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An Inside Look at MachineGun Mojo

October 13, 2010

[MachineGun Mojo is playing tonight at the Subterranean on North Avenue in Wicker Park at 8:30 PM. Tickets are $8]

Josh Kanuch’s eyes light up as we sit at the bar at Jake’s Pub, waxing rhapsodic about music: “All of a sudden it became what I wanted to do. In the way a priest is summoned to preach, you know? I mean that’s a bad analogy, but that’s how it feels. Regardless of what happens, I know I’ll be doing this, I just want to create music.” Josh – better known as Rooster – is the lead singer for Chicago-based psychedelic folk-rock outfit MachineGun Mojo, and he and bassist Matt Dimare were kind enough to sit down and chat about their music, their experiences in Chicago, and their upcoming show tonight at the Subterranean Lounge.

Equal parts rock, early country, late-60’s psychedelia and folk storytelling, MachineGun Mojo is comprised of Josh and Matt,  Shawn Haybic on lead guitar, and Mike Hauser on drums, at its core, though their many regular guests keep the lineup interesting. Matt tells me that they officially formed on January 1st, 2009 – a little tired from the festivities of the previous night, “we weren’t writing any gems that day.” But the combination of old buddies and college friends stuck, and the thick-as-thieves foursome immediately took to learning songs from each of its versatile songwriters. And it’s clear that they all have that ineffable passion for creating that propels Josh Kanuch. Key to MachineGun Mojo’s diverse songwriting is the diverse background of their musical tastes. Shawn tunes in to classic punk, Josh to acid jazz and avant-garde classical, Matt to more traditional folk, and, universally, the band adore the Beatles – certainly great places to start.

“It’s like a distillation of us,” says Josh, but, as Matt points out, “these don’t always color the way we write music. I think it’s great, though, coming at music from all these different angles.” On their Myspace and Facebook pages, to this point, listeners have been able to get a taste of two tracks. The first, “Woman,” reads like an oral history of men getting spurned by the women they pine for, a theme that one suspects might be found in the depths of civilization all the way up to the present. With its booming, hypnotic percussion and emotive strings, it’s part spiritual and part folk tune. According to Dimare, it stems from “that universal feeling you have when something good suddenly becomes bad.” Lovely and rustic, it also prominently features the rich addition of Katelyn Cohen on cello.  A fortuitous encounter at a party brought her into the fold. Says Dimare, “we met her at a Korean karaoke place – literally like a room of dentists’ chairs with some screens and a microphone – and thought, ‘wow, she can really sing.’ And we loved the idea of having cello on “Woman,” we thought it could really add something, so, some beer and six pizzas later, we had it laid down.”

And the band functions as exactly this kind of musical family. “We’re very open,” says Matt. “If you got songs and we dig ’em, bring them in.” Josh talks further about a vision for the band to be less of a static, guitar/vocals/rhythm section equation and more of a musical community, “where members come in and out but feel comfortable bringing songs in.” It’s this sprawling notion of using any and all resources – personal, emotional, nutritional, and ethanol – that help fuel this band’s unflagging energy. This factors very closely into the production of their debut album, Souvenirs from the Other Side of Here, due out around year’s end. Matt tells me that the band has taken a little longer than they’d have liked working on the album, but that that time has been pivotal in making this exactly the record that they want.

Matt Dimare: There’s a couple ways to go when a band is making an album…they can limit themselves to a budget and time constraints or they can make exactly the record they want without that in mind. For us, it was all about the ideas; we thought, ‘let’s not skimp on anything.’ We even bought a chord organ from a guy in Humboldt Park. We wanted to do this without thinking about the expense and we think it’ll be well worth it. I think listeners will be surprised that it’s our first.

This bottom-up approach, taking the runaway creativity of Mojo’s members and refusing to channel it too narrowly, have let it take them where they felt it was needed. “It’s a really good album, honestly,” says Josh, “and I’m not just saying that.” They credit producer and engineer Mike Namoff of the Hatch Studio with being a strong force in the album’s creation, critical but forward-thinking. And, like any member of Mojo’s social network, he quickly fell in with the gang, and, at the time of the interview was “back at my [Matt’s] place with some Carlo Rossi.”

And truly, it’s their spirited and fun approach to the music that makes Mojo stand out. Track “Hannah,” also available on their Myspace (and below), starts out driven by the whole country-rock ensemble – strummed acoustic guitars, some handclaps here and there – and spins out into its gritty second half, complete with Haybic’s distortion and wah-drenched guitar stylings. At this point it really takes off and it could as easily be envisioned on an LP in the late 60s as on a Black Crowes’ record not a decade a go. These guys have a tremendous ear for incorporating those iconic sounds of Southern rock, of 70s blues-rock and a whole lot in between while giving it a distinctly modern twists. Other tracks on the record are fleshed out with choruses of mandolins, with mournful lap steel – played by producer Mike Namoff – and the impassioned strains of Kanuch’s Spanish guitar. “The songs audibly don’t relate, sometimes – there’s bluegrass, there are rock ballads, there’s folk,” says Matt, “but what connects them are the running themes.” The title – Souvenirs from the Other Side of Here – is a reference to the way that, conceptually, music can very much take you on a trip.

Josh Kanuch: We wanted to take all these events or stories and create a mood, in a way. I’m big into film, so that’s the way I see things sometimes. And when you go on a trip, you take memories with you, these become souvenirs…that’s how the songs relate to each other. It could be through the characters, or through themes; for example, “1923” is about U.S. history told through the eyes of an immigrant. It’s a concept album without being a concept album.

Ultimately, the band wants to transpose these memories and stories, these characters and feelings, into an aural journey, that, in Dimare’s words, “take you to where we want you to be.” Opening track “Apples and Clowns” touches on ideas surreal and familiar, set in a carnival, and tumbles “down into the rabbit hole,” according to Josh, where guest singer Anna Bensch’s handiwork takes off. Matt tells me that it launches into a “‘Gimme Shelter’-type choir” that really sets the tone for the album.

The band credits the Chicago music scene for being an open and welcoming place, as well; that even for all its cliques and divisive circles, it’s sometimes hard to peg down who will be at a certain show. You often simply get fans of live music. Appreciating this, the guys praise places like the Double Door in Wicker Park for helping to hype local musicians, their home for this evening, the Subterranean Lounge, and the Elbo Room for its spectacle of a light show.  And, at the end of the day, these guys are there for the fans. “We’re not really into booking big shows, necessarily, just ones that people will really enjoy,” says Matt. “We don’t do it for the money, I mean whatever we make we’ll spend with the people we like. We’re fun guys, have fun with us.”

And they take their music with them wherever they go, including their pad in Logan Square, which both seem to love because they can make noise well into the AM hours and “no one seems to care.” Josh tells me that a mariachi band was playing until 4 AM on a weeknight and no one raised a stink or called the cops – a perfect haven for a working band.

What does the future hold for MachineGun Mojo? A lot of promise, that’s for sure. The debut album is forthcoming – and you can bet you’ll hear about it here – and their commitment to playing live and playing for the fans sets MachineGun Mojo apart from the acts angling at a spot on FM radio or the iTunes featured song of the week. Matt and Josh, fully cognizant of the “big pond with many small fish” in which they swim, here in Chicago, don’t let this trouble them. Matt says, sagely, that “If people look harder, they can find cool, outside-of-the-box independent bands.” Here’s to hoping that people won’t have to look too hard to find these guys.

(here begin some extras)

The Lightning Round with MachineGun Mojo:

Beatles or Stones? Beatles
Skynyrd or Allman Brothers? Matt: Allman Josh: Skynyrd
Zeppelin or the Who? Zeppelin
Katy Perry or Justin Bieber? Katy Perry, definitely. Matt: Oh J Beebs… Josh: I know he’s a pretty boy and all but…
Old Style or PBR? PBR
Gino’s East or Giordano’s? Neither – Lou Malrati’s
Boxers or briefs? Boxer briefs


Whiskey or beer? Josh: They kind of go together, like PB&J Matt: Tequila.
Jersey Shore or a hole in the head? Hole in the head. But Shawn would give you a different answer, he’s totally into it.

What they’ve been listening to:

Matt: Sleepy Sun, kind of psychedelic folk. I’ve been digging Blitzen Trapper…Beatles a lot, Portugal. The Man, Future Birds, the Guess Who.

Josh: Omar Rodriguez, Portugal. The Man, the Temptations, John Zorn (“He made this acid jazz record where he blends klezmer and jazz, it’s great.”) Trampled by Turtles (“You’ll be trampled by their turtleness. They’re a great bluegrass group.”) Stravinsky, David Byrne.

Did You Know…?

Matt plays a Lakland bass, a Chicago-based company famous for their quality and innovative production techniques. His bass combines a P-bass (Fender Precision bass) body with a jazz neck.

Josh plays, along with his Raimundo classical guitar, an instrument he’s dubbed the “Bluebird of Happiness,” on which he wrote “Apples and Clowns.” It was bought by Matt and Josh’s girlfriend to replace his previous guitar, Maura, that was basically trashed when Matt pulled Josh – and the innocent Maura – into a friend’s pool.

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