Loyal Divide

Photography by Tracy Graham

Adam Johnson is the songwriter and producer behind Chicago’s Loyal Divide, a young band that’s taking the blend of rock and electronic music in striking new directions. His band has generated a powerful street-level buzz in the past few years, but Johnson says he never intended to be a full-time musician, even though he grew up playing guitar.
“My dad’s a musician,” Johnson says. “He plays guitar and sings whenever he has a leisure moment. He has a nice Martin guitar from the ‘60s, so I picked it up and started playing. In high school, I had a cover band with Sid (Chittajallu, Loyal Divide’s bass player) called Three Cowboys and an Indian. Sid was the Indian. We started another band at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with Jon Notowidigdo on guitar and drummer Andrew McCarthy. We played covers of indie rock songs and never had much of an audience.”

The quartet shared a camaraderie and love of music that bound them together. After school, they moved to Columbus to make it in the music business. “We made a horrible EP, with no real idea of what we were doing. Then we moved to Chicago.” Johnson recalls. “We moved into a house that was freezing cold. We had no money, so we recorded our second EP, Labrador, in our basement using Pro Tools, samplers and synthesizers. That winter, Sid and I listened to Purple Rain, the Blade Runner soundtrack and Hell Hath No Fury by Clipse and we moved away from indie rock to a more expansive sound that combined rock, hip hop and ambient sounds.”

Johnson put together Labrador using drum machines, samples he nabbed off of YouTube and live instruments played by the band. The four songs on the record took a year to produce, but its release created a street-level buzz. Johnson knew he was onto something and started working on Bodice Ripper.

“We were broke, so I moved back to my parents’ home to record. I’d ride public transportation to shows, then sleep on the floor and go home and work on the album.” The live shows were infrequent, but the band’s mysterious sound was starting to gain a strong cult following. “It took a year to make Bodice Ripper and a year to get it ready to release, but we’re finally ready to put it out into the world.”

The dense, volatile music on Bodice Ripper rides a relentless electronic pulse with unexpected twists and turns hidden in its dense sonic structure. “These are rock songs, but they start with a rhythm sample that becomes the backbone of the sound,” Johnson explains. “From there, we build a structure with guitars, sax and keyboards.” The album opens with “Young Blades,” an avalanche of sound anchored in a bhangra meets hip hop rhythm, spiced by Bollywood strings, the tolling of gamelan gongs, a throbbing rock bass line and subtle vocals buried deep in the mix. “I like to give people something to dig for,” Johnson says, “so I embed the vocals in the music. I think it adds to the longevity of a song if it doesn’t immediately give itself away.”

“DDF” has a club friendly dance beat, sci-fisynthesizer accents and vocals drifting through the mix like the ghostly serenades. The tune builds up to an unbearable tension before resolving in a shimmering wash of synthesizers. “I wanted to do a tune with a steady four on the floor disco beat and not worry about being innovative.” Other tracks like “Labrador,” “Vision Vision” and “Near Native” are more cinematic, with a dark, almost ambient, feel.

“The songs did not come easily,” Johnson says. “A lot of hours went into them. We didn’t write songs using a guitar or piano, and then develop the sound. We started with pure sound, pure rhythms and then tried to make a song out of it. A lot of the time, I felt like I was lost in the wilderness. I had the tracks from Labrador to point the way, but it took a year to make the rest of the album. The problem with composing on computers is that you have an infinite number of options. I got to the point that I was struggling with the endless possibilities. I finally had someone else mix the songs, and that gave me the focus to finish the record. I got the album title from the books my mom used to read, Victorian romance novels they call bodice rippers. The phrase implies sex and violence, a perfect mix for rock and roll.”

–  J. Poet


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