Lollapalooza is one of the biggest music festivals of the summer, but with 100-plus acts on the lineup, not everyone hitting the stage has the name-recognition of a Green Day or a Lady Gaga. In this two-part feature, PopMatters follows one band as it prepares for its first gig at an event that is expected to draw almost 100,000 excited music fans.
Lollapalooza, since reinventing itself as a one-weekend, one-location festival in 2005, has become one of the pre-eminent musical events of the American summer. It’s a major show which audience members travel to from across the continent (and further) in order to imbibe vast quantities of live music in a single sitting. But while big-name headliners this year like Lady Gaga are the primary draw for many of the thousands of attendees, there are well over a hundred different bands and artists scheduled in the 2010 lineup. Many of these performers are up-and-comers in their own niche-genres or geographical regions, but Lollapalooza will see them playing to vast crowds whose main goal for the weekend may not necessarily be giving new acts a fair chance. PopMatters follows one such band -- Ann Arbor, Michigan’s My Dear Disco -- as they spend a long summer touring, recording and promoting in advance of their first gig on a Lollapalooza stage. Through MDD’s eyes, we’ll try to see how an unsigned band-on-the-rise deals with a busy touring schedule, finding new fans, and leveraging every opportunity to their advantage.
+ + +
On a cloudy June 18th, 2010 evening, My Dear Disco takes the stage for their headlining performance at Ann Arbor’s first “Top of the Park” show of the summer. The event has turned the city’s intertwined shopping district and university campus into a sea of sun-kissed local citizens, ranging from young families pushing strollers around, to entrepreneurial-restaurateurs hawking their Chicago-style hotdogs from vending booths. Most of the crowd’s attention, however, has been focused on the stage since long before the band energetically bounced onto it. Last year, My Dear Disco played to a crowd of 4,000+ ‘Ann Arborites,’ the biggest audience so far in Top of the Park history, and this show marks their triumphant homecoming after a year of heavy out-of-town touring and locked-in-the-studio recording sessions. MDD has gained a much bigger audience since their previous performance, but the people here are the fans who loved them first and they’re ready to dance the evening away with their hometown heroes, as MDD takes their places behind their instruments in what is rapidly becoming an Ann Arbor tradition.
The band launches into one of their many upbeat, danceable tracks, and the fans who have crammed the area immediately in front of the stage are quickly moving their feet in time to MDD’s intricate grooves. MDD blitzes through two, then three songs, with the audience-frenzy showing no signs of abating. Elementary school-aged children skip and leap around the edges of the crowd, while the now thoroughly-buzzed drinkers in the festival’s beer garden nod their heads in funk-and-microbrew induced bliss. After the third song comes to a close, MDD seems all set to kick things up another notch, when disaster strikes. Before the band started playing, an anonymous announcer had been warning over the P.A. that “inclement weather” could potentially shutdown the show. Before MDD gets a chance to begin song number four the voice returns, warning the crowd that they should start searching for cover, as rain and 70 mph winds are less than 20 minutes away from hitting the outdoor venue.
For a few minutes, the crowd lingers around hopefully, and the band assures them that they will do their best to continue the show if at all possible. Unfortunately, the sky continues to look more and more threatening, and the band reluctantly starts packing-up their expensive live rig. The festival-goers, with even greater reluctance, start to make their way to shelter in Rackham Auditorium or the nearby bars and restaurants. It’s an unfortunate end to what was supposed to be something of a victory lap for this local-band-made-good. Amazingly enough though, in almost a month of doing research on and corresponding with My Dear Disco, it’s the first time I’ve heard of anything remotely resembling bad luck befalling them.
My Dear Disco first formed as a two-piece back in 2006. Originally a computer-based project for Tyler Duncan, the group began to expand when his University of Michigan School of Music classmate Bob Lester contributed an electro-pop track called “My Dear Disco” which featured the vocals of another friend from U of M, Michelle Chamuel. Impressed by the song, Duncan swiftly reformed as a dance-music group with an emphasis on live performance. At one point the band featured seven members, mostly fellow School of Music students, but has since shrunken down to five touring musicians, with bassist Christian Carpenter and drummer Mike Shea assisting the three core members at their live shows.
The band-members were all still in school as this project came together, and a few great college-party-shows followed by a sudden disbandment after graduation would have been a predictable end to this tale, but that was never an option according to the band’s leaders. Instead of joining their classmates in filing endless job applications during their last year of undergraduate study, the band hit the road, playing 150+ gigs in 2009 alone. They also spent time in the studio, putting out the full-length DanceThink LP in January, 2009.
This post-grad course of action actually isn’t that strange for graduates of the U of M School of Music. Many of the band’s contemporaries are successfully pursuing music full-time now that school is out, but not exactly along the same avenue that MDD is. Over the past few years, traditional genres like bluegrass and folk have experienced a remarkable resurgence in the Midwest (among other places), and many of MDD’s former classmates, like popular yarn-spinner Michael Beauchamp, have used their vast musical knowledge to explore these older music forms through younger eyes and ears. MDD, however, went in another direction. They decided to apply past experiences like Duncan’s years touring with traditional Irish ensembles and Lester and Chamuel’s formal production training at the School of Music’s Department of Performance Arts Technology to the one type of music they’d spent most of their lives listening: pop.
Bright, young people treating pop music as an art-form on par with other, more venerated genres has been a dominant theme of indie-music since the end of the last century. Yet the idea of artists with extensive technical knowledge turning their talents to something that is commonly dismissed as a mere commercial product is still, despite post-punk, “poptimism” and Andy Warhol, one that doesn’t feel quite right to a lot of people. While MDD understands that this is a common reaction, they admit it has no relation to their own activities and listening habits. “It doesn't make sense on paper, that's for sure,” muses Duncan. “Here's one theory. No matter where you are, you're surrounded by pop music. That's one thing you know you can hear if you're driving through the plains of North Dakota -- you'll be able to tune into some kind of pop radio station.”
A further part of the explanation may lie in the relatively young age of this group of recent college graduates. Like their elders, MDD were raised listening to The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, but they also were teenagers when groups like Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk started putting out albums that took techniques associated with “the underground” and used them to re-imagine the sounds they’d heard on Top 40 stations. In addition, they grew up at the same time as the internet was evolving. Lester explains that “with the internet at our disposal it is possible to find and obsess over any kind of sound and music that interests you.” Most people may divide their time between listening to folk bands at local shows and then nodding along to a Max Martin production (another MDD influence) in the car, but it’s likely that their iTunes playlists are nowhere near as segregated.
When talking about contemporary influences, the band mentions beloved indie acts like Justice and Phoenix. Those two groups in particular seem to represent the crossroads MDD’s music inhabits. Justice re-imagines classic pop and rock through their computers and samplers while Phoenix looks like a typical pop-rock five-piece who just happen to build their aesthetic with the aid of sparkling, electro-inspired hooks. Listen to Dancethink LP or any of MDDs shorter releases, and you’ll hear all these ingredients in the mix, although they won’t seem as important as the fact that, much like their influences, this is a band that makes really good, really catchy dance-pop.
Their best songs range from “Replacable”, a club-ready track that glistens like a well-calibrated dance machine fresh off the factory floor, to “Amsterdam”, a frenetic anthem that uses stomping Bristol-punk-style guitar stabs to drive home its equally danceable chorus. This band of formally-trained musicians has a range of arrows in their quiver that is inconceivable to the casual Fruity-Loops producer -- ranging from Lester’s guitar-shredding abilities to Duncan’s encyclopedic knowledge of his synthesizers, as well as the way Chamuel belts out her lyrics about love and loss with what seems like unconscious ease (like many great pop singers, she has that rare and hard-to-learn ability to make a string of simple “baby, baby, baby’”s sound like the most heartrending moment of introspection imaginable) – but for the band, they are all tools used to serve their goal of making good, enjoyable songs.