June 10, 2004
BITTER PILLS TO POP: CHALLENGER'S COMFORTING CYNICISM
The term "side project" bothers me. There's something about the way the phrase makes whatever it's describing sound more like a meaningless fling to scratch a temporary itch than it does a legit band.
Al Burian, a man who's currently known for playing bass and singing in the Chicago band Milemarker and writing the zine Burn Collector (among other things), knows the annoying term all too well. And I'm guessing he's been hearing it a lot lately, because with an already successful band on his resumé (Milemarker has maintained a loyal fan base since forming in 1997), Burian has begun to scratch yet another itch. Call it a side project if you want, but he calls it Challenger.
While taking a break from Milemarker last summer, Burian and his Milemarker bandmate Dave Laney decided to start a band, a fun band. So they recruited friend Timothy Remis to play drums, wrote some songs, recorded a demo, sent it to Jade Tree, got signed, and recorded a full-length record titled Give People What They Want in Lethal Doses.
Jade Tree released Give People What They Want on February 17, and it was greeted with a plethora of positive reviews in publications including Blender and the Onion. It's both musically and lyrically bitter, with songs commenting on current events as well as failed relationships, sometimes at the same time. But while it possesses a raw, angry edge, there's something about the record that's also very playful. Maybe it's because the attitude is unapologetically sour. The guitars have fun storming around lyrics like "Anakastic existence/Love?/It's just an added expense and/this operation must downsize" in the song "Input the Output," which, as Burian's notes on the Challenger website state, has an end chorus where "we're all encouraged to yell and break things."
It's punk rock, but it's the kind of punk that existed before there were so many rules to follow. And while Burian and Laney shout out, "Congratulations on your phony matrimony/Here's hoping that you evade the FBI/And I will try not to cry/When you come by to say goodbye forever/Goodbye forever/We're never gonna see each other again," they're calling out the bullshit with a grin. And as the listener, you smile too, because it feels good to let it all out.
To follow the record's release, the band planned a spring tour. Unfortunately, Laney broke his collarbone in an accident while working as a bike messenger, forcing the band to cancel the scheduled dates. Since healing, though, Challenger has been all over, touring both the East Coast and Japan in the short time span of only a month and a half. And currently they're touring the West Coast through June. Afterward, they'll return to Chicago, record an EP for the European label Day After with the new lineup (which adds their publicist Jessica Hopper on bass and replaces Remis with Milemarker drummer Noah Leger), and then they hit the road yet again, this time for two months in Europe.
"I think it's up to the musician to prove that a band isn't a side project," says Burian, just 24 hours after returning home from the weeklong Japan visit. "On the one hand I guess I could be bothered by the term, but I can recognize it as necessary for identification purposes. The end result is sort of self-evident as to whether it's something that someone's doing to take care of an itch, or something that is more long-term."
And while Burian, like any average human, can't see into the future, he's pretty sure that Challenger is here to stay, at least for a while. Challenger allows him to do things Milemarker can't, which he enjoys.
"The difference, on a purely technical level," he says with a chuckle, "is I get to play guitar. Challenger is also doing something that's trying to be straightforward and unselfconscious. It's nice to write a song in that structure. Milemarker tries to be more confrontational and it's trying to not necessarily placate the listener. Their overall musical intents are opposite: Challenger is trying to go in the exact opposite direction."
But when it all comes down to it, the main reason for adding yet another helping to an already full plate is really not that complicated at all.
"I guess it's just kind of..." Burian asks with a pause, "why not?"
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