Contort Yourself

New label, new album, same old Conformists

The Conformists have been confounding area audiences with their sinewy grooves and smart-ass remarks since 1996. Last November the quartet recorded its forthcoming album, Three Hundred, with production legend/Shellac member Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. Although they released their last full-length, Two Hundred, on local label Collective in 2004, the Conformists are releasing Three on the Michigan-based label 54°40' or Fight!

The adjective that best describes the upcoming album? Precise. Metronome-steady percussion lurks in the background like a panther, as the band contrasts vast swatches of silence with scraping guitar hailstorms that sound controlled by a master puppeteer. Vocalist Mike Benker's deep-seated howls and sinister whispers complement the music perfectly — and show so-called other screamers what anguish really is.

Before a December show at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, three-fourths of the band — sans drummer Tom O'Neill — sat down to discuss the state of their union. Just don't take them too seriously.

Maxin' and relaxin': (left to right) Tom O'Neill, Mike Benker, Jim Winkeler and Chris Dee are the Conformists.
Jennifer Silverberg
Maxin' and relaxin': (left to right) Tom O'Neill, Mike Benker, Jim Winkeler and Chris Dee are the Conformists.

Annie Zaleski: How was recording with Steve Albini?

Jim Winkeler (bassist): We had the world's greatest intern. His name is John.

Mike Benker (vocalist):We're not used to having an intern. It's like, "He'll be helping you find a drum set." Tom's like, "OK, this is what I want." And this guy's like, "All right, I'll have this set up in a little while." We're like, "What? No, man, don't worry about it. We're working-class dudes." We helped him carry all the drums upstairs.

Winkeler: I can definitely see though how rich people turn into cocksuckers. I was only there four days and I'm just like, "Hey, uh, John!" [snaps fingers] "Bring me coffee!"

Benker: Albini himself...the studio is just unbelievable. Everything is custom-made. They built the studio to be the baddest studio in the world, and it is. They had this logo pressed into all this different stuff. [Steve Albini's business card — which is made out of real, actual metal and features said logo — is passed around, to much amazement and awe.]

How'd you guys meet Albini?

Benker: We decided that we were going to record a record [Two Hundred] with [Shellac bassist] Bob Weston. We recorded with Bob and we decided, "We're going to throw a Halloween show the following Halloween." We were like, "Let's throw a Halloween show and invite somebody insanely awesome and huge to come and play with us." And when they say no, we'll keep going lower down the scale until we play with, like, our neighbors. We e-mailed Shellac, and we're like, "Hey, you want to play a Halloween show with us?" They're like, "Uh, no, we have a show on Halloween. But how's October 28th?" And we're like [small, cowering voice conveying hushed reverence], "OK."

[The show ended up being postponed for two years, but happened at a VFW hall in Collinsville in June 2004. The band then saved their pennies and went to Chicago to record with Albini.]

Benker: Steve is great, a complete professional. Everything is so easy. He's like [affects scholarly voice], "I'm hearing a sound here, is this on purpose?" We're like, "No." He'd be like, "I can fix this." He can fix anything. We went in and did everything in a couple takes.

[Three Hundred is due in late spring/early summer — a time frame that's a far cry from the release delays that plaguedTwo Hundred.]

Benker: We recorded Two Hundred in 2002.

Chris Dee (guitarist): And most of those songs were written around 2000. By the time it came out in November 2004—

Benker: —we had put out a lot of our own stuff, and we're like...

Winkeler: [assumes cheesy music-exec-type voice]: "Let's do this right. Let's just do it, you know?"

Benker: We sent it out to 800 different millions of people. And then no one cared. Actually, you know what's weird — GSL, probably the biggest label we sent it to, responded and said, like, "Hey guys, like the stuff, not putting anything out."

Winkeler: But sadly, then we got this deal from Steve [Bridges, 54°40 ' or Fight! label owner], who's like, "Hey, I really liked you guys' stuff that doesn't suck. We should put that out."

Dee: We should mention we sent them Two Hundred and he said, "I'm gonna pass on this."

Benker: I was trying to hook up shows in St. Louis for these [54°40 ' or Fight!] bands for a while. I had been in e-mail contact with [Bridges]. He's like, "Hey, did you send me any of your material?" And then I send him our record, and then he stops e-mailing me for like four months. [loud laughter] So, I sent him an e-mail that's like, "Hey, dude, I'm an adult. I'm not going to cry if you don't like my band. It doesn't mean I'm not going to hook up bands around St. Louis." He's like, "Oh, cool, so anyways, can you get these guys a show?"

[Another year passes.]

Benker: Then Steve's like, "Do you guys have any new material?" I think we played with enough of these 54°40 ' bands where they went back and were like, "Steve, these guys fucking rule!"

Dee: And then we sent him new material and then he was like, "Hey, yeah, that stuff doesn't suck as bad as the other stuff. We'll help you out with this."

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