The final Frontier Empty Bottle’s old house band reunites for more noise and wedding bells.
By Jake Austen
BLOCK PARTY Left to right, Tsoulos, Ireland and Wessley reunite this weekend for an old friend’s wedding.
Spreading out a bounty of CDs, CD-Rs and screenprinted posters on my kitchen table, Michael Tsoulos is overjoyed to be talking again about Frontier, the band for which he drummed for 14 years. Inactive since 2003, the trio (joined for a time by Nate Bayless) of Tsoulos, guitarist Stephen Wessley and bassist Kevin Ireland reunites this week in a role none of them would have predicted: wedding band. On Saturday 4, a marathon, three-set stand at the Empty Bottle will be performed in conjunction with the wedding of longtime friend Mark Ferguson, owner of Hard Boiled Records & Videos in Roscoe Village.
The threesome, now all 42, began exploring music together as undergrads at the University of Chicago in 1986. Ferguson turned his classmates on to challenging European industrial acts like Laibach, Nurse with Wound and Wiseblood; by 1991, the friends’ music fandom had gelled into a band. Soon, Frontier found a home base at the newly opened Empty Bottle, where Tsoulos tended bar until 2006.
Though forward-thinking jazz and garage-rock bookings put the Bottle on the Chicago rock map, Frontier, which was as close to a house band as the club had, didn’t fit either genre. It borrowed jazz’s improvisation and punk’s sense of showmanship, but Frontier’s greatest asset was a resistance to easy categorization. Hour-long sets of droning noise and feedback, hypnotic electronic manipulations, punishing heavy rock and an occasional pretty pop song were all in its arsenal. The group hosted guitar feedback jams that prohibited participants from touching their strings.
Frontier released 8-track tapes, an album on Emperor Jones, and two CDs on the Empty Bottle’s forgotten and short-lived imprint, Tug O’ War. “Frontier had the potential for genius,” recalls Bruce Finkelman, owner of the Empty Bottle, “but also the possibility of the biggest train wreck. I loved that you never knew where it was going to go.” Buying a Frontier ticket or album was an act of faith, with no guarantee how, or even if, the band members would play their instruments. “They did one recording session in my apartment,” Ferguson says, “where they just leaned the guitars near my windows, so as buses drove by on Division it would set off the reverb.”
Studio exploration aside, Frontier’s true forte was live performance, which overwhelmed small clubs with stadium-scaled lighting, fog machines and projections of slides and light patterns. For the pulverizing rock song “Truck,” the band used two 3,000-watt photo floodlights, air horns and smoke machines to simulate the experience of a semitrailer crashing into the audience head-on.
Tsoulos, who now plays in the skronky art-metal outfit Rabid Rabbit with his wife and fellow bartender Andrea Jablonski, tells me Frontier will again perform “Truck,” with full effects, during a “rock” set on Saturday, between “ambient” and “electronic” sets. Beaming with pride, he converts my table into an overflowing cornucopia of recordings, including two new limited-edition 12" records of unreleased material pressed for the show. “The other thing that made them special was how enthused they always were about their music,” Finkelman says. Yet there are no plans beyond this weekend; Ireland owns a hotel in Kansas while Wessley resides in Manhattan.
Frontier was always its own best audience, perhaps best demonstrated by the Foam Series in 2000–01, the band’s last hurrah at the Bottle: two-hour sets of experimental live-band techno late into Sunday night. “I remember stepping off the stage in mid-set during an ambient portion,” Tsoulos says. “I bought shots for everyone in the bar. All five of them.”
Yet the man most excited about this reunion may be Ferguson, who sees his wedding band as a harbinger of good things to come. “Frontier goes from blissful drone to space rock to electronica,” Ferguson says. “I’m hopeful that my marriage turns out to have that kind of range.”