Have you read Evanston resident Freda Love Smith’s delicious 2015 memoir Red Velvet Underground? Published by Evanston-based press Agate, it’s a delectable “rock memoir, with recipes” that makes for tasty reading during these days of sheltering in place. Smith, who works at Northwestern University, is also well-known as a musician having performed in seminal college rock band Blake Babies (along with Juliana Hatfield), as well as The Mysteries of Life (with husband Jake Smith) and Some Girls (with Hatfield, again). Smith’s latest musical incarnation, Sunshine Boys, finds her teaming up with a pair of Chicago music legends, Dag Juhlin (The Slugs) and Jackie Schimmel (Big Hello). Sunshine Boys’ just-released new album Work and Love (Pravda/Room F) is full of catchy rock tunes that are as luminous as the band’s name. I had the pleasure of speaking with Smith in early May.
Gregg Shapiro: Freda, I first interviewed you in 2015, around the time of the publication of your wonderful memoir Red Velvet Underground. Looking back on the book, what was the most rewarding aspect of the experience?
Freda Love Smith: The thing that pops into my mind first is my book tour. That experience of going around the country a little bit; it was a very modest book tour. But I did get to a lot of different bookstores and had the chance to have public conversations about my book with some amazing moderators. Also, the chance to connect to the bookstore audience. It was so much fun. I compare it to my experience touring in rock bands. Being on a book tour was such a wonderful contrast to that. Not having to carry drums! Just having to carry a pen and myself. Being in bookstores, which obviously have such a different vibe than rock clubs.
GS: And your ears probably weren’t ringing after the readings.
FLS: [Laughs] exactly! No hangovers, no ringing ears. Just a really delightful change of pace. I so enjoyed all of those conversations. I had a chance to tie it into my background as a musician, too. For example, I did an event at Harvard Bookstore…
GS: …in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
FLS: Exactly. It’s been there forever, and I’ve always admired it. I bought a lot of books there when I lived in Boston. The conversation was moderated by my old bandmate, Juliana Hatfield. It felt like this moment of connection where all these points in my life came together in this interesting and satisfying way. I felt so lucky to have that experience. Looking back, I loved writing the book and putting it together, but the thing that gave me the warmest feelings was the experience of going around and connecting with people about the story.
GS: Do you think you might have another book in you, say a novel or short story collection?
FLS: I am working on a book right now. It’s taken me a while to make a real start, but I have now. I’m really excited about it. It’s an enormous departure from my first book. It’s going to be another work of nonfiction about a historical figure, who was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was the group…
GS: …that Patty Hearst was involved with.
FLS: Yes. There’s a real connection between the SLA and my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana where several of the members lived and went to school. Some of them were from Indiana. I’m finding an interesting connection to the town I grew up in and this extreme, fascinating moment in American history. It’s in its early days, but I hope from my personal cookbook memoir, I can go to writing this biography of this person with whom I’ve become fascinated.
GS: Your latest musical project, the Chicagobased trio Sunshine Boys, has something in common with a couple of your other musical outings including Blake Babies and Some Girls, in that the band has three core members. Can you say something about the appeal of being a part of a three-piece?
FLS: I love three-pieces. A lot of my favorite bands, such as Hüsker Dü, are three-pieces. But I also love being in a three-piece. I like the importance that it places on each member to carry their weight and earn their keep. I like minimalism and figuring out how to do more with less. It’s a philosophy that has informed my drumming and I enjoy the way that, in a three-piece, no one can hide, and no one can get lost either. Three’s a magic number.
GS: These trios also have something in common in terms of their names—in addition to being two words, there is also a youthful aspect: boys, girls, babies. Do you think that is symbolic of something or just coincidental?
FLS: I’ll call it coincidental, but I tend to lend meaning to coincidence. There’s something to it. It’s funny with Sunshine Boys that the band is predominantly female. The rhythm section is two women, so it’s a little bit of a joke, I guess. It also refers to a film, so there’s a whole other layer to it. There is a youthfulness to it and that’s funny too, because we are all [laughs], shall I say seasoned veterans of the music world. The movie the name refers to is about aging vaudeville performers trying to stay relevant or still having something to offer, to contribute. I feel like there’s a lot at play there about age and a certain underlying anxiety in the sense that rock is for young people. It’s a young person’s world. But there’s something in Sunshine Boys that reminds me of the poem “Ulysses” by Tennyson where he says, “Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” There’s a feeling in Sunshine Boys where we’re not quite done yet. We’re not going to step aside for the 20-year-olds. We still have something to say and something to offer. There’s a lot wrapped up in bands’ names.
GS: Work and Love is the new album by your current band Sunshine Boys. How did Sunshine Boys come to be?
FLS: Sunshine Boys came to be in a couple of stages. The first was really a jokey barstool conversation when I first met Dag Juhlin, who was in a fantastic Chicago band, The Slugs, from the indie rock days. He’s been in Poi Dog Pondering since the ’90s. I met him five or six years ago in Chicago when a friend took me to see his excellent cover band Expo 76. We immediately connected. It turns out that Blake Babies and The Slugs played a gig together in the ’90s, but we didn’t meet each other. We realized that we had crossed paths in all these different ways. We started joking about being old entertainers and said we should start a band called Sunshine Boys, referring to the Neil Simon play and movie. It seemed like one of those funny things you say in a bar, not something you would actually do. A year or so later, we were recruited by a friend of ours, Brett Neveu, the playwright…
GS: …who did the Verboten play (about Evanston-based Jason Narducy’s first band)…
FLS: Yes, exactly. Brett and his friend Rich Sparks, a really talented cartoonist who’s been published in The New Yorker, were writing songs and they needed a backing band. They recruited me and Dag and Jackie to be their backing band. That reminded me and Dag about the conversation that we had. I think he had it in the back of his mind that it would be a good band. Once we started playing together, we immediately connected. Like I said, three-piece bands are the best. Dag had a couple of songs on hand and we got together and played. There was an immediate musical affinity, which wasn’t a surprise. A kind of chemistry that doesn’t happen every day.
GS: The songs on Work and Love are credited to Sunshine Boys. How does that songwriting process work?
FLS: We have a pretty worked-out process. Dag brings a song into rehearsal in a fairly formed shape, but still with some space. We arrange the songs together. It starts with him and we work out the details together. Our bass player, Jackie, is particularly good at arranging songs. She’s someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of music and she’s a close listener. She studied music in college. She brings an incredibly valuable attention to detail and arrangement. We collaborate easily together. We can be completely honest with each other. We communicate well and share a work ethic and esthetic. I don’t take that for granted. It’s not always like that [laughs].
GS: “The Serpent in Spring” sounded to me like a song about climate change, especially with the lines “August is freezing/December is warm.” Am I on the right track?
FLS: You’re very much on the right track. It addresses that as well as this whole litany of concerns that we have over this grave situation that we’re in. There’s a political thread that runs through Sunshine Boys. It’s not that every song is overtly political. It’s just a streak that’s in there. We’re of our time.
GS: The song “Summertime Kids,” which I love, is the polar opposite. It sounds like the perfect summer single, the kind of song you’d hear blasting from cars with their windows rolled down. What would it mean to you have the song become a hit with listeners?
FLS: I would love it more than anything. I no longer entertain expectations of that kind of thing happening. But I’m always open to some magical occurrence. When you put music out into the world, it’s because you want people to hear it. You want people to connect with it. So, if there’s anything you can do, Gregg, to make that happen…[laughs].
GS: I’ll get right on it [laughs]. Speaking of rolled down windows, we are speaking in early May 2020, with the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What have you been doing to stay safe and sane currently?
FLS: It’s actually been pleasant to have the new record out. Unfortunately, it’s not the release we planned. We had planned some exciting live shows that we were going to do, and we were hoping to get out on the road. Obviously, all of that’s off. In the absence of those opportunities, we have been trying to create others. Our singer Dag did a gig arranged by the bar FitzGerald’s. He played on a truck that drove from location to location, playing a lot of Sunshine Boys from the back of truck with carefully socially distanced audience members coming out of their houses listening to the music. We’ve been doing interviews on Zoom and talking to people, trying to figure out the best way to make a “live” recording of one of our songs to share. It’s helped me to have this music that I feel strongly about out in the world. To have these creative challenges, how to promote our record and still reach people even when we are staying home.
GS: When we spoke in 2015, you and your family had been living in Evanston for five years. Now, in 2020, you’re coming up on 10 years in Evanston. Can you please say something about what makes Evanston special to you as both an artist and now longtime resident?
FLS: The first thing that comes to mind is what a supportive place it has been for me as an artist. There are so many people in Evanston that are my age and still doing creative work. Still playing shows and writing songs and making music. It feels supportive and energizing to me to be around that. There are great venues, too, which is obviously not happening now [laughs], but will happen again. Places such as SPACE and Wine Goddess, places that are comfortable and beautiful and people want to go to them. Audience members that go because they tend to care about music. I remain completely in love with Lake Michigan. I’m actually currently in Indianapolis, temporarily helping my father. I’ve been hunkered down here. There’s a lot going on with my family, and I’ve been here doing my job at Northwestern remotely, but I’m going back to Evanston next week and I can’t wait to go look at the lake again. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so attached to a piece of geography as I am (with the lake). It’s grown to be important to me, so I’m looking forward getting back to Evanston and Lake Michigan.