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Cover Story: Chicago Punk 3

| November 30, 2006 | 0 Comments

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WAX ON RADIO

If Rise Against are a strange fit for this article because they didn’t travel in the same circles as the rest of these guys, Wax On Radio are a square peg musically. The music on their debut, Exposition (Downtown), doesn’t make them out to be punk even in the loosest sense.

But they used to be.

“I grew up in the Northwest suburbs, in Schaumburg,” says frontman Mikey Russell. “I was in a band called 504 Plan and we used to play with The Academy Is . . . and Plain White T’s and Fall Out Boy, all those bands. The guys from August Premier, Allister, 504 Plan, The Academy Is . . ., Plain White T’s all went to my high school [Schaumburg]. Not all of them, but members of all of them.”

Punk by association? Well, no — there’s more. “The whole thing was centered around this club called Back To The Office, which was this little Western bar. They had these shows every Monday night and people would just keep going and the people that played there was members from all these bands. It was like people from June, The Academy Is . . ., Fall Out Boy; Jon Walker from Panic! At The Disco was in a band called Centerfold and later joined my band. People from Spitalfield, Plain White T’s, Allister, August Premier, The Audition . . . it was crazy. That would be a Monday night there. I remember Mike Carden from The Academy Is . . . and A.J. Brown from June playing outside while Patrick [Stump] from Fall Out Boy was playing inside. I was talking to Bill Beckett from The Academy Is . . . about singing. And it was all just happening right there and we were all in different bands. Looking back on it it seems so crazy that all those people were just growing up in the same place at the same time. It wasn’t strange then at all. It was real comfortable and communal. Everybody was good friends.”

But comfort wasn’t what Russell was feeling musically. Pop punk, as recent history shows, is a pretty popular and seemingly easy way to make a living. But it wasn’t doing it for Russell.

“It was straight-up pop punk,” he says, almost as if he can’t believe it. “To be completely honest, the music we were playing in that band had no integrity to it at all. I was just completely done with that and I wanted to make music that made me feel good to play.”

And so began an awkward renewal. “The type of band Wax On Radio is is not an instant-success, hit-single band. It was a completely different direction and I think some of the people who came to 504 Plan shows didn’t like it. I know that. We’ve been on message boards and things and people say,” as he affects moaning, “‘I wish 504 Plan was still around.’ But most people were like, ‘This is way better. This is what you should have always been doing.’ Jon Walker, especially, he showed up to one of our first practices and he said, ‘This is perfect for you. I’m so happy for you.'”

The criticism from 504 fans is Wax On Radio are too slow, which seems a reasonable complaint from pogo addicts. But the music on Exposition was enough to catch Downtown Records honcho Josh Deutsch, who has quietly assembled a label with Gnarls Barkley, Eagles Of Death Metal, and Art Brut, aimed at adventurous listeners and bands.

“As soon as we got out of the studio we started thinking about the next record,” Russell says. “We already have the title, we already have some material, we’ve been laying it out in different orders. We [know what we want] as far as movement and how we want the record to move and come across, as far as aesthetically in the songs, as a piece. Just skeletal ideas, but we’ll be thinking about that record until I sing the last note and we are done tracking and done mixing.”

You can take the man out of the Plan, but not the plan out of the man.

Wax On Radio appear 12/9 at Beat Kitchen (2100 W. Belmont) in Chicago.

THE ACADEMY IS . . .

The Academy Is . . . and their annoyingly punctuated moniker could carelessly be written off as typical of the Northwest Suburban punk scene. Card-carrying pop punks, their debut album, Almost Here (Fueled By Ramen, 2004), brims with youthful passion, but to an outsider could sound like Johnny-come-latelys hitching a ride on a marketable sound. Call them victims of timing.

“That was two-and-a-half to three years ago that we wrote and recorded that record,” says frontman William Beckett, “and it came out awhile later.” Far from defending the album as youthful indiscretion, he cherishes it and considers it a valuable document of a young band. “That record is a snapshot of what we were going through at that time. Struggling with, pushing forward with our ambition and trying to make it and try to be successful. Those were the themes that we touched on there. Now we’re in a different time in our lives and so the themes are going to change accordingly. All that we can really do is just as accurately and genuinely and honestly portray what’s going on with us and what’s going on in our heads. That’s how I approach this band and this record and records to come.”

The record to come is being worked on in a Los Angeles recording studio and will be a split release on Atlantic and Fueled By Ramen Records. He doesn’t discount Academy’s earlier work, but Beckett expects big things from himself and his bandmates.

“Now the field of play has opened up more,” he says, “and we have a wider scope sort of like now we can tap into all these different avenues and have the ability to work with a great producer and a great engineer. The record’s going to sound exactly as we’ve envisioned it this whole time, which is something that we didn’t really have the opportunity to do earlier on in our career.”

Earlier they were veterans floating in the pool of musicians who would become so many popular Chicago bands. At the beginning of our chat, Beckett seemed distracted and abstract — like someone who has spent too much time in a studio — but brightened when reminded of Back To The Office.

“You know Back To The Office?!” practically yelling. “Back To The Office was one of the first places any of us ever played. It’s an envious thing that we’ll never have again. It was sort of this place that we could all go to perform and to show what we’d been working on, it was basically like an open mic but the same 12 bands playing every week. It was a very social thing: Kids went there, I went there, I met most of my friends. I met Mike [Carden, guitar] and Adam [Siska, bass] in that environment. It was a great thing. It was a really magical thing, there was a lot going on and everybody was competing and trying to be the best. It was a very healthy environment and I think back on it with warmth. It’s a time that I’ll never forget.”

People can argue all day about what “punk” is, but Beckett, Academy, and all the other bands had a good idea early on.

“The moment that I started — that I picked up the guitar and wrote my first song — I started playing in front of people,” he remembers. “I wasn’t a good guitar player and I wasn’t a good singer, but I loved that interaction and sharing that moment with people, and that’s how we all feel about it. It’s a magical thing being able to play in front of people, and it’s even more magical if they enjoy it.”

By the looks of things, they are.

— Steve Forstneger

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