The Living Blue
Back In Blue
“I love indie music, even though I think a lot of younger bands are using the indie rock tag to get away with sloppiness. But that’s all right. We were there, too. I think a true indie musician is one who stays true to themselves. It just takes a while to figure out where you fit in and how you can survive.”
Stephen Ucherek of The Living Blue knows what he’s talking about. The Living Blue have just released their third album of intense, updated ’60s/’70s r&b guitar rock, Fire, Blood, Water. It’s their first for Chicago label Minty Fresh, and it follows an 18-month streak that makes living off rock ‘n’ roll look easy. The band co-won the Little Steven’s Underground Garage national contest and had an SRO showcase at the annual South By Southwest conference in Austin. Their songs have been used on The WB network’s “One Tree Hill,” MTV’s “Power Girls,” and the movie (and soundtrack) Waiting.
As always, that success looks inevitable. As always, it wasn’t.
The Living Blue started out as three kids in Odell, Illinois, a farming town known mostly for being on Route 66. Calling themselves The Bloody Knuckles, Ucherek (guitar), Joe Prokop (guitar), and Ucherek’s older brother Ben (drums) played music influenced by the skate culture — which is to say loud and punk. “Joe was the guy who knew of all the cool bands,” Ucherek says. “He turned us onto Black Flag and Minor Threat, Minutemen and a lot of the SST bands. Eventually, Dinosaur Jr. Pretty much anything that was fast and loud guitars. Then Joe got a Link Wray record and he totally did a one-eighty. He got really into Link Wray and that early, primal rock ‘n’ roll. And that led to The Cramps.”
It also led to the realization the band were going to need a bass player. “It was cool bein’ this trashy, loud noise rock thing, but then we were like, ‘Man, we have to have a bass guitar,’” Ucherek says. “My brother switched from drums to bass.” Mark Schroder joined on drums.
The band were an anomaly in Odell — rebels to the town and, in the Uchereks’ case, their own family. “My folks are pretty conservative, religious people,” Ucherek says. “They’re cool with it, but they’re old-fashioned. They’re squares pretty much, so they’re not going to be like, ‘Yeah! This is great!’ I got grounded for eternity my sophomore year of high school. After that it was like, ‘Well, whatever.’” Ucherek laughs. “My younger brother’s pretty religious. He went that route. We used to play Tom Petty songs and he’d shake his head and say, ‘It’s evil.’ How can Tom Petty be evil? Come on!”
The band moved to Champaign after Ucherek graduated high school. Compared to Odell, Champaign seemed downright cosmopolitan: there was the University, cheap rents, and, most importantly, a thriving music scene. That it was 1998 and the scene was entirely dominated by emo just made life interesting. “Being thrown into a ultra-indie, hipster, emo thing,” Ucherek says of that time now, “It confused us. We were like, ‘Hey! We’re just young and crazy like you guys.’ But it seemed like no one else was young and crazy. The [audiences] looked like they were at Pier 1 or something and they were like, “I like a nice, polite band.” And we come out with our shirts off because we were covered in sweat, and just loud as hell and people would be giving us these looks like, ‘You’re crazy.’ The flipside to that is that we got to play. There were a lot of house parties in those years, so you played for a room full of people either way.”
The band changed their name to The Blackouts, adding bassist Pat Olsen after brother Ben left (he switched back to drums and currently plays with The Beauty Shop).
The Blackouts released two albums: 2002’s Everyday Is A Sunday Evening (produced by Matt Talbot of Hum) and 2004’s Living In Blue (produced by popmeister Adam Schmitt). Both albums are on Lucid Records (owned by Chris Broach of Braid), high energy, and the kind of exciting that only real rock can be. But more than that, the albums show The Living Blue’s movement from noise to rock that is melodic and varied. It’s a trend that continues on the excellent Fire, Blood, Water, which was also produced by Schmitt.
“The main thing over these last three records, including our new one, has been growing and learning and getting out there,” Ucherek says, “becoming an actually accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band before becoming a success. We haven’t been interested in being a hipster band in the throw-away culture. You know, ‘They’re so cute. It’s got so much hype. It’s gonna blow up.’ We used to joke about it — all these bands have Web sites and T-shirts and everything, but what does it all mean?” Ucherek starts to laugh. “Well, we’re realizing that [it means they can eat].” He pauses. “We have T-shirts now. And buttons.”
In 2004, soon after releasing the second album, the band co-won Little Steven’s contest. That meant a slot in the all-day garage rock festival, sharing a stage with the likes of The Pretty Things, Big Star, The Dictators, The Creation, The Strokes, Iggy Pop, and The New York Dolls. It was an experience.
“I met [The Dictators'] Handsome Dick Manitoba. Friendly dude. He doesn’t look friendly,” Ucherek makes a fierce face, imitating Manitoba. “We [were allowed] two songs, so it wasn’t a full set by any means,” he recalls.”We opened up with ‘Wish List,’ which is on our new record. We came out blazing. I was playing and it came time to sing, so I turn around and I realize the mic is like 30 feet away.” Ucherek starts to laugh. “I was like, ‘Holy Shit!’ I had forgotten that the stage was huge.”
The band returned to Champaign and real life. Bassist Olsen left and Andrew Davidson joined in his place. More importantly, they changed their name, largely to avoid being confused with ’80s Seattle group The Blackouts. “It was the right time to do it. It’s a risk, but The Blackouts is not us anymore.”
What they are is The Living Blue, rock ‘n’ roll band. Ucherek returns to the idea of what that means again and again.
“It’s almost like we’ve grown up. We realized a lot of the music we were into was music that was made by people to make the music. It’s honest stuff. We always thought, if we put our heads down and worked and made honest music, then everything would come together. We’ve stuck to the old-fashioned, ‘We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We’re gonna tour. We’re gonna play shows. We’re gonna make records.’ We can actually play now. To do that, you have to let go of everything else. Joe and I have always said, the band is the number one thing in our lives. It’s what makes life worth livin’, you know? And to be able to do it our own way and not have to compromise is the only way we can do it as people. It’s just the only way we can do it.”
The Living Blue have done that, and without dulling their edges.
Ucherek considers that for a minute, then laughs. “Yeah. It’s cost us a bit of hearing loss.”
– M.S. Dodds
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