Interview: May Or May Not, Ctrl-Alt-Rock Band
By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 26, 2006 5:08PM
This is the first in a series of three profiles of the bands performing at Chicagoist's Ctrl-Alt-Rock event at Schubas on Thursday, February 16th. Click here for more on the event and keep checking Chicagoist for profiles of the other bands and further details.
As Chicagoist sat down with the band May Or May Not on a recent Saturday afternoon, lead singer/guitarist Steve Reidell said “You should hear this” as he gestured at a record turntable in the corner of the room. The song that filled the room was a countryish tune that sounded a bit…twisted. “It’s Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman album,” Reidell said. “On 45.”
It’s that mix of musical experimentation and goofy fun that makes up the sound of May Or May Not.
May Or May Not (pictured l-r: Ed Lo, Zaid Maxwell, Amelia Styer, Steve Reidell) formed in 2002 when guitarist Aaron Brink, bassist Eric Day and drummer Todd Waters of the ska band Donkey Punch joined forces with Steve Reidell and keyboardist Zaid Maxwell of the power-pop combo Five Dollar Foundation. After recording an EP over the course of a weekend with Nick Kraska of The New Black (“It’s really more of a glorified demo,” says Reidell), the band took six months to record their full-length follow-up, Colors Only Bees Can See. “The most commonly-said phrase during the recording of [Colors] was 'I don’t think this should take too long,'" says Reidell. “At first, it was something being said seriously. By the end it was for comic relief.”
Colors is an ambitious record that takes chances with layered guitar pop arrangements featuring spaced-out keyboards and Beach Boys-style harmonies. “If the record were to suffer at all, it might be that it’s so dense and there’s so much going on but we had so little know-how, ” says Maxwell. What the album may lack in technical expertise is obscured by the crescendos of infectious enthusiasm that pour from the Rundgren-esque production.
After Day moved to New York and Waters left the band for culinary school, bassist Eddie Lo, keyboardist Amelia Styer and drummer Nate Owings joined the group. Reidell, Maxwell, Lo and Styer all attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Spending several years together as friends and creative partners informs their music. “We go into it and say ‘What are we gonna do with this song?’ It’s more of an ensemble and less of a traditional band.”
Currently at work on another EP, the four Wisconsin grads and bandmates talked with Chicagoist to discuss what it’s like to create in Chicago, the importance of Sparks energy drink in live performance and the dangers of sounding too much like Van Halen.
Chicagoist: How does being in Chicago affect your creativity?
Zaid Maxwell: I think the Midwest is conducive to writing because of the season changes. I’ve noticed when winter comes, it’s easier to be active doing music because it’s gross out.
Amelia Styer: There’s a reason why some of the greater composers come from Russia.
C: What’s most important to you in your live shows?
Amelia: I think having fun, for us, is the most important thing. Then the audience will have fun too. I need to loosen up onstage more. I need to work out the kinks.
Zaid: Drink more Sparks.
Amelia: That’s one comment I always get.
Steve Reidell: Drink more Sparks?
Amelia: No. People say I should have a drink and loosen up.
Zaid: I think it’s your classical training with your posture and how you sit…
Steve: What you need to do is slouch more.
Amelia: I could work on more antics.
Steve: Lately, we’ve been dressing up for shows.
Zaid: Dressing up is like: Don’t wear gym shorts.
Amelia: I might buy a bubble machine to use onstage.
Zaid: Well, we all have our different ideas about atmosphere.
Steve: Man, venues are gonna love us.
C: What’s the biggest mistake a band can make?
Eddie Lo: Trying to sound like something else. When I was in college I played in a Van Halen cover band. When I tried to get those guys to write original songs, everything came out Van Halen. That’s what they wanted to do. I notice a lot of bands get written off because you can say “Oh, well they sound like that.”
Steve: You don’t think May Or May Not sounds like Van Halen?
Ed: Once in a while. When we cover “Eruption.” (laughs)
Steve: I think bands can be impatient. We’re not really trying to rush anything or worrying about where we should be.
Amelia: Taking yourself too seriously. I never wanted it to get so serious that it takes away the fun. The moment that art and music becomes a daily obsession then it’s not good. I told that to Zaid before and he was like “But this is my passion! This is what I do!”
Zaid: That’s true.
Steve: That was weird when you got the May Or May Not tattoo on your chest though. In the Gothic letters?
Zaid: Right above “Thug Life.” Yeah.
C: Do you feel like you have to have a plan for what you do next?
Steve: I don’t think we have to but we definitely want to keep making music and getting more people to hear it. Zaid and I had a serious business meeting at Nick’s [Beer Garden] down the street last night. It started at about 2:30 in the morning. Whatever, we were wasted, sure. But we were talking about ideas and what our next moves are.
Zaid: Steve definitely has the more realistic things locked down.
Steve: I don’t have it down to a science. If I did, we’d be multimillionaires.
Amelia: Why aren’t we multimillionaires? (laughs)
Steve: I’m totally working on that.