The four men in front of me are prepared for a revolution. They are sitting around a table in a dark corner of an empty restaurant, devouring nachos with eager, greasy fingers. Submerged in a cloud of cigarette smoke, the Rebel Angels are talking about kicking open the door on rock ‘n’ roll. They want to be on the ground floor of a movement, similar to bands like Soul Asylum, who became popular with the emergence of grunge in the ’80s.
Nik, on guitar, Billy, on bass, and John, on drums and percussion weren’t friends when they started the band more than four years ago in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago. They were musicians dedicated to rockabilly, even donning pompadours. But after they grew tired of sounding like every other ’50s band, they realized that they had to expand on the genre. “I think it was too tight of, like, a box for things that we wanted to do,” Billy, who still wears his hair in a moderate, ’50s-esque quaff, says.
While rockabilly used an upright bass, sounded like the blues and had a swing rhythm, rock ‘n’ roll had the potential of being anything. The music of the Rebel Angels is inspired by everything from jazz, blues, and punk rock bands like the Clash, to a ’90s Seattle music scene that Nik calls “dirty, hip-swinging, throwback rock ‘n’ roll.”
The Rebel Angels first started performing as high school kids at Riley’s, a low-key dive bar in Aurora, Ill. They played a combination of rockabilly (a genre of 50’s rock) and punk rock and fed theaudience with their sheer energy. Teenagers, hungry for a local rock scene, kept coming back to their shows with legions of friends, building up an appreciative fan-base. After playing at the bar at least once or twice a month for a year until the place closed down, they became friends and discovered each other’s onstage personalities.
“[We] realized what such incredible energy we had together both off and on stage that it was like, ‘This is just too incredible’,” John says. After Riley’s, there was no turning back.
Bar shows eventually allowed them to progress to an acoustic showcase concert in Wheaton Grand Theatre, as well as playing with Lucky Boys Confusion at the Canopy and at the Metro in Chicago, a club with the capacity for 1100 people.
“We were a local headlining act,” Nik said, “which was cool because it was great to be the headliner of a show and be, like, the main attraction. But … we’re, like, moving into the point where we’re beyond that now.”
Mikey, the most recent addition to the Rebel Angels, was a fan of the band for more than three years before he took on the call of duty to become the band’s second guitarist. If he hadn’t, Nik would’ve been forced to grow another arm – or two – on stage to reproduce the multiple guitar tracks he recorded on their first album, The Effigy.
“‘Effigy’ [the title track] was one of the first songs that kind of broke out of that rockabilly thing,” Nik says.
The album teeters on the border of punk, rockabilly and everything in between: painful love ballads, rock anthems and songs that just plain don’t belong in Illinois and are still searing from the heat of the American Southwest.
The Effigy took an entire year to create and now the band is starting work on their second album.
“We spent way too much time adding bells and whistles, I think, on the last record, and this one we’re going to, like, just keep it simple. We’re going to try and capture more of, like, what it’s like to be at a Rebel Angel show,” Nik explains.
The day before Thanksgiving, the band began working on their second album at the Rax Trax studio in Chicago. For the next several months, they’ll be patiently recording and watching the second child of this exciting rock marriage come to existence.
“We all lead such mundane, boring lives outside of this band because we don’t have a choice,” John admits. “After work, we have to go to school; we have to do all these things that we don’t want to do. And everyone else gets suckered into this thing of not being able to express themselves outside of like talking to their girlfriend or their mom. We have this great element that lets us, I mean … I don’t know any guy that when they were younger was like, ‘I’m gonna be in a rock ‘n’ roll band’ [and stuck with it].
Lo and behold, we’re still in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Rebel Angels, Lucky Boys Confusion, the Alpha Couple, and Inept play at the Metro on Friday, Dec. 30 at 3730 N. Clark, Chicago. Doors open 6 p.m, show starts 6:30. Tickets are $17.50.