Mike Zelenko (drums) and Jeff Lescher (vocals, guitar). (Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)
Green is one of those bands that should have disappeared long ago. For most of you, they did -- if they ever appeared to begin with.
Fame has been conspiring against Green for 25 years, blockading the band's genre-hopping rock from the business opportunities that could bring wider, non-hipster acclaim, keeping Jeff Lescher and his mates on the wrong side of the velvet rope. But here they are again, the stubborn sons of guns, headlining another local show. How do they still do it? Answer: God bless the Internet.
"The music business used to be very restrictive," Lescher says during a conversation last week at a Wicker Park pub. "If you didn't get the big record deal with one of the big companies, all bets were off. You might subsist for a while but you'd go nowhere. Now it's great when you have direct access to every home in the world through the Internet."
with Ladies & Gentlemen, and the Hushdrops
• 9 p.m. Saturday
• The Abbey, 3420 W. Grace
• Tickets, $10 in advance, $12 at the door, (773) 478-4408; abbeypub.com
When Green began, they had as much doomed cred as the next Chicago band. The band's first lineup, before recording its debut EP in 1984, included future Material Issue legend Jim Ellison. That EP first came to anyone's attention when it received a rave write-up in a Northwestern University student mag, written by a young Steve Albini. The first (and several future) Green recordings were made with Iain Burgess, engineer and producer for Naked Raygun, Big Black, Ministry and more.
They certainly had the tunes. Lescher, a pathological songwriter and self-described "human jukebox" with a coarse-grade sandpaper voice, churns out gritty pop and rock drawn from countless influences, the most commonly cited being the Beatles, the Kinks, Small Faces and the Jam, but also Motown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye ("and there's always a Prince one," Lescher says, "which I don't get because I was never really into him"), sometimes within the same song. That first review by Albini said Green played "the sort of white Motown that a--holes like the Replacements could never get right."
But now we're getting to it. Green is a power pop band -- a versatile one, to be sure. Those Prince references stem from an occasional groove and Lescher's continuing jabs at falsetto. The "White Soul" album catered the catchy Green songwriting formula to the grunge era. But the baseline was always slightly schizophrenic Plimsouls (with actual soul) and always got classified under the dreaded ghetto label of power pop. Which is the same as saying they were destined for obscurity, especially in Chicago's muscly late-'80s post-punk and pre-grunge heyday.
"There was also no pop music allowed in Chicago at the time," Lescher wrote in the liner notes for the reissue of Green's 1985 self-titled debut, out earlier this year with bonus tracks (including the debut EP). "I think it wasn't manly enough, not depressing and downer enough -- a concept that seems far-fetched now."
Green hasn't exactly made it easy for the masses to adore them. All those influences sometimes jumble on the ear. Trouser Press critic (and fan) Ira Robbins rightly said the band possesses an "uncertain sense of artistic judgment that doesn't always present [Lescher's] talent in the best light." Lescher concedes: "We've been a bit ... erratic, sure."
Like any rocker, Lescher started out dreaming of stardom. But he remembers when he realized that dream would never come true.
"We'd been touring Europe and we got a contract with Mechanix Records, this big independent metal label. I don't know why. We were metal to a small extent. But that's when Ira told us, 'OK, fasten your seat belts. This is when it begins.' We put out 'Pop Tarts,' and it was the typical story of signing with a label and they don't do anything to help you. We were all dressed up and nowhere to go. I got us out of that contract, but Nirvana had just released -- what was the name of their big album? -- 'Nevermind,' and the whole grunge sound, which we'd been playing live throughout Europe, it just exploded. Right as we had no label.
"I just realized we were getting older, and we wouldn't be playing a week in Vegas anytime soon."
Since then, Green has been the type of rock band that survives on a steady diet of crumbs. A tiny indie label in Belgium puts out an EP. Next year, it's a different one in Holland. Another wee indie in Sweden reissued the band's first record last year. Just this summer, four of Green's early albums were reprinted by Lion Productions in Geneva (Illinois, for a change, not Switzerland).
"The fan base has actually grown," Lescher says. "When the Internet and MySpace came along, people could find us -- all those links from something else, you know?"
Even if the fan base wasn't growing, Lescher would still be writing new songs, playing new shows. Last year, Green let loose the semi-conceptual album "The Planets," this time dripping with '70s prog-rock. He has 50 to 60 new songs ready for another round. He's even recording demos of songs for singers in, of all places, Nashville.
"If it's in your blood, your life as an artiste, then it's difficult for you not to write songs and record them," he says. (The first song on Green's first album, after all, was "Gotta Get a Record Out.") "We're doing this because we love music, because it's something we have to do. When you find out it's not going to be one big party, you don't just stop. We're really doing it because we love the idea that we can maybe make that one great record. Every time."
"There's also the free drinks," pipes in Eddy Ulm, Green's new bass player. Green's lineup has, let's say, fluctuated. The trio that backed him for the last two decades split somewhat acrimoniously last winter. The new band is led by Lescher, as always, plus Ulm, guitarist Jason Mosher and Mike Zelenko (from Material Issue; his own band, Ladies & Gentlemen, opens Saturday's show).