Thursday, February 20, 2014

Chicago band Mutts continues to energize crowds


For those who haven't heard enough of Chicago band Mutts this month, you're in luck.

The band,, will perform again on Feb. 24 as part of its month-long residency at Township, 2200 N. California Ave., Chicago.

Wedding Dress along with Vic and Gab also are part of the bill. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $5, available at

I had the chance to talk to Mutts frontman Mike Maimone about the band's latest activities, which include working on a new album.

Q - Great talking to you again. How is the residency going? How did you go about choosing the bands which are performing with you as part of the residency? 

Despite the merciless polar vortices, the residency has been outstanding. I think it's a testament to how tough the city of Chicago is, that we've seen such great turnouts even though the past three Mondays have either been sub-zero or snowing. 

It's really exciting that our friends and fans have shown so much support for the new music, but most of the success has to do with the lineups. We invited some of our favorite bands from in town, and some of the ones we've met on the road, and the result has been pretty incredible. 

Every night has been one of those shows where I get so caught up in the first two bands that I forget I'm even playing.

Q - Through the shows, you are raising money for "Chicago HOPES," which provides after school activities for homeless youth. How did you hook up with the organization?

A good friend of Bob Buckstaff works for them. We all feel blessed to have had exposure to music and other activities growing up.

Kept us out of trouble and opened our eyes to how broad our world really is. And personally, I still apply lessons I learned from mentors in after-school programs to challenges that come up in my 30's. 

Especially in Chicago it seems like there are many kids who don't have these opportunities, and Chicago HOPES is working hard to provide them.

Q - On your last album, "Object Permanence," you decided to go in a different direction and unplugged your sound. What made you want to do that and did it take your fans by surprise?

When I started playing music I learned on the piano. So it's always been my choice for expression - no effects, no amplifiers, just my hands on that beautiful beast of an instrument.

Early on in Mutts, Bob got us a residency at Reggies, where they have a piano on stage. So he suggested bringing his upright and playing it acoustic.
We re-worked out originals, dusted off some of my old solo tunes, and started writing new music in the process. It was so refreshing that we wanted to cut an album in that vein.

And so far it seems to be our best-received album yet. I think all music listeners like a change of pace, and as performers and writers, we do too. 

So it worked out for everyone.

Q - The album was the band's third independent release to make it on the CMJ Top 200 Radio Airplay Chart. Why do you think your music connects with so many people?

I guess because we're very honest. And that's not to say that other bands aren't, I just think we're overly transparent about it.

We don't spend a lot of time in the studio. Everything is immediate - the lyrics, the emotion, the tempo fluctuations and happy accidents (a.k.a. mistakes). 

And of course there's percussion and some ear candy overdubs, but for the most part our records sound like the three of us playing in a room together, because that's how we created them. And although music seems to be going increasingly digital, it's interesting how EDM now incorporates more 'human' characteristics. 

Quick example: triplets. Computers don't just do triplets. They like standard sub-divisions. 

But now there's all kinds of songs out there, where clearly no humans played any instruments, but you've got these lagging triplets all over the place that aren't quantized at all. It's like... Skynet... is going... self-aware... and it likes to dance.

Q - Do the pros of being an independent band outweigh the cons? How have you tried connecting with your fans in this ever-changing world of social media?

I go back and forth on this a lot. Sometimes I envy my friends on labels who have a team helping them out and in some cases get paid monthly. 

But I do remember playing in a band like that, and yeah it was great to be able to focus on the music, but also there were frequent clashes over creative and business decisions. In Mutts we can theoretically do whatever we want, but in reality we're constrained by a very limited budget and tight time constraints because we all work a couple jobs each. 

For example, I'm writing to you from a glass repair shop while they replace a window someone smashed on our tour van. Wouldn't it be nice to not be wondering how we'll be able to afford our studio time tonight? Yup.

Q - The band is now working on its fourth CD. What direction will you be going with this album? What should people expect?

This will be our muttiest album yet. We've got the amps back a-blazing, but we've learned a ton from our acoustic record, and some of that intimacy is carrying over. 

We're back with Dan Smart, who recorded the first LP, and once again we're weaving songs together. So while this album will be all over the map stylistically, it'll play like a cohesive narrative.

Q - Your song, "God, Country, Grave" was featured in the Cinemax series "Banshee." Do you see this as just another way to get your music out to more people? What did you think about the placement of the song in the episode? Did it work well?

Definitely. And I thought the way they used it was incredible. 

As they opened season 2, it played as they rehashed some of the action from the first season. And while I'm new to the show, it was clear that the themes of helplessness and regret went hand-in-hand. 

That's really the best a songwriter can hope for in this situation, that the visual artist will latch onto the words and use the song to make that connection on film. I was impressed and honored that they were so thoughtful with it. 

And then it came back in a sex scene towards the end. It was pretty surreal to see people fucking to our music.

Q - Last year, the band performed more than 150 shows in 16 different states. Do you see the band as more of a live band than a studio band, or do you need both in your life? Are there any venues or states that you are looking to play this year?
We really need both. We initially came together as a side project from our session gigs, so we've all got that love of the studio and the process of making records.

But hitting the road and sharing the music in person is such a passion as well. We're heading to SXSW in March, I think we're all looking forward to getting back to Austin. 

This will be the first time we've made the trip together although we've all been there in other bands.
In general, this year is already looking great tour-wise. We've got a couple festivals and some support dates that'll be really fun, and we're heading back to our favorite friendly cities, too.

Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you see the band fitting into it? What advice would you give to a band just starting out?

The Chicago music scene is quite possibly the most talented and diverse of any city we've played. It's so vast that it's hard to think of it as one scene; it's more like several overlapping ones.

I feel like we fit into this great rock/blues/indie part of it, playing lots of shows with friends, sharing advice for venues and bands to check out on the road, and contributing to each other's records. But there are so many more great artists doing everything from hip-hip to folk to ambient music that we see doing their thing, and just don't get a chance to interact with as much.

It's very inspiring.

For bands just starting out: go play, have fun, repeat. Play in Chicago every week until people are sick of you.

Then start hitting the road... a weekend at a time, building up to bigger tours. Don't head to California or New York on your first tour. Start small.

Just keep playing. Out. In front of people.

Interact with other humans who will judge you and walk out on you. Keep playing.

Find the people who love what you do, and talk to them. Play more. Out there.

Yes, you need to practice at home, but you need to get outside that comfortable space and away from people you know. It's the only way to find yourself, your sound, your crew, and your goals.

You'll hit road bumps. You will hear 'no' a thousand times... and you just won't hear anything ten thousand times.

Band members will quit. Car windows will get smashed. Bills will become overdue.

But as long as you keep playing, getting better, learning to perform your songs instead of just reciting them, and that part of it is still fun, you'll be able to put up with all that other junk and figure out where to go next.