Interview Date: 07/02/2010
Run Date: 07/13/2010
When we called Jonathan Marks, the drummer for Chicago synth-rockers Hey Champ, at the scheduled interview time…he was in a bar. Not getting drunk, mind you; he was watching the World Cup semifinal match between Germany and Spain. Could he call us back at halftime? Sure.Seconds after halftime ends, our phone rings, and Marks is ready to talk about sports, the band’s slightly proggy leanings, the record deal that never was – the band is already on their second label, and their debut album, Star, is finally being released after being ready for over a year – and how walking into a room full of unforgiving college kids for a month shaped them into the band they are today.
Bullz-Eye: First off, I love the record.
Jonathan Marks: Thanks, man. I appreciate it.
BE: I hear a lot of disparate influences in your songs, but I’m willing to bet that one or all of you is a fan of Yes’ Drama and the Buggles’ The Age of Plastic.
JM: Both of those, absolutely. You know, what’s interesting, on that note, there wasn’t one thing, or pre-conceived idea, of what we wanted everything to sound like. I guess this would be the same for any [band]. It’s just the natural way things end up as a result of your influences. Me personally, I’m a huge drum nerd at the core. As much as I’ve gotten into production and some of the songwriting – there’s a very democratic process in our band, and we try to contribute wherever we can – I’m a huge drum dork, and Bill Bruford is one of my favorites. Alan White’s great too, but Yes has always been the staple in my vocabulary, which is actually due to my little brother. It was all he listened to, and I caught on. So that’s definitely in there, and Pete [Donoughan], our keyboardist, is super into Trevor Horn, which is kind of a crossover, you know.
BE: Absolutely. He was on both of those records.
JM: Yeah, so that’s definitely in the record collection, for sure.
BE: Did you say your little brother was into Yes? I would’ve expected you to say your big brother was into Yes.
JM: Exactly. The real link to that is that one of my older brothers is a product of high school in the ‘80s, and we’d hear “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” My little brother – he’s just a year younger than me – just kind of ran with it and got super-obsessed with them, and we were always trading music. I was always a Bill Bruford fan, even the side projects, so [the appreciation for Yes] was in the family.
BE: I was going to ask you about favorite drummers, but we’ll save that for later in the interview. What I find interesting about Star is that it has the flow of an honest-to-goodness album. There are radio-friendly tunes, and then there are what we geezers like to call deep cuts, like “Steampunk Camelot.” Was there a specific album that you heard that served as an inspiration for what you wanted the overall vibe of your record to sound like?
JM: No, it was actually more of a piecemeal thing. When Pete came into the band…because it was just Saam [Hagshenas, Hey Champ lead singer] and I for at least a year in Chicago, and when we started getting into the idea of adding a few backing tracks, to play the keyboards that we had programmed, when Pete had come in to solidify the sound that we were going for, we had the vision for it. I feel like some tracks are a little more pop, some are a little more rock, some are a little more electronic, but the idea was that we looked back at the old songs that we had, like “Artificial Man” and “Star,” and “Word=War.” We wrote them three years ago, and we had gone the straight rock or indie rock route, and with the way we approached “Cold Dust Girl” and “Face Control,” we decided to electrify [the older songs] a little bit. So that’s half the album, right there. The other ones after that were all new. And then “Steampunk Camelot,” we just wanted to do something really epic. And we wanted another rock tune, because we intentionally wanted to have really, really poppy songs like “Shake,” hook-oriented songs, but we were keen about portraying ourselves as a rock group, especially in a live context. The instrumentation [on “Steampunk Camelot”] is way more active than a finely produced pop song. We want to go balls out a little bit more in the live show. So “Steampunk” was us wanting to do an epic thing at the end; we didn’t want people to think we were just a radio-friendly pop band. That’s a long answer to it. I hope that makes sense.
BE: No, it does. Though I’m wondering, what, exactly, is a Steampunk Camelot?
JM: The track is like the retro-futuristic world of Jules Verne novels, and the 1800s idea of robots and technology. The idea is about building those big brass robots, a huge robot that’s going to destroy things. So it’s a pretty simple idea that was supposed to become this larger than life, epic track that ends with this really left-of-center, multilayered chord [sequence]. Like “The Never Ending Story.”
BE: I have to admit that when that final section comes on, I can’t help but think of “The Final Countdown.”
JM: Yeah. We were also going for Giorgio Moroder, like the end of “Scarface,” when he’s shot, that never-ending chord progression, the epic synth chords. I totally hear [the Europe comparison], but we were going for the “Scarface” thing. Or there’s that track from Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I don’t know the name; the other guys [in the band] would.
BE: “Funeral for a Friend”?
JM: What’s the intro track?
BE: The intro for “Love Lies Bleeding”? That’s “Funeral for a Friend.”
JM: That’s it, yeah. That was the direction. It was just supposed to be epic; that was it. That song would never be on radio, and that was exactly the point. We wanted people to understand that we had more content, that we were bigger music nerds than some super pop band.
BE: What did you think when you first saw the video for “Neverest”? [Writer’s note: Two words – dolphin boobies!]
JM: It’s funny, because to be honest, you see the first cut, it was pretty hilarious, because there’s not a whole lot of CGI in there, so it looked pornographic at first, and I was a little concerned. The CGI takes forever to do, and that’s obviously a huge part of the video. The funny thing is, anytime you do something like this, you divide the video into three scenes: the guys in the car, the warlord and the two women, and then us. We did our scenes over a 10-hour period, and then left. You see the treatment, but it’s all in the director’s mind, so you leave not having any idea what to expect. You have us dressed in ridiculous clothing, acting like we have no idea what’s going on, and you have these two naked women, and this crazy old man, who I guess is on public access, has his own UFO television show in L.A. And you’re like, “I have no idea how this is going to turn out.”
But what I love about it is it demands a response. Fortunately, a lot of people have liked it, or even loved it. Some people hated it. Some people have been, like, “What the fuck?” And that’s exactly what we were going for, because we wanted to juxtapose a really poppy song with something that was going to make people react. Like one of those Chris Cunningham videos, like the old Aphex Twin videos, where you have a beautiful woman’s body with Aphex Twin’s contorted face, and whether you like it or you don’t, you’re going to remember it. And this draws into the concept behind the record. We want to be a pop band. We want the songs to stick in people’s heads. We want people to hum the melodies because that is what is important, to relate to as many people as possible. But we don’t want to hit you over the head in every aspect with that kind of approach. We want to have a “Steampunk Camelot” on the album, whether you just bought it for “Cold Dust Girl.” Maybe you’ll hate [“Steampunk”], but we like the juxtaposition of putting something left of center next to something very poppy.
BE: I was going to ask if you were familiar with the Midnight Juggernauts, but according to the bio on your MySpace page, you’ve done shows with them. When did those take place? I can see you two bands getting along. You seem to have a lot in common.
JM: We did a show with them, I think it was two years ago.
BE: When their first album just came out, then.
JM: Yeah, and they came to the States. They’re awesome. We’re big fans, definitely. “Cold Dust Girl” had been done for that long, even a little longer. We were really interested in electrifying our stuff, and keeping the live music element there, playing our instruments and everything. And we were big fans, because even before they started to go, we were hearing big things about them. We had the pleasure of opening up for a lot of groups that we are into. That was a while ago; we still had our training wheels on then. We’ve come a long way since then.
BE: Let’s talk about your hometown. Does coming from Rockford make things easier or harder for an up and coming band than coming from, say, Austin, or Minneapolis, or even Chicago proper?
JM: Well, just to clarify things, Saam and I are from Rockford, and grew up there. We both went to college away from there, and came back to Chicago. We started Hey Champ in Chicago; it’s just that the roots of Hey Champ are in Rockford. We try to clarify that, because Pete and I went to college together. I’m the middle man who brought him in to the band. So it’s hard for me to answer like we were hustling in Rockford, but as a Chicago group, it’s different than some of the big cities because it’s so active. Chicago is a great place to get your training wheels off, because there are so many places to play.
BE: Where did you make your bones? Where were the places that you played the most?
JM: We played the Double Door a ton. That’s where that Midnight Juggernauts show was, among many others. We did stuff at Schuba’s, but the place where we got serious as a live group was when we went on that Lupe Fiasco tour. We had the privilege, regardless of the demographic of the crowd – which actually made it better, in effect, because they were all expecting a hip hop show – playing for 3,000 people every night for a month, and college kids will boo you off the stage, and we were like, “We really need to bring it.” If you hear shows from before and after that, things really came together.
BE: Were you guys even signed when you played Lollapalooza last year?
JM: We were signed to Lupe’s label, First and Fifteenth. But that’s a loose term, because at the end of the day, we were never going to release the record with them. I shouldn’t say that – the things that need to be in place just weren’t going to happen. So we were signed, technically, but we were more just trying to find a way to release our album, but that was something we had to work for ourselves. That’s one of our philosophies; we have to hustle ourselves and do what we have to do to connect with the right people. And it worked; the album’s been done for a long time, but at the same time, Lupe has been vital in our development as a group, and it was an opportunity that brought the three of us together. We were fortunate after Lollapalooza to work out another deal that made a lot of sense, and now here we are, able to put the album out a year later.
BE: That must have been frustrating to put on a show on that big of a stage, with the record in place ready to go, and have to wait another 11 months to get it out.
JM: It was, but at the end of the day, I’m just happy it’s coming out. I’m not going to lie, it was frustrating, but at the same time kind of gratifying, because we knew we had to keep hustling. We must be the only band playing Lollapalooza on the main stage – it’s early in the day, but whatever – and we don’t have a record. I can’t imagine there were any other bands on our stage that didn’t have a record out, you know? It gave us a reason to keep going, and we knew that if we kept at it enough, something would happen. And I guess it did; we’re here right now. So it was frustrating, but that’s the thing about the music business. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, and as long as you keep busting your ass for it, I feel like it can work out. That’s why we did all those remixes; it made sense to put out as much music as we had control over, so we’d still stay relevant.
BE: Have you started working on new material?
JM: Yes. We have a handful of material that we’re messing with right now.
DM: Well, I know that the second half has started, so I’ll let you get back to the bar, but I had a couple things I wanted you to whip through, to get to know you a little better. Who are your five favorite drummers? You mention Bill Bruford…
JM: Okay, John Bonham; Stewart Copeland; Carlton Barrett, Bob Marley’s drummer, who I think is one of the most underrated, original drummers out there…this is so tough…I’d say Elvin Jones of John Coltrane’s group, and many, many, many, many others. He was the John Bonham of jazz, in my opinion. And Bruford, that’s five, right?
BE: Yep. All right, name five songs you wish you had written.
JM: [Pause] Let’s see…”Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” by Jeff Buckley; Uh…I’m trying to scan every genre of music that I listen to.
BE: Just list the five songs that come off the top of your head.
JM: That’s true. “Nefertiti,” by Wayne Shorter. His compositions are fine too, this is more of a jazz thing. [Pause] Is that fine?
BE: Of course! [Laughs] It’s your list, man, it can be whatever you want.
JM: For sure. I’d say “Lyrics to Go,” by A Tribe Called Quest. We’ll do “Long Distance Runaround,” by Yes, and…I’m putting too much pressure on myself…let’s do “Serpentine” by Earth, Wind and Fire.
BE: Very diverse list. All right, last question: Cubs, or Sox?
BE: God, they’re terrible this year, aren’t they?
JM: Yeah, but I’m not a fair-weather fan.
BE: I’m not either, but I want to take this team and strip it for parts. Take everything that has value and just sell it, dismantle it, trade it.
BE: They’ve needed to rebuild for about 15 years, and they refuse to do it because they keep bringing in so many people at Wrigley.
JM: Yeah, because it’s more about the stadium and getting drunk. I’ve always said that it’s the only place that can still get sellout crowds, because of the stigma.
BE: I’ll let you get back to the game, but before I go, please thank Saam for not trying to sound like Ben Gibbard on every song. That’s one trend that needs to die a quick, painful death.
JM: [Laughs] Definitely, I will.
BE: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, I appreciate it.JM: Thanks, and enjoy the summer!