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We're Number One

Chicago's alternative rock bands can take themselves pretty seriously.
From Tortoise's postrock self-indulgence to Liz Phair's postfeminist diatribes to the Smashing Pumpkins' grandiose tendencies, it's obvious that having a sense of humor isn't always required in the Windy City.

The Chi-towners of Number One Cup realize it's only rock and roll, and they've carried that attitude for most of their six years together. Their debut record, 1995's Possum Trot Plan, was art-rock-influenced cut and paste, what with its loose rhythms and weird keyboards grafted to honest-to-goodness pop. Their Dadaist leanings were evident at the release party. Instead of performing themselves, the Cup had other bands (including the Handsome Family, Red Red Meat and Butterglory) each perform one song from the record in order. But it was the silly single "Divebomb," off Plan, that gave the Cup its reputation for individuality in a world of individualists. Pairing "Juneau, Alaska" with "Lincoln, Nebraska" as a rhyme even helped the band score a genuine hit in otherwise stodgy England.

It was the best thing to happen to the band, according to guitarist Seth Cohen: "It's the only reason anyone ever gave us any money."

The more focused and muscular follow-up, 1997's Wrecked by Lions, was the first sign that Cup members (guitarist Patrick O'Connell, guitarist Cohen, drummer Michael Lenzi and new bassist Kurt Volk; all singers) had absorbed their influences and expanded their ability to generate hooks. The Brad Wood-produced platter still revealed the odd lyric. Such lines as "You've got chocolate breath" proved the band could still be absurd and incredibly serious at the same time. But the overall tone was less juvenile, more studied. Critics and discerning indie rockers responded with love.

Building on this momentum the Cup recorded its newest and heaviest record, People People Why Are We Fighting?, last winter. Produced by the band, the ballsier work allows the players to revisit familiar territory while accentuating their idiosyncrasies: the slashing art-rock of Wire, the twisted pop of Pavement and the more adventuresome noise experiments of Mercury Rev. What makes People a compelling listen is the way the Cup puts the customary into its own context. New-wave keyboards and spiraling, fuzzed-out guitars mesh with hyperactive vocals and ambient cacophony, usually all in the same song.

But almost at the moment the band was growing more confident in its song production and sound, tragedy struck: Guitarist/ vocalist Cohen broke his neck.

With a Cup tour about to begin last September, Cohen was playing hockey in Connecticut, there visiting family. But instead of hitting the road, Cohen had tripped over the goalie's stick and hit the boards headfirst. His first thought was that he would never be able to go on tour again. Cohen spent two weeks in the hospital having a vertebra in his neck replaced with part of his hip, and he wore a neck brace for four months. After a speedy recovery, Cohen returned to the group, and the quartet headed back out on the road almost as soon as the brace came off, though Cohen only had about 95 percent of the feeling in his left arm.

Even after his life-threatening experience, Cohen has maintained a sense of humor. He gives mostly wiseass answers when asked about the band. (E-mailed question: Are you bigger in Europe? E-mailed answer: "I don't know. I can't figure out the metric conversion." Question: Now that mainstream alternative rock is pretty much dead, what does that mean for indie-rocking bands with higher aspirations? Answer: "As Crosby, Stills and Nash said: 'If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.' ")

Cohen uses such facetiousness to balance some of the sobering realizations he has had. "While I'm still able to play 'Stairway to Heaven,' most victims of this [type of] injury are either climbing it or forced to take the elevator," he says.

"In the hospital, with only my Discman and headphones to protect me from what had happened, I rediscovered my genuine love of music. People from all over the world sent or brought me music. My brother loaned me Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd CDs I hadn't listened to in a decade," he says. "I had my mom scour the Connecticut countryside to bring back CDs by PJ Harvey and Monorchid and Arto Lindsay. Some people confront death and renew their faith in God. I renewed my faith in music."

Though People was completed before Cohen's accident, the record had curiously taken on a serious hue. The Why Are We Fighting? part of the album title is posited time and time again in the band's somewhat cryptic lyrics. And the slack guitar and swirling keyboards of "Ice Melts Around My Battery" provide for the catchiest tune even as the song ends with someone in the studio angrily yelling, "They can all kiss my fucking ass!"

As Cohen puts it, the band is working without a blueprint. And true to his renewed interest in music for music's sake, he has high ambitions for the band, which are creative rather than commercial. "Though Pat and Michael and I are all capable songwriters and pursue our individual interests privately, none of us could write a Number One Cup song to save our lives. Believe me, I've tried and failed on numerous occasions. My hope, before we quit, is that our music will be as good as anything ever made. Whether we have the ability to do that, I don't know, but we'll have to try to find out. And we're willing to fail disastrously in the effort if that's what's in store."

Now that sounds like the serious stuff of Chicago indie rock.

 
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