Done With The "Cool" Routine, It's Honesty Or Bust For Baby Teeth. And It's Hot.
By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 2, 2012 9:40PM
Baby Teeth (from L-R: drummer Peter Andreadis, frontman/keyboardist Abraham Levitan and guitarist Jim Cooper) / (photo via band's Myspace page)
In the nearly ten years that Chicago trio Baby Teeth have been together, they've released four albums, (including White Tonight, out today), gained and lost a few auxilliary band members, toured a bunch (then not at all) and explored the part of the indie rock world where fulfillment, success and "it" factor don't always collide. The band was disarmingly honest in their chat with us on why they don't care about being cool, the journey of growing older and how they found a way to make music fun again.
Chicagoist: You three have just released your fourth album together, but you decided, "to hell with the touring thing." What changed?
Pete: We pretty much decided not to tour after "Hustle Beach" came out. And when we were that busy before and really taking ourselves seriously and trying to do X, Y and Z--all the things bands are supposed to do, like expand your fan base--that kinda stuff it's hard to see yourself from the outside.
We just created a much simpler bottom line for ourselves this time around. "Do we want to spend a lot of money?" No. "Do we want to do things that we're not excited about?" No. A lot of "no's" came up, so when we decided on the simple things that made us happy, it sort of gave me the perspective to see every other band out there and see somewhat of the absurdity that goes on with this state of mind. Like, "you have to take this seriously!" as if it's the only way you can [be in] a band."
Abraham: That's a great point. We did really decide to take ourselves out of the game a little bit. I think embracing our own uncoolness has allowed us to--I hope--be more artistically successful.
C: So to get a different perspective, you stepped away--and then you could see what the whole circus looked like from the outside?
Abraham: Yeah, stepping away lets you see the whole Spinal Tap-ness >of it all, even on the "indie" level.
Chicagoist: Things like family, money and geography can make it tough for being a full-time band a sustainable thing--but you don't want to stop, either. White Tonight has this great honesty to it because it's all about the stuff that happens outside of a the band bubble; the situations are much closer to home for the listener. After all, not everyone can relate to the "rock star" life on a personal level...
Abraham: Yeah! Not everyone can relate to "Turn The Page" by Bob Seger. I think in popular media, there's a lot of coverage of people who obsessively do one thing; like an actor who knew since they were eight that all they wanted to do was act. Or a business man who's like Lee Ioccoca who's a tycoon for life and then writes a book about being a tycoon. America is really into the idea of the "mono-maniac," of the person who does just one thing. I've always been a little frustrated that there's not more coverage about people who do more than one thing, about people who have to string several things together: a day job, a creative thing, a family. Because that is the reality for a great majority of artistic people. Every time there's even a blip of cultural space for people who do their creative work that way.
Chicagoist: You talked already about how you needed to get outside the bubble to make this record and have a fresh perspective on your music and how you were making it. Now that you've done that, how would you describe the way it affected the record?
Jim: It's more personal, relatable. It doesn't take itself too seriously.
Abraham: I think that's right. I mean, bands who write about about being in bands there's not much material there. I am really grateful that we all have full lives in our own ways and have real stuff that we can write about that's totally external from the experience of being in a band. Some of it's very domestic, some of it's mundane day-to-day stuff, but I love writing about that. I always think, "What's the thing you're not supposed to write about?"
Chicagoist: Because it's--?
Abraham: --Like kids. Because it's "uncool." Like washing dishes, or stuff about not getting in for free at a place you used to get in for free. Those are some taboos I'm interested in, from a writing perspective. I love the idea that there can be rock songs about that.
Chicagoist: How do you pull off making a pedestrian topic sound engaging on the album? How do you make themes like getting older and feeling unhip work?
Pete: I think there's always been a low level of embarrassment with this band. Ever since the very beginning, we just got together in a room, played well together and we liked cracking each other up. I don't think we ever felt like we had to hide that or "mean mug" onstage and look cool or dress hard. I think that's made it easy for us to go wherever we felt like going. I think the things we enjoyed the most where we were at practice or working on new music was when it felt like [the music] was cracking that veneer of cool, then we were probably enjoying it a lot more. We never felt like we had to shy away from it.
Jim: In fact in the early days of Baby Teeth, the rule was "If it's a bad music decision, it's probably the right decision." And that's another part of the reason the record works. We've been together so goddamn long. It's been eight years. I know these guys, their kinks musically, i know where they'll go. It's great to be in a band with that kind of longevity. It also helps that the three of our personalities blend so well. Touring with these guys is like being on vacation.
Abraham: [Laughs] Because we never got paid!
Jim: I really enjoy it though--knowing I'm coming in to practice and it's going to be two hours making stuff with these guys, and we're going to get stuff done fast.
Abraham: The first word that came into my mind when you asked that question is "trust." I think in order to have a band where you're really comfortable approaching taboos both lyrically and musically--because we definitely bring in a lot of horrible genres into our music as well--to take those risks, you really have to trust the people you're working with, completely.
Chicagoist: One of the things Eric Harvey said in his [Pitchfork] review of Hustle Beach was that it was refreshing to hear a band that wasn't looking over their shoulders. Was it hard for you guys individually, or maybe collectively as a band, to get to that point where you have not only that trust you talked about, but that lack of ego?
Abraham: For me it was hard.It was a progression. I definitely worried a lot about image when we first started.
Pete: I did a lot of theater growing up, so I guess I was comfortable being onstage and playing it up instead of playing it down. I think to get onstage and try to play it straight is actually harder. And with this band, we don't really try to be straight. I think we ham it up and try to give everybody a good show. In that regard, for me it's easier. It's like the Three Muskateers, it's kind of "all for one."
Jim: I would say that through the history if the group, we've gone through a few stages: when we started out, we'd dress all in white, which was a much more gimmicky, razzle-dazzle kind of presentation. And then we experimented with adding new members. We added a guitar player for a little while that ended kind of disastrously. We added some singers later, but whenever we tried to add things, it ends up not working for us. But over the course of the years touring and rehearsing, it allowed us to relax a little, loosen our belts and enjoy it more. And playing in a band in your 30s is a lot different than playing in a band in your 20s.
Chicagoist: What are some of the changes that you notice on that end? Some of you are married, so it's not all about the ladies anymore, huh?
Abraham: I actually met [my wife] while playing a show! But the core of it for me is giving up on the idea of ever making money or getting famous from playing in a band. Once I fully let that go from my soul, it became a lot more fun. And from a creative perspective, too--"Does this sound enough like the zeitgeist of music in the moment." Trying to follow what the White Stripes were doing, or the Rapture, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or The Shins I went through a long time going "Aw man! I'm 80% of the way there, but I can't quite nail it!" And if you have market-based concerns, it can definitely creep in to how you write, how you approach a live show. It's a lot of extra crap to tote around that kind of gets in the way.
Chicagoist: It sounds kind of Tony Robbins-esque, but do you feel this album is the most authentically "you" that you've recorded to date?
Abraham: I definitely feel that.
Pete: We always had expectations before, like "This is our first record! How many fans are we going to get? How many press mentions are we going to get?" With the second record, it was probably that, times two. And with our last one, we had a really good PR agent and a booking agent so we just felt like "ok, third time is a charm! We'll get bigger and sell more records." And this is the first record where we don't have those expectations. I think if we can make ourselves happy, that's probably the most important thing. I don't think we ever asked that before.
Chicagoist: "Does this record make me happy?"
Pete: Yeah. I don't think until this year we had really broken it down to that simple of a level before.
Abraham: Before it was just about staying on the treadmill, making sure we're doing all the things that aspiring indie rock bands are supposed to do.
Jim: I remember definitively the moment during rehearsal where we're going through the set list that was kind of time-tested "greatest hits" of Baby Teeth. And we sat there and said "do we really want to play this song again?" And we said collectively, no. Let's have a good time. Once that break was made, the enjoyment increased exponentially.
Abraham: And we haven't played "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" ever since.
Chicagoist: Baby Teeth sounds like it's evolved the same way a successful marriage might: initial excitement and romantic ideals, then a reality check and deepening of trust and appreciation.
Jim: Well, eight years later and not one piece of dish ware has flown across the room.
Chicagoist: So nobody's had to sleep on the couch?
Abraham: [Laughs] No. But that's a really good observation. Chris Rock once said that "in the first three months of a relationship, your representative is dating my representative." And I think there's always a degree of that in the early stages until you really learn to get comfortable and collaborate.
Chicagoist: You've talked about your comfort enabling you to work quickly on your music. How fast did White Tonight come together?
Pete: We started playing some of these songs when we were doing the Hustle Beach record and some of those shows. So, a few of these songs have been around for a while, but we've been working on the project for about a year. We took the summer off, so knock a few months out of that.
Abraham: The gestation period was nine months.
Chicagoist: Are you bringing back any of the things you've been actively avoiding the past few years? You're having a record release show, but no touring. What about special projects, or a showcase like South by Southwest?
Pete: Makes neck slicing motion
Abraham: We did make a video. It's a video for the song "White Tonight," and if you're an avid Baby Teeth fan, it's about an aging rocker who's trying to make peace with his domestic life, but still trying to hang on to the glory days of his rock and roll career. We shot, what I think, is a really funny video. We got our friend Bobby Conn to play the lead role. We got shots of him with his family supporting his career, making posters for his band and such. Meanwhile he's completely alienated his band and all of its fans. And the climax is him booking the Old Town School of Folk Music theater space for a show. He runs out onstage, he turns around and there's no band there. And in the audience it's just his wife and kids holding the signs [laughs].
So I think it's the most depressing disco video ever made.
Chicagoist: When do we get to see this?
Abraham: It's being edited now by Kartemquin Films, you know the guys who did "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters." But we have no money for them, so it's on their time.
Chicagoist: While the video is in the can, what else do you plan to do since you're not touring?
Jim: I'm getting set to move to Los Angeles in June to do more commercial music work.
Chicagoist: Is that a threat to what the band has going here? "Threat" might be the wrong word
Pete: It's a threat to the people of Los Angeles.
Chicagoist: But Baby Teeth will stay intact?
Jim: Interestingly enough, a lot of the music I already do with a collaborator is remotely. When [Baby Teeth does] more recording, it'll be the same. And I'm sure I'll be back here.
Abraham: I'm sure it'll be an adjustment, since a lot of what works for us is based on the chemistry of us being in the same room together. It'll be different, but we're playing on keeping it going.
Baby Teeth play tonight (record release) at Schubas, 3159 N Southport. With Outer Minds and Bobby Conn, 10 p.m., $10, 21+