Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 647   By: Robert E Martin

18th October, 2007     0

Great Rock 'n Roll is like pornography in one sense - you know it when you see it (to paraphrase the definition of Supreme Court Justice Stevens). In the case of The Thunderchickens, it's more a case of knowing it when you hear it, especially when the experience goes way beyond mere titillation of the senses, digging more into the passions, thoughts, and emotions embedded within the layers of a song that lift it more to the level of Great Art.

As subjective and pretentious as the topics of Great Art and Great Rock 'n Roll may be, there are always fundamental similarities (never standards) that link them together: a willingness to fly in the face of convention; an ideal of stating that which has not been created, and a belief that life is about much more than mere entertainment.

Since their inception a few short months ago, The Thunderchickens have quickly combined a potent cocktail of youth, musicianship, and understanding that have rapidly propelled them into new venues, more divergent audiences, and greater critical attention, with material such as the freshly recorded Belladonna being aired on WKQZ-93, and headlining shows at such venerable venues as Paychecks and The Machine Shop.  In short, this is a band that 'gets it' when it comes to creative discipline, working hard, and living large - the way rock stars should.

Propelled into prominence with the bubble-gum burlesque of The Banana Convention, guitarist/songwriter Joshua Jekel and visually vivacious vocalist and co-writer Melissa May started feeling a creative itch beneath the skin back in May of this year, both yearning to explore more divergent and stylistic material. "For me it hit a plateau," summarizes Josh. "I could see it going on but not going higher. As far as I was concerned, I wanted more diversity in my music."

Taking on shows as an acoustic duo, eventually Matt Kramer came into the picture. "I've known Mel & Jekel for quite awhile," adds Matt, "and always wanted to work with them.  When I caught them performing together acoustically, I found the opportunity to boldly ask to sit in with them and they accepted the offer."

Formerly with the award winning Rock 'n Country, Josh & Matt swapped stories about how each harbored a desire to something different musically. "A few weeks later he left Rock 'n Country and we quit The Banana Convention and started working together," notes Josh, summarizing how The Thunderchickens originally hatched.

With bassist Justin McKinnon the latest addition to the fold, The Thunderchickens had all the group elements put into place. Preferring to resonate in the 'here & now', Justin demurs on past musical exploits and simply states, "I've been in a few rock bands, but nothing really happened with any of them. I like jazz a lot, so when Josh asked me to try out, it worked. This is cool music and I'm having a blast."


Art of the Unexpected

As with any potentially volatile mixture, the collective act of creating a 'sound' for a band is pure chemistry and good fortune.  With The Thunderchickens this yearning to dig deeper into the soul of un-mined territory manifested itself in a desire within Mel to start playing the violin.

"I always wanted to play violin, but gave myself a good year before buying one because I have a tendency to pick up different instruments that collect dust," she laughs.  "I wanted to make sure I'd actually play it, so I immediately started taking lessons from Bill Fiebig, who's been amazing to learn from."

Watching Mel's fingers move over the fret board of her newfound instrument is akin to watching a robin methodically & intently thread bits of nature into a nest, each striation forming something new and more substantial than the last. "I don't know what it is, but the sound of the violin is haunting," continues Mel. "There's something about it that allows me to express myself in a profound way, apart from my singing."
"I'm glad we came together at the right time," reflects Matt upon this topic of musical chemistry. "It's all serendipity." And indeed, a significance all fellow members express is a nod to Matt on the impact  he's carried into the mix of the band.

"I always wanted to play with Kramer," states Josh. "Whenever we had a drummer issue with The Banana Convention he's the first person I'd call. Matt is a tasteful drummer and has such strong meter. You don't find a lot of that out there."

Armed with mutual focus & respect, what about this latest incarnation makes the music sound so fresh?

"For me it's the personality of the band," states Josh. "It's a little more real, Previously with my songwriting I could get away with silly things and be witty about it, but one line would crop up that took away the credibility of the song. It can be solid up to a point, but after that it becomes comical. I feel the songs are more real now and the subject matter isn't contrived to fit any one genre or form any one style."

"In my case, it's the energy & unbridled passion of Josh & Mel," responds Matt. "They brought me out of my shell and helped me to become a drummer again. I'd been playing like an automaton for so long, but these two taught me to let go and improvise. Even with the covers, they taught me to not perform it note-for-note but restate the material and approach it as an artist, for lack of a better phrase."

"I think the problem before is not so much that we're 'picky', but more a matter of the fact we're not going to compromise our standards," notes Mel.

Not to denigrate their prior musical alliances, but when one sees and hears The Thunderchickens the energy and focus of their drive to dig deeper into the many roots & variations of a chord is infectious.  Call it the 'art of the unexpected', but brave rock music is a combination of many factors - ability, talent, presence, passion, and delivery, all which must gel in a manner that does not appear contrived.
The Banana Convention were and are a great band because they popped like a big bubble of chewing gum into the face of tired posturing, predictable power-riffing, and plaintive 'mope rock' permeating the scene.   As with any form of Pop art, however, acceptance does not always equal critical acclaim, which will always result in highbrows and 'serious' musicians often raising an eyebrow.

By stepping away and starting from scratch, The Thunderchickens have taken a risk and realized that experimentation is perhaps the most important stepping stone to success.

"We're able to play so many different venues now, it's amazing," reflects Josh. "Just getting our songs played on the radio is amazing.  But mainly, we're able to perform with everyone - rockabilly bands, punk, metal, this group has opened us to broader acceptance, I think."
With nearly 20 new original compositions under their belt, the group has been clocking 390 hits per day on with each new recording they release online, most recently Killing Fields and Road to Nowhere.

"Josh just wrote this song called Woodbridge Avenue," explains Matt, "that's all about driving from the Speedway station to his home here, and it's an amazingly powerful piece. As someone from the outside looking in, it's incredible how they come up with their material."

While Josh & Mel don't usually write songs together, they do trade off ideas constantly. "Usually our minds wander," laughs Josh, "and I like to work a lot of 'false bridges' into songs that leave a lot of open space within the song. I try to open it so I have three different styles in there somewhat, so I'm not playing the same thing all the time on stage."

Part of what forms such a seamless bridge between the foundational bedrock of the band and the modern sensibility they bring to their material - whether original or cover - is strong exposure to seminal '70s bands like the MC5 and Jefferson Airplane - mingling guerilla politics with revolution for the hell of it.

"I grew up on my Dad's 8-tracks'," laughs Mel. "He was always listening to older music from the sixties and seventies and that reflects a lot for me. The '80s and '90s music didn't really do it for me.  I don't really know why, but I'd prefer Grace Slick over Madonna back in the '80s," continues Mel.

"I agree with Mel," interjects Josh, "after the '70s digital recording came into play and there's something dirtier about that earlier sound. Huge arena rock left me cold, not that I don't like that kind of music, but it didn't appeal to me personally in terms of what I like to play."

From Polish Eagle to Thunderchickens

The group hatched their name through a modicum of ethnic confusion. "I have a Polish eagle tattooed on my shoulder," explains Mel, "and people that aren't Polish don't know what it looks like. All these people would ask me what it was and I got tired of explaining that it was a Polish Eagle, so I'd just say 'It's a Thunderchicken'. And they'd go, 'Oh, that's cool!"

"The BumbleBees was a close second," laughs Josh.

Regardless of the name or handle used to label it, the music of this group is real and palpable. "It's a real message when you play in Hemlock and people are standing up and cheering for our originals songs as loudly as they are the covers," exclaims Matt. "The difference is in the delivery, really. - the delivery and passion behind it. People feed off that and we in turn feed off the audience response."

Passion is no ordinary word, as Graham Parker once noted, and it's a hard thing to manufacture or contrive.   "We're just us and its a different concept that works better for us and seems more palatable to people. It's not a pre-conceived game plan. I'd rather let this band do what we do and see what happens. It's working so far. I'm having a lot of fun and everything's better. Even the money is getting better."
"For me its just the tip of the iceberg,' notes Justin. "I've played just a few shows and all the material is music I enjoy listening to and performing, so it's a comfortable fit. I'm also learning the upright bass right now, so that should add a different twist to the sound."

"Another thing I enjoy about this band is the wide variety of musical tastes from each member," concludes Matt. "Jekel showed me some CD's he procured from Elderly Music and he was playing this Romanian Gypsy Music that was simply amazing. Jazz, Latin, Bluegrass, its an amalgam of all this music that shows up in the way we play."

"We're reaching a whole new fan base with our original music, which is great. But doing covers gets you into the door," concludes Josh. "When I was 20 I hated cover songs with a passion, but I also lived in my Mom's basement and didn't have any bills to pay."

And so we end this tale with a balance between the commercial and the artistic, the yin & the yang, and conclusions that may also serve as introductions.  When you ask fans what they like about this group, 'refreshing' is perhaps the most constant comment.

The beauty is the fact they're just getting started.

Check out more about The Thunderchickens on their website at
Catch them live at any of the following dates:
Oct. 18th * Indian Barry's in Bay City
Oct. 26 * The 'Monkey Ball' for the Drunken Monkey 10 Year Anniversary Party at the Hamilton St. Pub
Oct. 31 * Halloween at the 702 in Midland
Nov. 2 * Paycheck's Lounge w/ Big Lazy and the Detroit Pony Express, Hamtramck
Nov. 8 * The Machine Shop


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