Making Hay

Haymarket Riot struggles to distinguish itself from the alt-rock darlings of yesteryear -- and may yet succeed

Haymarket Riot is a lot like a new restaurant -- not the new chain that just moved into the strip mall down the street but more like an upstart hipster greasy spoon, which is exactly what the hard-working Chicago four-piece should start if its members ever change their career path. Right now, Haymarket Riot is having a hard time distinguishing itself from the rest of the eateries in the neighborhood: The bass pops and snaps all over the place à la the Jesus Lizard; the constant interplay of twin guitars and vocalists occasionally sounds as if it were cribbed from the Fugazi fakebook; the frenzied, frenetic lyrical choices elicit comparisons to Jawbox. In short, the musical menu favored by Haymarket Riot is long on comparisons but, at least for now, short on original ideas.

That reputation shouldn't last for long, however. With the release of the group's first full-length, Bloodshot Eyes (Thick Records), Haymarket Riot is quickly earning a name in Chicago and around the world as an original establishment serving up the very best in home-cooked rock & roll. Not that all those comparisons bothered bassist Fred Popolo, mind you -- after all, if you're going to get lumped in with other acts, better it be the Jesus Lizard than Jesus Jones. The important distinction remains: Most of the bands to which Haymarket Riot is compared have either broken up or grown obsolete. For Haymarket Riot, Popolo says, the best is yet to come: "I think on the new record there we're nearing a point where we've hit on something that we might be able to call our own -- not that we're breaking new ground, but more like we're settling on a distinct Haymarket style. Some people are ultrasensitive about being compared to other bands, but if you're going to compare Haymarket to Fugazi, Jesus Lizard and Hot Water Music, to me those are some of the best bands out there, so there's nothing wrong with that. But I don't think a lot of bands go into a rehearsal space and say, 'OK, we're going to sound like someone else,' 'cause most likely you probably won't. When a band sounds like someone, it's not like they're going out there trying to be fake; it just kinda happens that way, I think."

And it just so happened that Haymarket Riot went into the studio this time with the intention of sounding like Haymarket Riot, the three-year old band from Chicago that isn't afraid to work in more time changes than a transcontinental flight. In any case, that's exactly what the group did, in large part thanks to a rhythm section that dominates the sound as much as the twin guitars up front. "I always found myself just following and tracking the bass," Popolo recalls, "even back in my early metal or hard-rock days, like on AC/DC records, even though the bass wasn't like the main element. But I've heard that a lot though, where people say, 'Whoa, this is a bass-driven record,' which is sorta odd for people to say that about a band like ours, since there are these two Marshall-stacks guitars in front that are so loud and unbearable at times; it's nice to know that's not all people hear. I mean, guitars are cutting through everything; they're loud, they're out there. But when you're a bass player, there's more of a feeling from it, like, the guitar can draw a picture for you, but the bass can really help you look into it."

Haymarket Riot, from left: Billy Smith, drums; Fred Popolo, bass and vocals; Mike Bennett, guitar; and Kevin J. Frank, guitar and vocals.
Shawn Scallen
Haymarket Riot, from left: Billy Smith, drums; Fred Popolo, bass and vocals; Mike Bennett, guitar; and Kevin J. Frank, guitar and vocals.

Although at certain points Bloodshot Eyes sounds as if it might have been released in the mid-'90s, much of the 11-song album rewards a closer look at the whole picture. In the process of exploring the warped recesses of Haymarket's collective mind (all four members collaborate on the songs), the listener emerges a reborn fan of the awkward loud-soft-loud music that seemingly went out with the Y2K scare. Now, how our European friends react to that sound is a different question altogether, one that the band will find out on the upcoming European tour-- the group's first trip together across the pond. "My whole feel on the European thing is that they're, like, behind us a little bit," adds Popolo, refusing to toe the typical party line of bemoaning the state of pop music in the States.

"We're so saturated with bands here, and there's a good chunk of those bands that are just awesome, so a lot of people in a lot of American towns get a lot of amazing music," Popolo continues. "But over there it's harder for a U.S. band to tour, and obviously it's harder to get records over there to sell, so it's just harder to get exposure, period. Here we can visit the same town three or four times a year without killing ourselves. I think they're behind, but when they do hear something like us, I feel comfortable enough with our delivery when we actually play that I think they'll dig it."

Not that speaking English is a requirement to understand the complexities of Haymarket Riot's music, of course. Just as you don't have to be a musician to appreciate Popolo's persistent, snarling bass that snakes through (and carries) every Haymarket song, you don't need to be a linguist to understand what they're getting at when they scream, "It's pretty/pretty damn good/this taste of kerosene and gasoline!" In sum, they're pissed. Imagine if Modest Mouse were more concerned with art than alcohol and had been hooked on Tar instead of Dub Narcotic. Translation: Europe, beware.

America should probably prepare itself as well. That's not to suggest Haymarket Riot will ever build a franchise to rival Ian MacKaye's; the group probably isn't that ambitious anyway. Instead, Haymarket seems intent on building a unique establishment based on the band members' own varied tastes -- tastes that will, with any luck, withstand the test of time. In other words, even though Haymarket Riot is still generating those inevitable comparisons with the critics' darlings of yesteryear, the time may come when critics describe new bands by name-checking Haymarket Riot. If the hearty fare offered by Bloodshot Eyes is any indication, that time is near.

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