For the band Keokuk, everything comes with a unique twist.
The fact that there's a mother-son duo as the rhythm section. The prominent role given to a sax in a rock & roll band. The tinges of prog, jazz, ambient and new wave, which dip in and out with abandon. The age range of the players, which spans a couple members in their seventh decade and one member just on the good side of the drinking age. Then there's the employment of instrumentals (their recent CD release, Spring, has two), and the relatively spare nature of lyrics/vocals on those cuts that do feature them.
None of this was the plan, per se. Instead, it reflects the organic growth of a group with a host of influences, a wide range of life experiences and a desire to play together for as long as it's fun. These days, says guitarist and vocalist Curtis Hendricks, it is. Along with Dominic Schaeffer on sax, Andrea Spencer on drums and Zane Spencer on bass, "everyone's digging it," Hendricks reports.
He adds, "The only wild card is our bass player." A student at Southern Illinois University, Spencer is not sure what his future will be, Hendricks says. "But he likes playing with the old folks, bless his heart."
Six months ago, Hendricks recalls, Spencer turned to the others at practice and and said, "The songs on the next album are hard, more challenging. And that's good." Says Hendricks, "It's made the songs slower in development, but Dom and I and Andrea totally dig it. In certain respects I consider it the best band I've been in."
Keokuk's listed influences suggest its members' varied tastes. They include the Bad Plus, Gong, King Crimson, the Beatles, Link Wray, the Who and Wilco — as well as some more obscure bands.
Says Hendricks, "I've always been interested in more linear playing, not just chordal playing. That doesn't interest me, as much. I like Television, that style of guitar playing, or the stuff from Quicksilver Messenger Service, a hippie band from the '60s. That type of thing and others like it. Dominic's sax has a pedal that gives him more harmonics and even Zane's almost playing lead behind us, which gives a chamber trio aspect to it. Andrea's melodic, at times, though not playing a melodic instrument. I love playing with that additional fourth instrument, after often playing in trios."
For Spring, the group turned into the ultimate DIY unit, with, of course, some twists. Working without a producer, the members began recording soon after releasing their last, self-titled CD just about a year ago. This time, they recorded it in Hendricks' and Spencer's basement on, naturally, Keokuk Street.
"And how we approached this was, in order to break up the monotony of us just recording songs, we'd have a normal rehearsal every week," he says. "We'd roll along, play and get to feeling good, then would pick a song to get a recording of; that's how we'd approach it.
"We'd have the whole group in the room," he adds, "and there'd be no isolation or any of that. We'd play the song three times and we'd shoot for the best take. We didn't always get one, but it often worked out pretty well. We were playing live, together, and only used a few overdubs. The idea was to have all the bass and drums live, all the rhythm tracks, with most of the guitar and sax live."
Schaeffer invested in a solid live sound system, which the band put to use on Spring, adding a completely live cut, recorded in the special acoustics of the Venice Cafe. That type of guerrilla recording will potentially be used for the next round of material.
The band "listened to the tracks a ton," Hendricks says. "Ninety percent of recording is listening back and making decisions. When you're doing it on your own, you hear every flaw to the power of 100, so it's really hard. There's stuff that's marginal, but the sounds are cool in context and you want that good energy in there."
A few weeks back, Keokuk played a show at Schlafly Tap Room with two other bands with deep wells of experience, the Treeweasels and American Professionals. The gig made sense, though the group doesn't need to limit itself to a certain type of bill, a specific venue. They're rangey, love experimenting, and get off on playing around in the art form of their choice. They're digging their sound, and each other. Long may they dig.
Spring is now available on CD at Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records, as well as digitally through Bandcamp, Spotify and iTunes.