Re-introducing Chicago’s emo pioneers Cap’n Jazz
Cap’n Jazz has been on a journey few bands have taken—from fast rise and fall, to posthumous discovery, to unexpected reunion. With just one original album release in the band’s history, 1994’s “Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards In The Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We’ve Slipped On and Egg Shells We’ve Tippy Toed Over,” also known as “Shmap’n Shmazz,” the Chicago-area band’s influential emo music went on to be discovered by indie rock audiophiles thanks to Jade Tree Records, which released the album and other recordings as a two-disc anthology in 1998. But it would take another 12 years for the group, which formed when the guys were just in high school, to play together as thirty-somethings. Following a much buzzed-about surprise reunion gig in January in celebration of that anthology being released on vinyl for the first time that month, the band plays a pair of full set homecoming shows at Bottom Lounge this weekend have long been sold out. (The band plays again July 31st however at Wicker Park Fest).
One of Cap’n Jazz’s guitarists, Victor Villareal, talked to Chicago Beat about the band’s origins, the reason for its split and why its been resurrected now.
Chicago Beat: So how did Cap’n Jazz come to be?
Victor Villareal: I met [lead vocalist] Tim [Kinsella] the summer of ’89 I think. I was skateboarding at this kind of school [in Buffalo Grove] for delinquent kids. They were closed for summer and we would skate at this school. I was there alone and went to skate this set of stairs and Tim came out of nowhere. And I guess he was waiting for some friends we both knew. The girl he was waiting for, I’m not sure if she didn’t show up. So we went back to his house and we were talking the whole way about his hobbies and interests, and guitar came up. I was taking classical guitar lessons at this shop in Wheeling. So when we got to his house I played one of his guitars for him. He was telling me he played guitar too. It was a common interest we shared. He was telling me he played fast music and I thought he was going to be a virtuouso on guitar and I was excited to hear him. So he grabbed [the guitar], but it was a different kind of fast, like Minor Threat fast. So he started thrashing out. So we began to jam; he asked me if I wanted to be in this band he had going at the time called Toe Jam. I didn’t know what they sounded like, but I was excited to be in a band. So I’d get there and every song was really fast and crazy. I was worried I’d show up to practice and I wouldn’t fit in, but it worked out in some strange way. There was no real structure to it. It was a lot of improvising and really fast, hardcore skate music type stuff.
We began to play for a while and started to write actual songs with parts and changes and stuff. We played mainly in Tim’s basement. It was our biggest venue; we’d have shows in his basement, make fliers, pass them out at school. And there was this church not too far from his house and we would open for whoever was playing there. High school variety shows were a big thing for us in the day. …
[Two guys] dropped out of Toe Jam I think it was sophomore year of high school, ’90 or ’91. … Sam [Zurick] at the time jumped on bass, which seemed pretty normal at the time because he was at every Toe Jam practice; even though he didn’t play anything, he was always watching. He was so intrigued by the band and it was cool to see him start from not being able to play an instrument to see him become what he is today. And Mike [Kinsella] has always been a really talented musician. He would have ideas that were semi-arranged; he’d come to practice with a guitar part and bass part that rang well together and ask us to play those. And he would jump on drums. There were a lot of songs he wrote the foundations to. And we would feed off of that and the rest of it was me coming to practice with parts.
We began to take music more seriously and started to actually develop a sound. We weren’t doing it on purpose, but it just kind of happened, and we started playing more shows. I think [the Chicago band] Gauge had a big role in establishing our sound back then. Tim I remember showed me a 7 inch from this band at the time and said, ‘Man, you have to listen to this,’ and so they played a big influential role in the development of Cap’n Jazz. We would go to their shows all the time. And Cap’n Jazz would practice more than Toe Jam did. We were on fire at the time. We were really excited to have a sound. We would play out more. Once we hooked up with Gauge, we started expanding the places that we would play at and we began to meet more people and hook up with new connections and places to play. They sort of took us under their wing a little bit.
CB: What was the process like in putting your one and only album together?
VV: I think it sort of happened subconsciously. We didn’t go into it saying we were going to put this album together or make an album. We were more constantly progressing as a band, and it seemed we were constantly chasing after the desire to get better and better as a band, and from what I remember there was never a stationary point in the band where we were thinking we’ve got a sound now. The songs started to develop themselves in a way. Mike played a huge role in writing them and writing the foundations, and I would write a lot of bridges. For the most part, Mike had a lot to do with the arranging I would say; he’s got a total knack for that. And the rest of it was all of us contributing and coming to practice and just feeding off of each other, and then I guess setting in stone what sounded cool and then tossing away what didn’t. A lot of it was a full band effort in putting the album together.
I think the album came out in 1994. It first came out on a record label called Man with Gun out of Downers Grove. We recorded it at a studio in Wicker Park in Chicago and I remember thinking, ‘This place is amazing.’ We got the album recorded, they put it out. I think they only pressed so many copies and then a bit of crap happened there. I don’t know exactly what happened. I was not involved in the business portion of Cap’n Jazz. We ended up breaking up, and that was the only album, and I think it was four years after that Jade Tree Records talked to Tim and decided to pick it up. They wanted to re-release the album with all the seven inches included as an anthology [called “Analphabetapolothology”], and they did an amazing job. Jade Tree, they kind of picked it up and thrusted it out there and made it available to a lot more peep than Man with Gun was ever able to.
CB: You guys have since found a devoted cult following, but at the time when the album was first released, did you become popular?
VV: We were actually not popular at all. We were very small time. I think our biggest show that I can remember was with the Smoking Popes at The Metro back in 1993 or 1992. That was a sold out show because the Smoking Popes were getting big at the time. But yeah, I think the people that I knew, they really enjoyed the album. We had sort of an intimate following. Our shows seemed a lot more personal. It almost felt like we were playing to our family. I was talking to my friend Jim the other day and he used to be one of the people that would go to the shows. He was saying it was such a neat time because you would see all of the same people at the shows, and it was almost like whatever was happening at the time everyone was experiencing it together as a whole. When we would have shows that were really short and the songs were really short and fast, it was this hyper release of energy at the time and it became an outlet for a few people that would go.
CB: So why did you break up?
VV: I had a problem at the time with substance abuse, and I guess at the time we were so young. Part of [my drug use] was experimental, part of it was trying to find another escape to avoid certain personal issues, but my drug use, most of it ended up interfering with the band. To sum it all up, we went on tour, I ended up taking a handful of drugs and I kept it kind of secretive, and it was a good time that got out of control and I ended up having to go to the hospital and they had to go there too. We had to drive home because of it and we ended up breaking up on tour.
At the time I was pretty numbed physically by the substance abuse, but really I felt like shit. I felt like I was the reason for making a lot of people really upset and I was the cause of it, and it’s not a good feeling at all, you know? It took me a long time to realize that there needed to be some serious changes in my life. I definitely did get to that point but I had to hit every branch on the way down. … I didn’t talk to those guys for a good six years or something.
CB: So you broke up when you were a young band and at the time didn’t have too large of a following. So then why did Jade Tree re-release your music and why do you think you guys still have this following today?
VV: Let’s see, Tim’s French Horn playing? (Laughs). I don’t know. Maybe the fact that we were never too serious about it, in the sense that some bands get really anal about what they look like or what they sound like. And maybe the fact that it was easy to relate to because we sucked. (Laughs). We weren’t like a polished band ever, so maybe people were able to relate to the imperfection to it. I don’t know exactly why people liked it, but whatever we were doing we enjoyed doing. It’s not like we were doing it to gain acceptance from anybody.
[As for why we’re still popular,] I don’t even know. That stumps me a little bit. I wish I had an answer for you on that.
CB: So why after all these years is the band back together now?
VV: There was no real reason behind it that I know of at least. As far as I understood it, Sam was the one that maybe mentioned it to Tim, and Tim thought that would be weird and Mike was ok with it and then Sam asked me and I was cool about it. I thought of it as an opportunity for some healing to take place in a way, because I never knew how to bring that issue up again after it happened. I felt horrible about it for years afterwards and I carried a lot of guilt. I just assumed I would have to live the rest of my life without having an opportunity to address it like this. Maybe there might have been another time in another way, but the way this happened it’s like too perfect, and I think it gives everybody a chance to sort of, what’s the word, for some healing to take place in a sense, you know what I’m saying? For the longest time we didn’t talk about the break-up. Nobody really sat down and brought it up; I think it would be awkward if somebody did. Maybe some people didn’t care anymore. I don’t know. I was just happy this whole thing is taking place the way it did.
CB: What has it been like for you to be back playing in Cap’n Jazz again?
VV: Now it’s a lot of fun, and I think I’m experiencing what I probably should have experienced in 1992, cause I’m clearheaded today and I don’t have anything obstructing my view. It’s just really cool man. It’s nice to be able to be alive for it and to be coherent for it and now I almost think like, “Damn, now I feel like kicking myself. Why did it have to happen the way it happened, because I could have experienced this 15 years ago?” But I guess we live and learn, and it all happened for a good reason.
CB: And after you guys are done playing your summer shows, what happens to Cap’n Jazz? Do you think you’ll record another album?
VV: I don’t think we’re looking that far ahead yet. We are sort of enjoying what we have in front of us right now. I think its mainly focusing on the shows that we have right now. That seems to be the M.O. When I play with those dudes its cool because it just seems for some of them, and I don’t like to make generalizations, but there seems to be a feeling like whatever happens happens. Some things are planned of course but there’s a beauty in dealing with whatever comes up. Que sera sera.
Cap’n Jazz plays a pair of sold out shows with Gauge Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m. at Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake. The band plays again at Wicker Park Fest, on Milwaukee Avenue between North Avenue and Wood Street, on July 31st, headlining the North Stage at about 8:30 or 9. $5 donation at the gates.