Meet Engine Summer: Music You Can Dance To
Watch the Elmhurst, Illinois-born DIY indie rock trio’s new video for “Commander” off debut LP “Trophy Kids”
by Katie Ingegneri
Photography by Ryan Ohm, Alicia Maciel, Marty Kaleta & Nick Jirsa
Being from the suburbs of anywhere is something that defines a lot of us, in ways mundane and yet inextricable to who we are and who we become. If anything, the homogeneity and boredom of suburbia seems to light a fire in a lot of artistically minded kids.
I grew up in suburban Boston, where my own boredom certainly inspired me to become a serious rock n roll fan, and since I’ve been an adult in Chicago for four years and the music scene for two, I’ve gotten to know a not-insignificant amount of people from one Chicago suburb in particular — Elmhurst, Illinois. A town I’ve still never seen, but produced the rock bands that started this magazine and my DIY house show life (The Orwells, Modern Vices, and The Symposium). And lo and behold, we have another one: Engine Summer. All I can say is that I wish my town back in Massachusetts cranked out quality rock bands the way Elmhurst does.
This garage rock trio comprised of Ben Kostecki, Jeremy (who they also seem to call “Jerry”) Marsan and Ryan Ohm self-released their official debut LP, “Trophy Kids,” in October of this year. I knew drummer Ryan already from his music videos for the Chicago-area scene with his company Weird Life Films, including videos for Twin Peaks, Modern Vices, NE-HI, The Walters, and our Illinois-born friend Trevor Sensor. As a trio with only one guitar and shared vocal duties, they’ve dialed their sound down to the jangly, upbeat fundamentals of rock, heavy on the drums and bass.
Before “Trophy Kids” dropped, I was deciding who I would like to book at my end-of-year birthday party/Houseshow event at Cole’s Bar in Logan Square. They only had a few songs available on their Bandcamp, but I was struck by how fun, upbeat, weird and unique Engine Summer’s take on garage rock was, so I asked them to play, sight unseen, basically. They better be good live or I’m gonna be MAD. Just kidding. But I was definitely happy to be confirmed in my decision when the full LP dropped — and I’ve had it on repeat ever since!
“Trophy Kids” has become a fitting soundtrack to my Chicago city life as the year winds down and the days get shorter, a sonic collage of urban rock n roll with danceable bass, post-punk guitar, syncopated drums, layers of sound (including spoken conversations and city life), the occasional harmonica, flute and xylophone, and flamboyantly upbeat vocals that show they’re not taking themselves too seriously. With songs that range from 4 minutes at the longest to a few that come in around 40 seconds, “Trophy Kids” isn’t so much about specific songs as it is about vibes. Although their single “Commander,” which I am premiering the video for below, is insanely catchy and should be getting on people’s radars like right now. The video (yes, it was made by Ryan & Weird Life Films) is “a bit of a 70s newscast parody” — a transmission from the “psychic commander” of the song? You’ll have to just check it out!
I’m really excited about this album, as it’s a quirkier angle on Chicago rock than I’ve heard in a while — some bands here are still very straightforward rock n roll, while others go towards psychedelia and guitar-shredding solos, and others are out to prove they are songwriters — but Engine Summer’s music is just, like, fun. Engine Summer exists somewhere in the boundary between indie dance rock and straight-up garage jams, with a nice twist of experimentalism and weirdness thrown in.
I sat down with the guys at The Whistler in Logan Square to drink some PBR and learn more about the band, their music, and how it’s been going for them as they embark full-force into DIY music-making life (tempered by Ben’s full-time day job as an accountant at a special needs school). It was a funny, sprawling conversation involving various tangents, goofiness and gossip, so I’ve selected some highlights (a combination of specific speakers and general commentary from the table) to give you an insight into the band — including the tour stories they’ve amassed so far from Detroit to the Wisconsin Dells, their take on why Elmhurst produces so many good bands, and what cheap beer they would like to be sponsored by.
Conversation with Engine Summer — Logan Square, Chicago, November 2017
Who put the record out?
Ryan: We just did independent, found the best place to get em from — Jerry was lead research, and he found this press in Czech Republic, and they shipped em over.
Jeremy: Now called Chechnya?
Somewhere in the former Soviet Republic sent you your records, that’s cool…Yeah it sounds really good, I’m really impressed. So who are your influences?
Ryan: Jerry’s got a summary of our influences.
Jeremy: Yeah we’ve hashed this conversation out, like “what do we say.” We all like similar but a lot of different music. I think the closest thing that we all like would be Spoon — that real minimalist, rock vibe, groove-heavy…and Ben and I hit it off with a lot of soul records.
We also really like Wire…Van Halen…it started as a joke, but then we were like “this is pretty good.”
Ben: James Brown, Al Green, Creedence…
Ryan: Krautrock, we each try to write a little Kraut-y stuff, like Cave, or Neu, CAN, we just started covering one of their tunes…so kind of all over. But who isn’t, really.
Yeah I don’t usually specifically ask that much about influences, but I was just curious cause it’s a little different from the garage rock n roll, especially in this area…
Jeremy: I think we try to make everything dance-y enough, but not think of it as a dance-rock band. More thinking of it as how Creedence would’ve been a dance band, cause people didn’t differentiate dance music from rock music. We’re also kinda angry — not angry, but we don’t really have harmonies. We have like a few harmonies.
Ryan: Maybe less angry, but more like, conflicting noise — kinda punk in a sense, where we’re kinda off, but not off-tempo or off whatever. But more unrefined…
How long have you guys been a band?
As far as us three, just a year and two or three months. It was [Jeremy and Ben] playing with another drummer and he left, Ryan joined and then we wrote all new songs, so it’s basically a new band. We all went down to the river, we took our clothes off, and we re-baptized.
Ben: It’s a very shallow river.
You made Ryan sacrifice blood…
Ryan: I only have seven toes now.
Jeremy: It was very polluted. We’ll go to the doctor one day.
I still haven’t made it out to Elmhurst, I gotta check it out.
Ryan: It’s a place where you just get off the highway and all of sudden you just feel inspired. [laughter]
Ben: Exactly…inspired to get the hell out.
Ryan: Nah, it’s a fine suburb.
Why do so many awesome bands come from there? What is it about Elmhurst?
Kind of cultivated a scene…there was always a lot of bands in high school. It’s how we all really know each other. There wasn’t even a venue — there’s not an official venue there. There was in Elk Grove Village…
Ben: Jeremy’s house, his parents let people play in his garage, we were there all the time. A lot of nice parents letting kids who were generally well-behaved flood their house and listen to music for the sake of it, which is really nice actually. We didn’t have to organize it.
Jeremy: It was one of those good microcosms where you’d be in the hallway and there’s kids from another band, and you’re kinda like “what’s up guys.”
Ryan: Yeah before any of the kids in our band or Orwells or Modern Vices were in any of these bands, we were all just fucking around in garages. Even though those guys are a little bit younger than us.
Jeremy: It was like five or six years, grades, all kind of interconnected that way. At least from our perspective, I’m sure it’s an ongoing thing.
What do you guys do for day jobs? You’re doing the videos and stuff…
Ryan: Yeah I own the film company with a couple friends, so we just freelance under that name together. And Jerry’s a writer, and just general Renaissance man — we own a VHS distribution company together too. And Ben is an accountant. They’re trying to make him the boss.
Ben: They really are, it’s no joke. My one boss is retiring…it’s a lot of pressure to put on me…it’s in Mt. Prospect, it’s like northwest of Chicago, it’s a special needs education cooperative.
Ryan & Jeremy: Ben teaches a class too, “How to be a rocker at the same time.” [laughter] He does our accounting too.
Ben: It’s a good job, my boss is really supportive of me playing music and pursuing that. I get time off…but it’s still an accounting job. I live with Luke Otwell…two Lukes now, Luke Olson…Our basement is like a practice space, it’s really nice to have a house with all this stuff. Unfortunately, it got bought and it’s gonna be knocked down in April, but we might have one last hurrah — an Engine & Luke Henry & one more band.
Jeremy: A tear the house down party.
Ben: Yeah, but we’re not gonna wreck the house.
Ryan: Get a couple sledgehammers.
Ben: You’re getting the invite like four months in advance…unless we totally screw up your birthday show.
As long as you don’t delve into chaos, we should be good.
Yeah we don’t really do that — sometimes Jerry takes his shirt off, but eventually he’ll put it back on. It was only a problem at Dimo’s.
Ryan: We had like a live session there, people were eating.
Jeremy: I didn’t think “no shirt, no shoes” applied if you’re IN the band. [laughs]
Ben: We kept our shoes off the whole time.
Ryan: And we brought a cooler of beer, they didn’t really fancy that.
But we promoted Dimo’s after every song.
“In case you haven’t noticed, you’re at Dimo’s.” So have you made music videos for the band yet? I haven’t really paid that close attention…
Ryan: Yeah it’s kinda funny, before I joined the band I made one for them. But together the three of us made three videos.
So who does vocals?
It’s really all three of us.
Ben: I think it helps that we’re all also singing to fill up the sound, cause we’re a three-piece band.
Ryan: But yeah I think that’s something that sets us a little bit apart, is most bands, a drummer or a bassist or another guitarist wouldn’t even touch a microphone, for even a little backing part. That’s what I always thought was cool with the Arctic Monkeys, their drummer had those cool little things, and those complement a lot. So I think when we play live, that gives us that extra kick of personality…I do a lot of dumb stage banter too, they have to take the microphone away from me sometimes.
“No no, that’s fine — keep talking, Ryan.”
So are you guys trying to get famous now, or are you just gonna be an accountant?
Ryan: We’re just in it for the money.
Ben: Well, we’d like to make a living off of music somehow — it might not be the best living, but I’d like to not have to work at my job anymore. That’s kind of an end game, at least for me.
Jeremy: We’re waiting for the reckoning day where we’re gonna be like “alright Ben, we’re either gonna go tour Europe and you’re gonna quit your job…”
Ben: Yeah basically I’m putting off the day I have to quit the job, which makes it so much more difficult that my job wants me to take a leadership position. But they also know, so.
Yeah I’m hoping to get more into the music business side of stuff…but the prospect of making money or a full living that way is a little…tricky.
Jeremy: We’re been a DIY band forever, and we’re just starting to think “okay, what if we’ll still do it ourselves, but we’ll have other people help us,” and the going rate for an agent is like 10%. So it’s like okay, if we get 80 bucks at a show, that’s eight dollars. [laughter] Sometimes we’ll get 30 bucks.
Jeremy: So bit of a fun story — it was one of our first shows with Ryan, y’know, after the river cleansing. We were going to Minneapolis so we decided to spend the night in the Dells [Wisconsin, which I didn’t know]. Ryan wound up getting a knife pulled on him in a bar…
Ryan: After I won 50 dollars in the slot machine.
Jeremy: It didn’t print a ticket cause it ran out of paper.
Ryan: And then the bartender was like “yeah it does that sometimes,” and it was like, “well, can I get my money?” And this guy…
Jeremy: He pulls out a knife and he’s like “quit playing those slots and play a real man’s game,” and then he flips the knife to give it to Ryan. And I’m like, “naw, I’m okay.”
Ben: You were near the dartboard — “stop throwing darts and start throwing knives.” And tries to hand him the dagger and Ryan’s like “no,” then he puts the dagger away and then left. So I dunno man, that might’ve been the pathway to Narnia or something.
Ryan: Damn, I should’ve taken the dagger.
The Dells is like the waterpark town. A town that is super tacky, tourist traps everywhere, go-cart tracks…as adults, we’ve been there like 3 times, and each time’s been questionable.
That’s funny, that probably shaped your destiny as a band.
Yeah, that was like the first tour. The first show.
Ben: We get to the Dells, we’re looking for a cheap hotel — we’re also looking to go to a waterpark in the morning. Cause why not? We’re in the Dells. So we find one, it’s the cheapest place, they have a waterpark pass. We’re getting in at 4, 5, it’s summer, it’s really bright out. It’s the Dells, it’s a hoppin’ place. So there’s not many rooms left, so we get this room that overlooks the indoor pool…
Jeremy: And Ryan and I wanted a balcony.
Ben: So we went and asked if we could switch, and this guy’s just like, Jekyll and Hyde, like “I’m gonna give you a room without any windows, you want that? Like, I gave you a good room! You’ll be sleeping outside!” We were afraid he was gonna come in the room, start standing over us.
When you find the cheapest hotel in the tourist trap town…it was kinda funny. And then later that night was the knife incident.
Ben: It was all the same night, yeah. That was when we kind of swore off the Dell, that was the last time we’ve been, right?
But then we also went to that unfortunately named bar — just a horribly offensive name.
Ben: It’s in the Dells, and we felt so out of place — it was the summer, and Ryan was wearing some short-shorts — normal stuff around here, but we walked through, and someone was like “I didn’t know the gays were gonna be here.” But then they tried to buy weed from us. And we were like, “no!” So all that in one night… “maybe we’ll never go back again.”
You also had to sleep outside in Detroit, is that what Ryan just said?
Ben & Jeremy: It was part of that first slew of shows Ryan was playing with us, and the first show was in Detroit. It was like 95 degrees, and the person’s house we were staying at didn’t have AC, and you couldn’t open the windows. So we just like decided in a not-great part of Detroit to sleep on the front porch with our sleeping bags. The whole night, I maybe got an hour…we were sleeping in shifts. A car would zoom by and we’d be like “oh my god, this is it”…and someone came to the door at like 5 am. It was like a friend of the owner, dropping off a sweater…but I remember hearing the footsteps walk up and being like “oh my god, I’m gonna die.” I was convinced we were gonna get robbed, we were sleeping on a porch in a city.
Jeremy: I think, in retrospect, after we made it through that night, it was a safe spot. I think it was fine. I went back there, and it was chill…
Probably like being in a neighborhood in Chi.
Jeremy: I think the roughest night was in Minneapolis, and the show finished at 11, and we found out you couldn’t buy booze after 10 or something. And we hadn’t had a sober night at this point — ever, as a band.
So are you touring again soon?
We’re gonna play a lot of weekend tours over the next year to promote the record, as much as we can. Des Moines, Sioux Falls, Kalamazoo, I’d like to go to Texas but that’s longer…
You could do South By…
We’d love to if we could, it’s a bit of a doozy to try and book, but if you have any tips let us know…So we’re trying to do a lot of that.
Ben: It’s kind of hard cause I work, to take off multiple weeks at once. Unless it’s July. I could literally manage to take off three weeks. It also seems a little bit smart, like if you’re gonna tour, why play shows on the weekday — especially at our level — when there’s no guarantees of anything. Just maximize people showing up and exposure. That’s really a lot of the game plan — just getting a fanbase. So we’re gonna try, and see what happens.
Ryan: Ben’s gonna offer his accounting services for free if people come to the shows. “I’ll do your taxes, just come see us!”
Ben: Please don’t, please don’t!
I just like doing these interviews cause everyone inevitably ends up shit talking someone, so I’m like “should I include this?”
Who should we shit talk?
That Ryan Ohm…
Jeremy: This isn’t so much a shit talk, but it’s like…part of the beauty of playing shows here is that a lot of times we play a new venue, it’s like “should we do it? I don’t know if we can draw there.” But we’re kinda like, “if XX hates us and never books us again, no big loss.” We just cut them out. Maybe Quenchers is a place like that…
Yeah I remember trying to go to a Symposium show there that like, didn’t happen.
That’s our negative talk for the evening.
“So who do you hate in the Chicago music scene?”
Ben: Luke Henry, he sucks — Luke I hope you’re listening, I’ll see you tomorrow but I hate you.
Wait, are you shit talking Luke Henry or Luke Olson?
“Both of you, I hate both of you guys.” No, I love both of them.
Ryan: We’d like Special Export to sponsor us — it’s a great cheap beer.
Ben: It’s a good beer — of the shitty cheap beers, it’s one of the better ones. It’s no Hamm’s…but it’s pretty good.
What’s your favorite cheap beer?
PBR! Anything else you wanna say about the record?
Ben: You should definitely listen to the album “Trophy Kids” by Engine Summer, on vinyl — coke-bottle clear vinyl.
Jeremy: I feel like this is our best, over the course of all of us making music throughout our lives, this is the most worthwhile 35 minutes to date. Ben has some cool solo stuff.
Ben: We recorded at Jeremy’s house — we left it set up for months. I’d never had that opportunity to take our time and rip songs apart. The songs that are on this album, most of the time started completely different — a lot longer, we gutted them, we went through this huge process. We had a lot of fun doing it too. But it’s also a lot of work — I mean, Jeremy mixed more or less the whole album himself. We got to see the whole process, and understand why it takes time, and in the payoff we feel good. Like my parents, they’d never really cared for much music I’ve done, they actually enjoy this. So that’s one win in my book. The effort is put in, it’ll appeal to a lot of people. So that’s kinda what we hope.
Jeremy: We set it up conveniently — the first track is like a minute and 20 seconds, so if you like that first track, you’ll like the rest of it. If you don’t like that first track, that’s fine, just don’t buy it.
I’m excited for you guys to play my birthday.
Ben: I just realized this is the most calm I’ve been in like a year, this hour, cause I didn’t think about Trump once.