The Accidental Band

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Download Josh Chicoine of The M's: Audio Interview (mp3, 6.7 MB).

(An audio recording of this interview [28 minutes, mp3, 6.4 megabytes] can be downloaded here.)

An Interview with Josh Chicoine of The M’s

It’s not quite miraculous that The M’s are touring in support of a new record, but given the group’s origins, it’s a surprise that the band is making public appearances at all.

It started out as a lark, four guys recording dozens of songs at home. “Nobody knew who we were,” said singer/guitarist Josh Chicoine in a recent phone interview. “We didn’t even know who we were. We didn’t have a name. We didn’t have anything.”

Some bands don’t want to be bothered with live performance but consider themselves artistes in the studio. That was not The M’s. This was strictly bedroom.

“It wasn’t like we wanted to be a studio band,” Chicoine said. “It was that we didn’t even want to be a band. We were just more into hanging out, and drinking beers, and recording some songs, and not really worrying about trying to make it as a band. There’s so many pitfalls, and all of the heartache that we’re dealing with now. It’s a hard thing.”

“Heartache” might be hyperbolic, but The M’s are now forced to deal with the annoyances and work that success brings. The Chicago-based indie-rock outfit suffers incessant comparisons to the Kinks — because of hooks and harmonies — and has shared stages with such luminaries as the New Pornographers and Wilco. The group’s new record, Future Women (released in February on the Polyvinyl label), is even more compelling than its well-reviewed but little-heard self-titled debut. The sophomore CD is a warm slice of oddball rock, reminiscent of not only of the Kinks but the Flaming Lips in its cheerful reconstruction of pop structures using muscular guitars and layers of eccentric, trippy sound.

The model, the 32-year-old Chicoine freely admits, is Windy City brother Wilco. “They’re basically doing pop songs,” he said. “Then, in order to ... pull them off in such a way that they can appreciate, they load them up, and do different things with them, and try different ideas. And that’s basically what we try to do also. I think our process is pretty similar.”

It starts with a core, which is augmented with as much sonic stuff as the band can conjure. “You basically do overload,” Chicoine said. “First you just dump everything on. ... Something will emerge from that.”

After that, there’s the process of stripping a song back down, or developing some of the ideas, or even abandoning the starting point.

“Maybe it’s a happy accident even,” he said. “Maybe it’s something that you never intended in the first place, and then all of a sudden you’re hearing something that may or may not even be there. Maybe it’s the way that two tracks relate to one another ... . That’s what’s really exciting about recording. You start with some kind of a set idea, but after that is down, all bets are off. ... You never know where you’re going to end up. ... It’s a discovery process. And the song kind of discovers itself through your actions.”

That’s not to suggest that The M’s are high art, or blazing new trails. “We’re a rock band,” Chicoine said. “We’re playing pop music. There is a formula to it. ... We’re not making symphonies here.”

The foursome first got together in the summer of 2000, and began playing gigs a year later. “Maybe it was boredom,” Chicoine said of live performance. “We just decided to try a couple shows.”

That casual decision-making process has characterized the group’s history, in a way that its success has been nearly accidental. “Every time we stuck our necks out a little bit,” Chicoine said, “nobody cut off our heads.”

One EP led to another, and those were combined with new songs for the band’s self-titled full-length debut on the Brilliante label in 2004. “We didn’t have good distribution,” Chicoine said. “We were getting good press despite the fact that it was basically like a demo for us.”

Future Women, he said, was an attempt at self-improvement. “We didn’t want to do anything that was radically different,” he said, “but we wanted to ... do it better, better in all ways — production-wise, arrangement-wise, performance-wise, getting specific tones.” Most impressively, “Trucker Speed” melds feedback, distortion, strings, and horns into an intense, churning, squalling groove without devolving into muddle.

The album was self-produced and -recorded, reflecting both the band’s do-it-yourself attitude and its need for full artistic ownership. “We all wanted to have complete control over it.” Chicoine said. “We didn’t want to have to go through an intermediary to get to the thing that we knew how to do in the first place. It just turned out to be unnecessary. ...

“We wanted to at least by the end of it feel as though we had taken our talents, as far as production, recording, as far as we could. And past this point, maybe it’s time to bring in somebody else.”

Chicoine sounds ambivalent about both the recording process — “It’s fun, and it’s tedious, and it’s hard,” he said — and about how far the band has strayed from where it started.

But the band will not relinquish control over its music, no matter what level of success it finds. “What are you going to do?” Chicoine said. “Are you going to leave it up to somebody else what you’re going to sound like or what you’re going to be? ... Ultimately it’s you and it’s your art. If you’re letting somebody else make those decisions, then it stops being that way.”

And although The M’s are on the cusp of something bigger — and even though the band has become something its members never really even wanted — they’re still able to go back to those roots of hanging out, drinking beers, and recording songs. “I don’t think it is gone,” he said. “Now, there’s just more interference.”

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.

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