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

Music Contributor
10.25.18

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.

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