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Thursday, June 18, 2015 12:10 am

A band on the brink

With a new record deal, Looming moves to the next level

Looming at home in Southtown. Left to right: Brandon Carnes, Jordan Fein, Jessica Knight, Mitch Baker.
ALL PHOTOS BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

"I’ve always maintained that culture starts at home, in local communities, through creative interaction. Revolutions always come up from the grass roots, not top-down through corporate hierarchies."

– Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Records (Nirvana’s first record label), Seattle, Washington, from his 2014 book, Sub Pop USA

He had no way of knowing it then, but the first time a teenage Mitch Baker attended a concert at Springfield’s Black Sheep Café – the scrappy, all-ages music venue that has been the linchpin of the Southtown punk scene for a decade – his three future bandmates in Looming were all onstage, performing in various combos. “A while after that, I remember being surprised to see Brandon at the local guitar shop,” he says. One of the cardinal traits of DIY scenes like the one at Black Sheep is the implicit erasure of the usual class barrier between audience and musicians, something which can take some getting used to.“I thought there were rock stars and then there were fans.”

Perhaps such a distinction did once exist but if so, in the years since that first encounter, Baker, 20, has surely been through the looking glass. He is co-founder and guitarist for Looming – the fierce but accessible Springfield band which has recently signed to prestigious California-based independent record label No Sleep. As a result, Baker is perhaps as close to a “rock star” as it is possible to get while continuing to reside in Springfield.

That is, unless you are Jessica Knight. Looming’s lead vocalist is a tiny whirlwind of angst and energy, her powerful voice like a tuneful banshee perpetually on the verge of some great epiphany. Both on stage and on record, Knight’s presence is always the clear focal point of a band with a lot going on, in terms of both music and personality.

Looming began humbly enough in 2013 with a text. “I wasn’t doing anything creatively, and I wanted to, and Mitch knew that,” recalls Knight, 26, of Springfield. “He messaged me, ‘Do you wanna get together and play some music?’ And we did.” Not long after that, Brandon Carnes, 25, who was living with Knight at the time, heard the duo playing and asked if they could use a drummer. The last member to join was guitarist Jordan Fein, 22, who previously played with Knight in perennial Black Sheep favorite Our Lady and had been friends with Carnes since high school. “I asked if he wanted to join the project to play guitar and it just worked out,” says Knight. “Like magic!”

Looming’s debut EP was self-released by the band on vinyl and digital download in September 2013, coinciding with the band’s first concert. “We booked a show and decided we wanted to have a recording for it,” explains Knight, “so we just kind of threw together this EP as we were still figuring out our sound as a band.”

“The cool thing about recording that EP,” says Carnes, “was that we each wrote one complete song, with Jess’s vocals tying everything together. I’d never played in a band where there was so much mutual input – in other situations there had always been one leader, but here we all teamed up.”

Upcoming Looming concerts in Springfield

Friday, July 3 @ Bar None

Saturday, July 25 @Black Sheep Fest

Friday, Aug. 14 @ Black Sheep Café
(“Nailbiter” album release party with Park)

Pre-order “Nailbiter” from No Sleep Records at
https://nosleeprecords.com/product/7672/nailbiter

Free download of Looming’s debut EP available at
https://loomingband.bandcamp.com

Reaction to their debut recording was enthusiastic and Knight marvels that she continues to get compliments on it from new listeners almost two years after its release. “What was most exciting to me about the response to the EP,” says Carnes, “is that the punk scene always feels like such an isolated thing, but with this record it felt like I was also getting a lot of positive feedback from people who weren’t involved with punk music and culture at all. That was encouraging.”

Looming did not come together in a vacuum. All around the country and beyond, small, independent, DIY-embracing punk scenes have been popping up in cities large and small since the early 1980s (a phenomenon well documented in the book Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad and Bruce Pavitt’s recent Sub Pop USA collection). Springfield’s NIL8, still active and popular, was a product of that first ’80s wave, which also produced influential artists like Black Flag from Los Angeles and Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat. Nirvana and the other “grunge” acts of the early ’90s were incubated in similar circumstances, along with countless hardcore, ska, thrash and just plain unclassifiable bands which have never stopped springing up in the ensuing decades.

Wherever punk rock occurs, skateboarding is rarely far away. Since 1988 the Springfield punk scene has coalesced around venerable indoor skateboard ramp Skank Skates International, on the corner of 11th Street and South Grand, in the heart of the Southtown neighborhood.  In 2005, all-ages music venue the Black Sheep Café opened up next door to Skank’s, its mission to provide a safe, alcohol-free environment for young bands and audiences to perform and meet up. The place is something like a youth outreach center with an edge, along with the added attraction of the (benign) lunatics very clearly running the asylum. In just the past year or so, this same block in the once-blighted neighborhood has seen the opening of a record store (Dumb Records), a recording facility (Southtown Studio, owned and operated by Brandon Carnes) and a skate shop (Boof City). Enabling all of this industrious activity is George Sinclair – owner and founder of Skank Skates, as well as landlord and de facto spiritual godfather to what has turned into an unprecedented concentration of the DIY ethos.






The recent departure of Black Sheep co-founder Kevin Bradford was a major turning point for the Southtown scene. Brian Galecki and Miles Fowler are officially the new co-owners of the venue along with Carnes, who characterizes the overall enterprise as a collective, community effort. The emergence of two ambitious summer festivals – Dumb Fest which began in 2013 and was held for the third time last weekend; and Black Sheep Fest, first held in 2008, set to return July 25 – has been important in raising Springfield’s national profile. “I think Dumb Fest was a major turning point in the music scene,” says Carnes. “It concentrates mostly on out-of-town bands and it has gotten the message across that, ‘Hey look, Springfield is a spot not to skip when you tour,’” he laughs. “We just have this really neat centralized location where we can write and record music at the studio, play shows at the Black Sheep, and if we want to sell our music in Dumb Records we can – and buy other people’s records as well. It’s like a utopia. Bands from out of town have never seen anything like it.”

“We all grew up at the Black Sheep,” says Knight. “I was coming here when I was 19 and didn’t know about myself. I definitely didn’t even have it in my mind that I could play music at that point, and I never would have if I didn’t come to Black Sheep. That’s the beauty of it. From the start we’ve been playing with all of our friends and everyone we love, and that keeps growing and it’s just great.”

No Sleep Records was founded in Huntington Beach, California, in 2006 and is known worldwide for its roster of highly individualized young musical acts. The label will be releasing Looming’s first full-length album, “Nailbiter,” on Aug. 14. Looming was put in touch with the label by Pittsburgh-based band Run Forever, also on No Sleep. “We met them six years ago playing in a chicken coop in Chicago [when Knight and Fein were both in Our Lady] and have stayed in touch and played together when we’ve crossed paths,” says Knight. “They helped us a lot by just putting the word out that our band exists. Chris [Hansen, No Sleep founder, owner and CEO] listened to the EP and has been talking to us ever since. They’re really wonderful and we’re very excited to work with them.”

“The whole experience has been cool,” says Carnes. “Growing up I always heard stories of bands working with record labels and it being weird and sterile and suit-y and forced, you know? But it’s been really casual and they’re very much into the same sense of ethics that we have. They’re the same kind of people that we are.” 

PHOTO BY BRANDON CARNES


The resources provided by even a smallish label like No Sleep are a huge contrast with the experience of a band releasing and promoting its own music. “They have a lot of connections that we don’t have,” says Knight bluntly. “They have been doing this for a long time and are able to talk us through every step of the way. And of course they’re there to help us with funding and they are there to make sure we have everything we need to hopefully find whatever success we want.” One advantage of a label is long-established relationships with websites and other media outlets across the country and the globe. “No Sleep has the ability to invest in us in ways that we can’t invest in ourselves,” says Carnes.

Looming has a full summer ahead. After playing Dumb Fest this past weekend, they packed up for their first tour as a band, a one-week sojourn accompanying their friends Run Forever. In July, they will be playing the prestigious music festival known simply as The Fest in Gainesville, Florida – a high-profile gig that would have been unthinkable before the No Sleep deal. Then in August they will be back on the road to promote the release of “Nailbiter.” 

The music on “Nailbiter,” as on the debut EP, is hugely personal and emotionally galvanizing, but easily relatable. “I think it has a lot to do with being in transition and a lot of it is open as to what type of transition you might be going through,” says Knight of the record’s themes. “For me it just had a lot to do with inward thinking and self-worth and self-doubt at the same time. A lot of the songs are just talking yourself through those types of problems.  I think that’s the theme of most of the album – the word tends to be ‘bittersweet.’”



Jordan Fein agrees. “It’s hopeful – it promotes change, change is good. I feel like musically and lyrically there’s a lot of hope on that album. Some parts might be a little weird and slowed-down and dark but I feel like always at the end of the songs it leaves people hopeful.”

For Baker, the making of the album was itself a nail-biting experience.  “I feel like a big theme for me was nervous energy. We got great feedback on that first EP and it was nerve-wracking trying to live up to that. You’re writing the songs and  all you’re thinking is, ‘Is this good? Is this good? And there’s a label? And they’re into it?’”

“Meanwhile I was finishing a lot of the lyrics while we were in the studio,” says Knight. “So, you write how you feel.”

Outside of their collaboration in Looming, the four young musicians keep busy. Knight supports herself as a barista, Carnes works as a printer and Baker is a student at the University of Illinois in Champaign. All but Fein play in other bands (Baker is in Wir Konnen and Knight and Carnes are in three other active groups each) but it is clear that Looming is closest to all of their hearts.

This is clearly a band on a precipice – excited by the potential of their suddenly raised status in the music world, but still unclear as to what this will mean going forward.  “I think it’s smart not to get too crazy with ambitions,” says Knight. “I think we’re trying to be happy with this right now before we take a moment to think about what we want to do next. We’re still taking in the weight of what this means to us.”
“We just want the most people possible to hear our music and take something good from it – that’s our ambition,” says Fein.

Combining their raised national profile with a vested interest in the Southtown, scene –particularly considering Carnes’ ownership stakes in both the burgeoning Black Sheep and his recording studio – Looming has the potential to help put Springfield on the musical map in a way that has never happened before. Will Looming rise from its humble environment to find success in a larger city? Or will the band continue to place loyalty to their origins front and center? Only time will tell. For the time being, at least, Looming’s potential seems off the charts.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.



Looming Survey

All survey questions shamelessly swiped from a questionnaire filled out by members of The Monkees in Tiger Beat magazine, March 1967.



PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Jessica Knight

Age: 26

Instrument: Bass guitar, lead vocals

How would your mother describe you in one word? Beautiful. She always says that. She’s cute.

What is your favorite flower? Orchid

What is the most insane question you’ve ever been asked? “Can I wrap you in mushroom ragu and lasagna noodles?”

What word in the English language do you wish you had invented? Shit. It’s my favorite word. Sorry.

Current non-Looming musical projects: Knives, Asthma, Teen Freak (part time), occasional solo performances

Where did you attend high school? Actually I graduated from Lanphier (I only went there for three months)


PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Brandon Carnes

Age: 25

Instrument: Drums, backing vocals

Where would you like to live? I’d like to live somewhere by an ocean.

What is the first quote that comes to your mind? “This is how we do it” - Montell Jordan

What animal best describes the kind of girl (or boy) you’d be interested in? Ke$ha

What do you miss about your childhood? Pants that zip off into shorts

Current non-Looming musical projects: Diaper Rash, FUCK///MOUNTAIN, Stevie Thunder

Where did you attend high school? Springfield High School



PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 Jordan Fein

Age: 22

Instrument: Guitar, backing vocals

If you could change your name, what would you change it to? Martin Lovejoy

What is the main fault in your character? Devilish charm

Who is your favorite historical figure? Keith Haring

Describe how you kiss in one word. Ferociously

Where did you go to high school? I went to Springfield High School.



PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 Mitch Baker

Age: 20

Instrument: Guitar

If you met the right girl (right boy) today, would you propose tomorrow? No wayyyyy, I’m still a baby!

What in the world do you least desire? [redacted]

Why do you think most girls (most boys) would want to date you? They read about me in Illinois Times

Finish this sentence: “Happiness is a thing called... Looove, maaann.

Current non-Looming musical project: Wir Konnen

Where did you go to high school? Rochester High School

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