Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

The Prairie Cartel interview

| October 30, 2009

Still Standing


It’s not especially likely that a decade ago, anyone would have expected an experimental electro-punk project from the frontmen of hometown rock staples Local H and Caviar. Good thing those very same frontmen (Scott Lucas and Blake Smith, respectively), didn’t let little things like precedent and expectations stop them from forming The Prairie Cartel. Alongside instrumentalist Mike Willison, the outfit has spent the last four years performing shows at clubs throughout the city. Yet, aside from the occasional EP, the group hasn’t presented much in the way of official recordings – until now.

Appearing: Wednesday, November 5th at Angels & Kings in Chicago.

With the release of Where Did All My People Go (Long Impossible Odds), a double-vinyl and digital effort, The Prairie Cartel more than make up for the wait. Raw, buzzsaw guitars grind against digital squeals and shouted choruses on “Suitcase Pimp” while tension builds in the hyper-local “Cracktown,” as it name-checks the grimy streets of Uptown. Elsewhere, the band flirts with melody over fuzz-laden riffs on “No Light Escapes Here” while pseudo-Primal Scream cover “Fuck Yeah That Wide” builds into a spastic, psychedelic freakout. The group’s dual vocalists recently talked to IE about Lucas’ Don Draper haircut, reactions to the pair’s unexpectedly electronic sound, and being the last-men standing from the scene that shaped them.

IE: The Prairie Cartel began a few years back in 2005. Going back, were there always plans to produce a record, or was this originally viewed as a one-off venture?

Scott Lucas: I think it was just the idea to just write songs, I don’t know what the — what was the point.

Blake Smith: Yeah, I don’t know if any band ever really knows what it is that they’re doing until it happens. I mean, I guess these days, people get a full business plan and what not, but we — Scott came in to have Mike and I remix one of his songs, Caviar had just kind of ended, and we did a song and were just drinking beer, and then just started I think another song, and then finished that, and it just kept going. It was really just us getting beers and sitting around Mike’s house and just plugging stuff and messing around with it. And I think of a lot of that is why there’s so much electronic stuff on the record, because, Mike lived in various apartments while we made this record and it was hard to really plug in an amp and go crazy, so we ended up doing a lot of electronics on the record.

SL: Yeah, I don’t think anything really worked — like all these songs were just kind of fragments and things — and I don’t think anything really worked until Blake came up with the idea to sample an REO Speedwagon rap, and then, and that turned into “Keep Everybody Warm.” So, the first song on the record is probably the first thing that we did that kind of made something happen.

BS: Yeah, I actually remember that day pretty well, and we were — had the whiskey out, and I’d sampled Kevin Cronin live onstage, and then, Scott was sitting there, I don’t think he’d ever played with a — we had like a 303 or something out, and I don’t think Scott had ever played with one in his life, and he was basically like a two year old, just like twisting knobs until he came up with some pretty cool bass sounds, and we just started slapping it all together, and it just went from there, and Scott wrote that riff, and we just — and that’s kind of how it all started.

IE: On this record – and even live – how much of what people are hearing is live instrumentation VS samples, synths, electronics, etc.?

SL: There’s a lot of intros on tape, and then the band will start kicking in, and then the intro will stop, and you’ll see people take the headphones off.

BS: Yeah, but on the records itself, we play almost everything; It’s not a very sample-heavy record. A lot of the drums, we sampled, and then Mike would cut up and program. But we don’t really do a lot of sampling on the record itself. It sounds like it because we treat so much stuff on the computer.

SL: Yeah, I didn’t want to do a lot of sampling, ’cause I just don’t want to pay anybody.

IE: Up until this point, The Prairie Cartel have existed more or less as a live outfit – why a full length now?

SL: We were done.

BS: Yeah, it’s a double-album, which is crazy. And we could have made a triple-album. All of a sudden we’re sitting on like thirty songs, and we just went, like, “Fuck, maybe we wanna put this out,” and we didn’t even shop it to labels. we’ve both been on major labels in the past, and indie labels, and it just kind of seemed like we did the whole thing ourselves, with one microphone, and a couple of keyboards and guitars, why get anybody else involved? Of course, we forgot the main reason people work with labels is because they have money. So we ended up having to take out an American Express card to fund the band, which, is getting kind of scary. Costs money to be in a band, it’s weird.

SL: Well, we’ll just make sure that we’re too big to fail.

IE: Lots of artists are opting for the independent route these days. Having put out so many records under different titles, with different projects, have you found this to be the preferred method?

SL: I don’t think there has to be a preferred method. I think everyone’s trying to figure out what’s the way to do things, and I don’t really think there is a one way to do things anymore.

BS: There is something to be said — I think we’re going to do another record next year, ’cause this took a couple years to get together, and there’s something to be said about being in a studio on a label’s dime, and you go in March 1st, and you’ve got this room until March 20th, and you have 20 days to cut your record. There’s something to be said about capturing a band at a certain point in time that we just kept going over to Mike’s house and drinking and making more songs. It really was open-ended.

IE: Were people repeatedly inquiring about the band releasing a full-length album?

SL: Yeah, it started to become a running joke that we weren’t very ambitious. And, that’s true. But . . .

BS: Scott would burn CDs, and sometimes just randomly have a couple of hand-scrawled CDs that he’d just sort of hand people from the stage. But, it’s nice, and we decided not even to make CDs. We’re just doing digital and vinyl, ’cause we really like the package, or at least, I really enjoy vinyl.

IE: The album’s title, Where Did All My People Go – that could be taken in reference the scene that you both started out in, and how there aren’t many acts left from those days. Is that a valid interpretation?

BS: Yeah. Certainly, that’s what I think we were — it’s a line in one of our songs on the record, but that’s what — pretty much what that’s about, is that we’ve been doing this for a long time, and so many people have come and gone, and you look out there, and it’s kind of — y’know, it’s an epic mediation on the passage of time.

SL: It’s also what happens when you’re at Joe’s On Weed St., and the lights come up, and then you’re like, ‘where did all my people go?’

IE: Just not recognizing anybody?

SL: No, everyone’s ditched you

IE: I still recognize crowds at PC shows

BS: It’s weird, though, when we play some shows, and there’s a lot of people there, and I don’t — I’m like, who the fuck are all these people, I don’t — It used to, It seemed like, I used to know everybody in my other bands when you’d play locally, and now, I don’t know anybody. I know like three people. It’s weird.

IE: Is it disheartening to lose some of that community? Does it affect you?

BS: I don’t — no, I mean, I was talking to somebody about this the other day, about if Chicago feels like it has a scene right now, and if bands are really cross-pollinating and, that’s a really tough thing to answer. I’m sure there’s some suburb out there where there’s like ten great bands about to spring. But in the city, it feels a little chilly these days, you get that feeling, Scott?

SL: I think we kind of like to push that community thing, we always had.

BS: ‘You’re gonna be our fuckin’ friends, or else!’, basically…

SL: Yeah. Me and Blake like to think there was a community of bands, and we were part of that. But, at a certain point, a community of bands, it always falls apart, people always pair off and go off and do their own thing, and then — and then there are people that are just there to sort of use each other, and things like that. So, you can get nostalgic for something that might never have been there in the first place.

BS: But — there is something — Hey Champ did a remix for us, and we’re friendly with those guys. And we’re writing some songs for Moneypenny, for those girls, we’re doing some production, and writing for them, and, in turn, I think Chess’ DJ partner in Life During Wartime — isn’t Bald Eagle and Mr. Wolf doing that remix for us, that “Only Children” remix?

SL: [They’re] doing that, The Hood Internet put out that Chicago comp [The Hood Internet VS Chicago] — I mean, there’s —

BS: — Where they mashed us with Hollywood Holt, which —

SL: Right.

BS: So there’s still a lot of cool stuff going on —

SL: They did a whole thing about Chicago, so, it’s still there, and, my point is —

BS: Those guys are clever, too.

SL: My point is, maybe it wasn’t as much as you’d like to think it was before. Seeing the past through these tinted glasses is a little ridiculous. I think people always wanna talk about ‘the good old days,’ and, they weren’t really that good.

BS: Oh c’mon, they were awesome!

SL: Eh, they’re still pretty good.

IE: People who have seen The Prairie Cartel perform live are somewhat accustomed to the two of you performing in this loud, raw, electronic project. Yet for people who only know you both from Local H and Caviar, are they shocked when they hear the two of you going in a different direction?

BS: Yeah, some people seem not just shocked, but like a little bit — I don’t want to say angry, but some of the people don’t — it’s hard to explain, but people don’t feel like the bands where we came from, we should be able to make music like this, and it could be good.

SL: Well, I still think — there was a recent Twitter about —

BS: A tweet?

SL: There was a recent tweet about, ‘this isn’t what I expected when these guys get together,’ but they like it.

BS: Somebody tweeted about us?

SL: Yeah, they did.

BS: We got twatted?

IE: The Prairie Cartel played South By Southwest earlier this year, as well as New York. What has the response been like outside of Chicago?

BS: We did one really good show at South By Southwest, and then one really god-awful show there. And we did two shows in New York, and one of them was pretty good, and one of them was pretty bad. So, I think it depends which show you’re at.

SL: I saw the video of that one you that think is so bad, and it was electrifying.

BS: Which one?

SL:The one that I don’t really remember playing. It was —

BS: In New York, or Austin?

SL: In New York. There’s a video going around, and it’s pret-ty good.

BS: If you do say so yourself.

SL: Pret-ty good, man.

BS: Scott and I — I don’t know why we did this — but we ended up drinking wine all day, and then getting professional shaves before the show, and so we drank like three bottles of wine, and we walked into Freeman’s Sporting Club in New York, and it’s the hot towel and the straight-edge and everything, and I think we both fell asleep in the chair. Strange men with sharp blades shaving us, and we’re just reeking of red wine. And that’s why maybe I just was hungover when we were onstage that night, and I thought it was bad.

SL: It was dark

IE: But did you look good?

BS: Oh, I looked great!

SL: I looked excellent.

BS: That’s where Scott got the [Don] Draper.

SL: Yeah.

BS: Scott got a shave a hair cut

SL: Two bits.

BS: Two bits.

IE: You’re finally releasing your debut record; are you already planning your next move?

BS: Yeah, the interesting thing is, that we’re writing [for] and producing other people, we’re doing a lot of that these days, and it’s working out pretty well, and so, it’s almost kind of like, we just want to build this big entity where can produce [and] write but also be making our own records at the same time

SL: A factory. A one-stop shop. An umbrella, if you will.

BS: They’re not going to get your tone of voice, I think, in print.

SL: Oh, I think they will.

— Jaime de’Medici

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