Billy Yost has a lot to live for, but he sure thinks about death a lot.
His band, the Kickback, has been toughing it out on Chicago's scene for a few years now, earning word-of-mouth raves and landing at least one worthwhile prize: On Monday the Kickback starts a monthlong, weekly Practice Space residency at Schubas. The gigs will serve as something of a honeymoon -- two days before the residency begins, Yost is getting married.
Yost, however, talks like the Woody Allen of Chicago indie rock.
"I was in the shower one day and I just had the realization that I was going to die," Yost says. "I watched Warren Zevon on David Letterman's show talking about how he was going to die when he had cancer, and something just clicked -- these waves of massive panic. I don't want to not be alive. It seems hilarious to bring up in polite conversation. I haven't been able to find a way to deal with that. It's definitely informed the music of late."
• 8 p.m. March 5, 12, 19 & 26
• Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
• Tickets, $6
• (773) 525-2508; schubas.com
Issues of mortality (a song currently in development has the working title "When I Die"), the purpose of an individual life, plus detours into Sting's pre-music past and discussions of French Canadian separatism -- these can all be found in the Kickback's songs. Yost takes songwriting seriously (surprise), comparing the process to "a prolonged illness."
But this music doesn't sound like Bauhaus. The Kickback's darkest spot on a Venn diagram includes shades of current indie rock, vintage alt-rock and a lot of classic power pop. Yost described the sound to another interviewer as "the Zombies listening to Jeff Buckley listening to a moderately talented church choir listening to the Beatles in the 'back to basics' stage of their career who would stay together long enough to be influenced by the Sales brothers who wound up backing Iggy Pop in the 'Berlin era.' "
Rolling Stone took note of the band in 2009, describing the Kickback in its Hype Monitor column as having "lean, nervy songs that snarl and snap" and noting Yost's "marvelously agonized voice."
"If you're going to be miserable about something, you might as well make it sound nice," Yost says. "We subscribe to the Randy Newman theory of taking something you hate or are afraid of and giving it a nice four-beat."
Part of the word of mouth about the Kickback is that the performances are usually, to say the least, explosive.
"People who know me and see the band tend to express worry afterward, not in a joking way, because of the way I play on stage," Yost says.
This, too, is fueled by the existential crisis. "Right before we play, this absolute panic and fear takes hold and doesn't subside until we're done."
Does music and performance ease the life-is-short panic?
"No," Yost answers immediately. A beat later, he adds, "But it's a wonderful Band-Aid."
Off stage, Yost is a kind, mild-mannered, lanky chap -- a substitute English teacher at Lane Tech College Prep High School. He claims no ambition to progress up the ladder to full-time teaching. Professional substitute is fine by him.
"The joke is, 'Billy's become all he aspires to be,' " he says. Son of a college professor and a school principal, Yost's professional life was more than suggested to him. The flexibility of subbing, though, is best for the band's erratic fortunes.
Yost formed the Kickback in his native South Dakota with Danny Yost, his brother, on drums. The two relocated to Chicago in 2009 and added bassist Eamonn Donnelly and guitarist Tyler Zee via "Craigslist ads with a lot of criteria."
Being in a band with a sibling has its advantages. Billy lauds Danny's "superior music skills" and says the two are able to communicate ideas quickly via a brotherly "optical shorthand."
That supports the Kickback's intense work ethic. The band has released four EPs; a debut full-length album, "Sorry All Over the Place" (an allusion to some David Foster Wallace minutiae) is planned for a July release. Yost says the band's been at work on this recording for a year and has re-recorded most of it four times now.
The album features what Yost now refers to as the Craigslist Orchestra, a group of horn and piano players he recruited via the online bulletin board. They'll also be on stage for the last night of the Schubas residency, March 26.
"The plan for these four shows is -- we have an extensive back catalog, and we're going to try and put together sets depending on the [opening] bands that night, to tailor the set to what we think the sound of that night should be. So it's not just about the songs, it's about an overall impression. ... The last night, we'll be playing our album with the orchestra. It's horns and piano and I think harpsichord. There's a tuba, for sure, and that's really all you need."