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Music

Power Pop's the Lilacs Endure with a New Song and Album (premiere + interview)

Photo: Asher Wiener / Courtesy Howlin' Wuelf Media

Chicago power pop favorites, the Lilacs return with a new EP, featuring two new songs and two from the band's past. Ken Kurson reflects on the 25 years between musical notes and the last impact of hometown friendships.

The Lilacs Endure, the first new release by Chicago power-pop sensations, the Lilacs, in more than a quarter-century arrives on 16 August via Chicago's Pravda Records. Produced by Richard Lloyd (Television, Matthew Sweet), the four-song collection carries two tracks written by David Levinsky and two penned by Ken Kurson, including "Monica" from the latter.

Featuring an impossibly catchy repeated guitar figure from Lewinsky, the tune is buoyed by Kurson's direct lyrics and trademarked impassioned vocals. It's a pop song but a pop song that features the familiar hallmarks of the Lilacs. It's more aggressive when it needs to be and far more naked than most songs ever are in both its intentions and its ambitions.

Speaking with PopMatters during a stayover in Chicago, Kurson discussed the Lilacs' history and the potential for its future (there are live dates this fall; there may be future recordings but it's not the focus at the moment). He also discussed his late friend and mentor, Jim Ellison of Material Issue (also immortalized in the Tragically Hip tune "Escape Is at Hand for the Travellin' Man").

What brought the band back together?

We had been asked a lot of times to do reunion shows when other bands in Chicago and elsewhere were reuniting. We'd get calls. "Would the reunited Lilacs like to play on the bill?" I always said no. I was about moving forward and building my real life and my real career. In 2015 I got divorced. I thought, "I've screwed my life up. Maybe I ought to start saying yes to things I've been saying no to and no to a few things I've been saying yes to." Right after that, the guy that runs the Cabaret Metro, which is the big place to play in Chicago, called me.

He said, "I know you always say no, but I got out the Lilacs' record and wondered if you guys would be interested in a reunion." I said, "You know? I think we would." I called the other guys. Everyone was into it. It was supposed to be a one-off thing, but we sounded really good. We still had our chops. We still had our energy. We looked pretty good.

What was it like to get back in the room together? Did you have the same feeling as 24 years before or whatever?

I would say that we did. We had a lot of that same feeling. But it was new and different. I'm not as angry as I was as a 24-year-old punk rocker. We've grown as friends. It's different to play these songs when you're a divorced dad as when you're a kid who has never been married. As your life changes, the meaning of the songs changes. These songs were there for me when I needed them the first time, and they were there for me when I needed them 20 years later.

Then there's the friend angle. A band works best when it's a band of brothers. I'm going to see the Rolling Stones for the first time , and the 50-year tension between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards infused that band with a lot of spirit. But I think there's a strong case to be made that the bands that really love each other are the ones that play best.

Did you spend a lot of time listening to the music you made with the guys in the intervening years or was it, "I wrote some songs in my 20s and moved on"?

I would say that the first ten years after I got out of music, I was very much, "I'm leaving that behind!" I'd lived in Chicago, then moved to New York. I barely picked up a guitar. I never listened to my own songs. I didn't even go see my friends' bands from Chicago when they came through town. Then I started to miss it, and I started to think, "Why am I avoiding this so much? It's not hurting me from moving on with my life."

I opened my heart to it again, and I was surprised by how good some of our stuff sounded. I was surprised by how bad some of it sounded too.

In addition to our new record, we're also doing a remastered version of Penelope. It was so badly recorded and so badly mastered that I could barely listen to it. We unearthed a DAT of it and hired a really great guy in L.A. to remaster it. It's like hearing a totally new record. I'm excited about that as well.

Who were your peers in the Chicago music scene?

Our patrons were Material Issue. Their leader, Jim Ellison, who tragically committed suicide in 1996, was a close friend who also helped invent us. I had been in Green, a band contemporaneous with Material Issue, and when I left Green to start my own band, Jim took a strong interest in us. He said, "I want to name you guys." He came up with the name. He produced our first record, and he helped arrange for all the studio time.

They had just been signed to a major label, Mercury. They had, relatively, a few bucks, so he helped us with buying tape and all the stuff a young band needs. There were other bands we played with and knew. Some of them had great success like Smashing Pumpkins, and there were others who were totally obscure, but we loved.

We always thought we were doing a purer form of pop than anyone else. There was a strong impulse in Chicago around that time when bands like Urge Overkill and the Pumpkins were getting signed, to be tough and badass.

All these guys from Wicker Park would walk around with their wallets on chains and look tough. We did the exact opposite. We embraced the inner-wuss and were proud to be pure pop.

I think, listening to Rise Above the Filth, you stumbled on what became the basis for emo.

Wow, what a great compliment! I hope that's true and I think that you're on to something. Part of our dynamic, our aesthetic, was to be completely blunt about the emotions that we were experiencing. Whereas sometimes bands try to be clever or disguise their heartbreak. We took ourselves to be a pop version of a really out-there, sad country song.

I tend to communicate very directly in my lyrics. One of our best-known songs is "Hop in the Stanza". People would say, "That's a metaphor. A stanza is part of poetry." I would say, "No, it's a Nissan Stanza, I jump in the car." We try to be really direct with our emotions. If that's the primary trait of the emo genre, then I take that as a big compliment that you heard that in the lyrics on Rise About the Filth.

You're back with this EP. Does this represent new material or is it a case of, "I still have this one song"?

It's exactly half and half. The new record came about because the great punk legend Richard Lloyd had become an acquaintance of mine. I asked him if he'd ever be interested [in working with us]. We had these two songs lying around, one by David called "Blue Spark" and one by me called "Monica", which had been written in 1993 but had never been recorded by the band. It did get recorded by another band, a band that got pretty big, the Returnables.

As we got ready to record in Nashville, David said, "I've got a new song called 'Shadow of Doubt', why don't we, if there's time, try to do that one as well?" He sent me a demo, just him playing it on guitar, and it was so great, I thought, "Wow, if Dave can still write songs maybe I can too!"

I hadn't since I was 25. I'm 50 now. I went to my basement. I've got five kids. I told them all to shut up. I was going to be in the basement experimenting. I banged out what I thought was a really catchy song. I recorded a demo, sent it around. It's on the record.

So, "Monica". I seem to remember other songs about women in your discography.

[Laughs.] That's a cliché. I accept that implied criticism. Having songs with female names in them is one of the oldest rock 'n' roll clichés, even before "Michelle", but what can I tell you?

The irony there is that the song is not about anyone called Monica. It's about my then-girlfriend, now ex-wife, Rebecca. But the way that the syllables fall in Rebecca, there's no way to get a good chorus out of it. It's a loving portrait of her. There's a line that says, "Drawer of snakes and a fish" because that's one of Becky's traits. When we had kids, she'd draw snakes and fish on their lunch boxes. My friend, Jim Vallance, one of the most successful songwriters ever, heard the record and said that "Monica" was the hit.

Why put that one out there first?

I think people will understand when they hear it. It's got a big, memorable chorus, so sort of the natural single. I think that's why this other band, the Returnables, ended up covering it. We thought a quick, three-minute pop song was the best route for a video. I shot a decent part of it myself. I've been making spots for TV for years. I'm actually in Chicago right now for the premiere of my movie, a documentary.

What is your documentary?

My documentary is called Holidays in Cambodia. It's about the genocide of 1975-1979. It focuses on this one particular family and their mostly survival of it. They cross the entire country by foot twice. The remnants of Pol Pot's totalitarian regime were on the march, and this family stuck together and mostly survived one of history's worst genocides.

You mentioned Jim Ellison before, and I just wanted to say that he was a fantastic songwriter. It must have been great to be his friend.

Jim was such a fun guy to be friends with. He was an exceptionally decent guy. Around Chicago indie music circles he didn't always have the best reputation because he was very career-oriented and that was frowned upon. He was always booking bands at this club and working the door at that club. There were hipsters who thought he was too much into the business of it. I loved that he pursued business so seriously. It paid off for him.

Just being his friend was an adventure because, in addition to the great love of music, he had a ton of fun hobbies. He was a really good car mechanic. I always consider the sign of a guy who's a good car mechanic being someone who can smoke a cigarette confidently while working near the gasoline parts of an engine. [Laughs.]

He loved classic cars. He used to know the make and year of every car he'd see on TV. You'd be watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and he'd say, "That's a '66 Volvo." He was a great guy to pal around with, and we wrote songs together. We never recorded any of the ones we wrote. It was so fun to sit in his apartment and noodle on guitars. I'd have him over and play him songs I'd been working on.

I really miss him. I wrote a long obituary for NewCity, the alternative newspaper here in Chicago. It was very meaningful for me to put all these thoughts together in writing. A couple of weeks later, back in my real life in New York City, I was working at a magazine at that time, my phone rang. It was his mother crying and thanking me for that.

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