On a makeshift stage area at Shangri-La Studio, Chico Fellini is ripping through a taut pop and rock tune titled Despite the Mix Up. There's no audience, save for a few friends, photographers and studio hands. And the performance time, by rock 'n' roll standards, is ungodly early, about 6 p.m.
Yet within three minutes, the tune has offered a primer on the Lexington band's new album, a glimpse of its pop preferences and even, despite the largely unpopulated room, a healthy view of its performance smarts.
Despite the Mix Up, as it turns out, is something of a calling card for the band. As the lead song to a self-titled debut album that Chico Fellini recorded at Shangri-La during the past 16 or so months, the music is ripe with a guitar/drum stutter and melodic drive that modestly suggest '80s post-punk pop. But there are also fat bursts of bass that beef up the fun, and vocals, as well as ensuing harmonies, that present its pop confidence with a nervously operatic and unapologetically melodramatic flair.
Lyrical. Loose. Anthemic. Confident. Restless. These are the seemingly contradictory virtues of a band that has established a local presence with a surprisingly limited number of performances. But with a commanding new album, coming out Tuesday, and a tour that initially will take it to Chicago before a huge local celebration this weekend at The Dame, Chico Fellini is sending out an assertive invitation on its music to audiences at home and, hopefully, way, way beyond.
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"The thing this band tends to do really, really well is evoke a release of a particular emotional element," said Chico Fellini guitarist Duane Lundy, who operates Shangri-La. He also served as producer for the album Chico Fellini. "I'm not concerned with any sort of pristine quality in how we play live. All I want to do is bring as much emotional and entertainment content as we can to what we do.
"But it's not some sort of carny element or some obvious kind of rock thing. I want people to come to the shows and base their night around this, where they're not just stopping in to watch a couple of songs."
Chico Fellini isn't a band whose four members came together at once. Lundy heard singer Christopher Dennison singing in the Lexington band King Friday and started searching for a project on which they could collaborate.
"I actually grew up listening to gospel music," said Dennison, 36. "That taught me a lot about harmony. That taught me how to listen. But I've always had a love for all kinds of music, from opera to Broadway to rock."
Once joined by drummer Brandon Judd, 30, who was part of the team that established the original location of The Dame on West Main Street, the band began to perform sparingly in local clubs as a trio.
One of the initial suggestions for a name was The Fellinis, which Lundy saw as a Ramones-like moniker where members would adopt stage names that ended with Fellini. The idea was jettisoned when it was discovered there was an established jazz band called The Fellinis in New York.
"My name as a potential Fellini was going to be Chico," Lundy, 40, said. "So that stuck."
One of the band's first shows as a trio caught the attention of Emily Hagihara. An established presence on the local scene through her own recordings (including 2007's Marbles, which Lundy produced) and collaborative projects (most notably, recordings and remixes with Lexington's Sexual Disaster Quartet), Hagihara was finishing studies on a music performance degree at the University of Kentucky when the offer came to join Chico Fellini.
"I saw a show of theirs at The Dame. I was immediately taken with Uli," Hagihara, 26, recalled, referring to what became the closing song on the band's new album. "It had this really sleek guitar line. But what really struck me were the vocals.
"It took me a little while to decide whether it was something I wanted to do because I was still involved with several other projects. But I liked the band so much that I gave it a try. We ended up hitting it off."
In the studio
Recording was a priority for the quartet version of Chico Fellini.
"The original intent was to record, be very direct about it and get the album done in three or four months," Lundy said. "But I didn't think that was possible.
"It was a long time in the making," Hagihara said of the album. "But I think that was really healthy. We went into it really headstrong and then took a break. We came back with fresh ears and a more definitive idea of where we wanted to go and how we wanted it to sound.
Dennison's summation of the recordings sessions: "A lot of fun. A lot of humor. A lot of hard work."
Lundy said doubling as producer and band member presented numerous challenges, especially when it came to mixing the album. But the other Chico Fellini members said his dual role was vital to the overall sound of the album — and, for that matter, the band.
"Through a lot of the writing of the songs, Duane would have his producer thing going on in the back of his head," said Judd. "There was always this idea while we were writing of, 'How is this going to translate on tape?' Like, when Emily brings in songs, I'm automatically thinking, 'What is the studio side of this going to sound like?'
"But I didn't have to worry about that or about how I was going to translate drums in the songs. It has helped me out tons just to be able to write with a producer in the band."
Said Lundy: "The hardest thing was trying to decide what kind of a wrapping the songs would get. We would wave a pretty critical wand over anything that was too literal. So that's what we tried not to do.
"There can be a certain level of cheese under something that's really special. The trick is to avoid that layer and make sure what is delivered is not going to be fluff or trite."
The next step
Chico Fellini has had opportunities — sometimes significant ones — to play outside Lexington. It has performed at the massive and prestigious South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and will play next week, for the second time, at the Mercury Lounge in New York.
But local gigs have been far from plentiful. A disastrous 2008 — The Dame closed in its original location then reopened months later in a new one, and the economic downturn — hasn't helped.
"Part of the problem, as in any college town, is that Lexington is a kind of jumping-off point," Judd said. "People go to college, they form a band and maybe make an album. Then, just after the album comes out, they get that magazine gig in New York, they leave and the band breaks up. I've seen that happen a couple of times."
Said Lundy: "It just hard to be in a band where you play once every four months in your hometown. Those are the only opportunities we've been given. That's not to say venues haven't been nurturing for us. But it feels like we're restarting everything every single time we play."
Helping keep the band visible locally this year will be monthly performances at The Green Lantern on West Third Street. Beyond that, what lies ahead for Chico Fellini the band might well be determined by Chico Fellini the album.
"We definitely have more confidence now under our belts," Hagihara said. "Getting past the first album and all the time we put into it ... we're just more driven now."
Lundy said, "The band instantaneously got better as soon as the masters (the album's master recordings) came back. When the mastering process was done, it was like a release. That portion of that chapter was behind us. It was time to rediscover the songs."
Remaining consistent before, during and after the recording process has been Chico Fellini's sense of band spirit. You hear it readily in the simpatico of its more immediate songs, like Despite the Mix Up and No Strata. But as the four members talk outside the Shangri-La studio a day before hitting the road for a show at Chicago's Double Door, what is communicated isn't so much a formal band spirit as a simple but very obvious friendship.
"Honestly, I'm so grateful for the people in this band," Dennison said. "We're all great friends. I love just hanging out with them."
"We all enjoy being around each other," Hagihara said. "Even outside of rehearsal. Any night of the week we're having dinner or just hanging out. Coming to rehearsal is something I look forward to every week.
"Writing, performing, recording — all those other things are secondary to the fact that I just want to spend time with these people. I can't see any long-term relationship for a band without the origin being anything other than that."