Imagine playing “Conan” and Lollapalooza and the Roots’ Picnic as a teenager. Imagine Jeff Tweedy producing your band’s debut before you can legally purchase beer at a Wilco show. Imagine you and your high school friends forgoing college to chase a collective dream. Now imagine that the vehicle for all of this has called it quits, and you still haven’t turned twenty. What do you do?
This was the predicament facing Macie Stewart, Liam Cunningham, and Lane Beckstrom. The Chicago musicians had composed almost half of eclectic seven-piece Kids These Days, a band that also featured ascending rapper Vic Mensa and Nico Segal, the horn player who’s currently leading the charge of Chance the Rapper’s The Social Experiment as the titular Donnie Trumpet.
The three decided to keep making music together, recruiting a fourth member (drummer Matt Carrol) and forming Marrow. And in the two years that have followed, the band has set about figuring out what exactly it wants to be. It’s a picture that’s come closer into focus with the release of two singles this year, “Paulson” and “Mother of Maladies”, tracks that are slated to appear on forthcoming LP, The Gold Standard.
Last week, in advance of a few East Coast dates, I spoke with Stewart – half of the songwriting tandem with Cunningham – about Marrow and the road that has led the project to this point.
The keyboardist and aspiring guitar player has been playing music for most of her life: She began learning piano at three and violin at five. Now, when Stewart’s not busy with Marrow or her side-project Hommes, she’s teaching kids her first instrument. Are her students impressed to have a rock star instructor?
“They don’t seem to care,” Stewart quips. “My oldest student is only 11. They’re all babies.”
And after a rough winter in the Windy City, she’s sounding optimistic about more than Marrow.
“Anything above 30 degrees is summertime here,” Stewart says. “You’ve got to cherish it while you can.”
Coming from a band with such a scattered sound, how did you Marrow settle where it did?
The main goal at the beginning was to craft the band’s sound around what the songs called for. I write a lot of music, and Liam writes a lot of music, and with Kids These Days we didn’t really get a chance to work out our songs the way that we wanted them. With Marrow, we want the songs to be king – or queen. We want them to be at the center of what we were really doing. That was the only goal, really.
Around that, we’ve just been playing and trying to figure out exactly what our sound is, because, I mean, we still don’t really know. [Laughs] We’re obviously figuring out, and we’re getting closer, but things evolve all the time.
Chicago seems to turn out a lot of young bands on the national level. Is there anything about the city that you think fosters that development?
Chicago has a rich history of blues and jazz, but there are so many programs in the city for young kids. DePaul has a community music center. A lot of kids came out of the Merritt School of Music. There’s Gallery 37, which reaches out to high schools. Chicago really nurtures its musicians.
I was just saying yesterday to somebody that Chicago seems like the biggest small town ever. [Laughs] Everybody in the music scene kind of knows each other. It’s a really tightknit community. Having something like that, especially for young people, makes you want to succeed.
Kids These Days had attained a certain level of success. What was your reaction when the band called it quits? Did it seem like the right thing to do? Did it feel inevitable? Did it bum you out?
It was all three of those things. We hadn’t been very happy for a long time. I knew that it couldn’t last forever. I write my own music and I want that to be showcased. Liam writes his own music, too. But there were horns in that band, and there was Vic [Mensa], who wanted to rap, and sometimes there would no place for those things on my songs. And, on Vic’s songs, sometimes there would be no place for me.
So, it did feel inevitable, but I was really nervous when it first happened. [Laughs] We didn’t go to college. Kids These Days was our main focus. That was what we were doing. It was really scary, but it still felt like the right thing to do, because rather than prolong it, it was good to end before we got any farther.
Most young adults who go to college are allowed to be kids until they’re 21 or 22. Do you think that following Kids These Days out of high school and then moving onto Marrow has forced you to grow up faster?
I think it did. College, aside from learning a little bit, is really for growing up and meeting people and finding out who you are and maturing, and I think that all of us got that within Kids These Days. That was our college.
I did have to grow up a little bit, especially after it was done, because it was like, “Oh wow. Now what do I do?” I had this thing that was going constantly since I was 15 years old, and all of a sudden, it wasn’t there. I had to grow up a little bit. [Laughs] But it’s good. I’m happy for that. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of necessary experience.
What’s it been like watching Vic shoot into the stratosphere over the past year?
It’s been really awesome. He’s doing what he really wants to do, and he’s succeeding at it. My roommate and I were watching the SNL anniversary special, and all of sudden we see Vic come on with Kanye, and we were like, “Oh my god!!!” She went to grade school with him.
The wonderful thing about cutting it off when we did is that there’s no bad blood. Everyone is still happy with each other. I saw Vic the other day, and it was cool, because I hadn’t seen him in a while, and it was really nice to catch up. We hang out with Nico and JP and Greg all the time. I went on tour with Chance [the Rapper] in October, so I got to hang out with those guys. Once again, it feels like part of our Chicago community is on the up and up.
What can you share about the making of The Gold Standard?
We decided that we wanted to make a full-length a while ago. We started doing demos two summers ago, and last summer we started playing around with things, because Liam’s family built a studio in his basement. We were figuring out how that worked, while also figuring out how our band worked, and how we wanted to approach making the record. It was a lot of exploration. It took a while. [Laughs]
We finished the record at the beginning of January of this year, but most of the fall was dedicated to making it. We wanted to take our time and get everything to sound the way that we wanted it to sound. Now, more than ever, we have the luxury of taking our time, because we’re brand new. We have yet to really introduce ourselves. Making this record something that we wanted really wanted it to be was important.
How would describe what the record ended up being?
Whenever people ask me what kind of music the band makes, I just say rock. [Laughs] Rock is so broad; there’s so much room within that. It’s really hard to categorize my own music. I like to leave it up to other people. But the record for me spans a wide range of genres, all within rock music. It’s kind of a darker recorder. And it’s lush.
Where did the title come from?
The title track on the record is called “Gold Standard”, so it seemed fitting, especially since it’s a record that we took a long time to make and wanted to be representative of us. Calling it The Gold Standard is symbolic, in a way. It also evokes some interesting imagery.
Is Marrow your main focus? You’ve been making music with Homme, as well.
Marrow is definitely my main focus right now. I write the songs for the band, as does Liam, and I think that I get the most satisfaction from that in a basic way. It’s also a band with drums and bass; it’s a full four-piece, and that what I want to be doing.
Homme is my side-project. It came out of desire to explore an instrument that I’m not very familiar with, and to improvise, and to sing with another lady, who is actually Liam’s sister. I’ve realized recently that each person is an individual and an individual musician, and you don’t have to force yourself to stick in one thing. Even if you have a main project, you can still be doing things on the side. It’s important to keep exploring if you want to keep your creativity alive. Playing in Homme has informed a lot about how I’m approaching Marrow, and playing in Marrow has done the same thing with Homme.
If you’re a musician, trying to fill up all your time playing music is very important.
What’s the plan for the rest of the year?
We’re hopefully releasing the record. I can’t say for sure what the release date would or the general time. We’re rolling towards it. That’s the next big goal for the band, and also to play some shows.