Being All In It with Identity Crises Incorporated

By , September 22, 2009 8:00 am

Given that we live in a diverse city rich in music festivals ranging from the Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, to the currently ongoing World Music Fest, we decided to go behind the Chicago music scene with some of our fine local talent.  The group we talk to, Identity Crises Inc., explains their song assembly process  and how they maintain fluidity in their music.  Catch them on October 2nd, at the Andersonville Arts & Home Weekend festival.

Rocking the park at Ravinia

Rocking the park at Ravinia

F: What is the story behind your band name? Any specific moments in your life where you’ve gone through a major identity search?

I: When I (Jacob) was a teenager, I started this high school band that was long on talent but short on focus. My band mates and I began with a common love of U2 but then started to diverge without really adjusting to each other: me towards jazz, our drummer towards Bob Dylan, and the other three guys towards the grunge / late alternative surge of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Offspring, and such. When the band fell apart, I kept thinking how I would love to launch another project one day that purposefully maintained a more fluid sense of style, i.e. where we would create a genre along the way rather than try to impose one from the top down.

A couple years later, I enrolled in college and happened to read Augustine’s Confessions concurrently with the writings of Erik Erikson, a seminal developmental psychologist. Erikson coined this term “identity crisis” to refer to a normal period during adolescence where one looses touch with a sense of individual and historical continuity. Becoming a fully functioning adult in a Western, industrialized context involves resolving that crisis—figuring out who you are and how you fit with the way the world is. It occurred to me that a lot of people these days are dealing with prolonged, almost unending identity crises; many biologically matured adults (let alone teenagers) don’t seem to have a clue about who they are or what life is truly about.

I think there’s something fundamental to humanity generating this, something that is being optimized in contemporary society—hence the “incorporated” part of Identity Crises Inc. (We’re all in this together.) Nevertheless, Augustine shared a parallel experience.  Here’s this ancient Roman, North African, proto-hippie-like figure who teaches rhetoric, sires a son out of wedlock, and cycles through a variety of spiritual orientations from paganism to Gnosticism to Neo-Platonism before he has this radical, liberating encounter with the divine. He becomes convinced that it is possible to experience unity with God by “putting on” the spirit of Jesus, and finally resolves the crisis; thus, he begins his Confessions with a prayer to God claiming that “our hearts are never at rest until they are at rest in you.”

“Identity Crises Inc.” works like a double entendre, playfully referencing the group’s stylistic fluidity while addressing these bigger themes about who we all are as people living in a certain culture fraught with particular problems but also laced with promising solutions. And, yes, we’ve all gone through major identity searches! For example, two of us are Jewish and two of us are Latin American in our primary roster, all navigating our way through a postmodern, “post-Christian,” increasingly globalized world while fashioning our own soundtrack.

F: You seem to have a constantly evolving band crew as you travel around the country performing – how do you find the talent and how hard is it to maintain some sort of ‘identity’ in your music?

I: Great question; this is why we’ve typically called Identity Crises Inc. a “musical project” rather than a “band.” Finding dependable partners can be really tricky; we use a hodge-podge of traditional networking methods as well as web-based social networking utilities to accomplish this (traditional networking is still more effective).  Maintaining a sense of “identity” in our music has been pretty simple since we built this thing on the premise of stylistic fluidity, are very picky about the people with whom we work, and chart our arrangements excessively!

Developing an identity

Developing an identity

More or less locking the vocal melodies and basic harmonic structures of our songs lets us play around with the other pieces—instrumentation, a semi-permeable roster, whatever the stylistic focus might be for a certain performance—while maintaining project continuity. This lets us broaden our network of collaborators, both individuals and venues, while refining whatever genre it is that we happen to be creating. We would be approaching our goal if we could play excellently at, say, the Rivera one night, then cross the street to play at the Green Mill the very next time around.

F: Can you share your song assembly process?  Do you think of the music first then the lyrics or the lyrics then the music to go with it?

I: There’s nothing hard and fast about our song assembly process, but most of the music usually comes before most of the lyrics. The caliber of poetry in today’s market is pretty low; it’s easier for us to wordsmith something at or above the norm once we’ve hammered out a basic harmonic and rhythmic structure. Every once in a while, we get lucky and pop a song out with lyrics and music together in one shot, but it’s usually a longer process.

F: We enjoyed listening to your song ‘One for My Sisters’, can you tell us more about what the song talks about?

I: “One For My Sisters” is one of those rare songs that clicked really quickly. It talks about this dynamic of surrogate sisterhood from a masculine perspective, i.e. the women in a man’s life who are capable of being truly good friends without drifting to romance, as is otherwise usually the case. I realized one day that I couldn’t think of a single song that talked about this relational dynamic. Most music about women written from a man’s perspective might be romantic, sexually objectifying, frustrated, whimsical, or what have you, but it’s not celebratory of a platonic, mutually edifying, fiercely loyal friendship.

I think songwriters often truncate passion to romance, forgetting that people are routinely passionate about a host of things. (Just go to a Bears game in November.) I absolutely adore my girlfriend, but my “sisters” have played a huge role in getting me through life well, and I love them for it. They’ve helped me weather some intensely difficult storms, and I will beat the crap out of any guy who messes with my sisters. I figured I’d write a song about all that one day while playing around with some chords on a guitar, and it just came together.

Listen to ‘One of My Sisters’: [mp3_embed playlst=”″]

F: Your Myspace page lists quite a bit of classical music inspiration – were you formally trained? Why so much inspiration from the classics?

I: Almost all of us are formally trained; that’s one of the things it takes to play around with a bunch of different musical styles while maintaining creative tension (otherwise, you typically revert to whatever “home” is for you musically).

Our Myspace page lists our influences chronologically; it probably looks like there’s more classical inspiration than is actually the case because most classical composers are near the top of the list. (I guess we might have to change that one day…) Nevertheless, the classics generated truck loads of musical technology that has never been utilized in popular music, and we love that stuff. Everybody gets basic, Western harmonic theory. You can bet your rent check that you are going to hear a song this week utilizing a I-V-vi-IV progression, e.g. the top of Green Day’s “When I Come Around.”  But you’re probably never going to hear any counterpoint, chromaticism, polytonality, leitmotif, etc. in popular music.

The same thing goes for basic jazz theory. As a result, the average popular music listener is processing shifts in style or audio production versus harmonic or song form depth; this is exacerbated by the fact that hit tunes are usually short, truncating liberty of form for popular songwriters. By introducing some of those neglected aspects of classical and jazz theory, our songs become more complex while remaining accessible. For example, “One For My Sisters” uses a modal mixture straight out of jazz theory 101 to set up the hook, although it’s basically a pop rock or Americana tune.

F: Let’s say Rolling Stone magazine featured you on their cover, what would the caption be? Why?

I: Caption: “So So Def!” Reason: That would be so, so def!

F: From your travels across the US, what do you find missing from Chicago compared to the other cities you’ve traveled to? Conversely, what things about/places in Chicago did you miss while you were making your way around the US?

I: Every city has its own spirit, and Chicago’s is very near and dear to our hearts. All the sunshine in California and cultural density of New York notwithstanding, the one thing Chicago lacks that is specific to music is the potential for long term business development. For example, there are lots of great venues in Chicago, a number of solid indie labels, and a couple significant publications, like Pitchfork. Nevertheless, there are relatively few producers or studios of the highest caliber in Chicago, and there is almost no solid management, publicity, or legal counsel dedicated to representing musical artists. Ironically, this makes Chicago an excellent place to get started musically but a tough place to stay (even the occasionally bad weather is good for the club scene); it’s rich with talent and opportunity but poor with market superstructure.

On the other hand, Chicago has a well-deserved reputation for being a hard-working, no-nonsense, on-point sort of town—one that doesn’t take itself too seriously but does take itself seriously enough. Furthermore, Chicago has world-class musicians playing a very large variety of music coupled with a discerning but supportive public. As a result, you can get a ton of great work done fast in Chicago. Furthermore, your average Chicagoan optimizes congeniality and work ethic; trying to collaborate with people elsewhere can be a total crap-shoot. For example, we love San Francisco, but it was incredibly difficult to find anyone who could simultaneously play rock, jazz, folk, and blues at our level despite the town’s history in a couple of those genres. In contrast, there are a ton of phenomenal artists around, say, L.A., but it’s going to be very tough to collaborate sustainably with them unless you’re nationally recognized or have some crazy, nepotistic connect.

I think one of the main things Chicago needs is a better awareness of its own treasure. You could spend every day of the week essentially jet setting on the cheap, but the general public tends to focus only on the really obvious, well-publicized events without digging deeper. By way of contrast, it’s partly publications like The New Yorker at one end of the spectrum and Brooklyn Vegan at the other that help make New York so great. Chicago needs similar utilities, but we’re not all the way there yet. Hopefully, folks like you can help.

F: Where do you enjoy listening to music in the city? Any favorite local bands you have?

I: For top shelf or festival-based music, it’s hard to beat Millennium and Grant Park, although we occasionally make the trek up to Ravinia. For up-and-coming artists in rock, jazz, and folk, we love Schubas, The Green Mill, and Uncommon Ground, respectively. We typically catch mid-level groups at The Metro while picking up a performance at, say, The Vic, The Park West, or The Old Town School of Folk Music every now and then.  There are a number of other places we love, but we keep going back to these ones the most.

Our favorite local artists right now are Bill Tucker & Friends, The Wiitala Brothers, Harley Figuera, Chuck Webb, and the great Orbert Davis. Our quasi-local picks are The Saturn Project (focusing now in Miami), Rue Royale (currently in Europe), Kid Sister (watching that Bears game), and especially my sister’s band, Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons (over half of whom live in Chicago). The alums we probably miss the most are Herbie Hancock, The Smashing Pumpkins, Kurt Elling, and Deanna Witkowski, who always seem to be everywhere but Chicago…

F: Can you share your favorite place in the city to sit down, reflect, and write some songs?

I: Yah, sorry! That’s exactly where we don’t want anyone else to find us. (Hint: certain parks and theatrical green rooms are particularly fecund.)

F: So what is your next gig?

I: We usually play at clubs with the occasional festival or coffee house gig, but our next show breaks the mould: We’ll be performing two, one-hour sets at 7 and 9pm on Friday, October 2nd, to support the Semiotic Art Show’s contribution to The Andersonville Arts & Home Weekend festival at 5255 N Ashland Ave., i.e. near the corner of Ashland and Berwyn in a community center appended to a nearby church.

Local graphic artist, Dana Chen, curated this year’s show under the theme of “metamorphsis,” which I guess is pretty appropriate for our music! We’ll be playing a mixture of original songs along with some jazz, bossa nova, and folk standards, adjusting the more rocking aspects of our repertoire accordingly. We’re planning to feature a couple of our buddies from the Chicago music scene, and the event is open to the public, stocked with food, and free across the board.

If people miss this for some reason, we should be back to our usual game at a couple of the venues we previously mentioned around the same time that all the leaves change with summer’s passing.

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