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Big Chief

Langue disponible : anglais
Not so much grunge as they were high-energy enthusiasts, and not so much funk-rock as they proudly displayed their affinity for early Funkadelic, Ann Arbor, Michigan's Big Chief were slightly ahead of their time in a number of ways. Not only were these ex-hardcore punks updating the sound of Detroit '69 prior to the grunge sweepstakes of the early '90s, but they gradually incorporated their obsessions with funk and Blaxploitation flicks well before the revivals caught on with the masses. Most of the groups that followed these stylistic hybrids in the mid- to late '90s probably never heard the band that was honing this style a few years before them. Big Chief were hardly original, but they were a couple bases ahead of the platinum acts and critical darlings that followed. Credit timing, botched promotion, lack of a flashy image, and geography for their inability to gain further notice. Prior to knowing what to call themselves, vocalist Barry Henssler (Necros), drummer Mike Danner (Laughing Hyenas), bassist Matt O'Brien (McDonalds), and guitarists Mark Dancey (Born Without a Face), and Phil Dürr (Dharma Bums, Mötörhöme, Tom Gemp) were fielding offers from major labels and indies alike. Oddly, the indies came calling after the majors. While they could have immediately signed with a major, Big Chief adhered to their working-class ethics and built their profile in small steps, debuting in 1989 with "Brake Torque" b/w a cover of Funkadelic's "Super Stupid." Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt knew about the members' previous band involvements, and since the band was actually from the Motor City area, they'd be the ideal band to have on his label, one that built its identity with bands informed by the Stooges and the MC5. He offered the band enough cash to record a single for his label's Singles Club and the band obliged. Big Chief happily took Sub Pop's money and budgeted wisely, delivering the promised songs and using the remaining amount to record a handful of singles for smaller independents. Those nasty recordings, including both sides of the Sub Pop 7", were compiled for Drive It Off, released in 1991 on the independent Get Hip. The pile-driving approach continued on the band's proper debut LP, the slightly cleaner Face, released in Germany later in the year, and in the U.S. -- through Sub Pop -- the following May. The album didn't catch the wave made by Nirvana's Nevermind, a mainstream breakthrough that saved Sub Pop by prompting new listeners to backtrack to that band's Sub Pop-issued debut, Bleach. And since Big Chief weren't from Seattle, unlike the label and many of its acts, they didn't benefit from the media's intense geographic focus. Opening for Beastie Boys, who happened to be reconnecting with their hardcore punk roots while applying their love for vintage funk -- an approach Big Chief took naturally from the start -- did put them in front of new Stateside crowds, particularly on the West Coast and in the Southwest. At the same time, Nirvana replicants were about to clog the airwaves and record store bins. Forecasting this, Big Chief widened their scope for Face's follow-up. This conscious decision was a smart artistic move, since they could no longer be seen plainly as a guitar band. Big Chief had previously sampled dialogue from Blaxploitation flicks, but Mack Avenue Skullgame was conceived as an homage to the genre, simultaneously inspired by true crime author Lowell Cauffiel's Masquerade. Balancing sharp, parodic wit with heartfelt gratitude, it was the band's brightest moment, deftly pulling off numerous strains of rock and R&B. The commercial deck was consequently stacked against them, and label support, especially on the distribution front, left much to be desired. Frustrations culminated in Big Chief signing with major-label Capitol for 1994's Platinum Jive, another varied and accomplished set that upped the spoof factor by billing itself as a hits compilation spanning three decades. While getting their presence in the bins of Omaha record stores became less problematic, a less-supportive regime ushered in at Capitol shortly after the signing became a larger stumbling block than any previous obstacle. Satisfied with having made three solid albums and aggravated by the industry, the band ceased, though they performed and recorded with Thornetta Davis, a singer prominently featured on their releases dating back to their first album. Dancey, Dürr, and Henssler also made up one-half of 36D, who in 1995 released Endomorphic Joy. Through the end of the '90s, the members continued their collective efforts with Motorbooty, their sporadically published fanzine launched the previous decade, years before Beastie Boys produced the first issue of Grand Royal. Dancey, whose illustrations distinguished Big Chief's releases, each issue of Motorbooty, and other multi-media outlets, continued as an artist, celebrated in magazines and galleries. Danner went into venue management, helping run Detroit's Saint Andrew's Hall. O'Brien joined the Numbers. Henssler relocated to Chicago, spinning records as DJ Chamberweed and operating a label. Most active in music was Dürr, who played in and with several bands, including Five Horse Johnson, Variac, Giant Brain, and Luder. The guitarist died in 2019 after suffering a heart attack.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo
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