District 97 and its one-of-a-kind drummer/bandleader steer modern progressive rock to some very unlikely places. Of course, it never hurts one’s sense of adventure when a couple of classic-prog heroes offer their emotional—and vocal—support.
Story by Will Romano
Photos by Gene Ambo
Chicago-based District 97, led by thirty-one-year-old drummer Jonathan Schang, puts the lie to conventional wisdom that progressive rock is more for the mind than the body, and it may be unlike any modern prog band you’ve ever heard. Metallic-tinged compositions from the Kickstarter-funded In Vaults, the group’s latest studio recording, brim with vitality and boast shifting feels, clearly delineated melodies, and, of course, head-bobbing if at times complex grooves tattooed by the sting and ping of Schang’s throaty snare. District 97 also possesses a sense of social consciousness, a trait not commonly attributed to prog acts. Although the band has provided social commentary in the past, most notably with the animal-rights anthem “Termites” from 2010’s Hybrid Child, In Vaults explores a wider range of pressing topics, from motherhood (“Handlebars”) to China’s Great Leap Forward (“Learn From Danny”) to gun control (“On Paper”).
Further setting D97 apart in the world of prog is the band’s instant familiarity and accessibility, due in large part to the sex appeal of its lead singer, Leslie Hunt, a former American Idol contestant who anchors the versatile quintet musically and visually. Her emotional vocal pleas transcend even as they complement the intricate rhythms and interlocking guitar lines weaving their way through many of the songs.
Undeniably, though, D97’s bedrock is Schang, who oversees the group’s everyday business affairs. With the band’s popularity rising and word spreading about Schang’s drumming abilities—he was nominated in the Up & Coming category in this magazine’s 2012 Readers Poll—the enterprising bandleader is a busy young man. When not active with D97, Schang, who resides in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park (home to the elementary school district identified in the band’s name), accompanies troupes at the Dance Center of Columbia College, the Hyde Park School of Dance, and the Academy of Movement and Music; he has also composed commissioned work for Deeply Rooted Dance Theater and Thodos Dance Chicago. Area residents can even catch him and D97 bassist Patrick Mulcahy on the second and fourth Sundays of most months at the “jazz Mass” at St. Peter’s in the Loop.
“Jonathan sets up a little hybrid drumkit adjacent to a piano,” says Schang’s friend Ed Clift, a Paiste cymbal specialist whose knowledge of sound design has been a valuable in-studio resource to the D97 drummer. “He plays the drum parts with his feet and right hand and the piano parts with his left hand. I mean, I’ve worked with some of the finest drummers and percussionists alive while at Paiste, and in some ways Jonathan is in a league by himself.”
MD: At a young age you’re the leader of a group signed to a serious progressive-rock label, the Laser’s Edge. That’s a lot of responsibility. What’s your approach to managing District 97?
Jonathan: Rather than delegate different tasks to each person, I would rather just do it in the method that I’ve found is most effective. If anything gets screwed up, then I won’t be angry with anyone else. A lot of what I do now is figuring out budgets and how we can generate revenue in other ways.
MD: Have you reached out for advice from veteran drummers who’ve led bands? I know you’re a Bill Bruford fan….
Jonathan: I only ever met Bruford once. He did send me a very nice email and essentially told me, “You know what you’re doing. I’m sure it’s all going to be fantastic.” As far as anyone else, my mom and her husband have been very helpful. Also Ken Golden at Laser’s Edge.
MD: How has Ken been helpful?
Jonathan: By helping to ground me in reality as far as what I should expect from the group. He’s good at not blowing smoke up your ass to give you the impression that you’re going to get a lot more than what’s feasible. There are some other people too. Charles Snider, who wrote the book The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock, has been a huge fan of ours for years and is an executive producer of In Vaults. And Victor Salazar of Vic’s Drum Shop, here in Chicago, has been a never-ending font of knowledge when it comes to gear and just about everything else.
MD: You funded In Vaults through a Kickstarter campaign. What was the final tally?
Jonathan: We were asking for $12,000 and ended up with just over $20,000. The campaign ran from August 25 through September 30, my birthday. Because we had some latitude we were able to bring in a string quartet on the song “Blinding Vision,” which is not something we’ve done before. Rob Clearfield, our keyboardist, did the arrangement for that. We had a cellist, Katinka Kleijn, in the band for a while, but we never had a full-on ensemble of outside musicians. I can’t thank our fans enough for stepping up to the plate to make sure we made a new record.
MD: When you write music, do you envision rhythmic patterns and then layer on melody or chords?
Jonathan: Most of the time I write at the keyboard. There have been some exceptions. The song “Termites” from our first album, Hybrid Child, was built around a drum pattern I’d worked up. I work as a dance accompanist, and that involves a lot of keyboard playing. It’s sort of a laboratory in which I can develop ideas. For the [In Vaults] song “Takeover”
I wanted a quasi-Bonham drum feel and a quasi–Jimmy Page guitar riff. Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” was definitely the kind of thing I was channeling.
MD: The drum overdubs on “All’s Well That Ends Well” are reminiscent of some of the conceptual ideas Eddy Offord employed for the early-’70s Yes productions.
Jonathan: I was heavily influenced by a band from L.A. called Knower. The drummer, Louis Cole, is one of my favorite drummers out there right now. All the arpeggiated synth stuff in the song, as well as the overdubbed drums that are panned to either side, were kind of inspired by some of the things Knower does. Rich Mouser, who mixed the album, did a really great job bringing that to life. [MD asked Mouser about his work on the In Vaults track. “When I opened the file,” he says, “there was a massive amount of drum tracks. At one point there were three kits playing at once. Some of them were just overdubbed snares and toms and things, not necessarily full kits. There was a reprise at the end of the song, but none of the earlier drum parts were recalled. I saw my opening. What I did was take the drum performances from the end part, cut them up, and create new fills.”]
MD: In the fall of 2014, District 97 released an album of King Crimson covers, One More Red Night: Live in Chicago, featuring onetime Crimson singer/bass player John Wetton, who also appears on your second album, Trouble With Machines, on “The Perfect Young Man.” How did all of this unfold?
Jonathan: We had a show booked right around the time the band U.K. had their reunion tour in 2012, which opened in Chicago. I asked John, if we moved our show to accommodate his schedule, would he be able to sing “The Perfect Young Man” on stage with us. He managed to squeeze it in. Since he was going to be here, we all thought: Shouldn’t we also do a Crimson song? Everyone agreed that that was a great idea, and we settled on “Lament” from Starless and Bible Black. The first time I heard Wetton’s voice booming out of my monitor was one of the most thrilling moments in my life, for sure. So we did the show, the crowd loved it, he loved it, and we loved it.
When we were in England in May 2013, we got in touch with John again. We played four shows with him in Europe, expanding upon the Crimson repertoire we did in Chicago. He came back through Chicago in October, and that’s when we recorded One More Red Night, at Reggies Music Joint.
MD: What was your approach to these Crimson songs?
Jonathan: My thinking was: We have John, who sang some of the stuff originally, and we should give the audience as faithful a rendition or re-creation of these songs as we can. The track “One More Red Nightmare” is a good example, because I’m sure [Bruford] just improvised all those drum fills in the studio. But they are so iconic, like little compositions, that I decided I was going to learn them practically verbatim. I allowed myself some leeway, but the various characters of those solos I tried to leave intact.
MD: Your drums seem to have extra ring. Did you tune them in any particular way?
Jonathan: I was still using a DW jazz kit, and maybe it lent itself well to this kind of thing, because Bruford is such a jazzy player. I use a Tama kit now, so that tour was the last hurrah for that kit. I think I probably did tune everything up. If you listen to [Crimson’s 1974 studio album] Red, Bruford’s kick sounds like Max Roach’s or something. I think I was going for that as well.
MD: Let’s return to the new record. You told me that you’re really excited about a few songs, in particular “Death by a Thousand Cuts.”
Jonathan: That one is really a no-holds-barred, all-guns-firing type of song. It’s kind of the successor to “Termites,” which has become a fan favorite. It has some cool musical devices in it as well, like two guitars bouncing off each other, playing a 5/16 pattern. I come in with a straight 4/4 beat under that, but I also play their pattern on the bass drum.
MD: You’re using polyrhythms?
Jonathan: Yeah. I’m in 4/4 with my hands, and the bass drum would be in 9/8, I believe. It’s a fun one to play.
MD: What other songs were challenging to perform?
Jonathan: The middle section of “On Paper,” which our guitarist [Jim Tashjian] wrote, has a guitar-based unison thing going on; I play the same pattern on the drums. It has some tricky double bass stuff in there, so it’s a blast-beat sort of thing. There’s a song that Patrick Mulcahy wrote, “Learn From Danny,” which is definitely one of the more complicated ones on the album. It’s almost like a soul song that veers into what I call a “prog circus” feel.
MD: Prog circus?
Jonathan: Meaning it has a lot of stuff going on, a lot to remember. I tend to heavily orchestrate my parts.
MD: Seems like you’re performing a kind of Bruford beat in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” It’s similar to something we’ve heard in his track “Beelzebub.”
Jonathan: I actually had “The Cinema Show” by Genesis in mind, because they’re both in a quick 7/8 kind of feel. I was sort of trying to channel Phil Collins a bit. The song also has a “Los Endos” kind of vibe.
MD: Some have compared District 97 to Dream Theater and other progressive metal acts.
Jonathan: I was pretty obsessed with Dream Theater for a while, especially the album Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From a Memory. I took lessons with Paul Wertico at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, and that influenced me as well to get into double bass. The first outlet I had for using double bass consistently was with a band I was in prior to District 97, Braintree. I guess my use of the double bass drum has always been dictated by whatever music I was playing at the time.
MD: Do you use a double pedal with a single kick?
Jonathan: Usually there’s barely enough space for the band as is, so trying to add another bass drum would be problematic. I haven’t felt that the music was lacking in any way, so it’s never been at the top of my priority list. I do have a 20″ and 22″ now, so I might set up both in our rehearsal space and check that out.
MD: What’s on the horizon?
Jonathan: Leslie’s pregnant and due in September, so we’re not really going to be able to do any heavy touring until 2016. That’s unfortunate, but I think people can forgive us that, under the circumstances. Having said that, we haven’t abandoned live performance altogether. [When this issue hits newsstands] we will have done some Milwaukee and Chicago dates in July, and we’ll be playing at Reggies in Chicago in August.
Drums: Tama Starclassic Performer Birch/Bubinga in smokey indigo burst finish
A. 5.5×14 snare
B. 7×8 tom
C. 8×10 tom
D. 9×12 tom
E. 12×14 floor tom
F. 14×16 floor tom
G. 18×22 bass drum
Heads: Evans Genera HD Dry snare batter and G1 bottom, G14 tom batters and G1 bottoms, and EQ2 bass drum batter and Inked by Evans front head
1. 14″ Signature Dark Energy hi-hats Mark I
2. 6″ 2002 Accent
3. 20″ 2002 crash
4. 10″ Rude splash
5. 12″/14″/14″ Noiseworks Triple Raw Smash
6. 19″ 2002 crash
7. 7″ 2002 Cup Chime
8. 20″ Signature Dark Energy ride Mark II
9. 18″ Dimensions Power China
10. 5.5″ 2002 Cup Chime
Hardware: Tama Speed Cobra double pedal and hi-hat stand
Sticks: Promark Pro-Grip 5A wood-tip