From The Reader
Something Old, Something New
A pal's wedding brings Frontier back together; California Wives marry disco and indie pop.
By Miles Raymer
Frontier circa 1996
Sat 9/4, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $10, 21+.
If over the past couple months you've frequented certain bars and cafes in Wicker Park, the Ukrainian Village, or Logan Square—the Hideout, Atomix, Rodan, the Empty Bottle—you may have noticed in each of them a small square of clear glass with the words frontier returns 09.04.10 screen-printed on it in silver ink. There's nothing else to the message, so newcomers to Chicago could be forgiven for not realizing it's about a local band—especially since it's a band that hasn't played a show in nearly eight years.
If you do remember Frontier, you probably also remember their penchant for audience-confounding stylistic shifts—a survey of their discography, which includes one seven-inch, four full-lengths, a remix EP, and an assortment of band-made eight-track cartridges and cassettes, turns up everything from jazz-influenced post-rock to pure feedback noise to live-band house music. They had a fondness for elaborate packaging too: the CD art for a live album recorded at the Bottle used lenticular printing to create a motion effect, requiring a special case similar to the one for Tool's Aenima, and the CD version of the album Heater came in a slim silk-screened cardboard box that opened like a Zippo lighter.
Even if you had all those discs, though, you still might not recognize Frontier on the street: onstage they were shrouded in dry-ice fog. According to drummer Mike Tsoulos, the sole member of the final trio lineup who still lives in Chicago (these days he tends bar at the Burlington, the Rainbo, and the Flat Iron and drums for Rabid Rabbit), the band's stage show made its members practically anonymous. "For years, even after we stopped, people had no idea who was in the band because of the lights and the smoke," he says. And they never took any traditional promo photos to help clear things up—part of a general reluctance to jump through the hoops rock bands are supposed to.
When I suggest to Tsoulos that Frontier were messing with their audience by skipping from genre to genre and hiding their faces, he takes exception. "I don't know about 'messing,'" he says. "It was more us doing stuff that we liked." But these choices did prevent them from developing much of a casual following—their crowd was heavy on musicians and never exactly huge. Tsoulos remembers a show during their Empty Bottle residency—a Sunday-night series that ran for most of 2000, where Frontier would often segue out of an electronic DJ's set or invite respected jazzers like Ken Vandermark, Jeb Bishop, and Jeff Parker to sit in—where he could afford to buy the entire audience a round of drinks with the money in his pocket.
The fans Frontier did have, though, were often very well placed. Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman put out Heater and the live album on his Tug-o-War label. Teacher, author, and jazz promoter John Corbett wrote a Critic's Choice on Frontier for the Reader in 1996, shortly after he began cocurating the Bottle's improvised-music series, praising the band's "synaesthetic" live shows and connecting its MO to "acts as diverse as Tortoise, Brise-Glace, Flying Saucer Attack, Main, Jesus and Mary Chain, and This Heat." And Steve Krakow, aka Plastic Crimewave, whose taste in music is so well respected that Drag City gave him his own imprint, discovered Frontier shortly after moving to Chicago in 1995. "I think 'psychedelic' was still kind of a dirty word," he says. "I was desperately trying to find bands in town that suited that sort of thing, and as far as I know they were one of the only ones going. Frontier was definitely pushing it and going for a derangement-of-the-senses kind of vibe."
But Frontier isn't reuniting to capitalize on some groundswell of belated popularity. Tsoulos says Saturday's show is happening simply because it finally can. "That's basically the only time the three of us are going to be in town," he says. Guitarist Stephen Wessley now works as a rare-book seller in New York, and bassist Kevin Ireland runs a motel on a two-lane highway in rural Kansas. They're coming back to Chicago this weekend for the wedding of a longtime friend, Mark Ferguson, who runs Hard Boiled Records at Roscoe and Damen. They met him at the same time they met one another—in 1986, as freshmen at the University of Chicago. Part of the proceeds from the door will help pay for Ferguson's honeymoon—he hasn't decided where he and his new wife will be going, and says it depends on how much the show makes.
Frontier will play three sets spanning all their material. Tsoulos is trying to secure guest appearances from Krakow and Bloodiest's Eric Chaleff on guitars and Kevin Drumm on laptop, among others. "I don't even remember who I asked," he says, "probably because half the time it was in bars late at night." Their first and only rehearsal will be on Friday.
Two previously unreleased Frontier albums will be available at the show in limited runs. One has a set of propulsive, aggressive post-rock songs recorded in 1994 on the A side and what Tsoulos calls an experiment in "multiple-input resonance" (aka droning guitar feedback) from 2003 on the flip. The other is a complete album, with everything from psychedelic space folk to drum 'n' bass, recorded in 1999 at Clava's old location in a theater school at 18th and Ashland. "It's probably been turned into condos at this point," Tsoulos says. He lucked out and found a pressing plant that does affordable small runs, so he's got just 100 copies of each. He says he doesn't want unsold vinyl taking up room in his basement.