chessie: the chickfactor interview.

ben and stephen chessie.

chickfactor turns 16 this summer and it’s hard not to think back to the old days of the d.c. indie scene where we found inspiration for the magazine. one of the ubiquitous creatures on the scene in those days was stephen gardner, a lanky kid who played in lorelei and later went on to form chessie, first on his own and later with ben bailes. despite being hailed by the new york times as having made one of 2001’s best albums, chessie remains far too unknown. you should go and get on a train with some chessie in your ears. (oh, and lorelei’s matt dingee recently moved back to the D.C. area so they’re on again at least until another member moves away.) we found ourselves digging the train-obsessed duo’s latest recordings and decided to catch up with them….
chickfactor: I think you were the youngest member of the d.c. indiepop scene way back when. what was it like then and how did you get involved?
stephen gardner: well, I started going to shows actively when I was 11 or so, and I owe that mainly to my older twin sisters. They were in the DC punk scene and I adopted their interests in that way that younger siblings do. Luckily, they — and my parents — were cool enough to let me tag along with them to shows and since I was tall for my age (6’2″ by 13), I passed as much older. The other factor that got me involved was that DC’s laws allow venues to be all-ages and there were tons of shows at churches or other public spaces, mostly put on by other kids. I didn’t realize how special this was until I spent a summer in San Francisco as a 20-year-old and realized I couldn’t go to venues. I was shocked. Also, I’d be remiss if didn’t give credit to Dischord records and for the punk scene of mid to late 80s in DC for making it seem totally possible to be in a band and do something that mattered on your own terms.
As for what it was like, I’m the youngest in my family, so I suppose it felt totally natural to be the youngest at shows or out with friends. Also, being tall helped me to never really feel totally out of place — by 12, I was taller than most adults. I also was surrounded by older people in other areas too, as I started working at skate shop when I was 12 and then a record store by 14, and i was always the youngest there, so I just learned to adapt.
cf: chessie was a one-man act for a long time. why change and become a duo? tell us about ben.
stephen: Ben Bailes and I are old friends from middle school/high school. He was one of the few drummers at our school and actually briefly played with lorelei during one of many line-ups in the first 6 months of being a band. We stayed in touch over the years as he got involved in audio engineering and he liked the first chessie record. I was working on the second album, Meet, while at college and he had just moved to NY to work as an engineer and we arranged for him to come up to engineer a session. We did a couple of songs together and had a blast. Our skill sets complemented each other really well and we had a deep trust from years of friendship. Next Ben and some other friends joined me for a tour as Chessie and after that, I think it was clear that we’d be doing this as a project together, with him expanding into the songwriting from just production initially. In the end, my goal with chessie was to always create a compositional process that would lead my ideas to new places and unexpected outcomes — it’s not a pop project, like lorelei, where I’m trying to execute a perfectly defined composition. If I’ve already conceived the outcome of a song in full, than there’s little point in proceeding. At first, I tried to reach this goal by using processes that took my ideas out of my own hands, like using unsynchronized tapes loops and other techniques that would introduce chance into the compositions. But, in Ben, I found the perfect partner to take my ideas and have them realized in profoundly different and exciting ways. Turns out another human is the best way to introduce chance into your songwriting.
cf: does being a train nerd have the same stigma in the US that it does in the UK?
stephen: I dont think so. I think most Americans don’t have a clue that there are millions of “railfans” out there and I doubt they’d care much if they did. Certainly, the culture is different as well, as the US has lots of rail photographers and history buffs, but very few of the UK’s trainspotters who record every passing passenger car and locomotive. US railfans are an oddity, but not particularly annoying, as they seem to be portrayed in the UK.
cf: was your musical path affected by the new york times endorsement?
stephen: Not the slightest. We been blessed with lots of critical acclaim and almost no record sales or personal attention. So, we just carry on as if none of that really exists, working in our basement studio as time permits.
cf: do you still have a turntable and if so what’s on it?
stephen: Yes. The Huck-a-Bucks “chronic breakdown” 2xLP — a classic mid-90s go-go record. Like all DC kids, I love the go-go and if you listen closely, you’ll hear a go-go break or two on at least one track on every chessie record.
cf: we hear you just got married — congrats! can you tell us a little about the bachelor party?
stephen: Ok, this is pretty nerdie. A group of friends and I rented an old railway caboose that is in use as a portable campsite on a railroad in West Virginia. They attach the caboose to the end of a train and drop the caboose deep in the woods next to a river on a side track where you can camp for a few days and then come pick you up. It was heaven.
cf: do you dream of trains?
stephen: Sometimes, yes. Mostly, I dream of everyday situations that are slightly altered. Since my day job is working with railways, they are often featured.
cf: what makes you sad about the way music has changed (formats, sounds, etc)? or is nostalgia for the baby boomers?
stephen: This list could be a long one but beyond the normal rant about the horrors of mp3s, the loss of vinyl, the end of hand-made flyers, I’m mostly just sad that music feels pretty irrelevant now amidst all of the other competing media. I know that the days when going over to a friend’s to listen to records was an entertaining and exciting way to spend a few hours are over for most of America.
listen to chessie here.