By Mark Guarino
The story of a rock band’s rise to the national stage usually goes like this: band plays years worth of gigs, band grooms loyal fan following, an indie album is released, major labels appear sniffing around, band gets signed.
Take that story and triple its speed and you have the Redwalls. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it shouldn’t. Unlike many Chicago bands that made their name through years of slavish club gigs and albums on tiny independent labels, the Redwalls were signed to Capitol Records before any of the band members turned twenty. They played a year’s worth of shows but only to bide their time before recording in L.A. with the same producer who worked with Beck and Elliott Smith. They never became a part of a scene in Chicago because they didn’t need a scene and if they did, wouldn’t quite fit.
In short, the Redwalls became the most famous new band in Chicago for simply existing. It’s enough to make others bands boil over with jealousy. Except to understand why the Redwalls so casually walked into fame’s horizon, it takes knowing how luck works, what the music industry wants, and — most importantly — how being both different and familiar is the holy grail mixture that many bands go for but only few understand.
Wall-To-Wall Recordings in downtown Chicago, ruby red shag carpeting lines the walls from floor to ceiling. Hallways wind endlessly. Upright pianos are tucked into spare corners. The main studio space is carved out like a cavern — separating the band space and the studio glass is a shallow pit you can imagine was once built for groupies to hang out while getting strung out. This isn’t a sanitized studio that typifies the modern digital age. Here, the decadent 1970s once lived. You can just picture Led Zeppelin just down the hall taking unhealthy breaks. Yet, because the location is Chicago and not New York City or L.A., the studio’s main claim to fame is that it birthed “The Superbowl Shuffle.”
Welcome to ground zero for the Redwalls, who continue to use the studio as their rehearsal space ever since recording their indie debut there two years ago. The retro backdrop accompanies the band well, since their fashion taste includes ragged suits, crooked ties and cowboy boots.
Life is good right now. In a few weeks the world will hear their major label album “De Nova” (in stores today). They just returned from playing dates in the U.K., which for three of four Redwalls, was their first taste of international travel. After playing Lollapalooza in late July, they fly back overseas to open dates for Oasis.
But right now, the band looks exquisitely bored. “I don’t know if it’s a good time for a bad time,” says bassist and singer Justin Baren, 20, who has risen to become a spokesperson for the group. “We do what we do and can’t imagine doing it any other time.” The three others nod in agreement.
Looking bored is required for being a Redwall. Rock history consists of a series of cycles, where oafish, cheerleading outfits like Limp Bizkit inevitably precede maladjusted misfits like the Strokes. While the former camp tries very hard to market themselves as cool, the latter camp displays the attitude that first, they’re already aware of this fact and secondly, they’re totally over it.
The Redwalls are totally over it.
“From a very early age, we knew the kids in high school weren’t going to be our scene,” says Justin. “We were like ‘this is (expletive).’ We want to get to the real people. We wanted to get into the real music scene and not be limited by what other kids were saying or doing. We wanted to be downtown where it was happening.”
Before the move, the band suffered suburbia. Justin, his older brother Logan, 22, and childhood friend Andrew Langer, 20, all grew up in north suburban Deerfield. Although music was a hobby in grade school, in Justin and Andrew’s eighth grade year, they started writing songs. Every weekend night, they’d get together to dissect a song and learn it. The regiment set the stage for high school when they decided to get serious.
“That’s pretty unique for a high school kid to be that aware,” said Elliot Hurtig, who teaches English at Deerfield High School. He remembers having to call Justin, his creative writing student, on the phone to remind him he overslept for an exam. When he dragged himself in, they got into a discussion in which Justin told him academics were important but music was more his passion. “He said, ‘one day we’re going to make it really big’,” recalls Hurtig. “Here was this 15-year-old kid who knew he had something special. I thought that was really cool.”
Deerfield High School Principal Susan Hebson said the band’s story and local connection “gets talk hyped up” in the school’s hallways these days. “Their focus on music was definitely evident, not so much in school, but outside. They left school, not only with a diploma, but with a contract with Capitol Records,” she said.
Unlike most bands their age, the Redwalls weren’t interested in the current music consumed by their peers. Instead, they reached back far and deep into the catalogs of the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Otis Redding, the Faces, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Them and other iconic ‘60s artists most people their age never heard before.
“It was a lot more interesting than what was going on at the radio at that time,” explains Langer.
“We were on the outskirts,” says Justin. “I know a lot of kids were into pot smoking bands like the (Grateful) Dead and Pink Floyd but we took it back further. It was a slow progression. It was brand new to us.”
The band named themselves the Pages and started booking gigs around the suburbs. In 2000, a demo ended up in the hands of Mitch Marlow, a 25-year veteran of the Chicago music scene whose previous roles included musician and studio manager. When he met the group, he had just started a new job as talent buyer for Nevin’s in Evanston. He liked what he heard and started booking them at the club, giving them advice along the way. Two years later he signed on as their manager.
With Marlow on board, things sped up. Marlow got Bob Andrews, co-founder of Undertow Records, to catch one of their early Nevin’s gigs. “I was completely blown away,” Andrews says today. “They had the whole Beatles/Dylan thing going on. With most bands you’re pissed because it’s a rip-off but with those kids, they meant it.”
Andrews offered to put out their first record in 2003. The result was “Universal Blues,” an 11-song album that demonstrated the band fully owned their influences and topped them off with their energy and deft pop craftsmanship.
But before “Universal Blues” was even released, the buzz began. It started courtesy of Ken Coomer, the former drummer for Wilco who helps shop bands around for Undertow from his home in Nashville. Coomer began calling friends on the West Coast and playing them the album over the phone.
“By the time I got to L.A., my cell phone was ringing off the hook,” he says.
Coomer arranged a one-day showcase for the band in L.A. in the spring of 2003 with the idea a major label could provide the marketing dollars to promote the Undertow album.
Here is where the music industry stops being a conventional business and, instead, takes its cue from the courtship ritual of a high school dance. Executives from Warner Bros., Capitol, Dreamworks, Columbia and Sire all agreed to split the costs to rent studio space in L.A. with the agreement that the band would play short, 30-minute private sets for each label.
The day rolled on with label presidents and scouts ushering into the room to meet the band, the band playing a few songs, followed by further awkward conversation.
“It was really kind of strange,” Marlow remembers. “It felt like an assembly line. They were all interested.”
“You could hear checkbooks opening up,” Coomer says.
Andrews said one of their main draws was their age. “I think the planets aligned for those guys. They have that ‘we’re still in high school mystique.’ That was a pretty funny angle and every label they’d talk to would freak out about that,” he said.
Showcases didn’t just end in L.A. For a week Marlow convinced Cal’s Bar, a Loop dive, to stay open during off nights so the band could play shows exclusively for talent reps from Atlantic, RCA, Capitol and Universal.
Coomer’s connection with Capitol helped. Weeks before the L.A. showcase he handed the Undertow album to Dan McCarroll, a friend from his Wilco days. McCarroll was a drummer who once played in the Grays, a band that recorded one album in 1993 that feature future Jellyfish frontman Jason Falkner, cult producer-songwriter Jon Brion and Andy Slater, who today happens to be President and CEO of Capitol Records.
“It happened immediately,” Coomer said after Slater heard the album. “Capitol wanted to close it out fast.”
The band couldn’t argue. “If you look at their past catalog, if you want that kind of exposure, you have to go on a major label,” Langer said. “It’s a lot easier for them to put a lot money in it to send you all over the world.”
When “Universal Blues” was released that fall, the band had the type of security most bands dream about: even before their first indie album was in stores, they were already signed to a major label. They ended the summer by switching their name from the Pages (once the name of the band that became Mr. Mister) to the Redwalls. By that time they also replaced their former drummer, who left to pursue college, with Ben Greeno, 22, of Algonquin.
The Capitol money gave them leverage to exit the suburbs and move downtown. It also eased tensions at home. “(Our parents) were a lot more excited once we got signed,” Langer said. “It’s pretty easy to back a winner,” Justin added.
The band spent a year playing clubs before heading to L.A. for four months to record their Capitol record with Rob Schnapf, a popular producer who made his name by working with the Foo Fighters, Beck, Moby and making new bands like Saves the Day and the Vines radio ready.
“De Nova” reworks a few songs from “Universal Blues” while beefing up the band’s sound with organ and horns. They surpass today’s pool of retro garage rockers with their simple tenacity and love for songcraft. Singer Logan sounds double his years, scratching his way through songs with the emotional purging of Faces-era Rod Stewart or Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie.
The vintage stylings do reference the pre-Woodstock period when the Rolling Stones, Them, the Animals and “Highway 61”-era Bob Dylan flirted with psychedelics but mainly used the studio to summon spiritual highs through old-fashioned roots rock blowouts. The Redwalls tap into that energy and channel it throughout “De Nova” so that they surpass the novelty of four young guns going retro, but instead use that energy to shake it into a new day.
“I think for guys their age, for guys any age, they have a real handle on that era,” said Marty Lennartz, on-air personality at WXRT 93.1-FM. “It’s amazing how well they do it. They have an understanding of that music inside and out. They’re more like the bands that would have popped up in the wake of the Beatles back then.”
Lennartz is the first DJ to invite the band to play live in studio. It turned into a lesson for all when the song Logan chose to sing included an objectionable word. With the microphones turned off, Lennartz gave them a quick primer on the F.C.C. The conversation later inspired “Falling Down,” one of the best songs on “De Nova.” On top of strutting guitar lines, Logan sings: “just a shame, just a drag, just the U.S.A./more concerned about the things we say/than the lies they tell/I’ll you what’s unjust/what the (expletive) they’ve been telling us.”
Whether the band’s ignorance of broadcasting mores was the result of teenage naïveté or was really a covert rebel stance perfectly illustrates the excitement of everyone who works with them and why a label would find them so desirable. Unlike most bands their age, they don’t fit into a genre that started and ended with Blink-182. While every band that comes from the suburbs and isn’t yet of drinking age looks and sounds like they were manufactured to play the Warped Tour, on that bill the Redwalls would painfully stick out.
At the same time, they flex their vintage rock chops with the type of enthusiasm and energy only a band their age could muster. In their music, the walls that typically prevent one demographic from understanding another immediately disappear. There is a middle ground that rises up where something well worn and frayed can also sound new, exciting and played with integrity. And that, in music circles, is nothing short of a miracle.
Tim Tuten booked their first show in Chicago as the Redwalls at the Hideout, the club he co-owns. In 2003, he invited the band to open up the club’s annual block party in September and remembers scanning the crowd to see who showed up. “We were all joking about the ‘40 and 14’ — their crowd is made up of 40-year-old men and 14-year-old girls,” he said. “My niece, who is a junior now at Deerfield High School, thinks the Redwalls are cool. And I’m 41 and I like them.”
“It comes from a real place,” said Coomer. “It doesn’t sound like a Beatles cover band to me. I had people come to a show that were 55 and were like ‘my god’.”
As true as all of this may be, at Wall-To-Wall, the band can only shrug. No wonder they look bored. After five years of being a band, this kind of talk doesn’t compensate for the long blocks of waiting. They want to tour. They want their album in stores. And as much as they know they are good, are told they are good, they’d like to stop being a music industry secret.
“We want to get our music out to as many people as we can,” says Justin, while the other Redwalls tinker with their instruments.
Standing nearby, Marlow understands their impatience. But knowing how most bands struggle for years, dodging breaks because they’re not the right age, follow a particular trend of music or have the right attitude fit for public consumption, he appreciates how everything has unfolded with particular grace.
“It’s the kind of story you want to hear,” he said. “That it’s good music, that people will like it, you get it out and it catches. So often it’s not that simple. In this case, it seemed very simple.”