Chicago musical collective, Kids These Days, lands their very first cover on Where magazine. The blended genre of kids discuss performing at Lollapalooza, sharing the stage with Snoop Dogg, and their debut LP Traphouse Rock in this month’s music issue. I got my chance to see them a total of three times at DePaul, Leaders1354 and an adidas Originals event and they are definitely one of the better live bands to garner diverse crowds and positive energy. Personally, I’m proud of where they are taking music. Read the full interview after the cut.
Packed into a barn in south central Wisconsin in the summer of 2010, nine musicians, each a year or two shy of graduating high school, took to a makeshift stage surrounded by instruments, monitors, and microphones. A buzzing pit of friends, musicians and curious parents flanked the stage while more kids clung to the rafters trying to get a better view. It was one of the group’s first show together, miles away from the Chicago streets they call home, and they came out with the kind of swagger that’d make seasoned jazz vets blush: Combing through hip-hop, blues, soul and rock, often in the same song, the band played a dizzying set that doubled as a clinic of the best that Chicago music has to offer. The barn swung, the rafters shook, they had everyone moving. And the group known as Kids These Days has been doing it ever since.
Over the past two years, the band has sold out Chicago’s 1,150-capacity Metro, played Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival, and have shared the stage with artists like Raphael Saadiq and Snoop Dogg in venues across the country. After posting videos for their songs “Summerscent” and “Darling”—the latter shot at venerated Chicago venue The Hideout—the band has garnered a clutch of critical praise, particularly from local blogs and the hip-hop community. Most recently, the group linked up with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to produce their debut album, “Traphouse Rock,” named after the band’s West Loop practice space The Trap.
We recently spoke with the band between studio sessions at Wilco’s loft about coming up in the Chicago scene, working with Jeff Tweedy, and why dropping by Chicago’s diners for a meal is a good idea no matter what time it is.
You guys played Lollapalooza, one of the country’s biggest outdoor festivals, last summer. What was that experience like?
Liam Cunningham (guitar, vocals): “It was crazy for a whole bunch of reasons. The year before, Vic [Mensa, the group’s rapper] almost died trying to get into Lolla, he got electrocuted trying to climb the fence. So to go from getting electrocuted to getting on stage the next year was sort of a ‘pinch me’ moment (laughs). Going to Lollapalooza since 7th grade and then playing in front of all my friends, it was just astonishing.”
Macie Stewart (vocals, keyboards): “It didn’t really hit me until about ten minutes before we went onstage. We got to Lollapalooza and it seemed like any other show, and then I realized when I looked out into the crowd right before we went on and I realized how crazy it was. We’d never played to that many people before. The first 10 or 15 rows were kids from our high school, kids we grew up with.
Vic Mensa: “It was such a mind-blowing experience to play there in front of anywhere from 10 to 15 thousand people and our friends and everyone from school. I mean, that was crazy. Since then we’ve just been on the road and at home working on new stuff, making this record.”
How did Kids These Days come together?
Stewart: “[Liam and Vic] came up to me one day and I didn’t know them very well, I knew who they were but I wouldn’t say I was friends with them yet, and they said ‘Do you want to come to our band rehearsal? It’ll be at Liam’s house.’ And I almost didn’t go to that first rehearsal thinking, ‘This’ll be weird!’ But that’s how it started. I went to Liam’s house one day, and just kept coming back.”
Cunningham: “Most of us either know each other from our high school, Whitney Young, or the Merit Music Program, and all of us except for Vic studied jazz in public and private school programs. That’s kind of the way it’s always been growing up in Chicago, at least for me—you know people from all parts of the city. And I don’t know if it’s necessarily like that in other cities. It’s definitely a huge part of who we are and the band’s dynamic.”
How would you describe the sound of “Traphouse Rock”?
Mensa: “It’s hard to pinpoint a direction for it, I’d rather just call it what we’ve named it and that’s ‘Traphouse Rock.’ Because if I were to try to put any traditional genre limitations on it, it wouldn’t be accurate. With our last project, a lot of people listened to it and were just impressed with the blend of different kinds of music, you know, some people call it hip-hop-soul-jazz-funk-rock or something. And while I think that although there are elements of all different types of music in our music, I’m hoping that people will listen to this project and have more to say about Kids These Days as opposed to ‘hip-hop-soul-jazz-funk-rock.’ It’s just kind of turned into a lot of things I don’t think a lot of us foresaw, with Jeff’s input. It’s dope though, its great.”
Stewart: “We’re using synthesizers, which we haven’t really looked into that much, we’re doing double and triple drum tracks, double and triple bass tracks, just a lot of crazy stuff you wouldn’t be able to pull off live.”
Cunningham: “We put a lot of work into these records, but most of us being jazz-trained we really just don’t know a whole lot about the recording process. So to come to a guy like Tom Schick, who is the engineer [at Wilco’s studio], and then with Jeff, who obviously is a recording veteran, just to have that more experienced ear and open up our ears to different ways of recording. The most amazing thing has been just realizing how different recording is than playing live, like, what are you really trying to do when you’re recording, what are you trying to do when you’re playing live, and how different they are.”
For the new album, you guys are working with Jeff Tweedy, who has a reputation for genre-crossing himself. What has he been able to bring to the recording process?
Cunningham: “It’s just been lucky and really more than we could ever ask for. Even Tweedy, who I had originally just talked to when things were happening with the band and I didn’t know what to do, we didn’t really have anyone on our team that was at all experienced, and I was just looking for someone experienced to talk to. And he’s gone way beyond anything I could have asked him to do, you know, working with us in the studio. It’s ridiculous. I never dreamed of doing anything like this.”
Stewart: “We’ve been in the studio every day the past week from about noon to about midnight, just really long 12-hour days, tearing apart every track we had written and making something really crazy and really studio-driven. Usually our tracks are very reminiscent of our live music, but this I think is going to be a little bit different because we’re trying to do a lot of stuff that we’ve never tried before recording-wise.”
Mensa: “What I’ve come to recognize working with Jeff is a couple things. First of all, he’s just a musical genius—he’s a twisted genius, but a musical genius. And I think that once you get to the level of understanding and appreciation of music that he has, and that we aspire to have, the whole thing about a genre is just unimportant. I mean, we’ll start with a general formation and he’ll just hear things and twist them up and move them around and it’s just amazing to me. There are definitely things that have a feeling of Wilco’s influence and you can hear it, you can hear Jeff’s personality in these records as well. But it’s not Kids These Days from a folk-rock point of view, it’s just Kids These Days with Jeff Tweedy.”
What’s it like being a young musician in Chicago?
Mensa: “I think that it seems like the ages are getting younger and younger and people are embracing that. People love to see young cats making dope music, and it surprises people but it pretty much makes a lot of people happy. I think our generation is one that has gotten tired of bull**** music and is just ready for something different and in a lot of ways is just ready for new, authentic, heartfelt music. So I think we’ve been embraced very heavily for being young musicians in Chicago.”
Cunningham: “Everyone’s been really helpful to us. The Hideout’s been such a huge blessing, they put us on a stage with Mavis Staples [at the annual Block Party concert] and they sent us off to their shows at South by Southwest and they let us shoot our music video for “Darling” there. They’ve been amazing.”
Mensa: “We’re definitely looking to represent Chicago always in everything that we do. We are Chicago, born and raised, each and every one of us. But even past that, we’re looking to represent ourselves, and our own unique voices and personalities, and past that represent a lot of young people with a lot of newer ideas about the world. We’re growing up, you know? We’re gonna be the people in positions of authority and the people in charge, and I think we have to represent something positive but also something realistic and true. You might not always hear sunshine and blue skies from us right now just because we’re just representing what’s really going on. I mean, there’s a lot of kids dying out here. It gets hard. But I definitely think that we want to be an influence for the greater good of things, you know, have people see us doing our thing and be inspired to do their own thing and take it in their own direction.”
What are some of your favorite things to do in the city?
Stewart: “We just realized that the only place that we ever go to eat as a band are diners. I don’t think we’ve ever eaten at a restaurant, like a real fine dining place, together. When we’re on the road and we’re hungry, we’ll go find a diner. When someone’s late and we can’t practice on time, we go to this place the Palace Grill(1408 W. Madison St., 312-226-9529) because it’s right by our rehearsal spot and we’ll go eat there for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. Making this record, we keep ordering from this place Noon O Kabab (4661 N. Kedzie Ave., 773-279-8899). They have really good wraps and falafel. Another really good restaurant is the Sweet Maple Café (1339 W. Taylor St., 312-243-8908), it’s a little breakfast spot on Taylor Street, and they have amazing food.”
Cunningham: “I really like diners, I really like breakfast food. So, Palace Grill, which is one of my favorite places to go eat, or Uncle Mike’s Place (1700 W. Grand Ave., 312-226-5318) on Grand. The Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia Ave., 773-227-4433) is obviously a staple. My old neighborhood [Irving Park] I love more than anywhere else in the world.
Stewart: “There’s a bar called the Underground Wonder Bar (710 N. Clark St., 312-266-7761), they have awesome music every night of the week until 4 am, one of the few bars in the city that’s open that late. I kind of grew up there watching my mom, who is a musician, play piano. There’s also the Hideout, and they have great music there every night. Those would definitely be two of my favorite more intimate places to see music in the city.”
Mensa: “Me, I love Hyde Park Records (1377 E. 53rd St., 773-288-6588). I just like record stores. I like digging through bargain records and 45s and finding interesting things, it’s just something I do. We’re all big fans of food, we like Potbelly. That’s from Chicago, right?”
What would you suggest to any out-of-towners looking to take advantage of the city?
Cunningham: “If it’s late, I’d suggest go seeing a movie at City North 14 (2600 N. Western Ave., 773-342-1768), and then go up Western Avenue to Golden Nugget (2406 W. Diversey Pkwy., 773-252-8903) at one o’clock in the morning and have some oatmeal and bacon and coffee. You get in your car and put on an album, maybe a Wilco album because you’re in Chicago, my personal favorite being “A Ghost Is Born.” And you go down Lower Wacker Drive onto Lake Shore Drive, and you take that as far south as it’ll go, then you go up Cornell and up Martin Luther King Drive and you go home and watch another movie. That’s what I would do.”
“Traphouse Rock” is scheduled for release in spring 2012. See www.kidsthesedaysband.com for tour dates and more information.
Mike Kuntz of Where
Terrell Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of SWGRUS.