Pazz & Jop ballot. A full-length isn't planned until fall, but next week local label Shit Sandwich is putting out a second seven-inch, "Can't Feel a Thing" b/w "All the Time." On March 28 the band will play a release party at Delilah's, where lead singer Ana McGorty works.

The Busy Signals' roots are in Atlanta, where bassist Jeremy Thompson--then a member of Douchemaster mainstays the Carbonas--met and began dating McGorty. Jensen, a friend of Thompson's, was the first to come to Chicago, moving in 2002 after local punks the Tyrades recruited him as their drummer. Thompson and McGorty followed the year after, and by early '04 the three of them were talking about starting their own band. Their search for guitarists led them to Chicago native Kevin Goggin, a vet of the English Softhearts and the Krunchies, and to Eric Cecil, a recent arrival from Galesburg, Illinois, who met Thompson while he was DJing at Delilah's. "I was wearing a Crime shirt and he was wearing a Boys shirt, and I was telling him to play more Hubble Bubble songs," says Cecil. "Just total record-nerd shit."

The band began rehearsing in September 2004. "Early on, Jeremy laid out how he wanted to do a power-pop band, but not patronizing power pop. Really good catchy songs, but nothing overly sugary and obvious," says Cecil. "The whole modern power-pop thing leaves a horrible taste in all our mouths. It's all fashion, no content. We wanted to have the total package."

Thompson, who wrote the first batch of tunes, says he wanted to borrow from two-guitar power-pop lineups like the Kids (who were Belgian) and Firestarter (a current Japanese band featuring former members of Teengenerate). The Busy Signals' songwriting is collaborative these days, but they still do a lot of borrowing--onstage they cover the likes of the Automatics, Milk 'n' Cookies, the Stripes, and Nastyfacts. "The underlying approach to our stuff is plagiarism," says Jensen. "It's basically about hearing some awesome band and wishing that your band was that good. Or wishing there still were bands doing that type of music and becoming one. We're not trying to break any ground."

One element that does make the group's music distinctive is McGorty's raspy, feverish wail. Everyone else in the Busy Signals had played in bands before--Jensen is still in the Tyrades, in fact, and Goggin never left the Krunchies--but McGorty had never been onstage, much less fronted a band. Thompson heard her singing along to records and persuaded her she could do it. "I made them all turn around when we first rehearsed, though," says McGorty. "As much as we want to sound like a power-pop band, my voice just can't do that sort of stuff. So it comes out sounding a little more punk."

The Busy Signals debuted live in February 2005, and that summer they headed to Atlanta to play a couple shows and record with Carbonas drummer Dave Rahn at his practice-space studio. In one session they finished the five songs that ended up on their two singles. They hope to have enough material to fill an LP when they return to Rahn's in May.

"The groups we like, a lot of them just had a couple good songs. They never really made a completely great album," says Thompson. "The reason is it's hard. It's hard to be consistent with that kind of songwriting."

Although the Busy Signals have talked with several indie labels, including Shit Sandwich, they don't want to sign a deal till they have a finished recording. For the time being they have shows to play and a new single to push--this weekend they're making their longest out-of-town trip yet to play a handful of gigs in Austin, including an official South by Southwest slot alongside New York buzz bands the DC Snipers and LiveFastDie (whose lineup includes drummer Matt Williams of recently defunct locals the Baseball Furies).

It's too early to predict whether the Busy Signals will even achieve the marginal popularity they seem to be angling for, but considering that they can argue at length about which is the better side of the only LP by the late-70s Irish band the Starjets, you know they'd consider themselves a success if a handful of record collectors were getting worked up about them in a generation or two. "That would be fine with us," says Thompson. "We really want this band to be about the songs. That's what always lasts in the end."

Drop Trou, Go to Jail

Nate Kinsella may finally be reaching the end of the drama that began when he was arrested this past June at a Christian youth venue in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The Make Believe drummer took off his shorts onstage and, according to police, wrung them out over the heads of the audience. Indecent exposure is a felony in Oklahoma, with maximum penalties of $20,000 in fines and ten years in prison, and anyone found guilty also has to register with the state as a sex offender. Kinsella was freed on $2,500 bond, and since then has returned to Oklahoma repeatedly for court dates, even undergoing a series of drug tests and psychological screenings in hopes of striking a plea bargain with the prosecutor, Washington County district attorney Frederick Esser.

Earlier this month Kinsella's attorney and the DA had nearly reached an agreement that would've reduced the charge to a misdemeanor, "outraging public decency," which carries no requirement to register as a sex offender. Kinsella also would've been required to do 100 hours of community service and pay a fine; he'd be on probation for three years, but if he made it through with no further mishaps, his record would be expunged. But the presiding district judge, Janice Dreiling, decided that wasn't enough punishment to fit the crime. Though she agreed to the rest of the plea bargain, setting the fine at $1,000, she ruled that instead of doing community service Kinsella should spend 60 days in jail. Kinsella still has the option to go to trial, but he says he'll accept the ruling. He's eager to get the whole thing over with and hopes to begin serving his sentence shortly after the Make Believe's March 26 show at the Fireside Bowl.

Busy Signals, DJ Mister Wiggles

When: Tue 3/28, 9 PM

Where: Delilah's, 2771 N. Lincoln

Price: Free

Info: 773-472-2771

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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