Music

How Chicago Synth-Rock Duo Grapetooth Made One Of 2018’s Most Gorgeous DIY Albums

Alex Hupp

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It’s a crisp Autumn day in Chicago, one of the first of the year after a sweltering summer. There’s a hint of drizzle in the air, but nothing too threatening. I’m walking down the city’s cracked sidewalks on my way to an interview. Through my earbuds, I’m listening to the same album I’ve been obsessed with for the last few weeks. Morning, noon, night; in the car, in the office, laying around the house, I haven’t been able to shut it off. The album is called Grapetooth. The name of the band, or, well, the pair of guys who made it? Grapetooth. I’m just a couple of blocks from their apartment now.

Grapetooth is Clay Frankel and Chris Bailoni. If the former name sounds familiar it’s because Frankel’s regular gig is as one of the lead singer and guitar players in what many consider to be the most exciting band to come out of Chicago in years, Twin Peaks. The two guys are roommates and have been since 2015. The name of their band comes from their joint love and appreciation for affordable red wines. Argentinian Malbecs and Spanish reds are particular favorites. Their debut album is the culmination of years spent playing around with synths, guitars and a drum machines that they’d set up in Bailoni’s cramped bedroom.

Despite the guerrilla nature of their setup, the end result is a supremely gorgeous collection of ten different tracks that embody the soul of your favorite ‘80s synth-wave bands with the open-hearted punk rock angst of the Replacements. The album’s opening track “Violent,” might be the best song that Paul Westerberg never got around to writing.

I showed up to their place at almost the exact same moment that Frankel was stepping off his orange, Honda motorcycle, just back from picking up lunch from a nearby grocery store. Curiously, laying on the grass in front of their building is a dark pair of clean-looking Nike tennis shoes. After the initial greeting Frankel tells me that they’d actually been robbed the night before. Someone had snuck through their window and jacked his laptop and for some reason tossed Bailoni’s shoes out into the yard. They’d also chucked a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Thankfully, the thief had left most of the rest of their stuff, including Bailoni’s array of keyboards and synths untouched. “My heart was pounding when I walked to open the door to my room,” he said. “I’ve got enough stuff in there that I would have been f*cked.”

Frankel leads me through the front of the house and I pass by groaning shelves packed with heavy books and vinyl records. I meet Bailoni in the kitchen and together we huddle outside on the back patio. Frankel pulls out a large French baguette from his bag, some soppressata salami, a bundle of oranges, and a few plums, and underneath a panoply of grape vines and empty wine bottles, they tell me their story.

The two met six or seven years ago when they were both about 18. Bailoni was dating a longtime friend of Frankel’s at the time. “I’d see him around and he was a weird guy, so I was like, ‘I’ll just hang out with this guy,’” Frankel remembers. The romantic relationship eventually fizzled out, but their friendship kept going. “I knew he made music, so I started going over to his apartment in Chicago, f*cking around, making some songs with him,” he added. “Then when he was moving out of there he was looking for someone to live with, I moved in with him. We’ve had like three apartments since then.”

The work on their debut album was slow-going. Some of the songs like “Mile After Mile” date all the way back to 2016. Frankel’s regular gig in Twin Peaks keeps him out on the road for long stretches, but when he gets back into town, the inspiration to keep going remains. It helps that the vibe is so completely different from the music that he makes with his other band.

“In the beginning I was bringing over my guitar to be like, ‘the guitar guy,’” Frankel said. But as their tastes widened, they decided to go into a different direction. “It’s just fun to make interesting sounds and sort of explore the world that this guy has pretty much been living in for a long time,” he added about his friend and collaborator. Avant garde cellist Arthur Russell was a big influence. There was also an array of disco bands they got really into, but their guiding light was the Japanese composer Yukihiro Takahashi, who came to prominence in the ‘70s in a group called the Yellow Magic Orchestra before going solo in the ‘80s.

“He has this one song that we probably listened to like every time before we sat down to make music,” Bailoni said. The song is called “Drip Drip Eyes.” Frankel dials it up on Youtube on his phone and from the opening whack of the drum machine to the glistening sound of the synths, the influence becomes clear. The sound of Takahashi’s music softly wafts through the background during the rest of our chat.

Typically, a song idea would start with a drum machine pattern. From there, Bailoni would layer in a synth melody, and Frankel would start to think of words to add to it. Sometimes, they’d be in completely opposite rooms in the same house, Bailoni playing the same line over and over again through his computer, while Frankel thought of ideas that matched the feeling of the music itself. It was a very organic process, where gut instinct usually reigned as the deciding factor on where to go.

“I like to hear the melody, so I know rhythmically what the phrasing should be,” Frankel explained. “We start making a song, and as we’re doing stuff… we have this big notebook opened, and I’m writing down things. Sometimes it’ll just be a word like ‘trouble’ or ‘violent,’ and then it’s like ‘Okay, it’s going to be like that.’ And then we fit that idea into the song. I write the words usually right then and there after a few attempts of sometimes ridiculous lyrics.”

Some songs, like the bracing album opener “Violent” were created with the express purpose of kicking things up a notch during their live shows. “That was one of the last songs we made on the record,” Bailoni added. “To me it was more like [punk rock band] Suicide with the drums and all that. I really wanted a song that was had like a ’70s drum machine, you know, kick, snare, kick, snare, kick, snare. I also really wanted a song we could both scream live, because I just like really belting it, going crazy as I can on stage. I wanted a song where we could really go wild. I remember making those drums, and he started laying down the guitar, I put some synths over it, and he looked in the book and found the word ‘Violent.'”

Much like Bruce Springsteen, who used to find inspiration for all time anthems like “Born To Run” from movies, Frankel was inspired to write “Violent” after watching the 1973 Terrance Malick film Badlands. “It’s one of my favorite movies,” he explained. “Basically, it’s about this young couple. The guy kills the girl’s parents and then they go on a killing spree through the badlands of America with the cops on their trail. I took that idea of vigilante romance… it’s very violent but it’s also very romantic and beautiful and visually stunning.”

Other inspirations were more eclectic, like the song “Hangover Sq.” As Frankel remembers, “It started out as a song about just getting really drunk in Chicago and blah, blah, blah. I was name dropping all these bars in Chicago. It was pretty funny, but I was like that’s so lame.” Laughing, Bailoni chimes in, “I agree.”

Everything changed after he picked up a copy of a book called Hangover Square, which began with a poem written by the 17th century dramatist Sir John Suckling. “It was just like two stanzas of this poem and I just took those and they fit the song perfectly,” Frankel remembered. “That’s why it’s got all these old kind of English-y words like ‘Prithy, why so pale?’ I’ve never fit an old poem to a song before, and I feel like you couldn’t plan that either. It just kinda worked out.”

For his part, Bailoni remained obsessed throughout the entire process with getting every element of every song absolutely perfect. “Every sound we have, every drum kit, how things are mixed together tone wise… I spent hours and hours on that,” he said. “We’d work on the song together for hours, then he’d leave and I’d sit in my room for hours afterwards, nitpicking the mix sound, and adding like a top little layer to the drum kick, or put another kick on top of it, just to change the tone of everything.” It should probably go without saying, but Bailoni says it anyway: “I’m a perfectionist.”

Frankel was more than willing to give his buddy the space he needed to nail down the different weird and interesting sounds he was chasing in his head. “I’d leave either the whole apartment or I’d just leave the room and then let him do all the things that he was saying and then come back and like, give him fresh ear ideas,” he said. “’Okay yeah this and that.’ Or, I’d go in my room. I could hear him with the songs just looping over and over in the apartment. I would just sit there and think about lyrics and stuff.”

While Grapetooth is an album stuffed with a wide range of different sounds and textures, the one sonic constant comes courtesy of an old Yamaha keyboard that Bailoni found abandoned in a random alley. “That’s our bread and butter right there,” Frankel said. “I thought it was broken, but I found one sound on it that I think is on every song on the record. It’s like our signature sound now,” Bailoni added. “It sounds just like the rain man,” Frankel said, while gesturing at the fine mist falling down around us.

The larger world got their first taste of Grapetooth around this time last year when they unveiled their funky first single “Trouble,” which turned heads in Chicago, and attracted attention from a variety of different record labels. “We put that out because we were opening up for Knox [Fortune],” Frankel said. “We were like ‘Maybe it would help there be something out there so people aren’t just going in cold.’ So we put that video out there and then I guess someone must’ve heard it.”

One person who heard it and fell in love immediately was Matt Lunsford, one of the co-founders of Polyvinyl Records. “A friend of mine had sent over a Soundcloud link with the record completely finished, it was just unmastered, and by the time I listened to “Trouble,” “Violent,” and “Blood,” I had to stop listening to it and email him back, ‘What is this?’” After learning more about the band, he came prepared with an offer, and was overjoyed when they decided to go with his label. “The whole album is full of earworms and it completely blew my mind,” Lunsford said. “It feels weird to describe it too much, because there’s so much about it that’s just very… Grapetooth.”

The enthusiasm Grapetooth has already generated is quite remarkable. In July, they sold out what was just their fifth show ever at the 500-seat Lincoln Hall venue in Chicago. Caiden Lake James from Twin Peaks helped out by sitting in on drums. “I mean we only had the two songs out,” Frankel noted. Checking his phone during our conversation, Bailoni is delighted to discover that they had just sold their last ticket to an upcoming gig in New York City.

“My friend was at a g*ddamn wedding in California and they walked down the damn aisle and ‘Violent’ was playing,” Frankel said. “Which, content aside, is the strangest thing.” But it didn’t stop there. “There was Grapetooth tattoos after the first song!” he added. “Like, what if the next one is the worst thing you ever heard? Someone had, ‘Don’t mind living,’ [one of the key lyrics in “Trouble”] which was like one of three of the ten words we released. They were just like, ‘Yeah, I’m getting that on my body forever!’ You gotta love those people.”

Grapetooth was in the truest sense a labor of love, where the act of actually creating it was more fulfilling than any commercial or critical acclaim it might garner. In fact, their hopes for the record are refreshingly quaint. “I guess, as long as it’s one stranger’s favorite record then that’s cool,” Frankel said. “As with all art, I’m sure there’s people that are like, ‘I want to make a record so I can get paid or whatever,’ but to me you get out a record just the satisfaction of having made it. The thrilling experience of making it, while you’re making it. So it’s like, I’ve all ready gotten what I wanted out of this record.”

While the pair haven’t started work on Grapetooth 2 quite yet, they’ve already got some interesting ideas of how they want to tackle it, and it involves getting as far away from Chicago as can be — at least in terms of mindset. “We’d like to go to Montana,” Bailoni said. “It’s a dream of mine just go away from the city of Chicago, no distractions, and just go make a record somewhere else.”

But why Montana? “Just listen to the name of that place,” Frankel says. “Montana.” It does have a nice ring to it.

Polyvinyl

Grapetooth is out on November 2 via Polyvinyl. Pre-order your copy here.

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