Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Chicago Musicians Say Bicycling Inspires Them

By John Greenfield

[This piece runs in the May 22 issue of Time Out Chicago with photos:

John Herndon, drummer with Tortoise and various jazz groups

“The rhythm of riding relates to my role as a percussionist,” says Herndon, an ex-messenger who enjoys biking with son Hollis, 4. “I sing along with the rhythm my legs are making.”

Herndon bought a Klein while performing in Europe in 2005. “That was amazing to have a bike on tour.” Back in Chicago, he tried to ride it home to Ashville, NC. switching from highways to country roads in Kentucky. “Dogs were on my ass the whole way.” He finally bailed and hitched a ride with a trucker.

Nowadays Johnny’s machine is a Bridgestone. He recently used it to pull a minimalist kit on a trailer to his weekly residency at Danny’s. “A goal of mine is to bike to more shows.”

Mark Messing, leader of Mucca Pazza

“I often write music in my head while riding,” says Messing, car-free since 2004. “It’s one of the best times.”

Members of his 30-piece “circus punk marching band” tow Sousaphones and glockenspiels to gigs on bike trailers. “We load the tympanis upside-down – it looks like a caterpillar.”

Their studio Maestromatic shares a space with West Town Bikes community cycle center. Manager Alex Wilson built Messing’s workhorse so the musician doesn’t know what brand lies beneath the reflective tape.

He enjoys biking Chicago because it’s flat and he gets to pass cars stuck in traffic. “I like thinking about all the money I no longer spend on gas, parking tickets and getting my car de-booted.”

Sally Timms, singer with the Mekons, Wee Hairy Beasties

Timms, a regular commuter, likes to croon while cycling. “You can really howl away, especially on Elston where there’s no one else around.” She also uses saddle time to brainstorm song arrangements.

Growing up in Huby, West Yorkshire, UK, she often rambled the countryside on a five-speed, and now she gets around on a Diamondback. “I don’t care for it the way I should but it’s never let me down.”

“It’s faster than the CTA, it’s exercise and it’s non-polluting,” she says, but as a woman she occasionally endures catcalls. “If you’ve gone out in a skirt you’ll get comments, that’s for sure. But it’s faster than walking. I wouldn’t walk down Elston at night but I’ll ride on it.”

Andrew Bird, violinist

“I’ve definitely written songs while biking,” says Bird, who commutes and goes on day rides. “Just occupying your body so your mind can wander is pretty key.” “A Nervous Tick Motion” is one of many melodies that have come to him on two wheels.

He brings his appropriately-named Heron on the tour bus. “I bought it for myself as a reward for all the touring I do. It’s been great, but four years ago in Saint Paul I spaced-out and went over a curb and my handlebars and bashed the hell out of my knees.”

He likes to cruise the backstreets of Bucktown in the summer, late at night. “On Hoyne or Leavitt between Division and Webster with the streetlights and canopy of trees, it feels like a movie set.”

Bob Weston, bassist with Shellac

“I like the weird, unspoken camaraderie out there between cyclists,” says Weston, a former courier who bikes as his main mode.

“But it’s not like I’m out there riding with the Rat Patrol. I don’t hang out at the Handlebar. I’m not part of some messenger subculture. I’m just a dude who uses his bike for transportation.”

Although he plays an aluminum bass, he rocks a lugged-steel Centurion single-speed. “A lot of modern bikes are really futuristic and ugly. I like simplicity.”

Weston usually cycles to guitarist Steve Albini’s studio then rides in the van to gigs, but he pedaled to the Hideout for most of the band’s six-night stand last winter. After one concert he found his ride covered with a half-foot of snow. “I think I caught a ride home with my wife that night.”

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