Pioneering “Rock Band With Horns” To Release New Album July 4
BY JEFF CLARK
With a repertoire that includes more than 100,000,000 albums sold worldwide, 21 top 10 singles, five consecutive number one albums and 11 number one singles, the band Chicago isn’t one to hang its proverbial hat on past accolades. Instead, the band tours pretty much non-stop, as it has done for more than 40 years, and it will be releasing its first album of new material in years on July 4. “Now” is the band’s 34th album, 25 of which have been certified platinum for sales of more than 1,00,000 units.
The album is the first to feature the current line-up, with original band members Robert Lamm on keyboards and vocals, Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone and Walt Parazaider on woodwinds, as well as longtime bassist and vocalist Jason Scheff, 20-year-guitarist Keith Howland, Tris Imboden on drums, Lou Pardini on keyboards and vocals and Wally Reyes on percussion.
“Yeah, I suppose it is the first one since Lou Pardini has been here,” Howland said. “The last album of new material was ‘Chicago 30,’ which was recorded back in 2005-2006. I was just remarking the other day, I’ve been in the band 20 years and this is the first album of new material that I’ve been fully a part of. I played on ‘Chicago 30,’ but there were a lot of session players on it. There have been several Christmas records and we did a live record with additional tracks. There’s been a lot of recording over the years, but this is really the first one, at least for money, that I was a big part of playing on every track. I’m pretty proud of it. I think it’s a great group of tunes and a good body of work.”
The album features a variety of material, from Lamm’s “More Will Be Revealed,” Scheff’s ballad “Love Lives On,” to Howland’s “Nice Girl,” an uptempo number that features Howland on lead vocals and horn parts that are a signature part of the Chicago sound.
“We cut that probably four or five years ago,” Howland said. “Jason, Tris and I were demoing a new idea for a Christmas album and I had this song that I had written on the road – ‘Nice Girl’ – so we cut it. That’s the basic track for that song. We had no idea it was going to be on a Chicago album. It was kind of loose. We went into the solo section and just kind of did this freeform thing. When we were cutting ‘Now,’ I pulled it out and it sounded good to me. We overdubbed Lou’s B3 and the horns did their thing and that was that. I tried to write something like a ‘Jon Mayer’ sounding thing. It was a originally kind of a guitar-driven trio kind of thing.”
Although pretty much everyone in the group is a songwriter, Howland said the songwriting process is fairly organic, with sketches of songs being passed from member to member until a cohesive track is formed. The process, Howland said, is as old as the band itself.
“Ironically, it’s very much like the way the band worked in the early days in the 70s,” he said. “Back in those days, for the most part, it was one songwriter or one or two guys would write a tune and then they would bring it to the table with a chord chart in hand or with a loose recorded demo and then everyone would put their two cents in and it would become the band’s interpretation of the song. For example, Robert sort of did what he likes to do, which is write to loops, and then he would bring it to the band and then one by one, we would sort of replace all the loose concepts he had on his songs with real performances. A couple of the tunes I was involved with writing, I’m more old school in that I like writing and having a live rhythm section create the foundation like they did in the old days. The foundation of my songs were guitar, bass and drums and then we added from there.”
As one of the most in-demand live acts, especially during the summer months, Chicago doesn’t have the time to take off months from the road and hibernate in studio. Howland said the band had to be innovative when it came to recording “Now.”
“A lot of it was recorded from the road,” Howland said. “A couple of the tracks we did in my home studio. Jason, Tris and I laid down the rhythm sections and then we did the overdubs from the road. There were several sessions where we actually recorded Tris’s drums at venues. We would get there a little early and I would set up my mobile recording studio and you have a whole drum set already set up and miked and ready to go in a theater or auditorium. It’s pretty easy to unplug the mics and plug them into a recording unit base and hit record and record the drum kit. Even I was surprised by how good those results were. We did several horn tracking dates in various ballrooms and hotels. We got creative with that, too. On one of the horn dates, I asked one of the hotel employees if they had anything that could be used as a divider or partition of sorts. He came back two with two garment racks they use in their laundry and dry cleaning with blankets draped over them. We placed them in between the three horn players and that acted as a divider between them for sonic separation. We basically made do with whatever we had on the road to create the experience of a studio.”
As Chicago prepares to spend the majority of the summer on the road, culminating with a dual headlining tour with REO Speedwagon, Howland said the band will be rotating one of the new tracks from “Now” at upcoming shows. But it’s the hits that keep the audience coming back.
“ ‘25 or 6 to 4’ is a lot of fun, it has a three-minute guitar solo and it also signifies the end of the show, which means I’m closer to the aftershow food and turning on the NFL Network,” said Howland with a laugh. “The funny thing about it, after 20 years of playing with the band, honestly, there really isn’t a low point. I enjoy playing all of the music we do live because it’s such a great body of work. It’s all good to me. It’s a fun gig. To be totally honest, I think the band is firing on all cylinders better this year than the 20 years I’ve been in the band. It seems as it good as it’s ever been.”