Redwalls evoke spirit of early Beatles


June 24, 2005


The Chicago quartet the Redwalls had that dazed, deer-in-the-headlights look when we sat down for lunch a few weeks ago, but it was understandable.

The group was home for 48 hours to talk to the press about its Capitol Records debut, "de nova," which was released on Tuesday, in between a series of gigs in England. It's been a whirlwind journey for the foursome, who are all ages 20 or 21, and they're still not exactly sure how they got from playing covers as the house band at Nevin's Live in Evanston (back when they were called the Pages) to opening stadium shows for Oasis on its home turf in the U.K.

"We actually moved out on our own in the city for the first time before we did our album, and then we had to go out to L.A. for like four months," guitarist Logan Baren said. "We don't really have a home anymore; we're on the road. I think in the last three months, I've been in my own bed maybe a week tops. We had to get rid of our place in the city, so when we finally get back, we'll have to go apartment-hunting."

"It's been awesome, but we all got sick when we had been on the plane for so long," guitarist Andrew Langer added. "That's the only time it was really bad."




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    "And then when we do get home, it is so weird," bassist Justin Baren concluded. "We're all like, 'What the f---?' No one tells you when to eat or when to get up. No bus calls at 9 a.m. It's a very strange feeling."

    Natives of north suburban Deerfield and friends since their pre-teens, Langer and the Baren brothers began playing music together as eighth-graders and freshmen in high school. "We'd get to together and learn songs -- all three of us learned all the parts to sing; we just had a blast doing it -- and it turns out we were good at it," Logan said.


    The group got its start when it walked into Nevin's shortly after that club opened a few years back and gave then-booker Mitch Marlow, now the band's manager, a demo. He started slotting them onto regular bills when their set still consisted mostly of covers.

    Where many music fans their age might have turned to songs by Eminem or Limp Bizkit (or maybe Nirvana, if they had better taste), the Redwalls dug much deeper, embracing the early Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Small Faces, when those groups were still raw and ragged and proudly flaunting their own roots in American R&B.

    The young musicians laugh and shake their heads "no" when I ask if their parents were rock fans. They claim to have never cared about classic-rock radio or VH1. The garage revival recently spurred by the White Stripes and the Hives was still years away when they started. So how were they drawn to this music? They say they simply went to the record store and gravitated toward those albums.

    "We just found Dylan, and we found the Beatles, and it was all brand new to us -- we had never heard it before," Langer said.

    "I think you get into Hendrix, and you start smoking pot," Justin Baren added. "I think every kid gets into ['60s rock]; we just started it really early on. But it was never like we were going back to something."

    Its manager paired the band with Ben Greeno when its first drummer left, and Marlow also encouraged it to record its raucous indie debut at Chicago's Wall to Wall Recording after first convincing the group that its own songs were as good as those of its heroes.

    "We were scared to do it at first, and didn't really know how to go about it," Langer said of writing and recording original material. But the time spent learning Beatles covers had been like a graduate school course in harmony, melody and rhythm.

    "Logan had a bunch of songs written before we even started the group," Justin Baren said. "We were always writing, but we had never gotten together as a band and played the songs live. We didn't get serious about it until we were doing the first album; they were just free ideas floating around. But after that, it was like, 'Yeah, you are your own thing now.' "

    Indeed, the refreshing thing about the Redwalls is that they're simply reveling in the sounds and styles they love, rather than trying to forge a retro identity because they couldn't come up with anything new.

    "If you wear anything nice these days, it looks old school," Logan Baren said of their natty attire, while the primary reason they were drawn to the Beatles was that they admired those intricate three-part harmonies and the sense the early Fab Four conveyed of being a true band, instead of a frontman and assorted backing musicians.

    "I don't think we need an identity that's easy to pigeonhole,'' Langer said. "We don't need anyone to do all the talking. That's the whole thing: These days, the idea of 'the band' is gone. With a lot of these bands today, it's just a guy who's singing, and everyone else falls in the shadows. We wanted to do something else."


    Produced by Rob Schnapf (Beck, the Vines), the Redwalls' Capitol bow "de nova" is a slightly slicker affair than their Undertow Records debut, "Universal Blues," and the group groused a bit about the elaborate major-label routine of pre-production, three months in the studio and having to record the drum tracks separately. But Schnapf wisely avoided polishing away all of the band's rough charms, and they remain unique among many Fab Four-inspired retro-rockers for taking their primary inspiration from the raw, leather-clad, proto-punk-rockers who wailed through ferocious R&B covers in the clubs of Hamburg in the early '60s, long before donning the suits and trademark mop tops of Beatlemania.

    The Brit-pop influence is obvious in the gorgeous three-part harmonies of songs such as "Front Page" and "It's Alright," and in the band's unison or shared approach toward lead vocals. But the group's real strength is in its soul-, blues- and Motown-inflected rhythms. The Brits can never quite groove or lock into a powerhouse backbeat like their American cousins, and the Redwalls are a heck of a dance band.

    As randy young lads, it's no surprise that these boys have romance on their minds in many of these tunes, but they're also thinking about bigger issues. "Glory of War" is a neat acoustic departure that shows that the band has studied Dylan as carefully as its other favorites, while "Falling Down" is a ferocious rant against the censorial FCC ("In times like these, you better watch what you say / Watch them take your f---ing rights away"), pointing to the possibility of even better things to come.

    Rating: ****