Chicago Reader Feature: Gypsyblood
It’s a good time to be making crunchy, guitar-driven music that sounds like 90s alt-rock. The ever-churning pop-cultural nostalgia machine is almost finished with 90s rave culture, and lately Doc Martens and flannels have been trendier than at any point in the past 15 years or so. Two of the most anticipated releases of the past couple months, Yuck’s self-titled debut album and Dum Dum Girls’ He Gets Me High EP, wouldn’t have sounded odd to anybody in 1992, when there were lots of other bands chasing the coattails of Dinosaur Jr. or late-period Throwing Muses.
So it’s probably also a good time for Gypsyblood’s Cold in the Guestway, which comes out next week on Sargent House (home to fellow Chicagoans Russian Circles and Cast Spells). It’s packed with what seem like nods to the fuzz-addicted indie rockers of a generation ago—Dinosaur, Archers of Loaf—but the band claim to have arrived at their sound without any conscious influence from those acts.
“J Mascis, I feel like he’s so uhhhh,” says singer, guitarist, and songwriter Adam James, making a lazy, exasperated half sigh, half groan—which in all fairness does sound like something that might come out of Mascis’s mouth. “I’m not talking shit, because that’s what it is and he does it so great.” When James talks about influences, he mentions Hank Williams, Cave In, and Fela Kuti. The closest thing to a 90s alt-rock band he mentions—at least without being prompted—is Oasis.
“We never set out to be a 90s band,” James says. “We never really set out to sound like anything.” That “we” means him and Gypsyblood’s cofounder—singer, guitarist, and songwriter Kyle Victor. They met in high school in the early aughts, and for several years in mid-decade they played together in a band called Karma With a K—but after Victor, who played drums at the time, bailed on Karma midtour, they fell out of touch for a couple years. By the time they started writing material as Gypsyblood in early 2010, each had spent a while working on songs on his own.
“I was really enjoying Kyle’s dirty country thing that he had going, where it was just him on like a little fucking tape player in his room,” says James. “That sounded amazing. It’s funny to me that none of the shit that we ended up writing came out like that, you know?” Early reviews of the Gypsyblood record often likened the band to the Jesus and Mary Chain, but neither James nor Victor knew what the JAMC sounded like—they had to go listen to some old albums in order to get the comparison. “And then it was like, ‘Holy shit!’ They’re so fucking amazing,” James says. “Since then we’ve really embraced everyone saying that.”
James and Victor chose the 12 songs on Cold in the Guestway from a pool of around 30 they wrote last spring. They recorded demo versions in their Logan Square practice space for about three months, tweaking the arrangements as they worked, and then spent another three months recording the album, splitting their time between the practice room and Victor’s apartment. It’s safe to say Guestway would attract an audience even without a felicitous 90s revival inclining people its way—it might turn out to have one of the highest hook-to-song ratios of any Chicago indie record released this year. These tracks would sound great even without the generous dollops of distortion and reverb that no doubt help attract all those JAMC references.
Album opener “Take Your Picture” uses the same dead-simple three-chord progression for its verse and chorus, wedding it to a candy-sweet slow-motion guitar riff and an exuberant bit of tuneful shouting—it’s a giddy piece of dirtied-up pop that would sound perfect kicking off side two of a mix tape for a crush, maybe right before the Archers of Loaf’s “Web in Front.” It’s also one of the album’s only straight-up joyful moments: “I’m always really skeptical of happiness,” James says.
“A Song Called Take 2” is “sloppy Stones country,” in James’s words, and it combines an even simpler progression—two chords this time—with a druggy arrangement that sounds like a strange hybrid of the Velvet Underground and Gram Parsons. Gypsyblood love sing-alongs, and they prove it on the chorus here—a chant of “It’s your best friend’s girl”—as well as on the stumbling, countrified “Dirty Thieves,” where James multitracks a rowdy crowd vocal for the whole song.
On stage Gypsyblood also includes drummer Chris Alvarez, who’s Victor’s roommate, and bassist Ryan White, who’s Victor’s cousin. (Victor played bass and drums on the album.) Last month the four of them drove to Austin for seven South by Southwest gigs, including a Sargent House showcase headlined by Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. By the time they got home they’d amassed a tidy collection of blog coverage, including a video interview for Consequence of Sound that was inexplicably conducted in a men’s room. A fan-made video for “Take Your Picture” has even turned up on YouTube. James works in video production, but ironically there’s still no official clip for the song.
Gypsyblood are about to head out on a brief east-coast tour with buddy band Maps & Atlases and Pitchfork-buzzy indie-psych act Delicate Steve—they’re planning a record-release show for after they get back—and the trip will likely put them in front of a lot of flannel-clad youngsters in the market for 90s-inflected guitar rock. Some of them might download Guestway, file it in an iTunes folder labeled “Totally 90s,” and take to Twitter comparing Gypsyblood to a bunch of bands they never tried to sound like. James says that won’t bother him, though; he already has a little experience dealing with people who think he’s a rip-off artist. “I was in a band in grade school that wrote original songs that sounded like Black Flag,” he says. “And I’d never heard Black Flag at that point.”