Kids These Days blends sounds into one of year’s best albums

By Jake Krzeczowski October 25, 2012 8:26PM
Updated: October 28, 2012 2:52AM
Originally appeared at Chicago Sun-Times

Ask bassist Lane Beckstrom: Not a lot of thought went into the making of Kids These Days.

“We were just having fun playing and everyone was just being themselves musically,” Beckstrom said.

Building on the city’s music culture of blues and jazz to funk and hip-hop, the Chicago-based band Kids These Days pulls all of those genres together with its own generational tweak

The b'Kids These Days' WabansiStreet October 21 2012. From left: Macie Stewart Liam Cunningham Nico Segal Vic MensJ.P. Floyd Greg

under what the group calls “traphouse rock.”

Though unsigned, the seven recent high school grads — most from Whitney Young — tour tirelessly and on Tuesday release an album, “Traphouse Rock,” likely to propel their climb from local talent to nationally recognized artists. As a voice for their generation with a name to match, Kids These Days set out to make music others their age can enjoy and connect with using creative instrumentation and thoughtful lyricism.

Outside the Elston Avenue fixture the Hideout, the members of Kids These Days pose for photographers and greet friends and family who are there on a Sunday night for a listening party of the band’s debut album. Moms carry overloaded aluminum trays of food, dads wear proud smiles and friends offer congratulatory handshakes and hugs. If nothing else, it is obvious that, like the bar they are in, Kids These Days have deep roots in Chicago.

The group members met as high school sophomores while attending after-school sessions at the Merit School of Music in the West Loop. Soon, those sessions moved to guitarist Liam Cunningham’s basement, dubbed “the trap,” where the friends added local rapper Vic Mensa. Taking material they recorded during and after high school, the band released an EP, “Hard Times,” in 2011.

It was during these jams that the group began to find its distinctive sound.

“It’s just a totally equal blend of the seven people in the band,” said Cunningham, the thoughtful leader who provides the driving soul on guitar.

Kids These Days first played Lollapalooza in 2011. This year, they decided to take a page out of one of their largest influences, the Roots, by creating a Lolla pre-show, Fan Jam, with proceeds going to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The band actually got a chance to meet the Roots’ ?uestlove and company when they were invited to the 2012 Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, just one stop on a packed festival schedule. They also performed on Conan O’Brien’s show when he visited Chicago in May.

The band members said they used their time on the road as a learning opportunity. Nico Segal and J.P. Floyd, the trumpeter and trombonist who pace the band with inspired dance moves onstage, got pointers from Trombone Shorty, while drummer Greg Landfair paid close attention to the Roots’ drummer extraordinaire.

“When I got a chance to talk to ?uestlove, I asked a lot of questions,” said Landfair.

To work on their first major release, Kids These Days enlisted the help of hometown hero Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and set off to record at a studio set on a pecan ranch outside of El Paso, Texas.

“He definitely transformed some of our records and opened our eyes to a whole new way of recording and what’s available,” Cunningham said.

One of the most difficult aspects of putting together the sound for Kids These Days is making sure everyone has a voice when appropriate.

“You want somebody to say something for a reason, not just because they’re in the band,” Cunningham said. “Not every song calls for seven different parts going on.”

The best example of Kids These Days making it work may be their recently released “Doo-wah,” which weaves a sample of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” with the beautiful voice of lone female member Macie Stewart, poignant lyricism from Mensa and a Dylan-esque performance by Cunningham.

As the band plays the first cut of “Traphouse Rock” at the Hideout, it is immediately evident the crowd is familiar with the Kids’ work. Heads bob with each strike of Landfair’s drum, and bodies sway to the melodic sound of Stewart’s voice. The band shows the swagger earned from months on the road, but nervous smiles are never too far from their faces.

When asked what their city means to them, the answer is almost immediate.

“Chicago is everything to us, Chicago is our sound,” said Landfair. “Our music, you hear the roughness in it, you hear the struggle, you hear the fight, the grittiness that is Chicago.”

The young musicians have made a point to stay involved with the happenings of their hometown.

They created a song in support of the Chicago Teacher’s Union during the strike. It’s just part of their drive to make a difference.

“Personally, I have always made a point to be socially aware,” said Mensa, who sports a tattoo of a black panther on his left arm underlined by the words “Free Huey.” “I’m always aware and I’m always writing about it.”

The first single off the new album is “Don’t Harsh My Mellow.” The band members describe it as something of a new age “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The song, released earlier this month, is available on iTunes.

As the last track plays and the pans of homemade chicken and bowls of sampler CDs evaporate, Mensa takes the stage to thank the crowd and remind them of their Nov. 24 show at the Vic. Nerves seem to fade. The dress rehearsal is finished.

More than anything, the group sees “Traphouse Rock” (available Tuesday for free download at as a sort of coming-out party.

“We’ve done all the homework,” said Landfair. “I feel it’s time for us to take that official first step. Kids These Days, boom, take over the world.”

Jake Krzeczowski is a local free-lance writer.


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