Anything That Can Happen Will: Chicago Rock Band The Kickback

Murphy’s Law dictates Chicago-based rock band The Kickback must make it big eventually, no matter the setbacks.

28-year-old guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Ifergan gazes across the frat quad at Northwestern University. He takes off his trucker hat to wipe his forehead, revealing a mess of black curls. It’s a late-May lawn party: hot dogs and hamburgers, Frisbees and footballs, a bounce house and a dunk tank, frat boys and sorority girls carelessly dancing to loud music blasting from a sound system. “Not our typical show,”Ifergan chuckles. His bandmates silently nod in bemused agreement.

For a long time, a typical show for The Kickback was an old, dingy dive bar smelling of piss and booze. Nowadays, it’s a much nicer club, maybe 150-200 people, with recognizable posters on the walls. Today, the Chicago-based alternative rock band is at Northwestern to play a 45-minute set at Zeta Beta Tau’s yearly “Fence-In” leukemia fundraiser – and it’s soon apparent why they don’t often play outdoors on small stages for college kids. The microphone levels fluctuate. Billy Yost, a lanky singer and guitarist with an expressive face, notices strange buzzing noises coming from his amp. It seems the Fence-In sound system doesn’t have enough power to support three guitars, three guitar amps, a keyboard and four vocal mics. During an instrumental section, Yost, 27, leans toward bearded bassist Eamonn Donnelly, 28, and Ryan Farnham, the 32-year-old drummer with long, blonde hair and a zip-up hoodie. “Everything that can happen will,” he yells, just loud enough to be heard over the music. “We should change our name to fuckin’ Murphy’s Law.”

Internet sensations don’t live this life. Not Adele, who was discovered on MySpace straight out of high school, or Justin Bieber, who made his name as a prepubescent YouTube warbler. In an era of instant success, The Kickback has been paying its dues the old-fashioned way since 2006, when Yost founded the band at the University of South Dakota – and going into the summer of 2014, it’s all coming to a head. They’ve recorded an album, and soon, they’ll sign with a record company – once they determine which offer is perfect for them. They’ll play increasingly bigger shows and make it to the charts. Or, at least, that’s the hope. After so many years of hearing “You guys are on the verge of being huge,” it’s hard to take anything for granted.

Murphy’s Law defines The Kickback. Anything that can happen will: both the good and the bad. They just finished recording their first album, Sorry All Over the Place, with the help of a Kickstarter – but it took them three and a half years and they still don’t have a label to release it. They’re itching for people to finally get a chance to hear it. “There are bands who got together six months ago that have their first record coming out,” Yost says. “To have taken this long to put out our first album is insane. But I also don’t think I would have changed anything.” It’s a rare admission of pride, because Yost is the epitome of a tortured artist: obsessive in his pursuit of perfection, almost to a fault. One moment he revels in the delight of music creation, the next he is consumed by his own flaws to the point of despair. Jim Eno, the album’s producer and drummer for alternative rock group Spoon, told Yost he’d never met anyone, aside from Spoon frontman Britt Daniels, who was so regularly disgusted with himself. “I took it weirdly as a compliment,” Yost chuckles. “But I don’t think it was meant that way at all.”

Most bands sign with labels on the strength of demos and live shows, and use the signing money to record their first album. This unsigned band wants to release their already-completed album through a record company, so although they’re itching for people to finally hear it, they’ll just have to wait out their self-imposed embargo. Selling a complete, finished product to a record company allows them a tiny bit of luxury – but not much. “Labels care not just about what you have but more about what you have coming up, what’s new, what’s ahead,” says Ifergan. “Because that’s another potential investment for them in the future.” Bands choose labels as investments as well, and The Kickback is taking its time, making sure it finds the right partnership. Too many are promised the moon by untrustworthy labels and then screwed over, too many sign with big-name organizations only to be leapfrogged by younger, hotter acts. The Kickback has been approached by multiple labels – they won’t reveal any identities yet due to ongoing negotiations – but none of them have been the “right fit.” This might be the biggest shot they’ll get.

“Everything that can happen will,” Yost yells, just loud enough to be heard over the music. “We should change our name to fuckin’ Murphy’s Law.”

Murphy’s Law follows The Kickback on tour, too. In January 2009, they arrived in Joplin, Missouri to find the venue inexplicably closed for weather. “It was very cold, definitely below freezing,” Yost says. “But most places of business have heat.” Some apparently don’t, like the club in Beaumont, Texas a week later. They played in heavy coats, guitar strings tearing at their stiffening fingers. Even under regular circumstances, touring is significantly less glamorous than many expect. It’s a good thing the four guys like each other, because while on tour, they’re each other’s only company. Wives and girlfriends become long-distance relationships (technically, Yost is the only married one of the four). If only their vans were sturdier: They’re currently on their fourth van in six years, though heavy usage is more at fault than poor craftsmanship. They drive all day, play their show, and if they’re lucky, crash at a friend’s house. If they’re unlucky, they beg audience members between songs for compassion and a floor to sleep on. Then, they get up in the morning and do it all over again. It’s a dull pain, 23 hours a day, only alleviated in the hour they spend onstage. Motels are an expensive last resort for guys who put more money into the band than they ever make and barely scrape by on their day jobs.

Yost is a substitute teacher in the Chicago public school system by day. So is Farnham, both the oldest (32) and newest (February) member of The Kickback, a drummer who develops his brand as a DJ by night. Ifergan is a waiter, and Donnelly is an office supervisor for a private detective firm. The paychecks cover rent, the rent on their Lincoln Square rehearsal space and the minimum amount on their student loans. There’s nothing left over. Gigs don’t pay much – an average of $100-150 per show, split four ways – and that money always gets reinvested into the band. In October 2013, the band fell into an incredible opportunity: After trending on Pandora, they were offered a 30-minute acoustic set at the website’s Chicago offices that paid $2,000. The guys were elated – We can finally put money in the bank, they thought – but all of that money, plus more, was almost immediately spent on a new van when the old one shuddered to a permanent stop on a Cincinnati roadside. In anticipation of their summer 2014 tour, the guys decided to spend band money on a publicity campaign – but less than a week before the tour began, the current van broke down, incurring a $750 repair fee that they had to pay out of pocket. “That’s why we all work these shitty jobs,” Farnham ruefully laments. Even label deals and successful album releases can’t guarantee financial security. “There’s bands out there that you might think are really making it,” Ifergan says. “Like man, those are rock stars, they’re probably loaded. And that’s probably not the case. They’re probably just scraping by. But we love what we do, and we’re going to do what it takes to make it work.”

The Kickback dates back to 2006, when Yost, his older brother Danny and bassist Zach Verdoorn made a name for themselves as rock musicians at the University of South Dakota. They played around campus, got written up in the school newspaper and built a hometown fan base. When Billy graduated in 2009, the brothers decided to expand their range. Chicago presented more places to play, more people to listen and an easier hub from which to tour – plus, Yost’s then-girlfriend (now wife) Gina Buckley had gotten a job there. The conversation about moving to Chicago was laughably matter-of-fact. “Well, should we do Chicago or what?” Yost asked after practice one night. “Yup, let’s do that,” the others replied.

Verdoorn left the band, but Yost found Donnelly within weeks via an “extremely detailed” Craigslist ad. Donnelly, who moved to Chicago after graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Arts with a degree in illustration and design, hadn’t been in a band since coercing his college roommates to play some shows in the Baltimore area. But one day it struck him: Chicago had a great music scene, and he wasn’t part of it. He checking local Craigslist advertisements for bass players, and his experiences so were awful he was ready to call it quits. But Yost’s post clearly wasn’t about jamming on weekends. It asked for technical skill, listed a few specific bands – Donnelly recalls seeing The Strokes and Interpol – and asked responders to detail what they did well. This was about creating something substantive.

“There’s bands out there that you might think are really making it. Like man, those are rock stars, they’re probably loaded. And that’s probably not the case. They’re probably just scraping by.” – Jonny Ifergan

Ifergan’s story is similar – but with a bit of international flair. His father Jean-Michel, originally Moroccan, was a professional musician in France and a hairdresser in Mexico City (where Ifergan was born) before moving to Chicago with his four-year-old son in 1990. In high school, Ifergan was a frontman – and his band Liquid Moon appeared on a local television show called “190 North” and played at Chicago’s House of Blues when he was just 16. The band broke up when the kids went to college, and after spending four years studying film at Columbia College Chicago, Ifergan was ready to take on a new career. But when one of his high school bandmates called him up and asked him to give it one more shot, Ifergan couldn’t resist. He spent five years with the new band, Color Radio, putting everything he had into making it big. They didn’t. Ditto with another group. Ifergan was at the breaking point, ready to permanently commit to film production until a Billy Yost Craigslist ad caught his eye. “I was like, ‘Holy shit,’” Ifergan says. “This is me.”

In February 2014, Danny Yost decided he couldn’t live the band life anymore. Touring had worn him down, and he needed more stability in his life. It was painful: Both brothers individually described a sense of heartbreak and difficulty adjusting to life without the other. Enter Farnham, who has filled that void gracefully. Farnham’s old band, Catfish Haven, had “made it” to a certain degree – they signed with Secretly Canadian Records, played Lollapalooza and toured Europe – but broke up in 2009 when they realized they weren’t having fun anymore. Catfish Haven had toured with indie band Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, who had recently been emailing with The Kickback. When Yost’s call for a drummer went out, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin recommended Farnham – an immediate fit. Still, any lineup change requires adjustment. “You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Farnham explains. “It’s not just coming to practice and hanging out for three hours. You’re pretty much living together – deciding where to eat, who’s going to sleep on which part of the floor, who’s going to drive, all sorts of things. It’ll take a while, but I’m starting to get it more.” There’s a musical adjustment, too: Farnham must learn the previous drummer’s style so he can play live shows, but also contribute his own voice to the band’s new songs. “There’s always this God-awful learning curve period where you have to reestablish who the hell you are, for better or worse,” Yost says. “We’ve just gotten over the period where he’s learned all the old songs, and we’re trying to make sure we can write new ones – and fortunately, it’s going really well.”

Despite their day jobs, music is their career. After all, you’re supposed to spend your late 20s and early 30s settling into the rest of your life. “It is your wife, and your girlfriend, and your friends, and all of your free time, and your job,” Yost says. “With the only benefit being feeling like a whole person, feeling like it’s the thing that makes you live and makes you breathe.” From anybody else, that statement would seem hyperbolic. But Yost truly is consumed by his music. Even driving home from rehearsal, he can’t help but compulsively change the radio station, never quite finding that perfect song. “We’re all hoping to be successful, but if you’re putting out crap, I don’t know how you can live with yourself,” he says.

The others are no less passionate. Every song is workshopped by all four band members, each person contributing a unique style to the cohesive finished product. Onstage, none of them can hide the sheer joy of playing music. Ifergan is always smiling, always dancing with his guitar or bouncing at his keyboard. Donnelly’s bearded face rarely betrays emotion, but his body can’t stop moving. Farnham’s shoulder-length blond hair flies around as he drums with a ferocity that could only represent rage or elation. Yost channels every bit of emotion into singing, every bit of charm into interacting with the audience. He tends to do crazy things onstage, like pullups from the rafters (there’s a YouTube video of him losing his grip and falling hard on his ass at 2013’s SXSW music festival) or ending gigs by tossing his guitar straight up into the air. Once, at Chicago’s Subterranean, the guitar fell straight back down and slashed Yost’s chin open. His wife, who drove him to the emergency room at 2 a.m. for stiches, maintains it was hilarious – but to this day, Yost is visibly ashamed. “I’m not a 15-year-old idiot anymore,” he says abashedly. “I’m a 27-year-old pseudo-adult.” None of the others have any insight as to why he does it, though they can all see it coming. “He just gets this look in his eyes,” Donnelly laughs. “And you’re just like, ‘Oh, shit.’” Recently, Yost has started ending shows Kurt Cobain-style, leaping over the drumset in an attempt to tackle Farnham. The first time, Farnham was surprised. Since then, he’s been ready. At the end of a May show in Indianapolis, he casually put out a hand to redirect Yost to the side. “In a rematch of Billy’s in-flight body v. Ryan’s foresight in completely avoiding said body coming up and over the drums, Ryan (again) claims the victory,” the band’s Facebook post read that night. At Northwestern, Yost took off in the middle of the last song to jump in the bounce house – only to fall inescapably into the side netting. The others almost fell over laughing onstage. “I don’t know what it is,” Yost says. “I’ve always been that way. If I could break everything I own at the end of every set, that would make me so happy. It just feels right.” He pauses, before meekly admitting, “But we can’t afford it.”

Recently, Yost has started ending shows Kurt Cobain-style, leaping over the drumset in an attempt to tackle Farnham. The first time, Farnham was surprised. Since then, he’s been ready.

Over the next year or two, the four bandmates expect to sign with a label, release their album and continue their punishing tour schedule. Yost wants to play stadiums someday. Ifergan hopes for a more blue-collar future: making a decent living, paying the bills, doing what he loves and loving what he does. Donnelly simply looks forward to a day when he can pay his rent without a day job. “Everything has to come to a head eventually, and I hope we’ll be able to endure,” Yost says. “If I wind up the sad guy playing to an empty bar, that’s probably what will happen when it comes down to it.”

Because at heart, these are four normal guys sacrificing money, stability and career opportunity in the primes of their lives just to do what they love. Murphy’s Law says anything that can happen will, and if The Kickback can endure, perhaps it signifies a better future than a sad guy playing to an empty bar. Maybe it signifies a happy medium, where four guys can make decent livings loving what they do and doing what they love. Or maybe it means something more. Maybe one day they’ll play stadiums.

 

Cameron Albert-Deitch // MEDILL

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