Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Forgotten '90s: Cinco de Gatos

Cinco de Gatos ca. 1995

The 1990s set the stage for many a rock band; musicians ranging from young teenagers to older twenty-somethings picked up their guitars with dreams of being signed to Dischord and Jade Tree Records, maybe recording a demo or two, and, if they were lucky, a full-length album for some independent label before fading into relative obscurity, perhaps to be discovered by some college student who picked up their limited 7” record at a small resale shop or dying radio station sale.
One of the most poignant and sadly unknown bands to come from the early 1990s Chicago scene was the short-lived Cinco de Gatos. Only existing for a short period between 1994 and 1996, Cinco de Gatos recorded a demo, El Kitti Loco, a yet-to-be-released full-length entitled Epiphany Wants to Come Home, as well as an EP, Home Taping Is Destroying Hardcore, recorded for their short reunion in 2009-2010. A combination of their short career, a failed reunion in the late 2000s, and the lack of readily-available recordings has proved all but successful for any media exposure, maybe getting a mention in a show review if they were lucky. Being the first in-depth look into Cinco de Gatos, this article will delve into the band's genre and history, discuss both Epiphany and Home Taping, as well as discuss the band's short reunion and what the future holds for the band itself, if there is a future for Cinco de Gatos indeed.

Cinco de Gatos fit into what is known as the “post-hardcore” community, a subgenre of rock music with its roots in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Essentially an experimental offshoot of the “hardcore” genre, post-hardcore's earliest incarnations existed with bands such as Black Flag, whose My War album's B-side is a slow, wretched, noisy affair characterized by vocalist Henry Rollins's pained spoken-word, or The Clash's later experiments with reggae and pop music, or even seminal post-punk band The Pop Group's inclusion of dub, jazz and noise into their bass-heavy, experimental take on punk. The 1990s brought about post-hardcore's pinnacle, featuring At the Drive-In's flirtations with Hispanic rhythms and effects pedal-ridden psychedelia, Fugazi's heavy, funk-influenced rhythms and Glassjaw's overall “modernist” take on rock music in general: keeping a strong rhythm section over which the guitarists and singer perform semi-improvised, avant-garde sonic experiments. Post-hardcore eventually became a blanket term for any band with punk roots or punk influence who just did something different or new with the genre.

One of the most formidable cities, if not the most formidable city in post-hardcore history is by far Chicago. Home to such timeless emo (an offshoot of post-hardcore) bands as Braid, The Promise Ring and Gauge, as well as hardworking musicians such as the brotherly duo of Mike and Tim Kinsella, whose work (either together or separate) in the bands Cap'n Jazz, American Football, Owen, Make Believe, Friend/Enemy, and the prolific Joan of Arc, among many other projects, made Chicago one of the hardest-working city-scenes in post-hardcore. This scene was figure-headed by the inadmissible Steve Albini, of the bands Big Black and Shellac, whose studio work with such bands as Sonic Youth, Low, Nirvana, and hundreds more has helped produce , mix, and master over two thousand albums
Before Cinco de Gatos, a young Jonathan Scott and Jason Dummeldinger had an “obnoxious punk band” called Happy Type between 1991 and 1992. Aspiring to be a punk musician, 17-year-old Jonathan posted a want-ad on a bulletin board at the College of DuPage to which Jason responded. Happy Type only lasted around six to eight months due to Jonathan's complete lack of musical performance knowledge and directional differences (Jonathan cites Husker Dü and The Descendents “...you know, punk bands” as early influences, whereas bassist Dummeldinger was into the harder “New York” style hardcore punk). No material was ever recorded.

The year 1994 brought Jonathan Scott to Chicago, where his new roommate, a man by the name of Dan Sullivan (formerly of Screeching Weasel), informed Jonathan that Dummeldinger lived “just down the street”. Eager to reconnect with an old friend, Jonathan and Jason met up and decided to start a new band. Jonathan had only been playing guitar seriously for around two or three months, but his dream of being a guitarist in a band needed to be achieved.
With Jonathan and Jason's reunion, along the roommate Dan as the drummer came the birth of Cinco de Gatos in the summer of 1994. The first few songs showcase Jason Dummeldinger's songwriting ability, featuring heavy emphasis on rhythmic bass and drums as a backbone to Jonathan's more experimental, noisy and distorted guitar work, resulting in heavier, dissonant, more Fugazi-like songs.

Cinco de Gatos entered the studio for their first demo the same summer in which they began. The five-track “El Kitti Loco” demo was recorded by an Andy Kuharich at Jordan Studios in Wheaton, IL. These tracks were re-recorded for the first half of the unreleased Epiphany Wants to Come Home full-length. It was after this recording that guitarist Ryan Rapsys of the aforementioned Gauge joined in as second guitarist.
The first months of 1995 marked Cinco de Gatos's first show at the infamous Fireside Bowl, at which many post-hardcore shows occurred, in Chicago. Playing alongside hardcore punk/thrash metal band MK-ULTRA, named for the alleged CIA mind-control project, Jonathan Scott found his first time playing guitar in front of an audience to be quite troubling. A combination of first-time performance anxiety, a probably-malfunctioning Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, and an overall lack of knowledge about guitar equipment turned Jonathan's guitar playing into a frigid, noisy, feedback-laden mess. The overall performance was apparently so poor that Ryan Rapsys quit just after the concert, replaced soon-after by Andy Kuharich, who engineered and recorded their first demo the previous summer.

Interestingly enough, after the first show Jonathan was approached by a rather tall, “freaky-looking” guy. In a low voice, the man told Jonathan, “I just want you to know you are the greatest guitar player I've ever seen play in my life." This man turned out to be a Mr. Quintron from a band known as Monitor Radio, “who were absolutely the best band in Chicago at the time,” according to Jonathan. “I didn't know how to play guitar at all at that time,” Jonathan added, “It was all noise, and different kinds of noise for different parts of the song, and I guess it worked.”

Epiphany Wants to Come Home, Cinco de Gatos's unreleased album, was recorded during the summer of 1995 by sound engineer Tom Zaluckyj (of the band Tar) in the infamous Steve Albini's house. “It's funny,” ponders Jonathan, looking backwards to 1995, “I guess Steve had problems with neighbors complaining about him having bands in there; this was a residential neighborhood. He was afraid for zoning purposes he'd get shut down, so he hid the studio in his attic, where the control room was, and there was a secret door that, this is funny, doesn't sound true, and there was a cupboard and it had actual food on it, but it was nailed down. He would push this button and the secret door would come up to lead upstairs – this is how paranoid he was about shutting down.” This, of course, was before Albini got his own studio, which is now located in Evanston, just North of Chicago. Referring to the studio as somewhat of a “bat cave,” Jonathan kept pointing out just how generous Steve Albini was to the younger bands, producing albums around the clock for low prices; “Only $300 for the whole album,” he recounted.

Among the releases found in Chicago's early 1990s alternative rock scene, Epiphany Wants to Come Home sticks out like a sore thumb. While other albums such as Cap'n Jazz's “Schmap'n Schmazz” and Braid's “Frame & Canvas” are concentrated works, Epiphany is a distinct, dichotomous affair, alternating between off-kilter, dissonant, almost metallic songs and almost radio-friendly, pop-infused anthems, displaying the evolution between their bass-dominated, Dummeldinger-directed roots to the ringing, harmonious, pop and folk-influenced material that Jonathan found himself writing towards Cinco de Gatos's first demise. Beginning with “What's Wrong With Butterfly Sugar,” the listener is bombarded with a rhythmic, atonal, hardcore punk onslaught that evolves into a catchy, melodic late-80s punk-styled chorus. “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter I” is by far one of the most experimental songs on the album, with verses based around a single, ominous bass line, coated with a single guitar note, plucked rhythmically. Jonathan, instead of singing, finds himself speaking in increasing levels of intensity, eventually screaming before leading into the dissonant, instrumental chorus. “Chicago Mercantile Exchange” is a Dwarves-esque punk standard; it's fast, aggressive and catchy without being too “poppy.” Jonathan performs more of his intense spoken word on this track, perhaps for the best due to its a-melodic nature. Songs like “Ireland” and “Bare Knuckles” display Jonathan's acquired skill for writing an infectious pop tune with vocal lines whose guitar interplay call for the listener's immediate and undivided attention. Along with Jonathan's takeover in songwriting comes Jason Dummeldinger's change in style from rhythmic and atonal something more Paul McCartney-esque, with a heightened sense of melody and inclusion of memorable pop “hooks.” This album is the nostalgic sound of high school dances, driving around with your friends without anything to do and without any care to find it.

Perhaps the most memorable song on the entire album is the four-and-a-half minute long album closer “O.K. Annie Oakley.” Characterized by a faded, nostalgic sound, complex harmonic interplay between Jonathan, Andy Kuharich, and Jason, as well as Jonathan's voice, this time pushed further back into the mix. Highly stylistically different than the rest of the album, “O.K. Annie Oakley” sets the stage for the next wave of “midwest emo” bands whose music was entirely dependent on the nostalgic tune here. Though this song remains unreleased, it shows Cinco de Gatos's complete understanding of their style, foreshadowing stylistic changes that would become popular half a decade later.

A mere few months after recording Epiphany Wants to Come Home, guitarist Andy Kuharich and drummer Kim Ambriz left the band due to personal and artistic differences. Ambriz was shortly replaced by drummer Scott Ames. According to Jonathan, Ames was a fantastic drummer, and even though there are only two recorded songs in existence with Ames on drums, it was “exciting to watch him play; he would just hit so hard and be all over the place.” Ames's intense drumming style influenced Jonathan and Jason to write in a more economic style, and with this new style came an apprehension to release Epiphany, which was recorded with a mostly-different lineup. This apprehension, along with label Action Boy 500's lack of motivation to release the album, came the decision to not release Epiphany Wants to Come Home on any format. Scott Ames left Cinco de Gatos in early 1996 and, unable to fill the void in which he left in the music (among other reasons), Jonathan and Jason decided to put Cinco de Gatos to rest.

There was no news about Cinco de Gatos from that day until late 2009. Jason became a family man and Jonathan spent his time recording music for a new project, called the Doleful Lions; both didn't really think about their old band, rather looking forward in life. Jason had fallen ill in 2007 or 2008 and decided to re-establish contact with his old friend, and, upon making a full recovery, brought up the idea of “getting the band back together.” With the inclusion of Jonathan's brother and musical collaborator Robert on guitar and drummer Jon Flood, Cinco de Gatos was reborn in late 2009. After a reunion show on March 4th of 2010 at Ronny's with the recently-reformed Gauge, Cinco de Gatos decided to enter the studio to record more material.

Entitled Home Taping is Destroying Hardcore, Cinco de Gatos's final recordings, though only three songs, are some of the most mature and unique music to come from the Chicago post-hardcore/emo scene. The first track, “Collider Scope,” is a soft, atmospheric tune, featuring multiple layers of guitars and perhaps a metal influence (Jonathan is a self-proclaimed “metalhead”) in the way that he harmonizes the leads in thirds; a rather “Iron Maiden”-esque nuance. Jonathan's voice, while still retaining its nasally, childlike qualities, has matured as well; his sense of pitch has vastly improved and is not as grating as it used to be on the early recordings . The most interesting aspect of “Collider Scope” is that it isn't really a post-hardcore or an emo song, rather something more atmospheric and introspective. Yes, it can be considered post-hardcore under the blanket definition, and yet this track was a sign that Cinco de Gatos was going to shape up to be a rather unique band.

The EP's eponymous track, “Home Taping is Destroying Hardcore,” is a much more pop-oriented affair. Concerning itself with bouncing rhythms, bright keyboards and light, crisp guitars, “Home Taping”'s punky, semi-shouted verse came as a surprise, and yet this ingenious juxtaposition between the harder side of Cinco de Gatos and the light-poppy side flows effortlessly. Over sliding guitar octaves, Jonathan shouts “I will kill the sleeping giant” repetetively, giving the song a rather anthemic quality.

Finally, Cinco de Gatos presents to the world a partially rewritten version of “Bare Knuckles,” which was already one of the most impressive songs on Epiphany Wants to Come Home. Building upon his thick, folk-meets-pop influence, Jonathan added a good amount of “bubblegum” to this track without making it entirely unrecognizable. Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole recording was the simple change he made to the minor-key “i-VI” (I apologize - I'm a music theory nerd) section, deciding to arpeggiate the chords rather than simply strum them; a brilliant, simple and effective means of adding a new texture to the song.

Sadly, even if Home Taping is Destroying Hardcore was a shining example of wonderful things to come from the Cinco de Gatos camp, they broke up after three shows in 2010 due to lack of time and motivation for the project. Is there a future for Cinco de Gatos? This author would certainly love to see them perform, as all 3 concerts were missed, but realistically the answer is no. Perhaps the most upsetting aspect to growing up is time management, and, as it's been shown here, it is difficult for a group of adults with full-time day jobs to dedicate the amount of time that is necessary to start a band. Jonathan, who recently turned 40, is one half of Parasol Records band Doleful Lions, who have been prolifically releasing material since 1997, and doesn't plan on stopping his artistic side anytime soon. Will the Cinco de Gatos material ever be released on a physical format? Jonathan would like to think that one day some label will release all of Cinco de Gatos's material as a retrospective, but for the time being these songs will quietly rest on his computer.


All information pertaining to the band's history comes from an interview with Jonathan Scott which I conducted April 21st, 2011, at 5PM.

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