On a sunny afternoon in late October, the members of Chicago-based funk rock band DZ Riley filtered through the doors of Rax Trax recording studio in Lakeview East. The walls of Rax Trax are adorned with photos of classic music icons — Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty, and The Beatles, to name a few — and inside of Studio A lies an expansive mixing board, bins of every instrument you could ever imagine and a large persian rug. The purpose of the session was to re-record a drum solo for a song on the band’s forthcoming album “Peak Panache,” which has been in development for the last three years.
A healthy amount of mingling and self-described “shooting the shit” filled up the beginning of the session before the band’s drummer, Hugh Maxey, 21, began tinkering around, trying to find the perfect snare drum for the solo. As band members Keefer Schoon, 24, and Noah Savoie, 22, set up equipment for the drum set, a conversation about the band’s upcoming performance at the House of Blues Foundation Room erupted between lead singer Gracie Lubisky, 22, and Maxey.
The discussion centers around whether or not the band should perform a song titled “Tel Aviv,” that Savoie wrote over a year ago. Given the current political climate and tensions between Israel and Palestine reaching a fever pitch, Lubisky feels compelled to perform it despite what anyone might say about the band.
Explaining the song, Lubisky said that “it’s basically a commentary on how people go on birthright trips and vacations and they are completely, voluntarily oblivious to the genocide that’s happening [nearby].” She describes the song as a “latin jazz, hip-hop fusion kind of vibe,” but maintains that it’s “pop to its core.”
Schoon chimed in to encourage a short speech before their performance of the song, and the members agreed. “We’ll be all right, and everybody will fucking party!” Maxey exclaimed. But the complexity of the situation isn’t lost on any of the band members.
“This is a very swanky, sultry, fun-sounding song, and this is such a dark moment in history. It’s like, how do we reconcile that? Is it appropriate? Is it respectful enough?” Lubisky said.
Ultimately, the decision is made among the members to have “Tel Aviv” punctuate the mid-point of their upcoming set, and to use the performance as a way to shed light on the glamorization of the vacation spot, as well as the current conflicts abroad.
Soon enough, the conversation shifted to a dissection of their upcoming album as a whole, which is centered around an intricate concept involving aliens, exterminators and wiretaps.
“Peak Panache” is intended to take listeners on a trip that transcends location and time, in effect delivering an expansive array of genres and styles. Bluegrass, mariachi, jazz, hip-hop, pop and more all find their way onto the album, which reflects the overarching concept of the record.
After spitballing ideas for the album’s core concept, Schoon and Savoie landed on something like this: Aliens find out that music is the one thing that unites all humans, and infiltrate earth disguised as pest control (very “Ghostbusters”). As “pest control,” the aliens plant wiretaps disguised as insects to pick up the various sounds from around the world. Once the aliens pinpoint where each type of music is emanating from, they try their hand at learning the music they hear, “stealing” the sounds they hear as a way to understand human empathy and connection.
Sound complex? That’s because it is. But the story is in fact an abstract-yet-insightful way to offer some commentary on the act of referencing musical influences.
DZ Riley performs as these thieving aliens on “Peak Panache,” which is why each song sonically contrasts the other.
One song titled “Cowboy,” played through Rax Trax’s large speakers and rang throughout the studio. Sweeping guitar with just the right amount of twang filled the space as Lubisky half-sang, half-hummed over the instrumental. With most of the groundwork done for the album, the band’s current task is the fine-tuning of each song.
Several of the songs on the album feature short comedic skits intended to help illustrate the sonic and narrative setting. “All of the skits have a purpose to introduce the world in which the song is,” Lubisky said. “Every song on the album is [or represents] a different culture, a different point in time, a different situation.”
The aforementioned “Tel Aviv” features a skit voiced by none other than late television icon Jerry Springer. Springer acts as a fictional game show host giving away free trips to Israel’s Mediterranean coast in an effort to highlight how ludicrously glamorized the vacation spot has become.
“I don’t want people to think it’s AI because we worked hard to get that sample!” Lubisky said.
As the afternoon turned into evening, Schoon shared the story of the band’s inception. Upon switching his major to music composition during his junior year at Columbia College Chicago, he and Savoie ended up in an orientation mixer together and wound up connecting over their shared love of Pink Floyd. The two stayed in contact and Schoon later reached out to Savoie, asking if he’d be interested in lending his saxophone skills to a project that would become 2020’s “Entropy.” As the two began regularly working together, the band started to form. At the time of the project’s release, DZ Riley consisted only of Schoon and Savoie, with background vocals lent by Lubisky.
“We realized our musical philosophies aligned significantly,” Schoon said of he and Savoie. “We’re writers at heart, not improvisers … Noah’s the only person I know who’s as dedicated to writing as I am.”
After later connecting with Maxey and Jakob Morris, 22, through their time at Columbia College Chicago, the current five-piece lineup was solidified.
Though Schoon and Savoie are the two who conceptualize most of the band’s songs and lyrics, creating and recording the music is a fully collaborative process.
“We figure out how we like to play [a song] and more thoroughly write our own individual parts, incorporating our own vocabulary and nuance. Once we all have that figured out, we’ll decide [if] the song is ready to record and we go from there,” Morris said.
This collaborative-yet-individual nature of the group is what makes DZ Riley so unique. Each member brings a unique skill set from their background: Lubisky began performing in musical theater at age six; Morris has extensive time in marching and jazz band throughout middle and high school under his belt; Savoie has a background crafting music for self-made film projects; Maxey has been playing drums since he was two years old, and played at church while growing up; and Schoon picked up the guitar around age 10 after becoming enamored with Led Zeppelin. Each of their unique skill sets and expertise assemble to construct the sonic kaleidoscope that is DZ Riley.
In observing the band’s natural chemistry throughout the recording session and speaking with the members separately, it’s apparent how much mutual respect is present among all members.
“I truly think that our group could do some special things,” Maxey said. “Of course, there have been many different bands over the years … but I really just believe in the authenticity of our group. We’re all very different, but we’re all the same when it comes to making music and caring a lot about the music we make.”
“Working with DZ Riley doesn’t really feel like work. I love everyone in and around DZ and while, yes we do work hard, it just feels like I’m jamming and hanging out with my friends,” Morris said. “Everyone brings their own strengths at such a high caliber and it really does make it feel like we can pull off anything we set our minds to.”
As for the band’s future, the members are already thinking beyond “Peak Panache.”
“I think we can all push the boundaries of what’s [deemed] possible for your typical young group,” Maxey said. “We have so much more to bring.”
“I think our trajectory is to improve ourselves as songwriters,” Savoie said. “We just want to give something humanity that is, to us, has artistic integrity.” One thing he’s interested in fine-tuning is the band’s production. “Kiss” by Prince is one song that Savoie credits as a major influence that he holds as a standard. “Every element of that song fits like a glove. If you take one thing away from it, the whole thing would fall apart,” he said. Savoie wants to fine-tune DZ Riley’s work to that standard, and has his eyes set on achieving that with the band’s future projects.
The band released the singles “The Bare Minimum” and “Motel 6” as a way to continue to spread the “DZ word” while laboring away at their forthcoming album. A third “one-off” single titled “The Goodbye Song,” is slated for release before the new year in the waiting time until “Peak Panache” is expected next summer.
As for their upcoming show at the House of Blues Foundation Room, attendees can expect to hear old music, new music and songs that won’t be released for a while.
“Expect to dance, maybe cry, maybe laugh a little, and to hear some good music,” Maxey said.
Creating an emotional reaction — whether in fellow band members or in listeners — is at the core of the band’s mission.
“That’s really the reason why I play for anybody, even for myself. It’s just because of the joy that it invokes in me and that I can hopefully bring out of people,” Maxey said. “Bringing something more to the music than your instrument.”
DZ Riley will be co-headlining Chicago’s House of Blues Foundation Room with Groupchat on Saturday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available here.