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Britain's Cribs wax nostalgic for 'Chi-Town'

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Speaking with Ryan Jarman, he doesn't come off as the clichéd rural rube who moves to the big city and then can't be kept down on the farm. But that's how the Brit rocker, lead singer of the Cribs, describes his fling with Chicago.

"Chicago called to me," he says, his northern England accent fluttering.

Actually, a girl called him, and he followed her. Exactly 10 years ago, the eldest Jarman brother -- the Cribs is a family trio of Ryan, bassist (and Ryan's twin) Gary and younger brother Ross on drums -- left the town of Wakefield in West Yorkshire and moved to Chicago.

The brothers had created the Cribs the year before, but nothing much had happened yet. Nor did it look likely to in rural Wakefield.

"Wakefield is the ultimate middle-of-nowhere kind of town," Jarman says. "I got to Chicago, and it seemed like such a supportive arts scene, with so many good bands. I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay forever."

THE CRIBS
with the Hounds Below
• 8 p.m. April 9
• Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
• Tickets: $20; (773) 525-2508; schubas.com

Jarman, then 21, spent barely a year here -- living in Logan Square and Wicker Park, going to house parties, hanging out at the famed Rainbo Club -- then returned to England on the occasion of the Cribs signing a contract with London indie label Wichita Recordings.

But he wasn't done with Chicago.

First, Jarman took a Chicagoan back to England with him: eccentric rocker Bobby Conn, who produced the Cribs' self-titled debut album in 2004. (Conn, incidentally, just released his latest full-length, "Macaroni," last week.)

Since then the Cribs have enjoyed relative success as a spirited, garagey rock band in their home country, ultimately charting in the top 10 (2009's "Ignore the Ignorant" album) and being described by Q magazine as "the biggest cult band in the U.K."

That's all very well, of course, but the flip side of that is something else. Jarman speaks of Chicago like a man haunted, as if he's trapped in the game of "What if?" After describing the success his band has enjoyed, he then goes back to his last moments in Chicago -- to the decision to leave, in order to begin the Cribs' success -- and says that's "when my plans fell apart."

Was it the girl, or was it the city? In rock and roll, how much can the two really be separated?

"I've thought about [Chicago] regularly for 10 years," he says. "I was only there a year, but it was a very significant period of my life. Ever since then, it's almost been a metaphor for this thing I care about and love most in the world, this life I was excited about and looking forward to. The city and that situation are always on my mind. I don't mean to make this sound cheesy. I just feel a connection with the city. I've always regretted not having the opportunity to move there permanently."

Jarman's had opportunities to return, but only briefly. The Cribs played Lollapalooza in 2010, back when former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr was part of the band. Something of a drifter and a hired gun since the dissolution of his first and most iconic group, Marr -- after a chance meeting with the Jarmans at a Portland, Ore., barbecue -- joined the Cribs for the recording of "Ignore the Ignorant" and its subsequent tour.

Most of the Cribs' next album, "In the Belly of the Brazen Bull," due May 8, was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and in upstate New York with noted alt-rock producer Dave Fridmann. But some songs were cut in Chicago, giving Jarman his latest opportunity to come back.

He returned to Chicago with a song in his heart -- literally.

"I'd written this song, I think, at some point last year. I was writing, and I knew this one would be about Chicago," Jarman says. "The lyric came first. We were always intent on recording with Steve, and truthfully I hadn't made the connection between the song and where we'd record it till we got there. I felt embarrassed in the studio, like, 'Really? I'm in Chicago, singing about Chicago?'"

The Steve in question is legendary engineer Steve Albini, owner and operator of the Electric Audio studios in Chicago. The song is "Chi-Town," lead single from the Cribs' new album.

Between mentions of various locales, the song's oft-repeated chorus goes, "Meet me down in Chi-Town / in Logan Square underground / You know the one / we were always there."

"I put the Rainbo in there because it was across the street from where we lived for a while," Jarman says. "We'd go to dinner and go to the Rainbo. The Ear Wax Café, too -- that's not there anymore, eh?"

The Cribs only spent three days recording four songs with Albini -- his trademark is cut it live, cut it fast -- and "Chi-Town" is the only result that landed on the new album. Jarman says he hopes to be back in Chicago to continue working with Albini, possibly on a full album.

By then, his relationship with the city should be settled.

"All these years, I had this regret about it all, and I never really mentioned it. Writing the song seems to have made peace with it all. It's cool."

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on April 9, 2012 4:00 AM.

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Lollapalooza 2012: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jack White, Black Keys, reunited Black Sabbath and At the Drive-In, more is the next entry in this blog.

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