Busker checking out
January 19, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
`After some time it loses the shine, there's nothing left to feel," Paul Kamp sings in "Come On Around," the sparkling power-pop anthem that kicks off "Welcome to Buskerland," the last album by Busker Soundcheck. "I don't know why it matters so much, wasting time on useless ideals."
Although the song is about a relationship, the lines can also be heard as one of Chicago's longest-running rock bands questioning its role on the always-competitive local scene--especially in light of the trio's decision to disband after more than 11 years of indie recordings and slogging through club land.
Busker Soundcheck won't be seen off with a fraction of the hype that surrounded the passing of the Smashing Pumpkins. But in a very real way, the band played a much bigger role in the Chicago music world.
Sure, the Pumpkins mentioned the city in magazine cover stories and jetted in to play the Double Door. But Busker Soundcheck was down in the trenches, sharing countless bills and the benefits of hard-learned lessons with hundreds of fellow bands. And in the end, that's a lot more valuable.
"I think in general the music scene in Chicago has been pretty nice toward us," says the 37-year-old Kamp. "Maybe we'd get kicked around once in a while, but that didn't really bother me. I've always had younger bands starting up coming to me and asking, `How do I do this? How do I that?' So I feel like Busker has always been treated with plenty of respect."
Guitarist-vocalist Kamp and drummer Dan Sopher first met at a local bar in Downstate Frankfort in the summer of '89, drawn together by a love of college-rockers Husker Du, R.E.M. and the Replacements. Bassist Chris Klein came on board a few months later, and the lineup has remained consistent ever since, through innumerable tours, several demos and two proper albums, a self-titled effort in 1995 and "Welcome to Buskerland" in 1998.
Though it was never the hip new flavor of the moment--the band's well-crafted pop was too homespun, heartfelt and Midwestern for that--more than a few fans, critics and DJs pegged the group as a serious contender for a national breakthrough. But it never happened for Busker Soundcheck on the level of the Pumpkins, Veruca Salt or Liz Phair, and the musicians' rock-star dreams were continually interrupted by day-job realities.
"We always thought that `Hippopotamus' and `Come On Around' were supposed to be smash hits, and we were gonna go on the big national tours and sell a million records," Kamp says. "We had great expectations [for `Welcome to Buskerland'], and we managed to sell several thousand copies at shows, but that's all that ever came of that one."
Why did the brass ring prove so elusive?
"Probably it was just because we'd been around so long," Kamp says. "The two things that were popular in '99 when we put that out were the boy and girl bands and Korn and Limp Bizkit. The Foo Fighters and Stone Temple Pilots and a lot of the other bands that you hear on Q101 aren't that far removed from what we're doing, but it seemed like the popular things to sign at that time weren't what we were."
As for the major-label feeding frenzy of the mid-'90s, Busker Soundcheck was basically in the wrong place at the right time.
"We had a handful of people that we were dealing with--a couple of attorneys in New York and some people in Los Angeles who seemed to be in our corner--but at the time I was living in Joliet, and I had my little baby who was just born, so I was a little bit out of the loop," Kamp says. "Had we been forging full-force ahead right then like we had been through '92 and '93, we probably would have been one of the dozen bands that got the deals.
"But I don't know if it necessarily was bad timing, because all of those groups were washed up and dead by the end of '97 or earlier. Loud Lucy signed and were gone; they never even played again. Had that happened to us, we would have missed out on the last five years of playing, which to me has been great. To me, we've gotten much better in the last five years."
Indeed, "Welcome to Buskerland" is the band's most impressive achievement, a collection of 11 effervescent guitar-pop gems. Like the Pumpkins, the group is going out on a high note, and the musicians are likely to be heard from again. Kamp in particular is looking forward to recording some of the many songs that didn't fit the group format.
The trio is also preparing a CD of outtakes to distribute at its final show, where it's sharing the bill with a one-time reunion of friends, the Dyslexic Apaches.
Still, the question lingers: Did Busker Soundcheck--or, by extension, any band that never cracked "the big time"--really accomplish anything, or was it just "wasting time on useless ideals"?
"Well, we made a lot of good friends and saw a lot of interesting places and got to roam the entire Eastern half of the United States in a van, and I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything," Kamp says.
His advice to up-and-comers: "Just put everything you've got into it and work as hard as you can. We did that for a long time. There are connections you can make, but I really think that above a certain level, a lot of it is just luck and timing. You have to enjoy it, and you have to keep trying to get better, and you want to avoid doing anything cheap or tawdry. Somewhere in the back of my head, I was always thinking that 20 years from now, I wanna be able to look back and think that we did something good."
That you did, boys. That you did.
Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at email@example.com.
Busker Soundcheck, Dyslexic Apaches
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Music fans stirred up by awards
Jim: I read your article today on the American Music Awards [Jan. 9]. Do you think there was anything you liked? Yes, there might have been some bad lip-synching, but that's what our kids want to see. They are glad to see their favorites perform regardless if they are singing for real or not. I am far too old to be a Britney Spears fan myself, but once again, she is what excites the kids. If you were a young boy, wouldn't you want to see her in about eight different outfits? If she has the body to show some skin, let her show it. Another band you put down was Aerosmith. What show were you watching? These guys wrote the book on American rock 'n' roll. Maybe Barry Manilow or Dolly Parton might have made the show exciting for you. Stop living in the past and start "Living on the Edge."
Jim: I do believe D'Angelo should have won the American Music Award over Brian McKnight, but calling it the biggest injustice of the night was an overstatement. That made it sound like you were putting McKnight on the level of someone like Sisqo, and McKnight is a good artist but not as good as D'Angelo. "Voodoo" definitely should have gotten an album of the year nod from the Grammys as well; when I heard Destiny's Child, Steely Dan and Paul Simon's names beingread, I felt like puking.
Rolo via e-mail