I first heard Tautologic three years ago when Herman Linte played a track from their album, Re-Psychle on The AIR‘s progressive rock program, Prognosis, and the band caught my ear. I was pleasantly surprised to learn they were from Chicago. I started following them on Facebook, and in the Summer of 2019 I happened to be arriving in the Windy City via Amtrak on the same day they were playing an outdoor show at one of my favorite hangouts, Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square.
Mel and I managed to get into town, get checked in to our hotel and jump on the L in time to catch the band performing live–on one of the hottest days of the year. Of course Mel and I shot video for Radio Free Charleston, but since the RFC video show is basically an annual event these days, the footage remained unedited, on my hard drive, until late in 2020, when I put together our latest video episode. When that show debuted I sent links to the band and got in touch with their leader, Ethan Sellers.
Tautologic was first formed in 1997 by Ethan Sellers and Pat Buzby, and their current line-up was settled in 2010. The band has an eclectic sound, heavily influenced by progressive rock, but also with diverse elements in the mix that make them really stand out in an era where so much pop music has a sameness to it. Tautologic makes true progressive pop, and it’s a joy to listen to.
I’ve been previewing tracks from Wheels Fall Off on the RFC radio show on The AIR for a few weeks now, and when I was offered the chance to do a quick interview with Ethan (seen left), even though I don’t often do interviews in PopCult, I jumped at the chance and this is how it went…
Ethan: Lyrically, it was not at all influenced by the pandemic. The last of the album’s lyrics was probably written in 2015 – so any resemblance to current events is either a matter of resonance, circular history, or perhaps clairvoyance (haha).
Musically, the primary influence of the pandemic was that the absence of gigs turned my musical focus exclusively towards studio work, teaching lessons, and general wood-shedding/self-improvement. Most of the album’s tracking was already completed before the pandemic, but I used the time in isolation to perfect the vocals and tinker with synth/keyboard sounds.
A bit later on, when we were more confident about going into the recording studio, Pat Buzby re-recorded a few drum tracks at Rax Trax in Chicago to insure that the whole album has a unified sonic character.
Rick Barnes at Rax Trax mixed and mastered most of the album on his own. I came in for an afternoon or so to do in-person tweaks once he’d gotten it most of the way, and we did a few minor touch-ups after the fact.
PopCult: When did you begin work on this album? I know that some of the songs date to before the pandemic.
Ethan: Without looking at the file creation dates, I’d say that some of the very earliest performances were recorded a decade ago – but much of that was built upon and then replaced as the arrangements evolved and line-up of the band changed. Four of the ten songs were recorded mostly-live at a full-band session in late 2013.
To be frank, I didn’t work consistently on the album. During the period 2009-2013, I struggled financially, was doing a lot of other musical projects to cobble together an income, and my father went through a series of health problems and passed away in 2012. It wasn’t an easy time. Things started to get on track financially around 2014, but I needed a few years to earn some money to finance the previous album, Re:Psychle, this album, and some other projects I have in progress. All of these albums were financed primarily through a combination of gigs and recording work I did for other musicians/clients over the course of several years.
PopCult: Your lead single, “That’s What I Hear,” was released as a benefit for the ACLU, and has decidedly political lyrics. How hard is it to try to craft an upbeat song with political themes in what can be such discouraging times? Is this sort of what “Memo To Yourself” was about?
Ethan: Contrasts are useful for balance – otherwise a song with serious lyrics gets too dour or an upbeat song with happy lyrics ends up too treacly. I remember Sting talking years ago about using the dark lyrics/light music contrast on his song “All This Time,” and that stuck with me as a good idea. In the case of “That’s What I Hear,” both the lyrics and the vocal melody went through a couple iterations before the final version. It started with the title, which I had envisioned as part of a then-imaginary medley of soul classics whose titles would read in sequence like a brief dialogue: “What’s Going On?,” “Freddie’s Dead,” “That’s What I Hear….” – so the obvious task after that was to write a song that could keep company with classics by Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. I’ll leave it to others to decide how I did at that….
With regards to “Memo to Yourself”…Sting/The Police rear their heads again as a musical influence here as well, I suppose. The lyric is loosely based on an imaginary seduction I never had the nerve to attempt. The ending rant was a free association that somehow stuck – so the politics there come from my subconscious, I guess.
PopCult: In the song “High School Reunion” (heard on this week’s Radio Free Charleston) you sing about not wanting to attend your school reunion. When you wrote this song did you realize how many people share the sentiment?
Ethan: At the time when I wrote it (coming up on 20 years ago), I had no idea. Now I know it. At 10 years post-high school, it’s still too early for many of us to re-visit the traumas of our teen-aged years while we’re still trying really hard to figure out and/or become who we’re going to be.
It’s really been in the last 10 years as I’ve re-connected with some of my high school classmates on Facebook, and I’ve seen that we’re all kind of going through the same stuff in terms of having kids and all of that. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised that many of my high school classmates have turned out to be better and/or more interesting people than I would have predicted at the time. Some turned out pretty much exactly as predicted, too.
Probably the biggest thing that I’ve realized is that everyone in high school is not only dealing with their developing brains and bodies, but they’re also saddled with all of the garbage their parents programmed into them. If kids are lucky/smart enough to leave town and have different experiences – college, the military, Peace Corps, whatever – they get a chance to re-evaluate, un-learn, and re-program.
Maybe I’ll write a kinder sequel – one that acknowledges that most of us were trying our best.
PopCult: As with your other albums, ‘Wheels Fall Off’ has such a delightful mix of musical influences–I hear hints of everything from Jethro Tull to Kansas to Madness, Zappa and other acts that combine musical intricacy with sharp pop sensibilities. What are the five “go to” albums in your record collection?
Ethan: Thanks! A lot of that’s in there, for sure. Picking five… that’s hard. I could use up five albums each on some artists I like. I listen to a lot of different music and basically try to reverse engineer it and mash it up with other stuff. The one thing I’ve noticed about the streaming era is that my tastes are broader, but I listen to everything far fewer times. You can binge an entire artist’s catalog and get a sense of their vibe/approach, but your relationship with the music isn’t as deep.
PopCult: Tell me a little about the grant from the Illinois Arts Council that helped finance the completion of this album. What was the grant application process like?
Ethan: The Illinois Arts Council was my first successful grant application. I honestly didn’t expect to get it, because I hadn’t had any luck with some other grants for which I’ve applied. You need to prove that you’re a resident of Illinois and put together an artist statement, artist bio, a budget, and obviously samples of your work. Having a few albums’ worth of self-promotion under my belt, I had a fair amount of “language” drafted, but it can be an exhausting process to try to explain yourself and your art. The process forces you to really think about what you’re doing and why it matters, and sometimes that line of thinking takes you to some dark nights of the soul where you start to ask, “Well, does anyone actually really need my art?”
PopCult: The pandemic has torpedoed so many band’s live performance routines. Are there any plans for Tautologic to perform live any time soon? What does the future hold for Tautologic?
Ethan: No plans to play live until we’re all vaccinated. By the time that happens, it’ll have been almost a year and a half since we’ve all played together – so there will be some rust-scraping to do. Also, I’ve been writing – so we might just head straight into pre-production rehearsals for the next one. We’ll just have to see…
I want to thank Ethan Sellers for his time and August Forte, who made this interview possible. Wheels Fall Off by Tautologic will be available April 2 as a download from Tautologic’s Bandcamp page, or as a physical CD from Turtle Down Music. Check their website for more details on their recordings and when they might be able to perform in front of audiences again.
I really recommend their new album. It’s such an original work, but the band wears its influences on its sleve, so I’d recommend this to fans of XTC, Kansas, YES, Jethro Tull, and to be honest, at times they even remind of Charleston’s own Stark Raven. Wheels Fall Off is a pretty epic album, one of the best independent releases of the year, so far. Check out this short video trailer…