12:27 PM EST, November 16, 2012
Kids These Days open their self-released debut album, “Traphouse Rock,” with the sound of several radio stations cutting in and out between static.
It comes off as a brief tongue-in-cheek commentary on the Chicago septet’s style-blurring sound. How to describe a band that blends hip-hop, rock, blues, horn-stoked jazz, atmospheric ballads and soul -- plus interpolations or samples drawn from Nirvana, Mobb Deep, Arcade Fire, Motown, the Pixies and James Brown?
“So many people would ask us where we fit in musically that we came up with ‘Traphouse Rock’ as a short-hand term instead of going through a long explanation every time,” singer-keyboardist Macie Stewart says. “This project represents all of it.”
The Kids -- Stewart, Liam Cunningham, Vic Mensa, Greg Landfair, Lane Beckstrom, Nico Segal and J.P. Floyd – debuted in 2009 when they were all in their mid-teens, with music-school chops, three distinctive vocalists (Mensa raps, Cunningham and Stewart sing) and musical influences that span genres and generations.
A 2011 EP, “Hard Times,” was followed by a well-received Lollapalooza appearance, and head-spinning attention from labels. At the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, last March, the band’s multiple appearances became gatherings for talent scouts and their expense accounts. Industry powerbrokers such as L.A. Reid came calling. Meanwhile, the band was piecing together “Traphouse Rock” with help from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a friend of Cunningham’s family.
“With ‘Hard Times,’ we didn’t know what we were doing,” Stewart says. “Jeff helped us turn everything around. We had the songs written before we got there (to the Wilco Loft on the North Side), but Jeff showed us what it was like to make a record.”
The group’s early songs tended to arrive in sections, rather than as cohesive statements. Tweedy helped the band hone the arrangements in songs such as “Who Do-U Love,” “GHETTO” and “L’Africa.”
“We had (‘L’Africa’) all planned out, written, ready to record,” Stewart says. “But we tore it down to a skeleton and built it back up. The intro became more layered, the drums got slowed down in the verse section. The entire feel changed. It became fuller, more emotional and emotive.”
The song represents a leap into new territory for the band, using the studio as an instrument instead of just as a space to essentially re-create their live performance.
“I’m a perfectionist, I always think I’m right,” Mensa says with a laugh. “That can be difficult when you’re in the studio with six other people, and they all have their own idea about what works in a song. I would have my stomach churning in knots. Working with Jeff made it a lot easier. We trusted his guidance and ear and experience. He’d come out of left field, offer a different angle, put a new spin on stuff. We had our own ideas, but those ‘here’s-what-I-think-moments’ really made the record.”
After the Tweedy sessions, the band finished the album at a studio in El Paso, Texas, and then mixed it with hip-hop producer Mario C. in Los Angeles. “Traphouse Rock” embraces the spooky funk of “Wasting Time,” the neo-soul of “Don’t Fall in Love,” and the three-part pop suite “Doo Wah.” There’s also more than a hint of menace in “Don’t Harsh my Mellow,” with a video depicting a student rebellion.
The song evokes the day a couple years ago when hundreds of Whitney Young High School students, including Stewart, Mensa, Cunningham and Segal, walked out in protest of budget cuts that cost teachers their jobs.
“I don’t mind if people take it as a political song,” Stewart says. “The student walkout, the (recent Chicago Public Schools) teacher strike, those are political events, and we supported them.”
That fire also comes across in “Bud Billiken,” a horn-stoked childhood reminiscence by Mensa about growing up with Segal on the South Side, punctuated by an unhinged Cunningham guitar solo.
“That’s the first song that brought the ‘Traphouse Rock’ sound to Kids These Days,” Mensa says. “When we first jammed on it, I thought, ‘Damn, this is a different way to play music.’ We’re in this small room, bouncing off the walls, knocking (stuff) down. The walls were shaking, my computer crashed to the floor and my CD drive was destroyed. The spirit of that song influenced the direction of the record.”
It also explains why Mensa and the others want to keep moving forward as a unit and decided to self-release “Traphouse Rock” despite months of courtship from record labels. Most music executives interested in the band talked about splitting off certain members and getting rid of the others or reducing their role.
“It’s a seven-piece band, and everyone plays such an important, equal part in the music,” Stewart says. “We’ve got to get the right fit (to sign with a label), otherwise we’re doing fine on our own.”
Kids These Days; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 24 at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield Ave., $12; jamusa.com
Copyright © 2015 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC