Chris Bailoni, one-half of Chicago synth-pop/new wave duo Grapetooth, discusses his musical beginnings, modern new wave, and what’s next for the band.
What do you think of when you think of Chicago? The windy city is known for its deep dish pizza, its two Major League Baseball teams, and its Prohibition-Era history of organized crime. Music wise, Chicago has produced countless notable musicians that span many genres: Muddy Waters, Kanye West, and the Smashing Pumpkins all hail from Chi-Town.
But despite acting as a musical melting pot, a genre that Chicago isn’t particularly known for is synth heavy, ‘80s new wave dance music. The modern resurgence of this kind of music, inspired by bands like New Order and Tears for Fears, is even less associated with the area. However, the wine-fueled partnership of two Chicago-based musicians is changing that.
grapetooth (n.) – one who consumes copious amounts of red wine, to the point that their teeth are frequently stained crimson.
Grapetooth is also the name ascribed to the musical collaboration of producer Chris Bailoni, also known as Home-Sick, and Clay Frankel, vocalist and guitarist for garage rock band Twin Peaks. After bonding over a mutual love of wine and Japanese new wave, Bailoni and Frankel began experimenting with making music together in December of 2015. “There was some night when we were out and Clay was talking about wanting to make some music that’s not rock music, like Twin Peaks. We were drunk at this bar, just chatting about it,” Bailoni, now 26 and gearing up for Grapetooth’s headlining tour this June, recounts. “So he came over the next day and we just started making music. That’s kind of how all that started.”
Grapetooth played their first show in 2016 before they had even released a full-length record. They’ve been selling out venues ever since, gaining a reputation for their rambunctious live shows, which are half frenetic mosh pit, half wild dance party. Bailoni admits he wasn’t initially comfortable with performing on stage, and he credits their song “Violent” with helping him get over any stage fright he felt. “That was the first time I felt like we both broke through the nerves and got more comfortable with how the shows would go live, just because it was so fun to yell [“are you violent?”] so loud,” Bailoni recounts, when describing their first time playing the song at a show in Chicago.
Grapetooth’s bright, high tempo sound wasn’t necessarily intentional and it took some time to find. Bailoni described their first attempts at recording as “pretty strange”: “I guess the drums were dance-y and new-wave-y, but we pitched down the vocals and made them sound like horror movie soundtrack songs, really scary. Weird stuff, dissonant sounding.” It wasn’t until the spring of 2016, when the two wrote Grapetooth’s first single “Trouble”, that Bailoni thinks they really hit on something special. “That was probably the first song we made that we were both like, ‘oh wow, we’ve got a sound here and now we know what we’re doing’”.
Despite finding what Bailoni described as the perfect mesh of his production style and Frankel’s, the two didn’t always have serious aspirations for what they’d created.
“We still hadn’t really planned on releasing it or doing anything real or ever playing a show with it,” Bailoni continues, when asked about their initial plans for Grapetooth. “We were like, let’s maybe make a small EP and put it on Bandcamp for free or something like that.” Despite their modest intentions in their early days, Grapetooth released their first self-titled record in November of 2018. The majority of the ten-song tracklist is in line with their influences, which include synth-punk duo Suicide and Yukihiro Takahashi of Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra. However, the curiously country-sounding closing track, “Together”, sounds a lot more like Frankel’s Twin Peaks work than a New Order song. Including that on the tracklist was no mistake. “I think we just wanted the record to be eclectic of genre and style, but still somehow fit together,” Bailoni explains, when asked about the disparate song’s inclusion. “It just sounds like two friends making music together in their bedroom, which is what the whole thing is.”
When asked about how Grapetooth fits into the Chicago music scene, Bailoni agrees that his city isn’t synonymous with the style of music he and Frankel are creating. “It’s definitely more rock based. Rock, and then obviously rap and hip hop. But all those worlds are so tightly connected – everyone in Chicago knows each other because it’s such a small community, like any community in a city of arts,” he says. “But yeah, I suppose there’s not too much synth/dance stuff coming out of Chicago.”
Maybe being a bit of an outlier in the music scene is one of the reasons why Grapetooth enjoyed such success before even putting out their first record. Personally, Bailoni thinks the combination of his and Frankel’s individual styles is what sets them apart from other bands that have a similar sound. “I do feel like there’s not too much stuff coming out that sounds like us,” he says. “But I feel like Clay’s vocal style kind of separates [us] from the pack and gives it more of a grunge punk sound. Because if you take away all the vocals, we just sound like we’re copying any New Order song or any new wave Japanese music.”
While a lot of musicians were seemingly born with guitar picks or drumsticks in their hands, Bailoni didn’t start dabbling into music until his second year of college. He credits his friend Kevin Rhomberg, known to many as producer and musician Knox Fortune, as his inspiration for getting into music production. “I remember him showing me all the music he was making on his laptop in his bedroom, just with shitty speakers,” Bailoni explains. “His ability to make songs that sounded like they were produced by a full band on his laptop kind of inspired me that you didn’t really have to have a lot of equipment or anything expensive, or any real [technical] musical knowledge, to be able to make songs.”
While a lack of musical knowledge might hinder some facets of the songwriting process, Bailoni thinks there’s a benefit to being less experienced with the technical aspects of music. “I think there’s definitely a positive aspect of not being too musical if you’re a producer, because you tend to lean more towards what sounds good emotion-wise versus what would make sense musically,” he says, when discussing his process for creating music.
“The lack of knowledge tends to force more outlandish, creative ideas, I suppose.”
Bailoni may not have started making music seriously until he was nineteen, but he had a different artistic outlet before that: filming and editing skateboarding videos. This skill would later benefit the band when it came time to make music videos, particularly the video for “Trouble”. “We just kind of grabbed a camera and then went out with a couple of weird outfits with our friend Jackson, who filmed it,” says Bailoni. “It ended up being kind of fun, just the mentality of how you film a skateboard edit: go out with your friends, edit it afterwards, and see what comes out of it.” Keeping with the band’s spirit of experimenting and seeing what happens, Bailoni explains that neither he nor Frankel aim for any kind of narrative in their videos, opting instead for videos that resemble “visual collages”.
What’s next for Grapetooth? For now, they’re proceeding in the same fashion as they always have: taking things as they come and having fun with it. “As far as what’s gonna happen in the future, we don’t really know. […] I guess we’re just gonna keep making music whenever we do, as we always have, and then actually put out a second record.” In the meantime, Bailoni thinks Grapetooth may put out a few singles or an EP this year. But rather than working with any big-name producers, he and Frankel will continue to employ the do-it-yourself method to create, as he puts it, the feeling of two friends making music together in their bedroom. “Just keeping it fun and simple,” Bailoni reiterates. “Us and friends.”
Grapetooth is currently on a headlining tour with support from Ian Sweet and James Swanberg. Catch them in Los Angeles on June 21st at the Echoplex, in Vancouver on June 25th at the Fox Cabaret, or anywhere else that fine concerts are sold. Tour dates can be found here.