From Reduction to Rebuilding
Because of the bizarrely prolific resurgence of garage rock simplicity over the last several years, you’re probably sick of hearing about this scene. Admittedly, after a while, stripped-down bands playing their guitars as loud as they can and hollering over it gets kind of old. But what happens when “garage rock” is the label a band gets because there’s nothing else to call them? Such is the case of the Living Blue, a band whose sound began in that pigeonhole, but has since found its way out through complex webs of lead guitar and a massive percussive backbone that will please indie fans and stoner-rockers alike. If you think about it, isn’t the point of stripping a sound all the way down, as garage rock does, just a path to building it back up again? There’s a simplicity to the Living Blue’s sound, but it’s something natural, organic… something inherent.
Besides, the Living Blue never claimed to be complicated. In fact, the band has never claimed to be anything but hard-working. Since 1998, Stephen Ucherek and Joe Prokop, then high schoolers in tiny Odell, Illinois, have been a musical team. In Odell, as Bloody Knuckles, they played in basements (often their own), mostly for themselves and occasionally for the few other teens who wanted the sweaty outlet of rock ‘n’ roll. Honing a dynamic that has been on the rise through several incarnations, Ucherek and Prokop moved to Champaign, a college town almost two hours from Odell. The band became the Blackouts, tore themselves a spot in the heart of that burgeoning scene and now, as the Living Blue and armed with a deal through Chicago’s Minty Fresh Records, the band is ready to take on the world.
It has been seven years since Ucherek and Prokop began playing together, and the Living Blue has made it to a point of constant improvement. 2004’s Living in Blue (as the Blackouts) documented the band beginning to break out of the mold of traditional garage band, splintering the walls that once bound them. Where chords once repeated under slurred, animated vocals, the band inserted progressive, noodling lead guitars (thanks to Prokop) and a sound that stepped away from the noisy, chaotic garage bands of yore and into a realm more akin to Television and ‘60s psych-pop. The Living Blue fit well in a smoky barroom, but won’t be out of place on indie radio, either.
After a successful 2004, which found the band winning at the national level of Little Steven’s Battle of the Underground Garage Bands, and also appearing on several television programs (such as the WB’s One Tree Hill), the Living Blue signed to Chicago’s Minty Fresh Records. The decision to sign to an indie label after playing the numbers game with the majors seems like it would be a difficult one, but according to Ucherek, it wasn’t at all. Minty Fresh provided them the friendship and support of the band’s members needed to shift the music to their full-time job. Bus boys no more, they went to make a record.
Produced by Adam Schmitt, Fire, Blood, Water is the gritty, fiery album that has been on deck for the Living Blue for several years now. It’s a marriage of the Animals and Black Sabbath with J. Mascis on lead guitar, a maelstrom that matches the poppiest moments (“Tell Me Leza”) to the most mind-numbing ferocity (“Secrets”; “Conquistador”) with ease. Though Fire, Blood, Water is a logical progression from Living in Blue, there is even more precision, breadth, and sprawl embedded in the new material. It’s a deeper, more realized version of an already solid sound. Ucherek considers the new album to represent a “rebirth” of the band, which makes sense.
“You can tell the difference between a good band and a shitty band by how they play live, so it’s time to step up,” he explains. “It’s only going to get better.”
This mindset is evidenced by the band’s hometown record release show in Champaign last August, a show both the Living Blue and its fans claim to be, bar none, the most powerful show the band has played to date. Perhaps the fact that a hometown record release show could trump playing in front of 15,000 at Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival says more about the band than anything.
The Living Blue has just returned from a west coast tour and is ready to take off for the east, kicking it off with shows in Champaign and Chicago (with the M’s).
“The live show is kicking ass in a place it’s never been,” Ucherek says. “We’re just going to make sure there are strings on the guitars and that the van’s running, and stay on the road.”
The Living Blue satiates the desire for rock ‘n’ roll that is straightforward, but doesn’t feel bullheaded, proof that there is something to be said for breaking the mold, for taking the basics of rock music apart piece by piece and reassembling them. The Living Blue knows the rules and knows how to break them, too; it’s a push-pull of gigantic proportions. At the end of the day, the Living Blue is on pace not only to be great, but to be important, too.
// Notes from the Road
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