Flying high: Chicago’s Frisbie makes soaring return to pop perfection

By Mark Guarino

Pop music history is lined with stories of bedroom geniuses who never earn acclaim until they are gone, bands that crash and burn just after making a brilliant opus and forgotten albums that are just as good if not better than those that somehow had the luck and tenacity to make it through the cracks.

For a time it looked like the Chicago band Frisbie was dangerously close to being filed away in one or more of those categories. The band earned unanimous acclaim suddenly and unexpectedly in 2000 thanks to “The Subversive Sounds of Love,” a debut album of pristine power pop that was championed locally and got the wheels moving to position the band with a national profile. Then momentum stalled, due to a struggle in personnel and a waiting period where everything seemed adrift. Seven years came and went.

“Things either spiral upward or spiral downward,” said co-founder Steve Frisbie. “I think it spiraled down and felt like a freefall.”

The wait would produce “New Debut,” a second album that manages to best “Subversive” through its outstanding song power. The 10-songs are more confident, agile and feature top shelf melodies that pair the band with Cheap Trick, Big Star and other veteran bands that define anthemic power pop. While the punched-up harmonies and extreme energy are reflective of the original debut, “New Debut” is heavier, with a rhythm section that aggressively fires the songs forward through complex textures and continually shifting dynamics. Frisbie will present the new songs every Monday this month in a weekly residency at Schubas.

Frisbie, who grew up in Cadillac, Mich. and studied rhetoric at Northwestern, considers the second coming of the band as a new project entirely. He started the band at the tail end of the 1990’s but it gelled once he met Liam Davis, a guitarist and local music producer and Evanston native. Originally hired as a guitar player, Davis started singing harmony vocals with Frisbie and both players were immediately struck by the sound their voices produced together. Over a period of four years, they used a weekly gig at Pops Highwood to hone their vocals so the harmonies flowed with natural ease.

“It was something special,” said Davis. We knew immediately this has to be a big part of our sound.”

“The most transcendent moments we’ve had were singing together acoustically … We spooked ourselves a couple of times,” said Frisbie.

Thanks to staff admirers at Jam Productions, the band wound up invited to play high-profile opening slots around town. Combined with the good press from the album release, things looked on the upswing. Then drummer and band songwriter Zach Kantor revealed he was suffering from bipolar disorder and spent a period of years dropping in and out of the band. Because Kantor was one of the principal songwriters, band priorities curbed and Davis and Frisbie felt conflicted on what to do next.

“I look back at that time now and I acted passively on a problem,” Frisbie said. When it became clear Kantor would never return, they released “Period.,” a collection of Kantor’s unreleased songs and a tribute to their friend.

Davis and Frisbie started playing shows as a duo and to this day Frisbie is uncertain why things slowed considerably. In the years to pass, other local Chicagoans from The Redwalls to Andrew Bird, would follow the trajectory many hoped for Frisbie.

“The pieces were there,” he said. “Why (no labels) made a phone call, it was vexing. We were selling out venues in Chicago, had tons of great press and the record did not suck. It was weird because from … some of the chatter, it seemed to seem something was going on, but the truth was we were going back to our apartments to figure what was going on.”

It took an entirely new slate of players to revitalize the Frisbie brand and get Davis and Frisbie back into a studio. Producer Matt Thompson, who previously worked with John Fournier and the Mighty Blues Kings, became the instigator.

“We had lost some perspective (and with Matt we were) bringing in somebody with different set of ears who wasn’t mired in the history of the band … to slap us out of our stupor was really important,” Davis said.

Thompson had never seen the earlier incarnation of Frisbie and felt little loyalty to the songs Davis and Frisbie had demoed. “They were kind of emotionally closed off,” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘this is good material’ but I heard it in quite a different form.”

He told Frisbie and Davis they needed to start from scratch. “I remember Steve looked like he turned pale, it was like the wind went out of him,” said Thompson. “I said, ‘we’re going to do this the correct way which is the slow way, no shortcuts’.”

Songwriting sessions were coordinated and Thompson enlisted ace Chicago drummer Gerald Dowd (Robbie Fulks) and Bright Eyes bassist Nate Wolcott to give the music the muscle he felt was lacking. The chemistry was so finely honed and so immediate, the group assembled three nights a week for seven months to get the record right.

At the end of the process, Dowd and Thompson became permanent members with newcomer Marcin Fahmy on keyboards. The five-man line-up is already planning new writing sessions starting next month to ready a follow-up album next year. In the meantime there are hopes of using “New Debut” to get management so they can re-enter the industry they temporarily left.

“Matt’s commitment to the project changed everything,” Frisbie said. “We were two guys playing together six or seven years — at that point to give our trust to a third party, he immediately proved he merited that. I don’t know how often that happens.”

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