Sound check: A new phase for Marina City; Jeff Schaller's new EP; Ramsey Lewis on love
Marina City's new 'Baby'
For Marina City, it's time to make a few changes. And the first of three singles -- Friday's release of "Trust Fund Baby" -- is only the start.
The song, a pop-heavy number that dives deep into the miscues and miscommunications of modern dating and relationships, is the reveal to a year of the band's efforts to revamp, rebrand and redirect the band's trajectory since releasing "The Crush" album in early 2020.
"Just a couple years ago, when we were writing 'The Crush,' we knew we wanted to change the sound. We knew we wanted to experiment with stuff. We knew we wanted to go bigger," said Ryan Argast, Marina City's lead vocalist.
"Trust Fund Baby" doubles-down on the band's reliance on pop influences as a driving force behind the music. It's bold and brash, but it's catchy and faces down situations many of us have experienced.
"When we came up with 'The Crush,' we knew that we liked a lot of that stuff. But we're always redefining or experimenting with our sound," Argast said. "We felt like we could confidently say, 'Oh, this is a Marina City song.' It has all the Marina City elements that it should have. And it's the next progression."
The new song is launching a new phase for the band -- Argast of Oswego, Plainfield's Matthew Gaudiano, Eric Somers-Urrea of Chicago and Arlington Heights' Todor Birindjiev -- as members announced last weekend bassist Aaron Heiy is stepping away to new opportunities and Marina City forges ahead as a foursome.
"Everyone's friends, everyone's great," Argast said. "Sometimes there's a new chapter, and he's got a new chapter in his life and we're supporting and excited for what he does with it. And I know that he feels the same way with us."
Since they have been working toward this new change since October, the band isn't missing a beat.
"Everyone can sleep well knowing that we know we have this, we figured it out," he said. "And Marina City continues on."
In addition to releasing the three new singles (and accompanying videos) every few weeks, Marina City is looking ahead to a new album out this summer and the expansion of their merch into more of a lifestyle brand, dubbed MAR.CITY. Bringing higher-end products into the mix, they hope to bring even more fans into the ever-expanding fold.
The new offerings include spring bomber jackets, knitted caps and other more upscale looks, with plans for even more around the album release this summer.
"We want our merchandise to feel like you'd want to wear it even if you don't listen to the music so much," Argast said.
It's not a surprising move for a band that spent much of the pandemic traveling around the Chicago area for outdoor "Road Show" gigs on fans' front yards, writing personalized Valentine's Day songs for couples and otherwise staying connected with their musical audience.
"We're not the biggest band in the world, but our fans are mighty, and not being able to interact with them in the usual ways is hard," he said. "We are excited to be able to interact with them in new ways."
Jeff Schaller and the 'Reckless Life'
Jeff Schaller is a man who can't stand still.
While most of the year he teaches music and special ed in Chicago, his summers are reserved for traveling the world. And those treks -- or rather the lack of them in 2020 -- partially inspired "Reckless Life," the new five-song EP out Friday from Jeff Schaller and The Long Way Home.
Starting when he was 24, Schaller, who studied music composition in college, would spend summers abroad attending classical festivals: Paid tuition nets a musician a few weeks in Europe to take classes and lessons, write a piece, rehearse with an ensemble and have your work performed, all while networking with composers from around the world, he said.
"I got into one in Italy in 2014 and immediately the wanderlust hit," Schaller said. "As soon as I saw a couple cities in Italy, I was like I want to see everything else there is to see. So pretty much every summer I've done one of those programs. And then just travel all over."
His journeys have taken him from Iceland to Taiwan, through the Middle East and to the pyramids in Egypt, Cambodia and Jordan, to name a few.
"I don't stay in one place for too long," he said. "That song 'Reckless Life' came from that lifestyle and, being in a pandemic, kind of mourning the fact that I wouldn't be doing that. When I say I want to drink with people that don't speak English, that's a very real thing that I've experienced many times."
The "Reckless Life" EP, co-written by Schaller and his The Long Way Home bandmates -- Jake Cary, Matt Kistler, Troy Sennett, Liesi Siegel and Jeffeory Swenson, many of whom are friends and musical comrades from his younger years in Bloomington, Illinois -- revels in that unrest, both the need to move and the need to change.
With songs that speak to disappointments and struggles over politics and religious choices alongside a harmony-driven and self-reflective beauty recognizing his own failings and faults, the EP reveals Schaller's punk roots. He may be trained in classical music and now playing folksy-flavored alternative rock, but his early days in metalcore and pop-punk bands peek through.
"I'm always angry," he said. "I just think I'm angry at what's happening to people. Not usually specifically me, you know. I've been pretty good, all things considered, but there's people out there that don't deserve to be treated any differently."
And when it comes to driving change, Schaller puts his money where his lyrics are. Since last summer, he and fellow Chicago musician Adam Gogola (of Blind Adam & the Federal League) have been working with Chicago's Brave Space Alliance to help people in need after several homeless encampments burned down last summer.
Their People's Pizza Party, in conjunction with a friend at Dante's Tavern, started bringing pizzas weekly to people in need. And since July, they have raised more than $20,000 for the cause, now bringing all kinds of supplies and food weekly to homeless encampments around the city's Northwest side. (Cash donations can be made on Venmo @PeoplesPizzaParty; contact them at @PeoplesPizzaPartyChicago on Instagram for donations of other goods.)
"I thought about the fact that there are people that still have to struggle through their entire life and shouldn't have to," Schaller said, talking about the new songs, but also reflecting on this project, "And organizing against these billionaires and politicians that don't care about people and don't act on their words to make it better for anybody. And the kind of organization that needs to be done on the civilian level to fix that."
Ramsey Lewis on love
Valentine's Day may have come and gone, but that's no reason to stop honoring the music of romance. Earlier this year, Grammy-winning Chicago jazz icon Ramsey Lewis announced the continuation of his popular 2020 livestreaming salon series, and this month's episode quite appropriately conjures up stories of love and passion. At 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, Lewis will celebrate the music of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," a top contender for the ultimate musical love story, along with other songs and tales about love. Also, a portion of the $20 admission will benefit The Jazz Foundation of America, assisting jazz musicians with performance opportunities and emergency funds, so you also get the knowledge that you're helping artists pursue their passions on top of an hour of great music.
1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27; $20 on stageit.com/ramseylewis.
• Brian Shamie is a Daily Herald multiplatform editor and local music junkie. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter (@thatshamieguy) or Instagram (@chicagosoundcheck). Brian also keeps tabs on the local music scene at chicagosoundcheck.com.