This last January Chicago’s Ego released the first chapter of Zodiac Cycle: The Search For Ophiuchus; a box-set collecting twelve albums, one released each month for a year, each drawing its inspiration from the twelve signs of the Zodiac. That first chapter is called The Last Repose of of Pricus, and it opens with a rollicking, instrumental jam titled “Slay the Nemean Lion.” That beast’s slaying was the first of the fabled twelve labors of Hercules, and Ego’s version sounded one bit chaotic tussle and one bit joyous victory celebration. The album’s six songs range from playful, fuzzy rockers to sound experiments rooted in folk story-telling. From dreamy, serene acoustic arrangements to epic, genre-bending psychedelic explorations. It’s an incredible achievement on its own, and would be enough material to satisfy many bands for an entire year.
The true scope of the project is incredible when you take into account that the band does everything in-house. Between the three of them they run a studio, book a performance space, run a record label (Maximum Pelt), create the artwork, book tours and record and release other artists. And I’m sure I’m missing something there. All three Egoists, Magic Ian, Dan Rico and Fumo Stromboli, are also multi-instrumentalists, and each are talented and active songwriters.
Writing from the road on the way to Atlanta on a recent tour, Rico gave some insight into the band’s hectic schedule and how they manage to create on-pace. “So far between the three of us each month we’ve been able to bring to the table more than we can actually record in time. That’s the main obstacle: time. We’ve really streamlined the process of sitting in a room, teaching each other songs, hashing out the arrangement, and hitting record. These albums have been recorded generally in three sessions. The mixing is pretty much non-stop. As I’m writing this to you I’ve spent the last few days in the car with headphones strapped to my head mixing these songs. In Asheville at a friend’s house yesterday we recorded some last minute vocals for two songs.” If that sounds haphazard, Rico is quick to dissuade the notion. “Wherever, however, we can find time to progress we do it because there’s no time to waste and we want our output to be as strong as possible.”
Through Chapter IV: On Gilded Wing, the releases have been as strong or stronger, and they’ve continued to be wonderfully diverse and completely enjoyable. That tape opens with a flutter of glistening strings and tumbling drums, courtesy of “Daytime Meteor Shower.” Bubbling into a sweetly hypnotic trance, it perfectly sets the table for the bright, soulful approach of “Orpheé / Flight of the Golden Ram.” That elegance explodes into a jangly, humming jam ala ealry 90s Smashing Pumpkins, before settling back down and ending on a cloud.
With Ego roughly a quarter of the way through The Search For Ophiuchus, I spoke with Dan Rico about the band’s origins, how they got into astrology and why making a twelve cassette box set makes perfect sense.
For starters, can you talk to me a little bit about how you, Magic and Fumo know each other?
I met Magic around 2002 at the New World Resource Center, a now-defunct anarchist bookstore at the corner of Fullerton and Rockwell in Logan Square. He was playing with Evan Burrows (now of Wand) in a band called Denki Itachi. I was in a band called No Comply. We were there and playing shitty punk nearly every weekend.
Fumo and I met at a high school kegger. I remember we began talking on the back staircase- he spent the better part of an hour describing to me the entire plot of Blues Brothers when I admitted I’d never seen it. This was in 2004 or so. That year our respective bands played a show together at the Boys and Girls Club on Irving Park. We encountered each other a couple years later when I was visiting New York and we hung out the whole time and just kind of never stopped.
Whenever he was in Chicago we’d get into trouble hanging at my apartment, playing music, making art. We’d jam all the time. Fumo was primarily a violinist, Magic a guitarist, and I a bassist. That band became the Snacks, which was the three of us, Oliver Langrall (now in Perfume), and Evan. When Evan split for the East Coast in 2012 we picked up the pieces and formed Ego.
What zodiac signs do each of you fall under?
I’m a Taurus. Magic and Fumo are both Geminis- the twins. Which is weird because they’re both really named Ian, and both their middle names are Michael, and both their father’s names are Michael.
Is that extraordinary coincidence- or stroke of fate– what sparked an interest in the zodiac? Or how did you come about this project?
Honestly we’d never thought about the Gemini/twin thing until we started the project. But the coincidence is almost alarming.
The Zodiac Cycle began as a purely ludicrous ambition. I’ve been working to get a studio rolling, Magic has been working for a decade building up Maximum Pelt, and he and Fumo have really streamlined the process of generating visual content for releases. With the means to record and to output as much material as possible, the idea took form.
The tape-a-month-thing also addresses a creative frustration we’ve been struggling with since our inception. With three song writers, it’s always been difficult to adequately attend to every song or concept and many, many ideas have fallen by the wayside- not for lack of quality but for bad timing, forgetfulness, low priority, etc. As any consistently “gigging” band can attest, you go through frustrating phases where you find yourself just practicing old material for your next show and canning latent, new material. We love to play shows, but we also love to record and to keep our creative output fresh.
We all agreed that having a concept for each tape would be a great foothold in the creative process. Our first idea was doing the January tape about migratory birds. It was just an idea we threw out. But as the intensity of writing, recording, producing -the music, the artwork, the packaging, everything- we had this discussion like “Okay, first Migratory birds, then what?” So we switched it up. We explored the number twelve. We thought about clocks, we thought about different divisions of time signatures, we looked at the twelve tasks of Hercules…
The most ubiquitous concept was following the Zodiac. Every sign has a treasure trove of mythology from cultures all over the world compiled in its history. Not only ancient stories but plays and horoscopes and stars and planets. None of us so much as check our horoscopes but who can’t get behind something as ancient and awe-inspiring as the night sky?
Have their been any unexpected challenges or successes from being forced to adhere to a theme? Or from the demands of releasing new material every month?
It’s like a guiding road through a beautiful landscape we occasionally veer from to go exploring. The ambition here is to create a fertile environment for creativity and not to be stifled with restrictions.
For the most part we’ve been writing as we go, only on occasion digging up and repurposing older material. Some songs, particularly many of the instrumentals, have been completely inspired by the mythology of that tape’s Zodiac sign.
Is this the first project you’ve had guests on? How did you go about choosing who to invite in so far, and who can we expect to see on future installments?
When Hannah Hazard sang a song for us in Chapter I, she just happened to be dropping by. Fumo had just composed a punk song and we were debating who should sing. I’d worked with her before producing the last Lil Tits tape on Max Pelt. She walked in and it was a done deal.
In Chapter II Josh, from Vamos, is a very close friend and had to stop by to record some drum samples. We asked him to stay and he sessioned drums for half the songs on the album! And some background vocals! On Chapter III Spencer Johnson (Thee Yolks) has this amazing classic twangy guitar tone that we thought would be a great fit for one of the songs on the album. We texted him and he came over.
I can’t say who we’re featuring on the rest of the albums but I can say we have some very exciting ideas for how to get others involved that we’ll be announcing very soon. Chicago is such an incredible thriving environment for countless amazing artists and bands. Everyone gets along really really well and is excited to collaborate.
How does that all translate live then? Are you getting to spend much time with all this new material, or are you cycling through the songs?
We’re playing the songs from our 7″ last fall along with a couple new selections of an upcoming LP-separate from The Zodiac Cycle-that will be dropping this summer. We’re currently rocking one song from the series, “Espuma De Profunda,” which is off the Pisces tape. It’s got a crazy rhythmic clave beat that’s very different from our standard punk-influenced fare and showcases a little more of our diversity in the live set.
Its difficult to repurpose the Zodiac songs live because they were developed as recording projects. On some of them one person could be singing, playing guitar, and drumming all at the same time. We’d have to totally rework them for a live set. Thus far we haven’t really had time…
This project seems built for the digital age. What draws you guys to physical releases, and why tape specifically?
We prefer vinyl and cassette tape because it’s how we access music. If we could release each of these Zodiac albums on vinyl we sure would, but it’s prohibitively expensive. There are two pros to physical releases: the tactile/ aesthetic experience and the analogue warmth of sound. For a long time there was a trend that favored the incredible digital clarity of CDs but with modern recording techniques you miss out on the tenderness of an analogue medium. Tape is a highly affordable way to disperse sound that still has a physical packaging and sonic warmth. We’re trying to capitalize on that tactile and artistic aspect of the tape release by selling The Zodiac Cycle as a box set with a display case. Next to vinyl, tapes are our favorite way to release material.
What’s been your favorite song to play live on this tour?
We have a song on our upcoming LP -the non-zodiac one dropping this summer- called “Lookbook” where we all sing together that’s been closing out the set. It’s definitely one one of our current favorites. Choosing your favorite song is like picking a favorite child.
What’s your favorite Midwest city to play?
Chicago reigns as our favorite place to play in the Midwest. No place like home.
The Search For Ophiuchus is available for purchase via Maximum Pelt, and can be streamed on Bandcamp. Among the goodies that comes with the box set are digital downloads of each track, as well as a bonus thirteenth tape. That would be the Ophiuchus you’re searching for, as the constellation is often referred to as the “13th sign of the Zodiac.” Ego’s next show celebrates the release of Chapter V on Tuesday, May 26th at Emporium Wicker Park in Chicago. Dream Eagle Heavy Dreams, Bihari Beach and House Sounds round out the bill, show’s at 8pm and it’s totally free.