Chicago Drive-In
Pavement Entertainment

Hey Champ interview

| July 1, 2010 | 1 Comment

Mr. Brightside

“I was literally [not] too thrilled about being in a band with some 13-year-old,” Saam Hagshenas remembers. “I’m like, ‘I drive around, I don’t wanna be with some middle-school kid.'”

Appearing: August 1st at Green Dolphin St. in Chicago.

Hey Champ’s story begins with the relationship between vocalist/guitarist/ keyboardist Hagshenas and rhythm player/backup vocalist/keyboardist Jonathan Marks, stretching all the way back to the pair’s early teens. When the two musicians originally formed their first band while still in Rockford, Hagshenas was only 16, while Marks was a startlingly young 13.

Yet upon hearing Marks on drums in the young teen’s parents’ basement, Hagshenas changed his tune, quickly conceding Marks was “really talented.” The pair performed together for a time, then parted when it came time for college. Yet the duo regrouped after finishing school and began playing again, “getting a lot more into French music, French production, French house kind of stuff,” the signer recalls. In 2006, Marks’ college friend Pete Doughtery visited the pair during the recording of their early EPs. Doughtery would’ve joined the duo then and there, but still had the matter of finishing his senior year. Yet upon graduating in 2007, Doughtery joined Hagshenas and Marks as Hey Champ’s augmentary keyboardist.

The following year, the trio recorded a song that would go on to easily become their most well known, the blog-buzz hit “Cold Dust Girl,” unsuspectingly infectious synth-pop with an emphasis on song structure blending buzzing electronics and live instrumentation. Speaking of the track, Hagshenas refers to it as “the cornerstone of what we were trying to do.

“We said, ‘O.K., this is the kind of music that is more like what we want to do,'” the frontman explains. “We want to make dance music, but it still has to . . . have rock elements and live instruments.”

The outfit pulled together cash and made a video for “Cold Dust Girl,” in the process getting noticed by more than just online tastemakers. Also paying attention was acclaimed hometown-MC-made-good Lupe Fiasco, who at the time was still running his Atlantic-subsidized 1st & 15th label. So impressed was the rapper with Hey Champ that he took the young act on tour with him and signed them, with the intention of releasing a debut album. Yet such was not to be the case, as Hey Champ would eventually find out.

“All we know is that we’ve gotten lucky on a couple occasions, so we can’t really look back and be like, ‘I was really bummed about the way something worked out or didn’t work out,’ because wow, how many bands have gotten even opportunities that we have? We consider ourselves pretty lucky.”

The local synth-rock trio have plenty to be grateful for, not the least of which includes a slot on last year’s Lollapalooza before the group had even released anything. If the band had their way, audiences in Grant Park that day would’ve already been familiar with every song on Star, a record that, up until this month, has been sitting on a shelf since May of last year.

“We’d been wondering, just asking, ‘What’s the deal with the record?'” Hagshenas remembers. “And we just hadn’t heard a whole bunch, but we were busy doing our own thing all that time, and then we kind of read an interview where Lupe said that he was closing down 1st And 15th, and . . . it was all done informally, so we really didn’t know what to do.

“The whole thing is that,” he continues, “because the music business is a business and everything like that, it wasn’t like we could just go ahead and say, ‘O.K., well, we’re going to just put it in iTunes,’ because we didn’t own the masters. We’d signed a deal and so we had to find a way to get the masters, so we got a new label that made that possible.”

That label, it turns out, is Townie Records, a smaller impint described on its site as “Good music for good people.” A simple statement, but the first half easily applies to Hey Champ’s Star, a record that delivers on the initial promise of “Cold Dust Girl” from two years back. Similarly synth-powered is “Neverest,” itself also one of Star‘s most organic offerings, with a chorus that hypnotically repeats over a swirl of guitar, live drums, and electro tones. The busy and kinetic “No Future,” meanwhile, propels Hey Champ into slicker, more dancefloor-ready terrain, with video-game sound effects chirping over rhythms at random. Yet it’s tracks like the hyper “Face Control,” which blend Hagshenas’ crooning call with pinging digital licks and layers, that help Hey Champ stand out from so many other sterile electronic acts. All throughout Star, the band’s human element often receives at least equal time alongside frenetic electronic enhancement. It’s an impressive showing right out of the gates, though that’s not to say Hey Champ themselves haven’t become more a seasoned outfit through the trials of releasing their debut album.

“We’ve done the whole, going to Atlantic Records and [having] some guy tell us we’re the greatest thing and we’re better than the The Killers,” Hagshenas admits, clearly skeptical of label hyperbole. “We’ve had that, from that part to the absolute, ‘We’re completely destitute, what’re we going to do, we have no options. Are we going to be able to do this for another month, let alone as a career?'”

It comes down to which side of the bed they wake up on. “We have learned so much in the meantime, and it’s weird to think that we don’t have an album out,” the frontman continues, “but, we got to play Lollapalooza, we got people on the Internet who know our songs, we got to go on tour in Brazil. So, shoot, I didn’t know if maybe not having an album wasn’t that big of a deal, because we’ve made it pretty far without it. Who knows? Maybe once it comes out, it’ll be that much better, or maybe it’ll just be the same, we don’t know. But, we have to at least look back and look at all the successes we have had.”

If anything, letting Marks ride shotgun turned out better than expected.

— Jaime de’Medici

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