On a chilly Chicago Sunday, I had the chance to talk with Anthony Cozzi, front man of Radar Eyes—a band that has been a huge part of the Chicago garage rock scene for some 5 years now and who are just a few days short of the one-year anniversary of their vinyl debut on HoZac Records,
Anthony offered some insight into his songwriting, the home recording process, and the direction the band is heading. We also reminisced about growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, our favorite record stores, and how the music industry is easily not what it used to be.
I’ll admit I’m fairly new to you guys. I don’t know how you weren’t already on my radar but I first heard the song “I Am” a few weeks ago when the band Asteroid #4 posted it on their Facebook page with the tagline “Wow…sometimes something comes along where even we’re like…’ok, that’s fucking amazing!’”
I was pretty much hooked from there. I played it 4 or 5 times in a row and then immediately searched out some of your other songs. By the time I heard the track “Miracle” I had bought the album and a 7” from HoZac.
Nice! Glad you like it. Some of those songs were recorded over 2 or 2 ½ years ago now; some of them were recorded about a year ago. We’ve had some of them written for about 4 years though.
So, this album had been in the works a long time. It’s been a year since the Radar Eyes LP came out, how do you feel about the past year and the reaction to the album? Was it well received?
Yeah, better than expected for a home recording. I actually was not super satisfied with it but I just had to be done with it. I did all the basic recording myself, did the mixing, did most of the overdubs… It got a little crazy for me.
Your first album was a limited cassette only release back in 2010, what do you think of having a vinyl/CD/digital release that’s so widely available. Did putting out a cassette limit your audience originally?
I don’t think so. It was a really just a matter of PlusTapes being the first people to express an interest in putting something out by us. So, we said “Of course we’ll put it out on tape.” And actually that stuff was recorded for that album. We had nothing recorded prior to that.
Why do you think younger generations of music fans are going back to these analog formats such as vinyl or cassette? Is there a lasting trend there?
It’s something different and interesting, I’m a little detached from that because I grew up with that stuff. The first thing I ever had was a 45. It could just be a fad, but I honestly believe people like to have the product there in their hands, to have a tangible thing they can look at, something they can flex, and something that has beautiful artwork. It’s just a more organic process than just having something on your computer. It gets lost in there, I have 25,000 songs in my iTunes and I can’t think of what to play. So part of it for me is also just the fun of records.
Well, I’ve known those guys for a long time so I am definitely comfortable with them. They’re great people, they’re very nice to us and I feel like they look out for our best interests. They’re nice people to work with.
I was curious what your song writing process is like? You guys do a great job of using that fuzzy droning Post-Punk sound of the ‘80s and mixing it with catchy ‘60s sounding guitar riffs, how do you find this great middle ground between the two eras?
It’s just burned into my psyche from listening to it so much. Playing along with those records, its intuitive almost. Listening to that kind of music for so long those are the melodies that come to my mind. The songwriting process just happens, whether it’s a bass line or a certain melody line or just the chords. We just slowly chip away at it until it’s a song.
What was the home recording process like?
What happened was we did it in two sessions about a year a part, and each one we recorded 6 songs and the album has 10 or 11 songs, I can’t even remember. So a few of them didn’t make it on there.
The first recording was supposed to be put out on a different label but it didn’t end up working out. HoZac agreed to put out an album, so we recorded 5 more songs and used a combination of the two to release the album.
Our old guitarist, Nathan, is no longer in the band; he moved to DC about a year ago, and we got a different guitar player. So I do all the singing now and all the lyric writing. For the album, all the basic recordings were done with the band; I did all the overdubbing and fixing myself.
At that point, Nate or I would bring in a song and we would work on it as a band, but the songs were mostly fleshed out at the point they were brought in. Now it’s a little bit different, it’s a bit more collaborative.
One thing I love about you guys is that you have an amazing ability to reinterpret the past in a way that is clearly your own. Few bands have the skill to take the record collection in front of them and make it something entirely unique. What other influences do you have, musically, literary, or otherwise?
The record was influenced by a myriad of things. Music that I was listening to at the time, classes I was taking, some of the lyrics that I wrote were taken out of math classes I was in at the time (laughs). It can come from anywhere.
I like to buy records, I like to collect records and I like to listen to them also. I’ll get stuck on a song. The chord progression for “I Am” pretty much came from a Brian Eno song. I’ve always been really obsessed with Brian Eno’s rock albums. I like the ambient stuff, but I really like the rock albums, because he has a weird take on the structure of a pop song that I really love.
So I mean, it comes from all over the place. I’ve always kind of been into Sci-Fi but I’ve been reading a lot more lately. I’ve been reading a ton of Sci-Fi lately and watching Sci-Fi movies. One of the newest songs is written about the giant from Twin Peaks.
A lot of the songs on the album that I wrote were very personal. I think I kind of got sick of talking about myself. A lot of these new songs are more about coming up with stories and ideas and not necessarily anything personal or something from my journal.
Do you ever find it egotistical singing about yourself? Do you feel like you need to take a break from that sort of songwriting sometimes?
I feel like the album had a lot of negative overtones on it. Maybe it came from how I was feeling at the time or my thought process. There was always a glimmer of hope in the songs that sound happy and sunshine-y but the lyrics are more on the depressing side. I just got tired of being a depressed dude. I didn’t want to write songs about being sad anymore. It was boring to me.
I think it’s also part of the process to get out of that state of mind. To make what you do a more creative and positive expression. I feel that part of getting out of that darkness is to write about being out of the darkness, and maybe those two things will work together to kind of get you out of that place.
I don’t feel like that guy anymore. I’ve been writing a lot of stuff that might still sound dark but the lyrics aren’t about being sad or being hurt or angry anymore.
I’m reminded of that quote from High Fidelity, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” I still don’t know the answer, but I’m glad to hear you’re feeling more uplifted lately.
Going back to the album, I see that glimmer of hope in the music itself, especially in the catchy ‘60s influenced guitar hooks, but you guys seamlessly switch from that pop sound to these darker more brooding songs. For example, the last track on your LP The Side of the Road has this driving Joy Division-esque bass line and a real post-punk feel to it. Is this the direction your newer songs are going?
A lot of the new stuff we’ve written is more along the lines of that song. That was why I put that song as the last track on the album. It was kind of a segue into what the next album might sound like. I knew things were changing after that album, as far personnel and song writing goes, so the placement of that last track was very purposeful.
The new stuff definitely sounds a lot darker, I hate to use the Joy Division comparison over and over, there are a lot of other bands from that era that are just as influential on me. I tend to like those darker, post-punk and new wave bands. But I don’t feel I necessarily have to create lyrics that coincide with that sound. You can invoke imagery of dark things but don’t necessarily have to be saying, “I’m alone and depressed”
I think there’s a happy medium there to stretch my mind lyrically; To get past my old ways and refine the lyrical process.
The band as it is now, or as it has been for the past year, is very different from the band that recorded that album. It’s cool, we’re really gelling.
I read in a Tribune article that you were recording the Radar Eyes album primarily at home in your apartment, what was that recording process like?
Well it was done in two separate sessions about a year apart from each other, so the first half was recorded in the apartment I used to live in Bucktown, which was this large loft space above a vacant storefront. I have a tape machine called a Tascam 388, and it’s a 8 channel board with a reel to reel built-in. I recorded all the basic tracks on there and then I dumped it into Logic and mixed it on my laptop. That same process happened with the second half of the album but it was recorded in my basement in Logan Square. So, both times it’s been on the same machine. I think that’s why it doesn’t feel too weird mixing the two sessions into one album.
But I didn’t know what I was doing when I started recording that, I was very much a home recording enthusiast but I don’t anything about compression of EQing and actually how to mix. I just did it all by ear. That’s kind why it sounds the way it does.
The album sounds great though! You guys play the kind of music that sounds better when the recording process is simple. I think there’s sort of an art to making a lo-fi recording.
I think so too, it can be messy and still be okay. It doesn’t have to have clean edits and all this stuff that you’d in a studio. If stuff was recorded in ProTools everything is very “cleanly” recorded and you can hear every little mistake. Then you have to edit all that stuff or else everybody will hear it. In this instance it’s kind of just a mess and it was kind of a happy accident that it all worked out (laughs).
Hey, an organized mess is better than an overly polished product any day.
So, you guys recorded everything to analog tape and did the mixing digitally, do you guys see yourselves keeping with that process or would that change given the chance to record at a major studio?
I mean, two of the singles that we have coming out this year, will have been recorded in a more proper studio. The one that’s coming out on Notes & Bolts—that was recorded in my basement again. This recording that we’re doing in a few weeks will be at Electrical Audio, Steve Albini’s studio. That’ll be a higher quality recording.
Do you think that’s going to drastically change the sound of the band or will some of that home recording feel come through in these studio recordings?
I don’t know really. I mean as far as that’s concerned, it’s just an opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do ever since hearing Surfer Rosa or In Utero, as well as all the punk bands that were recorded at Electrical Audio.
The “B Room” there is cavernous, it’s two-stories high so you get this amazing drum sound. Plus, they have every awesome microphone you could ever want to record with. It gives us the opportunity to have something that sounds really great. I’m always up for that.
Where do you see Radar Eyes fitting into this whole neo-psychedelic scene that’s been gaining more momentum lately?
There’s a really good local garage rock, underground, whatever you want to call it, DIY scene in Chicago. I don’t feel necessarily a part of one or all of them. I have friends in bands and it’s a very symbiotic relationship. We help each other out. We play each other’s record release shows. We work together to make Chicago an interesting place for music. That’s not something I think about when I’m playing or writing songs but I think it’s more the nature of Chicago and the people here. They want to be a part of something bigger than just one band.
What was growing up in the south suburbs like for you? You talked a little bit about the lack of record stores, where did you get your music?
There were a few stores, I remember one, I think it was in Homewood, called Record Swap. There was a little DIY juice bar on the side of it called “Off the Alley” where they would have punk shows and DIY stuff happening there.
But not until I was later in my senior year did I even discover that stuff. I didn’t really know about that stuff back then, now you just look at your events page on Facebook. Back then you went into a record store and maybe you saw a flyer for a band and you’d have no idea who they were. I finally started coming into the city to see bands like Fugazi and other pop punk bands from the ‘90s at the Fireside Bowl.
I didn’t have any clue at that time how to do any of the stuff that it took to be in a band other than write songs. I only knew how to write songs and every once in a while someone would ask me to play a show with them and you’d set a show in your friends basement. Those were pretty few and far between though. Nowadays, and especially in Chicago, it’s much easier to do that stuff.
There’s a weird thing about the Southside where the Northside feels like another universe. Even coming up here was a huge daunting task. It’s very separate. There’s not a lot of art or music in the south suburbs, and if there is it’s old ladies making pottery or something. It didn’t feel like the way that it does up in Chicago. It was until I moved up here that I really experienced a tight-knit arts and music culture.
How do you feel about being in a place like Chicago that has an unlimited amount of art and music culture to draw from? If you guys were the same band from the middle of Iowa do you think you’d still have the same opportunities?
(Laughs) I don’t know, maybe we would be more motivated to work harder and harder but I really appreciate the way that Chicago is set up. It’s nice to have some recognition beyond the people that come to your shows because Chicago is a major city. It’s the Number 3 market in the country as far as business and music is concerned. People notice what’s happening here. Even still, we don’t take things for granted.
I work in a suburban record shop and I get asked constantly when “they” are going to stop making CDs and it makes me think. With it being so simple to release music digitally through iTunes, Bandcamp, and other sources, bands don’t really have to wait to put out an album; they can release songs as they record them. Do you think this digital convenience will change the way bands treat a traditional LP? Will it kill the idea of the “album?”
No, I don’t think so. I think what it does is give the artist more control over their product. Hopefully it just kills the giant record industry. (Laughs) That would be my hope…just kidding. (Laughs) I mean honestly, I don’t care about major labels, I don’t care what they do.
I think this whole thing has been happening for 10 years. There’s more control in the artists’ hands now. They can put out their own albums, and they can do the promotion themselves. Music is not a selfish endeavor. It’s good for people to be able to get their stuff heard, whether people like it or not.
I mean when I started playing in the early 90s, I had no idea how to get it out there. We recorded stuff on tape and made a couple copies for our friends and that was it. Even growing up in the south suburbs there were no record labels or concert venues. We had this place called “Off the Alley’ and VFW shows and that was it. For someone, or one of our friends, to have a record was a mind blowing thing but now anyone can do it.
I feel like there are more labels now than there’s ever been and [being on a major label] doesn’t even play a part into my thinking. I don’t have any aspiration to be on a major label. The people who I talk to and play with aren’t anywhere near signing with a major label, it doesn’t even factor into their universe.
I don’t think that’s the dream anymore really, with all these independent labels and the ability to release your own music, it’s almost worse in many cases to be on a major label that might misrepresent or market you.
Who makes money off records sales anyway? Nobody does. Independent labels make enough money to pay their staff and themselves a little bit, but most of it pays for the next record. No one is making a ton of money doing this stuff.
Running an independent label is more of a labor of love than a get rich quick scheme. I’ve read various statistics on the subject, but on average the music industry has a 95% failure rate. What other industry out their fails that consistently and is still around? Anyway, that’s a much longer conversation…
What’s in the works for Radar Eyes? Upcoming shows? Any releases or touring planned?
Well we have 3 releases that are in the works right now. A single on HoZac, a single on another local label called Addenda, which is run by the same guys that run PLUS TAPES. I did a podcast review with this guy Kriss Stress, it’s called Notes and Bolts. He wants us to put out a split flexi disc with his label so we’re going to do that. So we have 3 in the works plus we are recording 3 weeks from another 5 songs.
You can grab a copy of the self-titled LP from HoZac Records, or enter to win a vinyl copy here by simply sharing with us in the comments below your favorite track from the LP. A winner with a North American mailing address will be chosen one week from today, Monday, 3/11.