Chicago’s Assassins take aim at the top of the charts

By Jon Garrett

By their 10th gig, most local Chicago bands are lucky to have graduated to the Empty Bottle. Then there’s Assassins. Approximately 10 shows into their career, they’ve already played to a capacity crowd at Schuba’s, flown out for a label showcase in Los Angeles, and opened for the Soundtrack of Our Lives and Zwan. Granted, the band has technically been in existence since last May, and has been feverishly writing and recording songs in the interim. To the outsider, the rise probably seems rather sudden. But to understand exactly how this happened, you have to go back a bit.

“When you do something long enough, you learn what not to do,” explains Aaron Miller, who both drums and handles programming duties in the band. He is referring to his musical past, which includes an extended stint with local electo-punk band Marvelkind. While Marvelkind enjoyed some local success, they were never able to break through what Miller terms the “commercial glass ceiling.” Frustration eventually took its toll, and the band went on indefinite hiatus when the frontman took off for Los Angeles last year. It was then that Miller hooked up with guitarist/vocalist Joe Cassidy, vocalist/guitarist Merritt Lear, bassist Alex Kemp, and keyboardist/programmer David Golitko to form Assassins. “If you examine a lot of success stories, I think you’ll find that a lot of people do the wrong thing for a long time until they have a working library of what not to do. When we finally started [Assassins], we knew we didn’t want to spend 10 years playing the Double Door.” Because both he and the rest of the band were veterans of the local circuit (vocalist Lear and guitarist Cassidy were the core members of indie-pop outfit Butterfly Child), they were able to get the ball rolling quickly–so quickly, in fact, that there were record label reps at their very first show.

Cassidy confesses that he had no idea that the band would generate this much buzz, or that things would progress as fast as they have. “I’ve always done side projects, and that was actually how this started. The plan was that Aaron would keep doing Marvelkind and I would continue with Butterfly Child, but after we did the first three songs or so and passed them around, there was a lot of excitement. And once we did our first few shows, there was really no stopping it. None of us had time for anything else.” To emphasize his point, Miller adds, “We don’t even have any merchandise at our shows yet–no CDs, t-shirts, nothing.”

The attention is all the more surprising considering the Assassins’ sound–a sophisticated mix that takes the ’80s Manchester template, the dark, dance-pop perfected by the likes of Joy Division and New Order, and fleshes it out with elements of trip-hop and a post-punk guitar fuzz. With a description like that, you might expect an imminent signing to Matador or another reputable indie, but the band says it has seen the most interest from majors. Both Golitko and Cassidy chalk it up to the present commercial climate. “I think part of it is that they’re all so nervous,” explains Cassidy. “R&B things are dying a death. And then you’ve got all this crap rock that uses the same chords. What do you call that? Nu-metal.”

Of course, it is this last genre that has become synonymous with Chicago in recent years–at least as far as majors are concerned. The city’s commercial heavyweights have names like Disturbed and Chevelle–bands more agro than intellectual. Needless to say, if Assassins are as close as they say they are to signing a major label contract [Editor’s note: since the writing of this article, Assassins have officially signed with Arista Records], it would represent a huge coup. The group would arguably have the city’s best shot at filling the void left when the Smashing Pumpkins disbanded at the end of 2000. That’s not to say that Assassins sound like the Pumpkins at all. However, they do share a similar creative, yet still commercial, spirit. “Many of [the people working at major labels] are like you and me,” insists Golitko. “They’re bored with what’s going on, unhappy with the sound. I’ve been encouraged by the fact that they understand what we’re doing, that they hear something that is exciting and different but still works within the basic framework of pop music and radio music.”

Listening to the band’s 11-song demo, it becomes frighteningly apparent just how advanced Assassins are. Not only has the band found their own unique voice–something that many bands spend years searching for without success–but they’ve also got several fully realized songs. Tracks like “Modern Age” and “Tibet” are maybe a vocal tweak or two away from single-worthy status. Cassidy maintains that the sound was natural, an organic synthesis of the best bits of Butterfly Child and Marvelkind. “Butterfly Child was always about songwriting, where Marvelkind was about sonic terrorism. They didn’t quite have the songwriting and we never had the grit. That’s why this is a marriage that works. The songs are strong and the production is strong.”

But clearly, experience also accounts for the sonic maturity. Since almost all of the band members are comfortable with technology and are familiar with production techniques, the demo sounds nothing like what that word usually implies; the songs are as slick and polished as anything you’re likely to hear released by a proper label this year. So it comes as no surprise when Cassidy says that their debut album will likely be self-produced. They’ll work as they have from the beginning, piecing the songs together in each of their three home studios here in Chicago–sometimes collaboratively, more often on their own.

“We don’t really work together. Everyone works at his own studio. Then we’ll come together and agree on how to mix everything and finally learn how to play the songs live.” Cassidy admits that their method might strike some as unconventional, but says, “I’ve never liked the rock band [process]. I don’t think anyone in this band does. I suppose it’s a modern way of thinking in a way, but I hate the whole ‘band chemistry’ thing. The songs, the programming, and ideas have to be good in the first place. Who cares about knocking [the same] three chords out for five hours while drinking beer to try to get the ‘vibe?'”

Of course, there are those who believe that the fame and accolades have come too quickly for Assassins, since they didn’t exactly “pay their dues.” The band understands the skepticism, given the scant number of performances and the absence of a recorded product. However, they claim that both situations should be remedied in the coming months. The plan is to have an EP released in Europe before the year is out, and to launch a tour shortly thereafter. In the meantime, there should be a few scattered shows around Chicago while the band assembles their debut (they are scheduled to play with Kill Hannah at Metro on May 4). “Beyond that,” says Golitko, “it’s hard to say anything for certain. Things are moving so fast that all we can really do is react to what’s right in front of us.”