When I moved to Chicago from New Jersey in 1994, I arrived for the last half of a very interesting period of Chicago music. I’m not speaking of the MTV shit-pile of Smashing Pumpkins, Varuca Salt, etc etc, but of the strange avant-weirdness that was brewing around the not-so-gentrified-yet area of Wicker Park (now a derogatory term and a place to avoid if you live around these parts). Bands such as Scissor Girls, Mother Country Death Rattle, Dot Dot Dot, Duotron, Flying Luttenbachers and Math were some of the mysterious names I saw on flyers around town, performing at strange places such as The Milk Of Burgundy, The Hub Theater and The Czar Bar. Some people refer to it as Chicago No-Wave, a title that was branded upon it after the fact, which many people still resent for being genre-restricting and nostalgic. These bands were carving their own identity though- continuing a long Chicago tradition of exalting dark humor and the absurd while actively avoiding classification.
I often compare the early 90s No-Wave bands to the Hairy Who, a group of Chicago painters that made a name for themselves in the mid-60s. They jumped off with Pop Art but infused it with a coarseness and vulgarity that was missing from the art-worlds of both coasts. It was a style that only Chicago could produce with its ridiculous and bloated politicians, the ramshackle junk-piles of Maxwell Street, and its second city inferiority complex. Like the Hairy Who, and more broadly the Chicago style of Imagism, early 90’s No-Wave wallowed in a very physical and atavistic realm, laughing at its own helplessness and pathetic pose.
Even though most artists and musicians come from somewhere else- Chicago, with its unique identity, influences their work. If music is informed by place, the early 90s might have been the last hurrah for any sort of US regional identity (really- this probably goes for everywhere) before the developers marched in and erected generic condos and Starbucks- decimating a landscape of character, history and heritage.
One of my favorite bands to come out of the era was MATH. They started in the late 80's and broke up in early '94. The core members were Jodie Mecanic (DUOTRON and MONOTRONA) Robert Rolston (QUINTRON) & Michael Colligan (FLYING LUTTENBACHERS).
Their first recording was “Basic Math” or “Bask”, released on Bulb Records- it's a jolly romp through klezmer circus territory utilizing organ, clarinet and a battery of percussion. They sang songs about misfits and malcontents such as “Bill The Conductor” and “Elrod’s Baby Doll Mambo”. It was recorded in an old grain mill in Indiana using recording techniques inspired by Emory Cook to get a realistic document of their locally legendary live shows.
MATH - BASK
Unfortunately, while I think this is a great album, it possesses too much of a Tom Waits preciousness for my tastes (cringe). But the seeds were sown for the masterpiece they were about to create: Rubber Musique.
When I pulled the cryptic record out of the wood stain-spattered “Rubber Musique” LP sleeve (which contained no information) and put the needle on the record, I wanted to stay in Chicago…this record for me was the audio equivalent of my experiences of Chicago and all the dark moldy crevices that were still waiting to be explored. I was 18 and my head was exploding from the Hairy Who and No-Wave! Nevermind that I had absolutely NO conception of Chicago at the time- except that people liked some basketball team called The Bulls. My perception of Chicago wasn’t yet clouded by what now overwhelms and frustrates me: flat landscape, bad accents, big thick necks with silly mustaches (those Ditka types) and a monotonous mediocrity that is slowly enveloping everything (although the last gripe can be applied to anything these days)…a city that my girlfriend’s mother once called “a city of big heads and small minds”. Math was an entity that tapped into Chicago’s weird and wild past right before everything turned to fucking shit- it’s no wonder why two thirds of the band left for other parts- Rolston to New Orleans and Mecanic to New York.
Math’s Rubber Musique expanded on their previous forays into circusy klezmer territory but brought it to a completely new demented and dark level. Gone was any sense of lighthearted playfulness- it was replaced by a dissonant lurch with lyrics squeezed through slowly tortured throats. Compositions climaxed into a free jazz ejaculation, percussion became more clamorous, the waltzes sputtered on broken legs and the marches paraded into brick walls. The album was recorded at The Milk Of Burgundy, the dark damp basement space on North Avenue that Rolston and Mecanic ran, and it shows- the whole recording has an eerie other-worldness about it, which for years I described as “cats being strangled in Ed Gein’s basement”. This was the aural equivalent of a Jim Nutt painting- the comic and abject contortion of a pathetic little man, gut sticking out, genitals twisted and ridiculous, performing a strange dance. This was Chicago- New York’s retarded little brother, wallowing in its self-pity and self-importance, forever ramming its head against the wall.
MATH - Rubber Musique
Both of these records as well as a 7” and a couple self-released cassettes are out of print. The only available document of this amazing band is a quirky track “Gorilla” on the Chicago No-Wave comp “CIA VIA UFO To Mercury” on Atavistic.