The phrase "Chicago punk" has long since become so diffuse that it's almost meaningless: Members of the Smoking Popes, the Frantic and Fall Out Boy may share zip codes, but they're otherwise in different universes. Yet there is one up-and-coming band resonant of "Chicago punk" when "Chicago punk" actually meant something: Shot Baker, which is gearing up to release its second album "Take Control" on the local Riot Fest Records label on June 24.
With a median age of 30, only one member of the band actually saw Naked Raygun before it went on hiatus in 1991, before its still-fairly recent reunion. Yet that's the comparison Shot Baker hears most often, primarily because the latter group is fond of lacing its metallic guitar and pummeling rhythms with ultra-melodic backing vocals of the "whoa whoa whoa" variety, a Raygun trademark.
"For the most part, we were all too young to have caught Raygun and all that," singer Tony Kovacs says. "The influence may have been obvious, but I don't think we were ever purposely trying to mimic it -- it really just kind of came out like that. At the same time, while it wasn't planned, it's kind of flattering when some of the people who really like you are part of the older, more jaded crowd. They're hard to please, so we take that as a compliment!"
Kovacs, guitarist John Krohn, bassist Nat Wright and drummer Chris Gach all attended Maine West High School in Park Ridge, but they didn't come together as a group for several years. They all started out playing in different bands on the periphery of the scene around the Smoking Popes and the Bollweevils. "It was only after all of our respective bands kind of fell apart after several years of plugging away that we met up and played together," Kovacs says.
"When we finally did get together, it really just clicked. We had all been playing for so long, and one of the biggest goals was just to be able to play with other guys who had the same amount of drive that we did."
In the end, it's that work ethic more than anything else that marks Shot Baker as a Chicago punk band of the old school. Before it had even played its first show in 2003, it self-released a five-song EP, "Time to Panic." A full album, "Awake," followed on Underground Communique Records in 2004, and the band began to tour in support of it. But the group was never really happy with that recording -- so it re-recorded everything but the drums and released the album in a whole new version in 2006.
"There definitely was a little bit of argument about whether it would be worth doing that," Kovacs says. "John was saying, 'Why are we messing around with music that was released two years ago?' But the main reason we did it was because it sounded like crap: It was totally rushed, we had a very limited budget, we were out of tune and the guy who recorded it didn't really care -- and it ended up sounding that way. But we thought it was a good album, and we didn't just want it to fade into obscurity."
Plus, all of that experience paid off when the group was recording its second proper album. "I think we've become better songwriters, and the songs are better than the 'Awake' songs: They're a little more... not intricate, just better in the songwriting, yet just as powerful."
Kovacs is actually selling the group short: "Take Control" is a melodic, self-assured and thoroughly irresistible punk gem. And if there are fewer "whoa's" front and center this time around, the group makes up for that with an anthemic "dat-dat-dat-dat-da" sing-along in "Ego."
How do standouts such as that tune, "Sick of Promises" and "Falling Apart" come together? "Most of the writing takes place all in the same room together. We're just experimenting and making noise in the practice space, and I'm pretty much yelling gibberish, trying to come up with a decent vocal pattern, and sometimes a song comes out. Later on, I'll try to write real lyrics for it."
As for what inspires him at that stage, Kovacs pauses for a while before finally adding, "It's hard to come up with good words to describe it. This sounds totally pretentious, but it's kind of like my own personal spiritual thing, though not in the religious sense. It's basically me just trying to figure out my place in the world, and I guess there's a lot to write about when it comes to that."
Like a good "whoa whoa" chorus, it's also something we can all relate to.