The M's hit the big time

Music history is full of stories about bands that formed almost accidentally and found fame quickly. Of course, thousands of other ambitious groups toil endlessly to “make it.” Then there’s popular Chicago band The M’s, which cohered only reluctantly. Singer-guitarist Josh Chicoine, singer-guitarist Robert Hicks, singer-bassist Joey King, and drummer Steve Versaw all had previous experiences that influenced them to move slowly. But their self-titled debut for Brilliante Records sped everything up in 2004: Accolades came from everywhere, and the band jumped from playing small clubs to opening for Wilco in big venues. The cautious M’s kept close ranks, though. Even their recent move to up-and-coming indie Polyvinyl Records came as much from intuition as business acumen. They self-produced the new Future Women, and only hired friends to shoot pictures, promote it, and play on it. Their narrow focus has paid off: The fantastic new album is full of lush pop-rock tinged by psychedelia, indie rock, and Brian Wilson-like ambition. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Chicoine and Versaw about their friends and when they’ll receive that $1 million check.

The A.V. Club: Does the move to Polyvinyl feel big?

Steve Versaw: I think there’s an ever-reaching ladder, and every step we take forward, there’s a bunch more of the ladder that we see. So there were turning points when Brilliante wanted to put something out. There were turning points when Wilco asked us to open up—that’s huge—and it keeps continuing. You never want to take a step down.

AVC: With all the hype around The M’s, it seemed like you’d go to a bigger label than Polyvinyl. Were you talking to a lot of labels?

Josh Chicoine: There was always someone coming to see us in New York, always somebody doing this, always somebody doing that. It never got serious, so we got tired of it. We were like, “Fuck it, we’re going to record our own record, regardless of who signs us. Let’s just get started.”

SV: Talking specifically to one label made us realize, “Oh, all the big words that they’re using don’t really add up to anything.” We thought we’d all rather be working with people who could be our friends. They’re going to do their job, we’re going to do what we’re supposed to do, and we’ll all make it bigger and bigger. That’s what we’ve been doing since the beginning.

JC: It’s worked out. I was actually pretty surprised, because I’ve never been involved in any kind of a label situation before The M’s, and I had my ideas about what was going to happen. As soon as we came out of that record, and we were getting all these reviews and getting in all these big publications, I was like, “Isn’t now when we’re supposed to make a million dollars? Isn’t that the way it works?”

SV: That was his idea, too. We’d be on the road and playing to 10 people because nobody had ever heard of us, and he’d be like, “When are we going to make a million dollars?” [Laughs.]

JC: That’s just not the way it works any more. Smaller steps, to me, are more legitimate. They’re better. They’re more solid—built upon things that actually mean something, rather than this buzz shit that happens up in the air and on telephones and on email. That stuff only goes so far.

SV: Flash and glitz doesn’t equal anything.

JC: Talk doesn’t equal shit.

AVC: You self-produced Future Women, but you mentioned in an interview that you probably won’t do that again.

SV: We almost didn’t do it this time.

JC: It’s hard to bring somebody else in. It’s hard enough to do it just with the four of us—we’re all producers in there. We’re all making decisions.

AVC: When you self-produce, who has the final say?

SV: It’s democracy to a point, but if one person has a strong opinion, usually we follow it until it either works or it doesn’t. It might lead us to a different direction, and other people have ideas, but if nobody has any ideas, then we’re not going anywhere.

JC: It’s always worked. To not have an idea about what it should be opens up all these possibilities about what it could be.

AVC: A lot of what’s been written about The M’s says something like “They aren’t doing anything new, but they’re good.” Does that get on your nerves?

JC: It’s just a place to start, and I don’t mind that so much. There are very few bands that are able to take all these old things, which ultimately everybody does, and put them in a way that’s so totally new and fresh that you feel like you’ve never heard it before.

SV: What do we do when we listen to new records? We say, “Aw, it sounds like this,” and either write ’em off or say it sounds really good because it sounds like this. Everybody uses past music… We never try to sound like anything. I’m not saying in the middle of the process we don’t say, “Holy shit, that sounds like the Royal Trux!” Or “That sounds like—”

JC: The Lilys. But those are the bands that we love, and if the bands that we love don’t make it into our music, then who’s making it into our music? We’re record-fans as much as anybody else. We love all kinds of different music, and hopefully we take the best parts of all of our record collections and put them together.

SV: The whole next record is sounding like Daft Punk!

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