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The Chain: Milwaukee's Psychedelic Soundtrack Band

Carly Rubach

We walked into Riverwest Film & Video between shelves of VHS tapes and DVDs, our feet pulsing with a beat from below the floorboards. After a few words and a silent nod, we surpassed the counter and entered employee quarters, where a few were scattered at a round kitchen table. Feeling a little out of place, we walked downstairs and entered a DIY foam-padded studio with an epic soundboard. The Chain was just finishing up with a recording session.

You may know The Chain as that band who practices in the basement of a video store. Or as the weird, psychedelic rockers with no vocalist. Or even, more deviant, as the mysterious men without a MySpace page. Though mystique is always welcome, an hour with the band opened an investigation into their notoriety.

band flyer
by Peter Barrickman

My first encounter with their live performance was a recent show at the Cactus Club. Before I agreed to attend, I asked my friend the age-old, poignant band question: What are they like? She paused, said she couldn’t explain—“they’re instrumental and you’ll dance,” I remember her finally responding. And we danced.

So, I sat down with core members Didier Leplae (guitar), Peter Barrickman (drums), Brent Goodsell (bass) and their $15 sparkly Chinese knock-off Nikes and asked them to clear things up.
“We come off just like a weird sounding rock band, or a psych band,” Brent says.
Their influences are mostly foreign. Brent talked about the Benin-style African rock that comes out on their current album-in-progress. The three also visited India and Turkey together—Didier was lucky enough to get to Africa, as well. In Turkey, they made the film The Foreigners. In India, Brent was set on buying records, while Didier was busy recording an orchestrated score for Chris Smith’s latest film, The Pool.

“I think we’ve all traveled a lot and when we travel we like to pay attention to what’s going on musically,” Peter says.

Their influences are mostly unfamiliar by American music standards. While we have access to world music, Didier and the others feel that genre is limiting and holds a negative connotation. Foreign music, on the other hand, is much more expansive and may take more effort to find.

“I’m a big record collector and when we first started a band I had gotten a CD in trade from another record collector in England—bunch of African stuff—that was a big influence when we first started.” Brent says.

Peter interjected with a memory of the yellow Moroccan tape they’d all listened to since seventh grade.

Seventh grade? How long have these guys known each other?

“Like eighteen years, maybe longer,” Brent says.

“Eighteen years?” Peter has a mini-freak out.

“No it’s true, think about it,” he reassures Peter, “do the math.”

Suddenly, their band dynamic makes more sense. During our little chat the three were talking over each other and finishing one another’s sentences. This is no phenomenon. Bands with a history like The Chain tend to form not only a bond, but a certain vocabulary through years of playing music together. They were excitedly recalling memories of early performances and past bands like the Horn Band.

Influences from the Horn Band carried over to The Chain, such as their fascination with Bollywood and Ethiopian music. This was when they first mentioned the soundtrack quality to the band. “The Horn Band was definitely a soundtrack-influenced band,” Peter says. This same film music—“really weird, repetitive stuff”—surfaces in The Chain.

The idea of a soundtrack band brings up the group’s choice to go instrumental. Choice may not necessarily be the correct word as Brent and the others are open to a singer, they just don’t know anyone who could pull it off.

So, without a vocalist, I was curious how the band felt about their music telling stories or centering on themes.

“We were laughing about one song at the end, that it’s an arctic snowstorm with a lost explorer,” Brent says. The others laughed in agreement.

Lyrics are a concrete way to narrate or express emotion, but The Chain doesn’t have this luxury. The choice to be instrumental is not necessarily a downfall, and they don’t see it that way either. They’re confident that some of their music suggests images. Other songs may simply be a jam or a freak out. Even in a freak out there are numerous images, they say.

This spacious quality to their music further lends to the cinematic experience of The Chain. Brent, Peter and Didier created their stories and the audience is free to create their own, or not.

The Chain have been together for about five years now and perform more often than when they formed. Oddly enough, they played for a solid year before their first gig.

“We were all really busy,” Brent turning to Didier, “You were out of town for almost six months once.”
Didier and Joe Wong, another local musician, created the score for local filmmaker Chris Smith’s The Pool, which was shot in India. Meanwhile, Peter was leaving every summer for art school and Brent was busy trading and selling records.

In the past year, time opened up for the band and they finally were able to make some recordings together.

The recording process for the band is unique and challenging with six different musicians and numerous parts. Didier, Peter and Brent write the rhythm section for Renato Umali (keyboards), Andy Noble (rhythm guitar/percussion) and Spero Lomenzo (percussion) to build on. With all the layers, many of the songs don’t get defined for a while. By recording, the song is defined in the simple sense that it’s official or permanent. Live shows will always provide a venue for variation, however. When the band plays live, their parts are set but may move around through spontaneity or experimentation.

“Sometimes by recording, you finish writing [the song],” Peter says.

The band’s five-track EP release is set for July 23 at Mad Planet with Minneapolis band, Brute Heart. Go dance to the images in your head.

Oh, and keep an eye out for a MySpace page later this year. The boys are giving in.

(music archive)