Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Energy Commission energizing Chicago music scene


The name of Chicago area band The Energy Commission only hints at the excitement the group creates onstage.

The Energy Commission,, on Feb. 4 will release its debut album, "Consistently Inconsistent."

I had the chance to talk to husband and wife Jay Weinberg and Danielle Cales, who lead the group, about the new album.

Q - What were your goals for the album and do you think you accomplished them?

Jay - The main goal was to give listeners a fraction of the energy of why we make music. It's something that we've been carrying into our live performance over the past couple of years.

It's no small task to make a cohesive "Consistent" representation of our "Inconsistent" approach to songwriting. I took special care in the order of the songs on the album to see that they flow from one another in spite of their diversity.

At the same time we had to make sure the album was visually arresting. The scrambled Rubik's Cube is a symbol. 

We simply paint one side pink and take ownership of leaving it "unsolved." It's all a rich metaphor for those willing to look. 

We challenge convention and that's why we aren't doing a run of CDs. Our only physical representation of the album is a Rubik’s Cube shaped flash drive, the USB protrudes as the pink sides align. 

The imaginations of complete strangers light up just seeing it. Even before they hear our music. 

Inside you find the album and other exclusive content. Being that you can use the drive thereafter for whatever you want, it becomes utilitarian. It is a symbol of renewal.

So our goal for the album is lofty. The aim was to use it as an illustration and invitation into what I am calling our movement: "New Renaissance Pop."

Q - One of the new songs on the album is a cover of "Time Is On My Side." Of course, The Rolling Stones recorded the best known version of the song. In recording "Time Is On My Side," was it important for the band to take the song in a different direction? What do you think about the way it was used by Austria telecom provider A1?

Danielle - I don't think we chose the song per say, it chose us. There are just too many "coincidences" that go way back.

My dad was a gigging musician and a huge Beatles and Stones fan. Growing up, I heard my fair share of classic rock. When either of his bands came on the car radio, expect it to be turned up. I mean three times as loud as any other music. 

When I was about 16, my dad brought home the movie "Fallen." Anyone who’s seen the movie knows how prominently "TIME IS ON YOUR SIDE" features in the story. 

Naturally, my dad loved it and belted right along with it. It’s an experience that stays with me. 

I always correlate the song with my late father and our movie night. He died later that next year. Rest in Peace, Dad. 

Fast forward more than a decade and Jay and I came across an ad agency that said they were looking for unique cover versions of the song for a possible commercial as it somehow slipped into the public domain. We found it it about 3 days before the deadline and had spent the next 24 hours contemplating how we would find the time to actually learn and record it right before the deadline. 

With my schedule at work, I chose to abandon it and it kinda left my mind. But then the night before Jay said, "I really think you should do this! I mean look they’re even suggesting using a ukulele!” 

Anyone who’s remotely familiar with us knows how vital Jay’s Pink Ukulele is to the band. It’s almost like another member with its own character. I still had my doubts. 

Then I woke up super early the next day and with all my gusto decided I might as well try. I found the chords for the ukulele, learned and recorded it all within an hour of having to be at work that afternoon. 

After submitting, we got a response from the agency that it had been passed on to execs but never heard anything back. Then about three months later we got an offer from someone working on an independent film who wanted to use it but nothing materialized. 

We knew it wasn’t a waste though, so we posted it on YouTube because we knew our fans would enjoy it. Now over a year later it was featured in A1’s TV ad and we are reaching people all across Austria. 

I feel in a sense, that "time has always been on my side." Those who know me know I’m not quite the early riser. 

I'm really glad that I decided to get up early that morning.

Jay - Everyone who saw the ad over here that knows us and our style said the ad looked just like something we would do. It follows two boys through life till they are grown. 

Sharing experiences like hospital visits bike rides and marriage showing the time that elapses in a deep friendship. The music video I did for our full cover version takes a little bit of both perspectives. 

It really leans hard on Danielle saying, "Time has always been on her side." It follows early footage from the infancy of our career and ends with us headlining the House of Blues. 

Always using symbols and metaphor. We rarely waste a scene, a brush stroke, or a word. 

Q - Jay, you climbed to the top of a gas station in Valparaiso in 2008 with your guitar and a megaphone to protest rising gas prices. In retrospect, would you do it again? How did that inspire you to start The Energy Commission?

I would indeed do it again. I would have changed a couple things, though. 

In hindsight I wish I wouldn't have posted bail, at least not so soon. I should have stayed in jail longer. I really started learning the value of exposure and being able to be in front of people. 

I had been making music with Tone, Danielle, and Nick for years but all we did was record. The necessity of having a band became instantly apparent.

Then of course the name for the band came from a telephone message we received. "This is Colonel Jacob Scott of the Energy Commission, we are shutting down your operation!"
Q - Does the fact that your wife is in the band make for a more cohesive band? Danielle, what made you want to be part of the band? 

Jay - It's not without it's challenges. There are different dynamics in a relationship between spouses and band members. 

But at the end of the day, I feel like we should all be family so it definitely makes things more cohesive in that sense. I wouldn't be able to do what I do without Danielle. 

Her contributions to both relationships are foundational.

Danielle - I'd been writing my own material for years. Then I started singing along with some of Jay's. 

We both help each other write. Jay helped me record. It was inevitable, two hearts are always better than one. To keep them separate was actually unnatural.
Q - Artist Clinton Worthington paints during your shows, and gives away the paintings to audience members at the end of a show. What does he add to your shows? 

Jay - Well first off we don't always give away the paintings. There are certain ones we have held onto and some are evolving concepts. 

First off, he does so much more behind the scenes that it would be wrong to only assume his contribution is painting on stage. I think that's one thing that's distinct about what we do. 

There are so many ideas that come to fruition in our productions it really takes a small army of passionate creative minds to execute. That being said, I feel his painting points back to the movement. 

We are more than just a band. His presence reminds people we are ARTISTS in every sense of the word. It helps remind people that everything you see from this band is produced by the band. 

I always wanted to clone myself so I could paint on stage. Now Clint fills that gap and takes it to a whole other place. 

At the same time it has me painting and drawing again outside of all of the design work I do for the band. His presence is an automatic suggestion to people who see us that there is something different, something more ambitious about this group.

Q - The audience seems to add a lot to your shows. Is it important for your shows to be interactive?

Jay - Yes to us our "Commissioners" are the show. The communal amplification of exchanging energy live is such a high. 

The magic that happens in unplanned exchanges with our fans is what makes it easy to believe in something bigger than yourself. I remember one gig at a prominent club in Chicago that looked like it was going to be a train wreck. 

We aren’t the most musically brilliant band in the world, but people connect with our honesty and sense of adventure. Our throwing tambourines for them to bang on and such. 

So much of our appeal is in our attitude. When you have issues with the parking attendant, the sound guy, the bartenders, the bouncers, and band members crying two minutes before you go on stage, that can destroy a group that thrives on vibes. 

But as soon as we took the stage and there were three busloads of our loving Commissioners chanting “ENERGY! ENERGY! ENERGY!” They boosted us up on their shoulders. 

It was an instant burst of adrenaline and that wound up being one of our best shows ever. That’s how they got on stage. It was their energy that animated us. 

We gave back to them and they gave more. Like a constant feedback loop. 

That’s why we say our fans are the show. It’s like you become a part of the organism. It’s a living thing playing live. 

Q - What are the band's biggest musical influences and how are they reflected in your music? 

Jay - Our biggest musical influence is the iPod. HA HA! I finally have an appropriate answer to that question for the first time. 

How is it reflected in our music? We take what ever life experience is trying to be expressed and try and write the best single song possible.

We don't worry about all of the other songs on the iPod or the other genres. We just write that song for that time. 

We live in a digital age of single songs being all a person listens to from an artist. One question I always find so disturbing is "What's your absolute best song?"

I can't answer that. I know some of my songs don't come as close as the others do to fully capturing the nuance, but the ones that do are all our "best song."

What's the Beatles' best song? What an absurd question. 

Then you are supposed to not just have one great song and be a one hit wonder. What doublespeak. 

It's all a matter of opinion. Especially when you cover the range of genre that we do.

Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you see the band fitting into it? 

Jay - We have a couple of good friends that play in Chicago and we play with them often but honestly, I can't say that I see or understand the scene. We've played at the top venues in Chicago and I would love to continue to gain traction, but it's a double edged sword with us not having a particular genre we prescribe to. 

So there might be a hardcore, metal, or hip hop scene, we just don't fit snuggly into one of those narrow constraints. I can say that when we play Chicago, we without fail have a number of new people come up to us and tell us how invigorated they are by our performance.  

So I'd say our goal is to trail blaze and hope people are drawn to the fire and find the path.