Pick out any slice of suburbia – on any given weekend night – and there’s a better than average chance you’ll be able to find three or four teenagers holed up in a garage with guitars slung around their necks and their amps cranked up to “11.”
Ten or 12 years ago, a person probably wouldn’t have thought twice upon hearing the strains of Limp Bizkit, Korn or Green Day blasting out of a neighborhood garage.
But to hear a group of senior-high students plowing through staples by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other titans of the Chicago blues scene?
That might have caused a person to stop dead in their tracks.
Those are the humble origins of the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, a band nominated in the Band of the Year category at this year’s Blues Music Awards (BMA) in Memphis.
Back in the day, however, the thought of being recognized as one of the best blues bands around had to be about the last thing on the minds of high school friends Andy Duncanson, Josh Stimmel and Chris Breen.
Just getting together to jam and have fun was the only thing that mattered then.
“Me and Chris and Josh, the remainder of the three that started this band, were pals and hung around together and just started playing in the garage and everybody thought it was cool that we were playing blues,” said Duncanson, Kilborn Alley’s lead vocalist and guitarist. “And that’s how things started. There were no big plans to start a group and change the world. I mean, we’ve always been ambitious – the type of people that, if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it right, even from a young age – but there was no master plan for anything.”
Duncanson and Breen, classmates since grade school, met Stimmel in high school and the trio soon found a common love of music as a bond.
“Josh was like, ‘Hey man, you play guitar?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Do you? Cool.’ And then it was like, ‘Hey Breen, play this bass.’ And that’s how things started,” Duncanson said.
But a high school band that plays the blues?
“It is kind of a different thing when you get all young people in high school that form a band and play the blues,” laughed Duncanson. “But it was really just the music that I wanted to play. I had been listening to the blues since I was younger and that’s why I wanted to pick up the guitar in the first place. I didn’t want to pick up the guitar to play Nirvana or anything like that. That kind of sound was not what I liked. I liked the sound of B.B. King’s guitar, you know. It was really a natural evolution.”
That “natural evolution” has paid off in the form of three albums on the Blue Bella label for Kilborn Alley (Ducanson (vocal, guitar), Stimmel (guitar), Breen (bass), Ed O’Hara (drums, vocals) and Joe Asselin (harp)- 2006’s Put It in the Alley, 2007’s Tear Chicago Down, and Better Off Now, from last year.
Put It in the Alley earned Kilborn Alley a BMA nomination for Best New Artist Debut, while Tear Chicago Down was nominated for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year. They are nominated as Band Of the Year in this years Blues Music Awards.
That makes three major nominations for a band that’s just been on the scene for a decade.
“For the band, we feel like it’s (Band of the Year nomination) a direct reflection of putting out a good album,” Duncanson said. “We’re nominated for best band of the year, but if we’re not out there staying in front of people, we’re not going to get nominations like that. So it’s really cool that on a year we put out an album, we get nominated.”
Kilborn Alley also won Blues Blast’s Song of the Year award last year for the title track to Better off Now, and in 2009, Blues Blast honored the group with the Sean Costello Rising Star Award.
Shiny trophies and fancy plaques are certainly nice to look at, but at the end of the day, Duncanson says you better have something more than that to hang your hat on.
“We do what we have to do to keep ourselves in the eye of the public, and things like this are one way of doing that,” Duncanson said. “But when we’re putting down music in the studio, that (awards) better be the last thing on your mind. You better be thinking about creating good music.”
Instead of filling their albums with copies of other people’s songs, Kilborn Alley has been hammering out its own material since the band’s early days, a process that might end up in a totally different spot from the one it started in.
“I might start writing a song to a completely different chord structure and beat and then decide that it needs a different feel. So you might have lyrics that came from something else and you put them with a different beat from something else you’ve been working on and you take that into the studio,” he said. “And then when you get in the studio, Nick (Moss), our producer, might say, “Change that,’ or ‘Put this here,’ so then you get that studio magic going on, too.”
Kilborn Alley has been preparing to cut a follow-up to Better off Now and the group has around a dozen tracks that it hopes will be ready to go by next fall. And, as has worked so well for the band in the past, those new songs will get road-tested before being committed to tape.
“We try to play our (new) songs live and then we go up to the studio and bang them out in about three days,” said Duncanson. “That’s how we’ve done the others (albums) and that’s how we’ll do this one. Right now, the process is all in the writing – getting the band to feel how the groove goes, everyone getting their own parts together and working on the songs.”
Then after leaving the laboratory environment of the studio, those songs are taken back out on the road, where they can turn into another beast entirely.
“For some reason, these songs that we write, maybe in a year or so, they really start to develop some character,” Duncanson said. “You might add little different bits playing them live – that’s what makes the blues so fun, the spontaneity of it – and then they really take on a life of their own, after seeing how the crowd reacts to them.”
Fans that have followed Kilborn Alley for awhile now will notice one major shift in the band these days – the absence of a harp player.
Joe Asselin, now with The Sugar Prophets, held down harp duties until leaving the band in 2009. Asselin was replaced by Deak Harp, who toured with the band until last fall.
So with no harmonica dynamic in Kilborn Alley, who picks up the slack left by the departures of Asselin and Harp?
“It does change the dynamic of the band. As you know, the harp kind of rounds out the sound of the Chicago blues – it adds something special to it,” Duncanson said. “So, we’ve kind of gone to a simpler sound, just kind of do the things that we do and not try to make up for the harp not being there. Just put the soul that we have into it instead of trying to force something. You’ve got to go to your strengths and that’s what we’ve done.”
Kilborn Alley has taken its brand of old-school Chicago blues all over the United States, and in November of 2009, the group made its debut across the pond, playing a tireless 13 shows in 14 days in London, barely even taking any time off to sleep.
Despite the lack of much social time in jolly-old England, Kilborn Alley did lay down some serious blues in some of the city’s coolest pubs, making a host of new friends along the way.
Things went so well, in fact, that Duncanson says the band is heading back overseas this spring.
“We’re going to Europe in May for a couple of weeks, going to a nice festival in The Netherlands called the Moulin Blues Festival and then we’ve got a couple of dates in the UK, and maybe some more,” he said. “We’ve got our plane tickets and are ready to go. It ought to be a lot of fun.”
Playing blues in a garage as a teen in Illinois is one thing, and playing at one of Europe’s best blues festivals is another. But how does a band get from Point A to Point B on the map?
How about with a buzz that started at Kilborn Alley’s very-first gig at the Neil Street Pub in Champaign?
“The guy that put on all the Champaign County Blues Festivals was in there that night and just loved us. He came up and said he wanted us to play the blues festival, so that gave us a lot of confidence,” Duncanson said. “This guy books all the great blues acts that comes through town and he wants us to play at the blues fest. And we’re still just 18 years old. So that really gave us the confidence that we needed. That helped start us to taking the steps we needed in order to get a reputation going. We had made some demos when we were 17 and they sounded pretty good, so we knew we had something. So we took them around to all the bars and stuff and we decided that we needed to get some gigs, make some money and meet some people. But we really didn’t have any idea where things were going.”
With over 1,400 shows under its belt, Kilborn Alley, with a lot of hard work and sweat, has morphed from a group of green teens into a seasoned unit, one that knows there are still some miles to go until the next level of success is reached.
“It’s hard to even look at what a good model for the next level might be,” Duncanson said. “Like, there’s a guy my age selling a lot of records or whatever. There’s just not much of a good model for that. We’re out on the road and we meet people doing it and everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody’s just trying to make it. To survive, you just have to keep doing what you do, stay innovative and move forward. We live in a community where 10 years ago there were concerts all the time. And there’s just not much of that anymore. And it’s all over the place – not just the blues.”
Even in the very best of times, life in a band can be challenging at times – that’s no big surprise – even for one made up of lifelong friends.
And according to Duncanson, understanding that a band is made up of unique, individual pieces, is part of the process for harmony and longevity.
“There’s lots of give and take. The way we do it, it really is a family-type of function,” he said. “And just like with any family, you’ve got to let people be themselves. And you’ve got to be able to understand and have patience with your band-mates. You’ve got to share the experience with everybody – that’s a big part of it. And when you do fight, you’ve got to have a good attitude when it’s over.”