JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound’s sophomore album, Want More, might sound like some lost artifact from Otis Redding’s archive, but the Chicago quartet is young enough to be Redding’s grandchildren and have only been working their Indie Rock corner of Chicago Soul since 2007. Even as they channel Soul’s classic era, they remain solidly grounded in the present tense.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be traditional James Brown horns,” JCBUS bassist Ben Taylor says. “It was going to be a little messier and rough around the edges.”
The Uptown Sound coalesced after guitarist Billy Bungeroth’s Craigslist ad seeking players to blend vintage Soul, British Post Punk and free Jazz. Bungeroth had a drummer; Taylor and vocalist JC Brooks answered the ad simultaneously but independently. After their initial run-through, Bungeroth abandoned his concept, sensing the newly formed quartet’s chemistry was leading them down a unique path.
“Immediately, it was there,” Taylor says. “At the end of the night, it was like, ‘Let’s form a band, let’s do this.’ On a first date, you wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, this is cool. Let’s get married.’ But JC is obviously this amazing performer, and I was kind of done with guitar players but Billy could go from Steve Cropper Soul licks to Sonic Youth freak-outs to real rough Blues. I was into Public Image Ltd. and Motown. So we ran with it.”
Since then, JCBUS’s trajectory has steadily risen. Kevin Marks was recruited when their original drummer quit early on (“He didn’t think it was going anywhere; he’s the Pete Best of the story ...”); shortly after, the band recorded their debut, Beat of Our Own Drum. In 2009, JCBUS was tagged by the Numero Group as the house band for their multi-artist tour, a creative trial by fire that galvanized their sound.
“We were a little more raw when we started, but we’ve been finessing it,” Taylor says.
“We did the Eccentric Soul Revue that allowed us to step up our game. We backed up a couple different artists and we had to learn two or three dozen tunes. We had to get it right and that really helped what we were doing.”
In 2009, a goofy rehearsal exercise led to the unusual idea of a Soul version of Wilco’s squalling epic, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” from 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A video of the band’s live performance went viral, attracting Jeff Tweedy’s attention.
“We met (Wilco’s) Pat Sansone at a club and he was like, ‘Oh, we watched that video. Jeff really liked it,’ ” Taylor says. “We were like, ‘That’s good to know.’ It would have weighed on us if Wilco thought we were ruining their song. We got to meet them, then we released the single (in 2010), and in early 2011, we got a call from Wilco’s management asking if we wanted to open for Jeff, who was doing a solo show to benefit Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign. We were introduced to him, and he’s as much of a music geek as we are. He’s like, ‘Do you think I could sing (‘Break Your Heart’) with you guys?’ And we’re like, ‘Uh, yeah, I think we can do that.’
“He was really into it. We ramped it up and he rocked out. They invited us to play Wilco’s Solid Sound festival last summer and he did it with us again, and a lot of people saw that.”
The quartet recorded Want More, a slightly shinier Soul statement than Beat of Our Own Drum, in 2010, releasing it last year. Want More may be a shade more polished than the raucous and spartan Drum, but it burns with equal Indie Soul intensity.
“Beat of Our Own Drum was recorded after we’d played maybe five gigs, so we went in and recorded our live set,” Taylor says. “For Want More, we had more time to develop what we’re doing, and it was the first time we’d worked with an outside producer; we had Jimmy Sutton who did the J.D. McPherson album. To have someone say, ‘What’s the chorus? What’s the hook? You guys are just jamming here, let’s whittle it down,’ that was really helpful.”
Last year, JCBUS finally signed to Bloodshot Records after circling each other for awhile. They played Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral inauguration party and became the primary musical accompaniment for the Chicago production of the Tony-winning musical Passing Strange. In the gaps, JCBUS has packed their schedule with as much roadwork as humanly possible, honing a sound they were already translating with the skill of a UN interpreter and are continuing to evolve.
“We developed this vintage Soul sound, but we were just figuring out how to make it more personal,” Taylor says. “From the first time we all met, it’s always been, ‘What is us?’ We’re not trying to recreate anything. James Brown already did it very well, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have done a great job of working that sound, but we’re always bringing in things we grew up on. So for something like ‘Missing Things,’ we love The Band and The Stones, and it’s something more personal. Or like ‘Baaadnews,’ which we’d worked up five different ways, and even since the record, we’ve developed into this much more stripped down and aggressive Funk. It’s just finding where the sound is leading us.”
JC BROOKS AND THE UPTOWN SOUND performs MPMF.12 Friday, Sept. 28 at 11:30 p.m. in the vitaminwater room of the Hanke Building.