By Bob Chiarito
Just as most forms of Rock and Roll can be traced back to the blues, music has always borrowed from and been influenced by what came before. Sometimes the influence is obvious. In the case of ‘Golden Hour’, a new track off Chicago band Bailiff’s sophomore effort ‘Remise’, one would be hard pressed to guess the song was most influenced by the 1960s R&B favorite ‘My Girl’ by the Temptations.
Listening to it, even the most astute music lover probably wouldn’t recognize the similarity. Owen O’Malley, bassist for the threesome, said ‘Golden Hour’ came about as a result of an exercise given to them by music engineer Beau Sorenson, whose resume includes Death Cab For Cutie and Superchunk, among others.
“We were told to take a song that you thought was a classic. -One of the things we said is that we wanted to focus more on writing songs that pop structure, like the structure of a classic pop song. So the exercise he gave us was to take a song that we thought was an example of a perfect classic pop song and then pretend that we were hired by an ad agency to write a knock-off of that song,” O’Malley said. “We picked ‘My Girl’ by the Temptations and really analyzed the structure of the song, the arrangements. We wrote a knock-off of that, and then version of that, and then wrote another version of that version and then the fourth version ended up becoming ‘Golden Hour’ and ‘Golden Hour’ doesn’t sound anything like ‘My Girl’, but structurally there are some similarities. The verse and the chorus share a core progression, there’s a pre-chorus that has a different core progression. Stuff like that.”
By their own admission, Bailiff’s music is hard to categorize. According to drummer Ren Mathew, Bailiff is a “groove orientated band but we have so many different styles.” Singer and lead guitarist Josh Siegel said “that’s still the hardest question for me. I still think we’re a rock and roll band. Jagged…that’s one word [to describe the band].”
Like their debut ‘Red Ballon’, ‘Remise’, their follow-up, features guitar-driven songs with a lot of hooks and harmonization. Bailiff’s sound is unique probably because their influences stretch from the Beatles to Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails to Muddy Waters and Richard Thompson. They rock at times, they groove at times, while a funkiness permeates throughout and combined with some cool guitar effects, the result is a sound that is all their own.
‘Remise’, released online as two EPs, (the second just released Oct. 7)–all nine songs are on the CD and Vinyl versions — comes three years after ‘Red Balloon’. Like ‘Red Ballon,’ the band turned to crowdsourcing in the form of a Kickstarter campaign to raise more than $16,000 — something more bands are doing these days. It’s the reality of the business, and according to Bailiff, crowdsourcing has some positives beyond financial freedom.
“They [Kickstarter campaigns] sort of are taking the place of the label,” O’Malley said. “The traditional model is that the label would front a bunch of money and you’d owe the label but now the relationship is really the fan base, or a certain segment of your audience makes that investment and takes that risk and you deliver an album….there’s certainly an investment beyond just money. There’s definitely and emotional attribute. We did a smaller kickstarter campaign for the last album, for replication of the CDs. A lot of those people helped with the second campaign. It’s reaffirming for us, we know that those people want to see us succeed. We feel like we want to do better for them,” O’Malley said.
In between the two releases, the threesome has been touring and hired a new producer –Dan Smart, who shared co-producing duties on Remise with Red Ballon producer Jon Alvin — along with a new publicist to help spread the word about what Chicago indie music fans already know — that Bailiff is a band to take note of.
Most of the songs on ‘Remise’ are about relationships, just as they were on ‘Red Ballon’, including two ballads. However, the song ‘Helicoptor’ covers new ground for the band, venturing into political territory with lyrics such as “I don’t wanna be a fighter in the war, cause I don’t know why I’m dying anymore…” Siegel said the lyrics were inspired by the music and that for them it’s the music comes first.
Bailiff was formed in 2007 after Wilmette native Josh Siegel dropped out of the Boston’s Berklee College of Music — a decision encouraged by one of his professors who told him “don’t procrastinate.”
Siegel attributes his teacher’s advice as a good riddance as much as a good luck. “In other interviews, I may have said I studied sound engineering but I studied that as much as I studied pre-med.”
Upon his return to Chicago, Siegel put up flyers at coffee shops and on Craiglist, looking to find bandmates.
“I wrote a lot of ads. I’m sure the first one was pretty vague. I think I tried to think of listing a lot of bands I like, and that’s cool but I think at the time Ren found the ad, I wasn’t filtering myself, so I just kind of rambled,” Siegel said.
Ren Mathew, who grew up in Bolingbrook, was the first to join forces with Siegel. The Craigslist ad that caught his eye read “Do you consider Radiohead to be soul music? Do you hear Muddy Waters in between the notes on the White Album?”
According to Mathew, he recalled the ad as “kinda cryptic. It was vague but it had enough in it that it caught my attention. The relationship between blues and a lot of genres.”
As for their name, Mathew said “we were looking for something simple and recognizable, but failing miserably. I’ll hold off on mentioning some of the initial suggestions. Ultimately, it was when we got booked for our first show that we had to decide. Josh saw the word Bailiff in a law journal and pitched it as a potential band name. We liked the way it sounded and it fit our requirements for band name, so we went with it.”
After joining together, Siegel and Mathew then found enlisted Marc Bonadies for a handful of shows and was with them to record their first EP ‘Mm Hmm.’ Bonadies left after the first year of the band and Adam Schneider joined. However, Bailiff and Schneider eventually parted ways, causing the band to question their future for a time, according to Siegel.
“We weren’t sure how to make the band happen, so we had people rotating. We thought we could do that, there are other famous two pieces that write all the music and then bring in musicians. It really hit us on our first tour that we needed a permanent bass player. There was a fear that no one was going to join, it’s a huge undertaking. And for the whole tour me and Ren were like ‘man, what are we gonna do? We can’t do another tour like this’.’ Then after our the last show, I turned my phone on and Owen called and said he was ‘moving back, let’s do this.’
O’Malley had known Siegel and Mathew because his previous band, Rikters, shared the same rehearsal space as Bailiff near Grand and Sacremento Avenues. Originally from Long Island, O’Malley moved to Chicago permanently in 2007. The threesome live together in a coach house on the city’s North Side, rehearse together three times a week and have been touring the midwest throughout the summer, with a few gigs at home in Chicago in between. They have played some live shows with an additional guitarist and haven’t ruled out adding another member, but it’s not high on their priority list right now, according to Siegel.
“We’ve thought about it. We just got done writing a record. There’s a big difference in playing as a 4-piece and writing as a 4-piece, so right now we’re experimenting with playing with a forth. We’re still doing most of our shows as the 3-piece,” Siegel said.
Bailiff’s first album ‘Red Ballon’ was released in 2011 after a Kickstarter campaign and quickly caught the ear of Chicago music club patrons. It also got a lot of attention from WXRT deejay Richard Milne, host of Local Anesthetic, a show that focuses on local bands. Recently Bailiff was interviewed by Milne, who while praising Red Ballon again and saying that Remise was an even better record, said on-air that the band had “disappeared for three years.”
Siegel said while he disagrees that they disappeared, he understood where Milne was coming from.
“I think what he meant by that, is that he’s a dj that plays new music and we hadn’t sent him a new record since 2011. We finished this record in 2013 and debated if we should rush to make it a 2013 release or sit on it. We knew the risk that people might think –like, after 2 years ok, but after 3 years people start wondering what’s going on. So, we took that risk. After our first record, which we got out really fast, and it felt good to get it out there but this time we wanted to sit on it a little bit and plan our launch a bit more.”
Going forward, Bailiff said they have the structure down so that it won’t take them another three years for their next album.
“We’ve already started that process,” O’Malley said. “We rehearse three times a week (at home) and we have a lot of stuff that we generated for this last album that never made it so we have that to work with.”
Sometimes, taking a break from playing also helps, according to Siegel.
“We discovered there’s something to be gained by getting together as a group and watching a documentary, listening to records.”
Siegel said they called their second album ‘Remise’ for two reasons — as a verb, the word means “to make a renewed thrust on the same lunge after the first has missed” and as a noun it’s another word for coach house.
“We were looking up words related to a coach house since we live together in a coach house. Owen found the sword fighting reference so that made us really stare at that one for a long time,” Siegel said.
Despite the sword fighting definition about “a first lunge that missed,” Remise may be the band’s second effort, but Red Balloon did not miss. Rather, it’s the album that won over many indie music fans in Chicago who regularly attend Bailiff’s gigs, and an album they are proud of.
“That’s one of those things, when you’re in the process of making the record, you get so zoned into it that you catch little things that may bug you, but once it’s done I’ve learned that it’s good to put it away for awhile. I recently listened to the first record and I was very proud of it,” Mathew said.
While he agrees with Mathew on that point, Siegel noted “I think we are all trying to get better.”
Along with hiring Beau Sorenson to give them exercises to help their songwriting process, Siegel also took more singing lessons in the time between albums. That, combined with the addition of producer Dan Smart helped to make ‘Remise’ an album that will likely woo fans from other cities just as it has done in Chicago.
“Jon Alvin produced Red Balloon and got us started on Remise’,” Siegel said. “Smart’s approach was much more, he knew the right way to motivate us. He knew when we were in a stagnant place, how to get us out of that. Jon would say things that you could interpret any way and you’d think about it and it would effect the song writing whereas Dan would do that too, but he was much more like “I’m gonna get you to produce these songs on time. He did a great job of structuring things and he was in the room with us and would say ‘Play that song for me’ and while we’d be were playing it he’d pause and say ‘try shortening this section’, so he was much more of a live editing process” Siegel said.
The released the first half of the ‘Remise’ album as an digital EP back in April and the second half was released Oct. 7, although the entire album was available on CD and Vinyl at gigs in April. The band said that that was a conscious decision, that the double release would give some new fans a taste and current fans a thirst for more.
Bailiff is currently still touring, still asking fans in other cities over Facebook for a floor to crash on, and still dressing in dark clothing, which you’ll get three different answers for from each member– “it has a slimming effect”, according to O’Malley; “it’s easy to hide in the back of the drum kit”, according to Mathew, and as Siegel said, “on tour, things get really dirty and black is the last color to show it.”
If you’ve seen Bailiff, you may have seem them unloading and loading their own equipment, much like hundreds of bands who came before them. Once you’ve heard them, you get the feeling they won’t be doing that for long.
“I think with each area of being a band there are tiny little ladders you’re climbing,” Siegel said. “So, we’ve started getting more traction with our publicist and getting more write ups and the game plan is to keep touring, keep hitting the same cities over and over again – just like we did in Chicago. Our first couple of shows there were not a whole lot of people but we won them over and tried to up the ante each time. We’d like to do what we’ve done in Chicago on a national level.”