This month marks twenty years since my last band played its first show. Twenty years! I am one of those people who thinks the 90s was, like, five years ago, so this milestone has spun my head all the way around a couple times. But even twenty years later, I’m pretty sure some of the sounds we made that night are still reverberating around Chicago. It was that loud.
The band was called Jumping Bomb Angel, after a pro wrestling tag team from Japan, and in our earliest days we were loud. We weren’t trying to be loud for loud’s sake, but our songs were fast and ferocious and so the three of us decided to make as much racket as we could. My guitar parts were intricate and weird, off-kilter chords and intricate side melodies channeled through a distortion pedal cranked past eleven and a giant Vox amp that remains the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. Melodie, the bass player, played complementary melodies to mine – the two of us rarely went in the same direction, but our parts always fit together. Amy, the drummer, drove each song forward with her beats without ever cranking the tempo up as the song went on. The lyrics were as abstract as the music was direct – evoking emotions without ever stating them. We were pretty awesome.
In the spring of 1998 the three of us were finishing college, working jobs on the side, and fitting in band practice whenever we weren’t in class or working. Three times a week, every week, Melodie would take the train in from Chicago. I’d pick her up at the station and we’d head over to Amy’s house to work on songs. Around this time we’d started documenting the songs on our home recording gear – I think the four-song demo came out that summer, but we knew we were onto something and were planning our public “launch,” so to speak, for the whole first half of the year.
Amy went to Columbia College, in Chicago’s south Loop, and somebody there figured out that there were enough students in bands to make it worth doing a band showcase. We thought it was a perfect first try at a live show – we’d only have to play a few songs, after all, and both Amy and Melodie had enough friends in the area that we could count on a friendly crowd. Flyers went up, word went forth, we practiced endlessly until May 11, 1998 rolled around and we could head to Chicago to introduce ourselves to the world.
To avoid long setup sequences between bands, the theater had amps and a drum kit already set up onstage – all we needed to bring were guitars, basses and pedals. Amy, as I remember it, was mingling with friends backstage; Melodie and I sort of sat in the back. She’d bought me a copy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode guide as a sort of good-luck present. I put it in my guitar case, right under the head of the guitar, figuring it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a book to read while I was waiting for shows to start. I checked the case last week and that book is still there! We were band five of eight, so we waited an hour or so before it was our turn.
Every band secretly wants to play so well onstage that no other band could possibly follow them. We were no exception – as much as we loved playing together in the basement, we knew we’d hit on something special, and we wanted to reflect that. The good news: no band could have followed our performance that night. The bad news: that wasn’t at all due to our performance. Ten seconds into “Appolonia James,” the PA system – which was designed for live theater and classical music, not walls of indie-rock sound – overloaded and turned itself off. The sound people got it back online, but it crapped out again when we restarted. This happened a half dozen times, the tech crew using all their tricks and techniques to get their Millennium Falcon of a sound system to hold together a little bit longer while we stood awkwardly onstage.
Finally we got through our first song – and played it well. Then, a second one – a note perfect rendition of “It Won’t Be Long.” But before we could get to song three, the guy in charge of the band showcase went up onstage and made an announcement. This night was an experiment, he said, and unfortunately what we learned was that our sound system is too fragile to continue. He’d thrown in the towel on the PA’s behalf. Not only was our set cut short, the entire show was over. The last three bands didn’t get to play at all.
But we’d made our point: this loud little secret we’d been keeping in the basement was now out in the world, at least a little bit. We’d stepped onstage in front of an audience and played our hearts out. We headed to a nearby watering hole to catch the end of the Cubs game and joke about our new reputation as a band that would blow out the speakers in every club in town. A pretty great start to our career as a live act.