R.V.B. - Hello Jonathan, Rob von Bernewitz from New York. how are you today?
J.S. - Good, how are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Are you in Chicago?
J.S. - I am, yeah
R.V.B. - What's going on with the Bears?
J.S. - (haha) The Bears are in the toilet.
R.V.B. - Yeah kinda like my Jets. So how are you doing? Is it cold over there?
J.S. - Yeah, it's in the lower 30's
R.V.B. - It's pretty cold here also. How did the name District 97 come about?
J.S. - Sure, the name District 97 came about because I and two of my band mates, Patrick Mulcahy the bass player, and Rob Clearfield the keyboard player, all grew up in a suburb of Chicago... Oak Park. The school district here, for the elementary school and the junior high school is District 97.
R.V.B. - I figured it had to be something like that. How did you choose progressive rock music when the Chicago area is kind of a blues town?
J.S. - Well at the time when I started getting into prog, I was about 14 or 15 years old and I didn't really have that much of a grasp of the local music scene here. I got into it by hearing "Yours Is No Disgrace" by Yes, on the radio one day. I just thought that song had so any interesting twists and turns and it really blew me away. So that kind of sent me on an exploration of the Yes catalog and from there I followed Bill Bruford's path. That got me into King Crimson and UK. Then I heard about Genesis, Rush and Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and all those kind of bands. Then through research, I got into more obscure stuff but it all started with Yes.
R.V.B. - Yes, now obviously it's a little more difficult to play than standard Rock and Roll... How old were you when you started tackling the drums?
J.S. - Well I was always banging on desks and stuff when I was at school. My parents got me a toy plastic drumset when I was really young... about 3 or 4. In 4th grade, when it became time for everyone to take an instrument if they wanted to, I chose drums. So I got a snare drum then. I think I was around 12 when I finally got a full drumset. I started taking drum lessons shortly thereafter and kept at it.
R.V.B. - What kind of music did you start with?
J.S. - Well I was a huge Beatles fan from about age 4 and that's what really got me obsessed with music. I was kind of, all about the Beatles for a good seven or eight years but Zeppelin really got me fired up about the drums. I remember particularly the song "The Ocean" off of Houses of the Holy. That was a song I really wanted to be able to play. The quick bass drum that John Bonham does on that and in front of Good Times Bad Times is something I tried to emulate very early on. So that's what I was going for when I first got a drum kit.
R.V.B. - Now you mentioned the Beatles, do you think Ringo Star gets the credit that he deserves for his drum work?
J.S. - Well in certain circles, yes I think he does, but I think the public image of him on the whole is that he's just a lucky guy who waltzed into a great situation. I don't think that's accurate.
R.V.B. - Either do I.
J.S. - I think that he is integral to the Beatles sound as any of the other three.
R.V.B. - He put a lot of color into the songs. He added a lot to the originality of the material.
J.S. - I agree. If you listen to some of his early live recordings from the BBC... he was a really, really exciting player. He actually has pretty good chops too, which is not something that I think most people realize.
R.V.B. - Now John Bonham inspired a lot of drummers and is one of the best ever. Were you able to play The Ocean eventually?
J.S. - (haha) Well I don't think I ever pursued playing the whole song note for note. I think I could do a pretty good job of it these days. It was more of taking cues from that style of playing and trying to incorporate that into what I was doing. I was writing my own music pretty early on and playing my own music with my friends. My first band I actually started was in the 5th grade. I guess I would have been 11 at the time. So I was also very focused on songwriting, so it was more like how do I want to play drums to my own songs rather play another song note for note.
R.V.B. - Now how would you go about showing your buddies an idea on the drums?
J.S. - Well I would usually start on the keyboard because I was actually playing keyboard even before the drums. I never pursued it as seriously as far as trying to gain a lot of technical proficiently on the keyboards so I would show them the song on the keyboard and then once they had a handle on it, I would get on the drums and we would figure out how everything would come together. It's still not all that different a process these days.
J.S. - First paying gig hmmm? We're still waiting for that one. (haha) Probably the first paying gig was when I was in high school. There was a music studio around here called Steckman Studio of Music. They would hire high school students to play gigs at various functions. I remember I think we played a Democratic political event or something in Chicago... various social functions like that and they would pay us very little. Maybe thirty bucks or something.
R.V.B. - Kind of like today still?
J.S. - (Yeah haha)
R.V.B. - Well you guys are definitely on the right track and you're breaking out of the pack. Now were you playing progressive music for this gig that you're talking about?
J.S. - No, this was a long time ago around the year 2000. This would have been a jazz gig because we were all into jazz as well and we still are and we still play jazz gigs a lot. Some in the band more than others but this all pre-dates District 97 by quite a bit. So it would been a straight ahead jazz backround music kind of thing.
R.V.B. - Yeah... a lot of improvising. Did you have horn players?
J.S. - Yeah, there were often horn players in those gigs. Sometimes it was just piano, bass and drums... maybe guitar. It was a pretty hodge-podge kind of thing.
R.V.B. - Right... so I understand that you went to college for music.
J.S. - I did yes. The first year I was at the Berkley College of Music up in Boston.
R.V.B. - How did you like Boston?
J.S. - I liked Boston. I didn't get to explore it a whole lot because I was practicing four hours a day, along with class. So I didn't really get to soak up the flavor of the town a whole lot in that nine months I was there. I went to the museums some and it's definitely a great city. The school was cool but it was just so massive that I kind of felt like I was getting a bit lost in the shuffle there. It would take a long time to really break through and get some attention. That coupled with the fact that so many of my friends were about to start at The Chicago College of Performing Arts the following year got me to transfer back to Chicago and that's where the roots of District 97 began. That's where I re-connected musically with Rob and Patrick after having been away a couple of years or so. We also net our guitar player Jim Tashjian and our singer Leslie Hunt.
R.V.B. - Where was your rehearsal space, when you all assembled?
J.S. - Well when we started the band, it actually started as an instrumental quartet and just a casual thing for about a year and a half or so. We would just rehearse in the apartment I had at the time, where Patrick also lived. Later on when Leslie joined, she actually was renting a space out in a building called "The Music Garage" and we started to rehearse there and for the most part we've been there ever since. We switched rooms a bit but we're still there and we really like that place a lot.
R.V.B. - Did District 97 start out right away writing your own material or did you start out covering other peoples music?
J.S. - We were writing our own stuff right away. Like I said, songwriting has always been interested in and been pursuing. We started out writing our own instrumental music. It was kind of a jazz-progression sort of thing at the very beginning. Then it kind of veering more towards more straight forward prog. Once that started happening, I kinda got the itch to write music for singer, which I hadn't done in a long time. Having had some experience singing on my own, I realized I could never cut it and the band could never really go anywhere with me as the lead singer and that's what got me thinking that Leslie would be a good fit.
R.V.B. - Now Leslie... was she in any other bands? Did she bring along any other credentials with her?
J.S. - For one, she had just been on American Idol. She was a top ten female finalist in 2007. She joined the band in 2008. That was a pretty big credential I thought.
R.V.B. - I'll say.
J.S. - Prior to that, the way I got to know her was, she was in a band called Mark Twang with some friends of mine from college. I used to go see them perform at a venue that was close to where I live, about once a week or so. So that's where I got to know her and I liked her singing a lot. She also did her own solo stuff too. I could tell from the little twists and turns that she had put in her music, that she could navigate the waters of progressive rock real well.
R.V.B. - How long did it take District 97 in the rehearsal process where you could go out and perform with the current lineup?
J.S. - Well it started pretty casually and it took us a good year and a half before we were able to put on a full 45 minute set. After that, especially when Leslie joined and we started cranking out some more music and it took probably a few months before we had a long enough set of our music that included her. Then everybody started writing for the band, so now we are working on our third studio album. So we've got three hours plus, of original material.
R.V.B. - Are there a decent amount of clubs in Chicago that promote original music? You have your blues, you have your jazz, you have your classic rock clubs... are there a lot of clubs that support original music in Chicago?
J.S. - Chicago, I've come to appreciate, is actually a pretty good town to be playing the kind of music that we're playing. I think the venue that hosts the most progressive stuff on a regular basis is Reggie's Rock Club. There was just a festival called Progtoberfest a couple of months ago, that we played at, which was really cool and had a ton of great bands there like Spocks Beard and Stick Men. It was really fun to be a part of. There's avenue called The Arcada Theater that's in a suburb called St. Charles and Neil Morse is gonna be there in February and we played there. The Double Door and Martyrs are two other good ones. There's another new one close to where we live called Wire, where we're gonna be playing in February. There's actually a lot of good place s to choose from.
R.V.B. - Now you've done some touring right? Where did your travels take you to?
J.S. - The first out of town gig we ever did was in Whittier California for a festival called Calprog in 2010. That was cool because it was kind of like our first big exposure. It started getting our name around on more of a broad basis. We've been to the east coast a few times. We were in New York about a year ago. We sold out the Iridium. Do you know that venue?
J.S. - We sold the Iridium out with John Wetton, which was really thrilling because I never expected that we would sell the place out. We've been to Boston, Philly, Baltimore, and other places between here and Boston. We've made the rounds a few times. We've also been to Europe last year. We did a festival in the UK and we did a few shows with John Wetton. We did two in Germany, one in Belgium and one in the Netherlands.
R.V.B. - That must have been a very cool experience. Now how did you get hooked up with John?
J.S. - Well our recollections seem to differ a little bit on the chronology but the way I remember it is that I posted some stuff on his guestbook on line. Just promoting District 97... I was just blasting any prog related message board I could. At the time I was trying to spread the word and I didn't realize that he had a really strong presence on his website. So he checked it out and he really liked it. Shortly thereafter I got an email from him asking to send him a District 97 tee shirt that he could wear in publicity photos. So I sent him the shirt and we stayed in touch and traded friendly emails back and forth.
R.V.B. - I like the fact that you went for it and you initiated it. That's what happens when you're a go getter.
J.S. - Yeah, I suppose so. I think I was maybe overstepping boundaries a little but it ended up working out really well.
R.V.B. - If you don't make an effort, it won't happen.
J.S. - I think for the most part, that's true. So we were about to record our latest studio album at the moment but we'll have a new one out relatively soon "Trouble With Machines". There's a song on there that I wrote called "The Perfect Young Man". It has two characters in it... one a female in it and one a male. We were thinking if it would be a good idea to have a male sing this part on the album because up to this point Leslie had sung everything. Patrick suggested that we should ask John if he would sing it. I thought there was no way he would do this but like what you said, I went for it and asked him and to my surprise he agreed immediately. So we sent him the song and he added his vocals in the UK and sent it back to us and I think it turned out quite well. From there it kind of snowballed into him appearing live with us. Then we toured together a couple of times. We toured with him as I mentioned in Europe, and a little over a year ago, we toured with him here in the States. Now we just put a live album out called "One More Red Night".
J.S. - The opening track on the CD is "One More Red Nightmare" from the album Red. It's the most famous King Crimson album that John was a part of. So it's just kind of a play on that and it also signifies that this is probably the first time and only time that John will sing that music again in 40 years. Kind of like "One More Time" we're gonna bring out all this old King Crimson music.
R.V.B. - Now did that take you a little while to get that material down?
J.S. - Most of the band were already pretty familiar with it. Leslie and Jim our guitar player didn't really know much of it going in. So yeah, it took some doing but everyone in the band are pretty quick learners. It wasn't to laborious or anything.
R.V.B. - I sampled some of the videos on your website where your lying down some tracks for the new album. It looks like you guys are polished musicians.
J.S. - We are all professionals. We all perform in a variety of capacities outside of District 97 so we have to be able to do that sort of thing. It helps with the band also.
R.V.B. - Right... so your new album will be coming out early next year?
J.S. - It might actually be more like May or June. We still have a little bit of tracking left to do. We should be wrapping that up in January. Then we'll get it mixed and get the cover art together and mastered... and the duplication. So we are probably looking at a May or June release.
R.V.B. - Are you guys gonna tour to support it?
J.S. - Yeah, I think we will. We don't have anything in the books just yet because it's still up in the air as to when this is going to happen but we will definitely be spreading the word about it for sure.
R.V.B. - No do you think that sooner or later you'll be opening up for a major act?
J.S. - Well we did some shows with Kansas. We're really good friends with the drum tech for Kansas, Eric Holmquist and he kind of got the whole band into District 97, especially Steve Walsh. He kind of took to us quite a bit. You probably heard that he left Kansas now. We've done that and we've opened for Neil Morse and Three Friends, The Winery Dogs. We toured with Agents of Mercy which consists of Jonas Reingold and Roine Stolt from the Flower Kings. So we're certainly open to it.
R.V.B. - It sounds like you're on the right track and you're paying your dues from the ground up. When you go about creating an album like this does everyone have input to it. Like does Leslie come with lyrics and you try ideas out? How does the songwriting process go.
J.S. - It kind of varies per song. Sometimes a person will come in with a song pretty much completed and a clear idea of the direction they want it to take and we end up being pretty faithful to that. We do usually tweek things a little bit here and there. Other times as I do fairly often, I'll have the music but I won't really have a clear sense of what I want to happen lyrically or even necessarily melodically for the vocals, so Leslie will then come up with the lyrics and the melody. Sometimes she might alter the melody that we had to suit the words better. So there's a lot of push and pull between the various members when we're concocting a new piece of music.
R.V.B. - Do you guys get together weekly?
J.S. - It kind of depends. When we are going full throttle, we try and rehearse once or twice a week. Right now we haven't been rehearsing as often because we've been in the studio trying to complete the tracking. That's been the primary focus since September.
R.V.B. - I'm sorry, I know you told me but when is your next show.
J.S. - It's not confirmed yet but it looks like it's gonna be February 13th at Wire, which is a club that opened up not too long ago in Berwyn which is a suburb here.
J.S. - It was great. It really took me by surprise that it sold out. Seeing our name in lights on Broadway was very exciting.
R.V.B. - That building that it's in is a very historic building musically. There was a tremendous amount of publishing that went on in the 60's in that building.
J.S. - Right... another treat at that show was that we had Ian McDonald sit in with us in the Court of The Crimson King.
R.V.B. - Nice
J.S. - That was super fun.
R.V.B. - I could imagine. Did you do the King Crimson catalog in that show?
J.S. - That show and most of the other shows we did with John... I guess it was a little different at the Iridium because we did two sets. We would play a few songs just as District 97... our original stuff and then we would bring John out and we would do "The Perfect Young Man" with him and then we would go into King Crimson territory so it was a mixture.
R.V.B. - I bet the audience really enjoyed it. But anyway, congratulations on your band and your career. It looks like you guys have a bright future ahead. Keep up the good work and the good writing and hopefully we'll get you back to the New York area.
J.S. - Yeah, that'd be great.
R.V.B. - Alright Jonathan, it's been a pleasure.
J.S. - Likewise.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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