The Lilacs and the Endurance of Pure Chicago Power Pop

An exclusive chat with the seminal Windy City band still rocking like crazy after all these years

The Lilacs / Photo by David Shapson 2017

In the early ‘90s, The Lilacs lit up the Chicago power pop scene with their in-your-face approach to performing and recording.

Led by Ken Kurson and David Levinsky, friends from their days at Glenbrook North High School, the quartet had a brief, but noteworthy career. Their friend, Jim Ellison, leader of the celebrated rock group Material Issue, gave the band its name and produced their first EP, The Lilacs Love You. He also played guitar on the record, without taking any credit. 

Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt, Pete Yorn) produced their debut album, The Lilacs Rise Above the Filth. The record got significant college radio play and was followed by the Penelope single, a 45 that included “Have I Told You” b/w “Pointless,” but after a brilliant three-year run, the band collapsed. Kurson moved to New York, started a family and became a journalist for Money, Esquire and other publications. He worked for Rudy Giuliani and helped write his best selling autobiography, Leadership. Levinsky began a serious study of his Jewish faith. 

In 2017, Kurson reformed the band to play a 25th anniversary celebration of their debut album. After a few more reunion shows, he connected with ex-Television guitarist and noted producer, Richard Lloyd. The trio got together in Nashville, with a few other musicians from The Lilacs’ glory days, and cut The Lilacs Endure, a solid four song effort.

VIDEO: “Monica” by The Lilacs 

“Monica” comes roaring out of the gate with the band playing at top volume, led by Levinsky’s slashing, processed lead guitar. It’s an ode to lost love, with Kurson delivering a subtle, angry vocal. “Shadow of a Doubt” brings to mind a lost track from a Mott the Hoople album, seasoned with a Chuck Berry-esque solo by Levinsky to complement his anguished vocal. “Blue Spark” is a bluesy tune, drowning in the overtones of Levinsky’s guitar and fills from a Hammond B3, while “I Saw Her First,” another desperate song confronting lost love, suggests David Bowie fronting The Clash.

RNR Globe caught up with Levinsky and Kurson to get their take on the recording of The Lilacs Endure EP and the band’s past, present and future.

What have you been doing since The Lilacs broke up in 1993? 

Levinsky: I’ve been chasing God since 1993. Initially that involved hanging out with an intense bunch of Hasidic Jews, who promulgate a mystical and messianic approach to Judaism. There was a period towards the end of The Lilacs when I was trying to live in two worlds—rock ‘n’ roll and the life of an observant Jew. This was complicated and, at times, contradictory. The end of The Lilacs gave me the chance to focus solely on a religious life. I left the hasidim because of their beliefs about gender and sexuality, but still study weekly with my friends in that world. 

At a one-off gig at The Empty Bottle in Chicago where I covered the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light,” I connected with Don Hedeker of Algebra Suicide and Polkaholics. We formed a band called Kid Million. We had a dirtier and messier sound than The Lilacs, like a ’70s power pop band with Johnny Thunders on guitar. At the same time, I was returning to Reform Judaism and trying to become a rabbi. The rabbinate eventually let me into their program, which included five years of study in Jerusalem, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. After that, I pursued and received a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Stanford. I quit music from 1998 until 2012. 

Assuming a religious life and rock ‘n’ roll were incompatible was a big mistake. I’m happier when all the elements of my life are active in my adult self and began writing songs again. After taking a position as the rabbi in Park City, Utah, I began playing music with Phillip Bimstein, who lead a Chicago new wave band, Phil n’ the Blanks, back in the 80s. He’s now a classical composer. I still practice with Phillip occasionally as a chamber pop duet, playing both of our songs. At that point, Ken came back into the picture.  

Ken Kurson of The Lilacs in action / Photo by David Shapson

Are The Lilacs an ongoing unit at this point?

Kurson: When Richard Lloyd agreed to record us at Scotty Moore’s studio in Nashville, there was no possibility of saying no. It was like Pearl Harbor: We knew we had to go to war. Our original thinking was that we’d nail our two best never-recorded songs from our heyday, to have them on our personal MP3 players. When Dave introduced his new song, “Shadow of Doubt,” I was impressed – and competitive! I sat down and wrote my first song in 25 years. Boom! We had four songs. When we recorded them, they came out a hundred times better than we had a right to expect, with full credit going to the production of Richard Lloyd and our exceptional engineer Kyle Hershman. All of a sudden, we had something good enough to send to labels. I would describe The Lilacs as ongoing, but only to the degree that it doesn’t ruin our “real lives.” 

 How did you connect with Lloyd? 

Kurson: We are enormous admirers of the way Richard has been able to blend technical virtuosity and brutal pop hooks. Listen to the two guitar solos on Matthew Sweet’s “Evangeline” and you’ll get it. I was living on 4th Street and 2nd Avenue and the spirit of long-gone places like CBGB’s and Max’s are infused my soul. Then I read Richard’s exquisite memoir, Everything Is Combustible. I thought what a shame it was that I didn’t know him. I still play in a band with my friend Ira Robbins. I asked him if he knew Richard. Ira introduced us. Richard has a reputation for being blunt to the point of intimidating, but I prefer direct communication. We hit it off right away. I met him in Upstate New York and asked him to produce us. I was thrilled when he listened to our past stuff and agreed. Richard and I held several phone call conferences to pre-game the session. He even gave me specific vocal exercises to practice, which I did. I knew Richard for about a year before we recorded. I knew that he’d really hit it off with Dave, and they did. We ate dinner together every night, the whole team, and I’d hear Richard and Dave having these really deep conversations about the evolution of ancient biblical languages and distortion pedals. 

The Lilacs take the stage / Photo by David Shapson

Tell us something about the songs.

Levinsky: One of my favorite parts about The Lilacs is that we write about ourselves and don’t hide our feelings.  We play a confessional form of rock ‘n’ roll that lyrically owes a lot to bands like Husker Du, Rites of Spring or Paul Westerberg. Musically, we’re like the guys in The Archies playing in a Mott the Hoople cover band, but the songs are about the difficult emotions in our lives. The old song “Blue Spark” was about a doomed affair that I had with a woman named Monica in London. It’s about knowing that a relationship will not work out, but pursuing it anyway.   

The newer song, “Shadow of Doubt,” is about the tension between doubt and faith and how it plays out in the rock ‘n’ roll world. That song is a reflection on the darker moments in my rock ‘n’ roll life. It’s also my feelings about the death of Bobby Stinson of The Replacements. When The Lilacs played at The Uptown in Minneapolis, opening for The Loud Family, Bob walked into the bar and was served up drink after drink by his mother, who was the bartender. Then he left. Never said a word to anyone. That has stayed with me.

Were the songs cut live? 

Kurson: Exactly. We recorded them live as a band – playing in the same room with each other. Then tracked on the keyboards, lead guitar parts and vocals. It’s how it’s supposed to be. 

 

AUDIO: Alchemy by Richard Lloyd

What did Lloyd bring to the process? 

Levinsky: Richard is one of the greatest rock guitarists. He played on one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums. He radiates rock ‘n’ roll. The Lilacs, while not brilliant technical musicians like Richard, always bring the rock.  Richard heard that part of us and brought it to the forefront. As far as the technical part of the recording, Richard was the architect of the guitar sounds. I played through his Vox amp, used his guitars along with mine, and borrowed some pedals from him. He worked the guitar sounds from the pick to the compression units. He is also a mystic. As a religious man, I enjoyed that side of him as well. The Mishnah advises us to sit in the dust at the feet of the sages. We got to do that. 

How did the arrangements happen?

Kurson: The secret to whatever small success The Lilacs have enjoyed is our formula of injecting little complexities into what are otherwise very elemental rock songs. One of our songs, “Pointless,” has this little time shift in the middle of the second verse and that tiny moment transforms a simple E-B song into something special. For these four songs, all of which are very simple sounding on first blush, there are a variety of injections of personality, but hopefully not of the look-at-me variety. In “I Saw Her First,” the third time through, the little bridge part is one measure longer than the first two. In “Shadow of Doubt,” we recorded four or five different endings before settling on the one that is most faithful to The Lilacs’ brand.

Did you have any notable experiences making the EP?

Levinsky: Rock ‘n’ roll used to be a way to collect experiences. Now it’s more about the relationships. I’ve known Ken since I was 17.  It’s great to have him in my life, in a more intense way, again. When we were younger, The Lilacs were fueled by the tensions in our relationship.  Now, it’s about the love. Steve Poulton, who played bass on the session, is a rock and roll mensch. We’ve known him since he played in Paul K’s band. Check out his band Altered Statesmen. John Valley, who was the original drummer in Green, Ken’s first band, is one of rock’s great drummers. The current live lineup of Art Kim and Tom Whalen are guys that I have known since I was a teenager. It’s great to have them in my life.

Are you writing stuff for another recording or album? 

Levinsky: I wrote a Lilacs song this week. The main problem with writing songs for The Lilacs is that I’m happy. Lilacs songs are angsty songs. I lack angst. The best I can do is write songs that reflect upon difficult emotions. Reflection upon anger and pain does not have the same power as feeling anger and pain. I haven’t solved that problem. That’s the main thing holding me back from writing more, and better, Lilacs songs.

Is there any conflict, Ken, with being a writer and musician? What’s your position at The Globe?

Kurson: I own 80% of the company that owns the Rock and Roll Globe. And I write for it on occasion, when its editor Ron Hart approves. Conflict? My whole fucking life is conflict. I have surrendered in the battle to influence what people think or say about me.

 

VIDEO: The Lilacs Endure TV spot

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

One thought on “The Lilacs and the Endurance of Pure Chicago Power Pop

  • August 27, 2019 at 4:42 pm
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    “I have surrendered in the battle to influence what people think or say about me.” Got that right!

    Reply

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