14 July 2010

(More than) 10 questions with...District 97

My guess is that you might not have heard of District 97 before.

But you will. I can almost guarantee it.

They’re touted as “the only Progressive Rock band in the world to feature an American Idol finalist and a Chicago Symphony Orchestra virtuoso cellist.” While that’s certainly accurate, it does little to describe their music or what they do. With the core members having met in college, the instrumentalists had honed an intense brand of heavy instrumental rock a la Liquid Tension Experiment before a pair of lucky coincidences landed them a classically trained cellist and a singer who had appeared on American Idol during the 2007 season.

Since then they’ve recorded a full length album, Hybrid Child (due out later this year on Laser’s Edge Records), filmed a video for their lead single, the poppy yet musically intense ‘I Can't Take You With Me,’ and offered a free download for a rendition of a piece from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet For the End of Time). In and amongst this activity, they’ve played gigs in their local Chicago area, and recently were announced as one of the spotlight bands at this year’s CalProg festival, to be held in October in Whittier California. Truly, District 97 is on an upward track.

Jonathan Schang, the band’s drummer, was kind enough to respond to my request for an interview, and he was incredibly generous with his time, providing some incisive and in depth answers to my questions. Read on, and there may well be a treat at the bottom for you!

1) What drew you to music initially, and how did you get your start in music?

Jonathan Schang:
Music was a constant in my childhood, as my father was an aspiring musician who often made recordings in our apartment growing up. This was around the time of tbe CD revolution, so he bought a bunch of the re-releases. I was particularly bowled over by The Beatles' "Rubber Soul", which started a life-long infatuation with all things Fab Four and music in general. I always seemed to have a natural inclination for rhythm, which initially manifested itself chiefly by banging on my desk at school, much to the consternation of my teachers. Inevitably I graduated to drumset, and formed a number of bands with friends from school (Patrick Mulcahy and Rob Clearfield from D97 among them). I got my start in songwriting as a way to fulfill school projects. Two of my first compositions at age 11 were about King George III and Amelia Earhardt, with Patrick screaming/singing incoherently over my pounding snare drum and our friend's warbling trombone in our elementary school cafeteria. It's been full-speed ahead ever since!

2) Can you tell us a little bit about how the core of the band came together?

Jonathan Schang: Continuing where I left off with the last question, Patrick (bass) and I met in 1994 when we were entered 5th grade. He didn't have much desire to be a musician at that age as I recall, but I eventually cajoled him into singing in a band that we dubbed The Firebird Rockets. He's been stuck with me ever since. As we moved into high school, I had started another band that was in need of a bass player, so I convinced Patrick to give the bass a try, which he took to in no time. Later on, we befriended Rob who was asserting himself as one of the school's best musicians, and he joined up. The group was called Alliance, and we made our best attempt at playing lofty Progressive Rock, as we had all gotten into Yes, Genesis etc. by that time. I left for a year to go to the Berklee College of Music, but then came back to Chicago where we all attended Roosevelt University as jazz majors. We all got involved in other groups, but eventually we found our way back together again, this time adding fellow Roosevelt alums Leslie Hunt and Jim Tashjian.

3) How did District 97 meet up with, and then enlist in the group, a cellist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

Jonathan Schang: Patrick and Rob knew Katinka through some mutual acquaintances on the Chicago jazz scene, and I had heard about her through them. She came to Lily's Bar to check out our second D97 gig and she was particularly impressed by our reworking of Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time: Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets." Coincidentally, this show was Leslie's first exposure to us as well, as I had invited her to open up for us with a solo set (we were still an instrumental quartet at this point).. Anyhow, that piece was a favorite of Katinka's, and we invited her to play it with us as a special guest a few months later. She really enjoyed herself, and eventually the decision was made to incorporate her into all of our material.

4) Does her CSO schedule in any way affect how you schedule concerts or other events?

Jonathan Schang: Yes and no. Of course we prefer to have her, but we recognize the CSO has to be her primary committment. To combat that, we've come up with very effective ways to cover her parts if she can't make a gig. This way, if a great opportunity comes up that she can't make, we can still give a thoroughly entertaining and representative performance.

5) Continuing on the 'how did D97 hook up with' theme, how did the band come to work with Leslie Hunt (seen on the 2007 season of American Idol)

Jonathan Schang: As I mentioned, Leslie also attended Roosevelt University. She was a composition major and we were jazz majors, so we didn't cross paths too much in school, but we had many mutual acquaintances. She had a bluegrass/jazz/pop group called Mark Twang that I used to go check out at their steady gig. This was my first major exposure to her, and I thought she was fantastic. We became cordial, but I didn't see her much once those gigs stopped. The next I knew of her, I heard she had made the top 24 on American Idol and was going to be on the show live. I made sure to tune in, as I had never known anyone who had achieved something of that nature, and it was pretty surreal to see her on there. Although I always thought she was great, this really woke me up to just how good she was. To have the tenacity and talent to make it to that point against such astronomical odds really impressed me. Once she was eliminated on AI, I always kept her in the back of mind, wondering if we might be able to collaborate someday. About a year later in early 2008, I had started writing music for D97 that called for vocals. At first, I tried to pull it off, but it was soon apparent that was not going to fly. Like Katinka, she caught our second gig, and she was up in front grooving along to our set. This allowed me to muster up the courage to ask her if she might like to sing with us sometime, as I had just subjected her and the rest of the crowd to my woeful attempts. Mercifully she said yes, and she made her debut with us about 6 months later.

6) Have you felt any backlash at all over Hunt's previous exposure on American Idol, or has that exposure been a positive thing?

Jonathan Schang: No, no backlash at all. If anything, I think it makes people more curious to listen to us. They might at first listen out of a sense of skepticism, not really believing that an "American Idol" could ever pull off progressive music, but I think that generally fades once they hear what we do. In a way, I think it was fortunate for her that she got eliminated relatively early on in AI, as it allows her to have more of her own identity and be taken seriously in contexts that are 180 degrees removed from the general perception of AI.

7) In May, the band announced their signing with Laser's Edge Records. How did you decide on them to release your album?

Jonathan Schang: I was tipped off to Ken Golden and Laser's Edge by Charles Snider (author of "The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock"), who had caught us opening for Bonerama this past February at Martyrs' in Chicago. Our album was in the can at this point, and I knew trying to get the necessary exposure independently would be an uphill and expensive battle. I had researched lots of record labels, and LE seemed like a great fit with a great reputation. Also, it helped that Ken said yes!

8) How has the response been to your advance single/video for 'I Can't Take You With Me'?

Jonathan Schang: It has been great, nearly 2000 Youtube plays already, and Ken arranged to have it played at NEARfest which I heard got a good response. It seems to be resonating well with prog fans and everyday music fans alike.

9) Concurrent with the release of your video, the band released a rendition of Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time: Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets" for free download on Bandcamp. Can you tell us a little bit about how the band approached this piece?

Jonathan Schang: Firstly, anyone and everyone can download it free at http://district97.bandcamp.com/ Essentially, the melodic instruments play the written parts of the original score most of the way through, which are all in unison. I attempted to come up with a drum part that would complement this as well as give our version a rock intensity. We added a few extra bits here and there, namely "The Fat People's Chorus of Bulgaria", but for the most part we stayed faithful to the original score, as it already "rocks" on its own. I don't think our changes sat very well with Messiaen's estate/SONY though, as they did not grant us permission to release it on our album. Hence, we encourage everyone to download it and share it, as we spent an awful lot of time and money on for it to go unheard.

10) What drove you toward the Messiaen composition versus something that was perhaps a bit more widely known?

Jonathan Schang: Rob, our keyboardist, has been an avid Messiaen fan for many years, so he suggested we try it as he thought it would lend itself well to a rock context. Being somewhat familiar with the piece, I thought it was a great idea, and tapped into the legacy of ELP and other bands who had reworked classical pieces. We spent months getting it under our fingers, but it got great responses when we began playing it live. Did I mention you should download it? :-)

11) D97's lead single and the Messiaen arrangement/'cover' paint two pretty different pictures of the band. How representative would you say either is of your forthcoming album Hybrid Child?

Jonathan Schang: Well, by default "I Can’t Take You With Me" would be more representative, as the Messiaen's not on the album! But as far as direction goes, I'd say Hybrid Child lies somewhere in the middle. I should point out the version of ICTYWM that has been largely disseminated at this point is significantly trimmed. The album version (which you can hear at www.district97.net) features an organ solo from Rob and some other bits that were cut from the single version. There are sections on the album that are every bit as poppy as the single, but then there are also moments of pure chaos. Hybrid Child closes with a 27:36 piece called "Mindscan", so I think that's an indicator that we are not afraid to stretch ourselves and just do whatever we feel the music dictates, be it a short pop-influenced song or an epic-length concept piece.

12) Does the band have anything else planned leading up to the release of Hybrid Child to keep appetites whetted?

Jonathan Schang: We are sitting on some videos of recent live performances that I'd like to get online for people to check out in the very near-future. Also, our website is finally complete at www.district97.net so there are some goodies there for anyone interested. At the moment, we're writing and rehearsing new music for the next CD (knock on wood). Hybrid Child will be out on September 14th, and we'll have lots of exciting things going on around then, including our festival debut at CalProg on Oct. 2nd, as well as some other events to be announced soon.

13) Where can listeners interested in finding out more about the band get the most current information about what D97 is up to?

Jonathan Schang: www.district97.net. Also, send an email to join the mailing list, contact us about booking or just say hello to district_97@yahoo.com! We're also on Myspace, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and I check Progressive Ears regularly. Additionally, we will be featured in the forthcoming issue of Progression Magazine.

14) As we end the interview, do you have any final words for our readers?

Jonathan Schang: We're all very grateful for the warm reception we've received from the Progressive Rock community! It wasn't long ago that we wondered if anyone beyond our friends and family would hear and respond to this music, and now we are much more at ease knowing that there is a supportive and enthusiastic group of music fans around the world who are eager for new music in this vein. Be sure to pick up Hybrid Child on September 14th, 2010 and stay tuned, we're just getting started!

I promised a treat, and I don’t go back on my promises. Below you’ll see embedded the official video from District 97 for their single ‘I Can't Take You With Me,’ a fuller length version of which (as in the song, not a fuller version of the video) will feature on Hybrid Child, due out in September on Laser’s Edge records. Enjoy!

Oh, and for the record, you can see this video and many more live ones at the band's YouTube page at


Anonymous said...

Great interview! Go District 97!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, godspeed District 97!!!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, godspeed District 97!!!

Anonymous said...

For anybody reading this interview who hasn't seen them live yet. Go and see them live, they really do rock!

Anonymous said...

Not too bad of a song, but it wasn't that f'ing great!
Reminded me of Gentle Giant and whatever that band is with Terry Bozzio and his wife, with the hit, "words."

firefly said...

Missing Persons - if you call them prog; or District 97 'prog?' for that matter!
But it's all interesting stuff here on this blog - thanks Bill!

Bill K. said...

I think people really need to check out the Messiaen cover, as well as the videos they additionally have posted on Youtube...there's substance there...

Dmantheman said...

D97 is killin! They are real musicians who know what they're doing, and make music that's both emotionally and intellectually accessible...there's absolutely no reason that they shouldn't hit it big!!!

Joseph said...

I learned about District 97 last night and I've spent some time today getting to know their story... I like them very much and can't wait for the debut album!