by Pete Kosmal.
I first met Chicago based-band Great Gray Buildings at a mid-week show at Subterranean in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. They took the stage right before my band was supposed to play. I remember gazing up at the stage, enamored with their tight sound and at keyboardist and vocalist, Kevin Whelan’s, passion. It was as if every note and every word mattered to him, and he wanted to express that emotion in full force to the crowd. As the band electrified and moved the room, I knew my band would be lucky to share the stage with them. I remember standing outside Subterranean after the show had ended, talking to the band about musical influences, and thinking to myself, “This must be the nicest group of guys I’ve ever met.”
Aside from being nice guys, Great Gray Buildings have made a name for themselves in the Chicago scene, winning the Deli Chicago’s artist of the month poll. “Chicago breeds creativity,” says guitarist Dan Hawthorne. “It allows genres to evolve and interact with each other, resulting in a huge variety of great bands and initiatives”. Dan, Matt, and Lee met at Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs, where the music scene was tight knit, “as with any liberal arts college”, says drummer Matt Tanaka. “Everyone who was in a band was also in a band with someone else”.
Great Gray Buildings officially started in Hawthorne’s grandparents’ living room. “We’d sneak into the college’s music building late at night or Kevin would write on the grandparent’s old upright piano, until eventually, we just kind of became a band”, says Tanaka.
Humble beginnings notwithstanding, Teleglow, the band’s first EP, is a sprawling epic filled with emotion, story, and elegance. Whether the songs invoke the great American road trip or bewilderment about growing up in the digital age, Teleglow does it with a stylistic familiarity. That isn’t to say it’s conventional by any means; rather it infuses that familiar sense with something untried. “I’m just striving to emulate the type of songwriting I’ve enjoyed most in other pop artists,” says Whelan. A modest statement, but that emulation paired with the raw talent of the band is what makes Great Gray Buildings truly different.
Story is the most prominent songwriting tool on Teleglow. “I usually try to write songs that employ strong imagery to tell a story, interact with someone else’s story, or reflect on a type of experience that is universal enough to be accessible,” says Whelan. On “Story”, we are transported to an isolated car driving down the remote highway. “I am not the only person who has felt a thrilling sense of freedom, and intense — even urgent — bonding with friends and family in forced communal isolation at 65mph”.
“Wax and Feathers”, my personal favorite on the album, is an impressive blend of math rock and power pop. “It operates in that…mode of borrowing the story of someone else,” states Whelan. “In this case [it uses] the story of Icarus and Daedalus to explore the difficulty of discerning courage from folly in the moment of a hard decision”.
What makes Teleglow work on so many levels is not only the musical warping of familiarity, but the lyrical warping as well. As relatable as a road trip or the pain of a hard decision, the experiences never come across as trite or overdone on the album. Each song is carefully crafted to explore familiar theme without sounding overdone. Whelan sums it up when he discusses the EP’s title track: “Our generation is an edgy bunch, eagerly waiting for something significant to happen, teasing ourselves with little snippets of other peoples’ dreams, philosophies, and theologies, but then also always ready to sprint back to that comfortable patch of carpet in the safe glow of the family TV.”
Great Gray Buildings may feel comfortable, but listening to their dreams and stories is a wonderful, original sensation.
Great Gray Buildings plays next on Friday, February 10, 10 PM at Reggie’s Music Joint