On their debut EP Not for Sleepin', Chicago eight-piece The Congregation combine classic, bluesy soul with raw rock and roll energy and the power-packed vocals of Gina Bloom for a sound that dares you not to take notice. Tracks such as the heart-wrenching "Save the Wine," the down-and-dirty "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and a funky cover of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" are prime examples of these musicians' bold, impressive collective powers.
This Saturday night, January 8th, The Congregation will perform at Martyrs' in celebration of what would be Elvis's 76th birthday. Get tickets and more info here (and listen to the their cover of the King's "Little Sister" below). To help get you pumped up for the show and better acquainted with the band, I recently sought answers to some questions from Gina as well as guitarist Charlie Wayne and drummer Dan Wendt. Read the Q&A below and find out more about Not for Sleepin', the band's history and influences and what they have planned for 2011.
WCR: Some indie bands in Chicago incorporate blues sounds, but to me, The Congregation stands out from most by taking on a vintage, more smoky and soulful kind of blues. When forming the band how did you decide on this style?
Charlie: When we first started playing together a little over a year ago, we set out to play music in the style of Stax-era or Memphis soul bands. We've really incorporated a lot of different influences and genres into our more recent songs.
Dan: We definitely wanted a timeless sound, but we also knew our backgrounds in punk, rock, country, etc. would influence the type of soul and blues we'd be making. If we were all traditional blues artists or super slick soul musicians I don't think it would be the same band. I know it wouldn't be the same band. I think our music is continuing to evolve and it's coming along naturally. We're writing some pretty dynamic songs these days.
Gina: Soulful is the only way I know how to do it.
When and how did you all come together?
Dan: Charlie, Joe and I were all in a country band together and Gina was in a rock/R&B cover band. We met at Darkroom, fell in love, started playing music and making a family one week later.
Gina: Yeah, it was love at first sound check. Our two bands were serendipitously put on the same bill together. The guys heard me singing and immediately knew I was they girl they'd been looking for. But they spent the whole night getting up the nerve to come talk to me. I was about to leave when Charlie finally came up and asked me to dance…er, I mean, start a band.
Tell us about the recording of your debut EP, Not for Sleepin'. There's a very cool “live” energy to the tracks. Did you set out for this kind of sound when going into the studio?
Gina: Yeah, we definitely wanted it to be true to what we were doing at our shows at the time we went into the studio. When we're on stage we all feed off each other's energy, but when I recorded the vocals, it was just me in the studio, so I really just focused on the emotion of each song to feed the performance. I think that emotion really comes across on the recording, but it's maybe not as fiery as what you might get at one of our shows.
Dan: Ideally we'd always like to record live, but that's not always possible. For Not for Sleepin' we tracked bass and drums together, but then went back to record other parts individually. We kept the very first take for the drums on "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and I consider that to be the most "live" sounding track. I think I only played that twice, and we stuck with the first take. That song really depends on remaining loose and easy, pushing it too hard would have ruined it. In general, you have to know when to accept what you have and move on.
The subject matter on Not for Sleepin' definitely lives up to the bluesy music. Who's responsible for the lyrics in the band? Do they come from personal experience?
Gina: Dan and Charlie were the primary lyricists on this record. And I would say the lyrics definitely ring true to their personal experiences…Charlie has been trying to find a good man for a very long time, haha.
Dan: My lyrics are based generally on personal things, but mostly just a line here and there. I have ideas in my head all the time and just write down a line or phrase as they come to me. I wrote the lyrics and melody for the song "Not for Sleepin'" as a country song. Then Charlie created music for another set of lyrics I had written and once I started thinking about it, his music worked under the lyrics for "Not for Sleepin'." "This Could Be You" came from a funny conversation with some friends in a bar. I wrote the lyrics around that one phrase. "Save the Wine" came from a dinner conversation. I wrote a different version of that song - it's not sad like Charlie's. Our songwriting process is very collaborative; even if Charlie brings in something complete it will often change once the rest of us get our hands on it.
In addition to the originals, Not for Sleepin' includes two covers - “I Wanna be Your Dog” by The Stooges and “Little Sister” by Elvis. How did you decide on those two songs?
Charlie: I have always looked for ways to juxtapose different genres of music onto one another. Being from a punk rock background, it just made sense to me to take The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and rework it into a '70s soul tune.
Gina: "Little Sister" is our gratuitous girl kissing girl song.
Gina, based on your vocals on the EP, I'd guess you've been singing for quite a while. It's very powerful stuff. Tell us a bit about your musical history prior to The Congregation.
Gina: Yeah, I come from a family where everyone sings, so I’ve been doing it my whole life. My dad is a songwriter and a singer, so I think I got some good singing genes and a love of music from him. This is the first band I've fronted, though. I played drums in a few bands and did double duty singing and playing drums in the last band I was in, but I've never stood out front and just sung before. It’s very liberating.
You've mentioned names like Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin as influences, which come through very clearly in the music. Are there any musicians people might be surprised to learn also influence the band?
Gina: Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson…Randy Jackson?
Charlie: As far as the songwriting is concerned, we have tried to draw from people like Otis, Ike and Aretha, but our influences and musical backgrounds are a lot more varied than that. Joe, Dan and I used to play together in an alt-country band, for example. Before that, Joe and I played in a garage-punk band. So, bands like Uncle Tupelo, Pavement...
Dan: Fugazi, Elvis Costello, The Pixies, Beck, Minutemen, The Who.
If you had the chance to play a gig with any other band or musician, who would you pick?
Gina: Stevie Wonder.
Charlie: Slash, but if Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings asked us to open for them, I wouldn’t say no.
Dan: The Black Keys, hands down.
What can we expect next from The Congregation? Any more shows lined up?
Gina: We’ll be playing at Martyrs' this Saturday, January 8. It's Elvis's birthday, so it will be a celebration of his rock & roll legacy, and we'll be doing a few of his tunes Congregation-style. The Dirty Rooks and The Sometimes Family will be joining us for this one. We’re working on additional dates including some outside of Chicago. We’d like to go back into the studio to work on a full-length album sometime this year, as well.
Anything else people should know about the band?
Gina: We’re not that kind of congregation.
Check out more WCR interviews: