By Jack Spencer
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By Reed Fischer
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Growing up together in rural Illinois during the '90s, Neil and Martha Weir were surrounded by bucolic beauty. They lived on an apple orchard, and were far removed from underground sounds.
"There wasn't really much access to contemporary indie music," recalls Neil, 36, seated alongside his younger sister and bandmate, Martha, 33, while grabbing a late bite to eat at St. Paul's Grand Central. "This was really before the internet, so every musical discovery, like the Stooges or Pavement, was a big deal. We invariably ended up listening to the same stuff and escaped into those records together just because we were growing up in a vacuum. We have a shared and simultaneously developed taste that's pretty rare."
That shared taste ultimately birthed the Chambermaids in 2003. In the decade since, multiple members have come and gone — the quartet's currently rounded out by guitarist Nate Nelson and drummer Alex Rose — but the Weirs have remained at the core, sharing songwriting and lead vocal duties.
The Chambermaids play their CD-release show with Is/Is on Thursday, October 10, at The Turf Club;651-647-0486
"When we started out I wanted us to be like AC/DC or the Ramones — bands that established what they did early on and then became really good at that specific thing," recalls Neil, noting that it took only a year to discover they were something different. "It's always going to be changing and that's okay. There are times in my life when I look at an acoustic guitar and think, 'Man, I'm never going to write a song again.'"
Together they've steered the band away from the punk sound of their self-titled 2006 debut, making a riveting detour into dark, barbed-wire experimental rock on 2009 EP Down in the Berries and arriving at a hybrid of jangly indie-pop and distorted shoegaze bliss on the just released Whatever Happened Tomorrow. Just 26 minutes long, the mini-album nevertheless feels epic and perfectly paced; a short ambient instrumental like "She's Not Haunted" deftly sets up "China Blue," the band's most immediately melodic song ever.
"There are some people who do psychedelic or shoegaze music who talk about pop music like it's a bad thing or somehow lesser," Neil says dimissively. "Sure, I'm really into textures, but all the music I actually like is pop. It's just stylized in different ways. I hate going to see music and hearing a band play a song for six minutes whose natural life span was really more like three."
Striking the right balance between pure pop pleasure and ambient exploration was of paramount importance to Neil, who lives and breathes rock 'n' roll as the proprietor of Old Blackberry Way studios in Dinkytown. He's worked with "around 200 bands over the years," including local luminaries Is/Is and Heavy Deeds.
Martha's commitment to music-making runs equally deep, though she speaks of her decade in the Chambemaids in more romantic terms than the brother she jokingly chastises for being "emotionless." "Whether or not we're super active at any given time, it feels like a huge piece of my identity is wrapped up in it," she says. "So when those occasional six months go by where we haven't really done anything I start to feel like, 'Who am I? What am I doing with my life?' Then I get really sad. I really can't imagine not having this band."
The Chambermaids were on ice for nearly all of 2010 and 2011 as Martha struggled seriously with autoimmune system issues that refused to respond to traditional medical treatment. Now that she's fully recovered, neither sibling takes having the band at the forefront of their intertwined lives for granted.
"I've realized I can't control how things happen, so I just concentrate more on the end results and how I feel about that," Neil says. "I'm really happy with how this record turned out, and that's reinvigorating in its own way."