Interview Jonathan Schang (District 97)

"Paul McCartney would be a heck of a guest musician!"

(September 2015, text by Pedro Bekkers, edited by Peter Willemsen)

The American band District 97 was established in 2006 in Chicago by drummer Jonathan Schang, keyboardist Rob Clearfield, bassist Patrick Mulcahy en guitarist Sam Crahn. The latter was replaced in 2008 by the current guitarist Jim Tashijian. However, a right vocalist was needed to complement the sound of the band, and in 2007 the charismatic Leslie Hunt, American Idol Top 10 Female Finalist, joined the band. In Vaults (2015, see review) is the new and third studio album of District 97. Previously they recorded Hybrid Child (2010, see review) and Trouble With Machines (2012, see review). All releases were critically acclaimed, getting high scores by the reviewers. Good reasons for Background Magazine to ask drummer Jonathan Schang some questions about the band, their music and their influences.

Jonathan Schang

How are the band members doing now the third album In Vaults has been released?
Jonathan Schang: “Great! The reception to the album has been fantastic and it seems to be resonating with a lot of people. So, that's a great feeling after putting so much into it. We're currently taking a little time off so our singer Leslie Hunt can have her baby, but we'll be back in 2016 with a European and perhaps a world tour in the spring.”

When did you find out that the combination of your technical instrumental music and Leslie's melodic vocals could work as a band? Were there any doubts regarding this combination?
Leslie Hunt
“Yes, initially there were some doubts as most of our influences featured male vocalists. But Leslie can conjure a hard edge that I knew would work with our style of music, and it turned out that it fitted like a glove without really needing much compromise from either side. It didn't take long for everyone to feel confident it was a good move.”

Both previous albums were quite accessible and in a progressive rock vein; the new album In Vaults is more powerful, more metal. Is this a natural progression?
“I think it is. The more time you spend at something, hopefully the more elements you add to it in order to keep it fresh and interesting. I think that's what happened here.”

The song Death By A Thousand Cuts contains an incredible guitar solo. I guess it's influenced by Robert Fripp. What do you think of Fripp's music in general?
“Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! We are very familiar with a big chunk of the King Crimson canon and have played it many times with John Wetton, and even released the One More Red Night live album of our renditions of those songs from the Red-era. Personally speaking, Robert Fripp and King Crimson have always been a big inspiration. Musically, he's always pushing the envelope and finding new elements and approaches to bring into his unique world of sound. He can never be accused of taking it easy or playing it safe. In addition to that, Fripp's dogged persistence in keeping King Crimson alive − even despite long periods of dormancy − through so many line-up changes and hurdles is really a marvel. Each group always embodied a strong sense of integrity, continuing right up through today, and I greatly admire that. I'm not sure what he'd think of this, but I think it's fair to say that I consider him to be a role model!”

In Vaults
Could you tell us something about the lyrics on the new album? Do they have a deeper meaning?
“Each song has its own individual meaning and inspiration. Some tracks like Death By A Thousand Cuts and Handlebars are about relationship experiences, On Paper is about gun violence here in Chicago and elsewhere, Blinding Vision is inspired by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, so it really runs the whole gamut. I think they all work very nicely together and create a sense of a whole statement when taken in totality.”

I heard some more jazz influences on In Vaults. Where do they come from?
“All the instrumentalists in the band were jazz majors in music school, so we've all been steeped in that for a long time. Steve Hunt, Leslie's dad, is a free jazz drummer and one of the best around. So, it's inevitable that jazz influences are heard, particularly in our chord voicings and progressions.”

On Trouble With Machines you had a guest appearance of John Wetton. How was it to work with him?
“That was really wonderful. Not only did he record that track with us, but we also toured with him in both Europe and in the USA in 2013. It was magical playing drums alongside that amazing voice night after night, which resulted in our joint live album One More Red Night. Aside from the voice, we had a lot of fun and he told tons of good jokes and stories. It was a privilege, and I'll never forget or take it for granted. And, we're of course wishing him the best in his current health struggles.”

Would you consider other guest musicians on future albums and who would you love to have as a guest?
“Yes, we certainly would, but it just depends on the kind of material we have. If that fits the need for having a person outside of the group to help to bring it to life, we will. I'm going to dream big and say that Paul McCartney would be a heck of a guest musician!”

From L to R: Patrick Mulcahy, Rob Clearfield, Leslie Hunt, Jonathan Schang and Jim Tashjian

Could you tell us a bit about the new tour that's coming up with a performance on the Dutch Progdreams Festival?
“Sure. The tour will take place from late March through early April 2016. There will be at least three UK dates, and we're also playing at the German Art Rock IV Festival in Reichenbach-Vogtland and, as you already said, the Progdreams Festival in The Netherlands. There should be two additional German dates if all goes well. More than likely, that will round out the European itinerary, but we'll see what else comes up. This may also turn into a world tour with some USA dates following Europe. We will again be looking towards our incredible fan base to help ensure we don't lose our shirts on this venture through a crowdfunding campaign that will probably launch towards the end of 2015. If that's successful, we can be confident that we'll be able to do something of this scale again in the future.”

Thank you for answering my questions.
“You're welcome, it was my pleasure.”

More info about District97 on the Internet:

       review album 'Hybrid' (2010)
       review album 'Trouble With Machines' (2012)
       review album 'In Vaults' (2015)

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