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JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound

Chicago's newest soul revivalists talk sailor suits, jet packs and Wu-Tang lovin' sexagenarians.
Monday Mar 16, 2009.     By Jeff D. Min
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

JC Brooks

When listening to contemporary soul it's always important not to get overzealous with the comparisons. Sure the JB's, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, Earth Wind & Fire and The Meters set the precedent, but one must remember it was a vastly different time and place occupied by a completely different generation of fans. In a nutshell, '70s soul was a genre that defied convention with its fearless attempts to soundtrack a turbulent sociopolitical climate. Even if we're not really "post-racial," things have changed.

Different things are expected of soul bands these days, too; a funky backbeat isn't enough. Groups are now expected to be flavorful in progression and uncompromising in both character and presentation.

Judging from its new album, Beat of Our Own Drum, Chicago's own JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound is far more than a band lost in nostalgia. Instead, the Uptown Sound covers a diverse range of sounds owing as much to rock and punk as to soul and R&B. Ben Taylor's work on bass dances like thunder throughout, with the accompanying lightning coming courtesy of drummer Kevin Marks. Together the two provide a soundscape over which JC Brooks (lead vocal) can wail, scream, harmonize and downright beg. Billy Bungeroth (guitar) adds a softer tone that takes over when words won't suffice.

It's a pleasure to know that Chicago hasn't forgotten its roots in soul and R&B, and JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound is a living testament. This explains why the folks at Numero Group invited the group to be the backing band at its Eccentric Soul Revue on April 4.

Centerstage was fortunate enough to catch up with Billy Bungeroth before the group's album release party at the Empty Bottle on February 28, and talk about how a simple ad on Craigslist started it all.

Tell me about how JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound came together?
I was playing in an indie-rock band a year or so ago, but listening almost exclusively to '60s soul records. I wrote a bio for that indie-rock band that included the word "sexy," I referenced Wilson Pickett, and talked about how the audience would dance and celebrate at our shows. I got reamed out by the other guys for writing a bio that didn't fit us, and they told me people don't go to places like the Empty Bottle to dance. So I put an ad on Craigslist with a vision of a multi-racial band that made sexy and political music that you could dance to. JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound are the guys who showed up at my doorstep to answer that ad. My life has changed considerably since then. And people know how to get down at the Empty Bottle by the way.

How has Chicago played a role?
Musically Chicago held the homes of our highest musical inspirations from both ends of the spectrum. From Curtis Mayfield to Jeff Tweedy, there are so many names from this city. Experimental innovators like Phil Cohran, Sun Ra and The Pharaohs plus soul giants like Sam Cooke, The Staple Singers and Gene Chandler. And literally our friends and contemporaries like Marvin Tate, Califone, Tortoise, Ken Vandermark and The Cool Kids. We are on fertile soil here. Just stop into any club, any night.

Take me back to your first performance together.
Summer 2007. The band dressed in tight white sailor pants and black shirts because I'd seen a picture of Booker T. & the MG's in similar outfits. We played after a band called Scattered Maize in which the entire band dressed in mid-1800s Indian garb. JC was out of this world that night. I mean he was cool in the rehearsals leading up to it but brother just cut loose that night. He killed it. Of those 30 people in the audience there that night four or five have been to every Chicago show since. And this is me thanking them for that.

Who are some of your influences from both the past and present music scenes?
Well, the Chicago list is above. The first night we hung out there was a lot of talk about Stax Records, Gang Of Four, Fugazi, BLK JKS, Al Green, The Stooges, The Meters and James Brown.

But when we're in the van after about two hours of cool music everybody's iPods start getting dry and exposing a lot of New Jack Swing like Keith Sweat, Tevin Campbell, Guy, New Edition, BBD and Janet. Living Colour is inevitably discussed. And then I put on some rare Shuggie Otis and it's like that weird interlude never even happened. Not a word.

Your album is a blend of soul, rock and punk, which stems from a long line of influences. How do you pay homage while still remaining progressive?
It's an interesting balance. I find that mainstream rock 'n' roll and R&B from 1958-1974 is almost unanimously amazing. And then in '75 it gets bloated and overwrought, but about that time the underground takes over, punk replaces rock and hip-hop replaces R&B. Our music is just re-imagining that first era with the knowledge of the second underground era.

I know too much about Joy Division and PIL to ever play my guitar right. And JC has heard too much Spearhead and PE to write lyrics about just "Baby, baby, I love you," but we don't want the audience to stand and watch us emote like they do in the post-punk, post-rap world. We'll play with all the primal energy we can at times, but it's always in service of that audience living in that moment. We aren't pretending the past 35 years didn't happen. We're just saying you can listen with your ears and shake your booty at the same time. One nation under a groove.

No doubt! Tell me about your album [Beat of Our Own Drum].
Here's how it works for every band "on the verge" in Chi-town.

Go to the studio. Fork over your money to your buddy who's cutting you a deal in a converted Polish social club. Set up. Smoke cigarettes. Play your best, pretty much all live. Pray someday someone will hear it. Mix it. Tell a lot of jokes. Pray someone hears it. Smoke cigarettes. Get into a fight about a song. Read pornography. Eat some food. Forget about it. Smoke cigarettes. Drive home listening to the unmastered copy, proud-as-all-hell. Tell your girlfriend it was an amazing four days before you pass out for 12 hours. Go back to your day job. Fall asleep. Dream that someone hears it and invests in your music. Wake up still proud, but praying that next time you can be even more true to the sound you hear in your head.

You're going to be backing some legends at The Eccentric Soul Revue. How did you initially link up with Numero?
I think they called us 'cause of our good friend John Ciba from Rabbit Factory Records. And then I think they sent a spy to one of our shows, I'm not entirely sure. All I know is I'd been listening to their records for years so when that call came in it was like a jump up-and-down moment for me. They are the authority on obscure Chicago Soul.

What's it like so far working with legends like Syl Johnson, the Kennedy brothers, Nate Evans, Renaldo Domino and The Notations?
Well, Syl doesn't know this but I had a picture of him in my room in high school [that] I stole off a telephone pole on Cottage Grove. Probably the only little brat on the North Shore in the late '90s with one of those, but it's an honor. Darrow Kennedy and the Kaldirons are hilarious, we watch them crack jokes like they're the cool uncles at a family cookout. Renaldo Domino is great 'cause it's amazing to see someone come back to it. And Cliff Curry of the Notations and Bruce Rodgers are about as positive of people as I've met in recent years; soul is a descriptor for them. And Syl, he's just Syl, man. He may be older now but he's so feisty James Brown would turn the corner if he came walking down his street with a stick.

Now the combination of contemporary soul and old-school soul seems easy enough, but I've heard other situations not turn out so well. Have these guys passed on any words of wisdom?
First of all these guys are more into contemporary music than I am. You're talking about guys in their 60s into sampler keyboards, computerized guitars and the Wu Tang Clan. We're the ones who are hung up on old 45s and analog tape. As far as what we've learned from them, too much too list here for me personally. Many years of soul knowledge in The Eccentric Soul Revue, that's for sure. They are the real deal. I could see Syl saying "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothin ta fuck wit," I really can.

Any favorite venues in Chicago to perform at?
The Uptown Theater will be after President Obama and Jesus Christ restore it together wearing jet packs. Until then the Hideout and The Empty Bottle are the places we call home. But we play them all - the Double Door, Martyrs', darkroom. We're doing a show promoting literacy next month at Metro [March 19], that'll be a first for us.

Where does JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound like to relax when not performing?
The Second City.

Any sound Chicago advice?
A lot of people think Chicago is the step on the road to another destination. It's not. Chicago is the destination. We live in the greatest city on Earth. Mind it, support it. If you dig music and you like to dance and you like heart-drenched ballads and funky post-punk workouts then there's a dude named Mr. JC Brooks in Chicago I think you ought to go and see.

 

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