“We never did anything the ‘correct’ way,” says Dane Jarvie, lead vocalist of Dendrons, looking back on the Chicago indie rock band’s founding. “We started touring heavily before we had anything of substance online–lo-fi, self-recorded EPs were the only thing we had circulating for the first year.”
With the recent release of their self-titled debut record, they’ve come a long way from those early days, but the spirit of what they call an “American rock experiment” still has an unconventional edge. From pumped-up post-punk beats and soaring pop melodies to noisy horn stabs and synth bass pulses, Dendrons the album draws on a wide range of sounds, interspersed with roaring buildups of fine-tuned fuzz and general cacophony.
It’s a sound they developed over that first year of heavy touring, with a live show built on improvisation and spontaneity. Jarvie sees that dynamic as central to the experiment of Dendrons in a visceral, physical sense.
“We interact with our bodies differently on stage every night, for better or for worse,” he says. “We’ve been guilty of falling and knocking over our equipment. We’ve been fond of dumpster diving for objects to use on our instruments before shows. It’s all interesting to us. Whatever is exciting the day of the performance.“
That ethos goes all the way back to the band’s first performance on New Years Day of 2018.
“We hosted a small New Year’s party for our friends at the house we were living in, and we played as a three piece in front of maybe 13 people, using material that was partly jams,” says Jarvie. Their lineup at that time included childhood friends Matt Kase on bass and Zachary Sprenger on drums. Sprenger hadn’t been a drummer before–he’s currently Dendrons’ guitarist and synth player–but as Jarvie explains, that wasn’t the point.
“We didn’t want to wait to try out a bunch of drummers,” he says. “We just wanted to get started. The momentum always felt like the most important thing, especially in the beginning.”
Within a month, they’d self-recorded their debut Alien EP–long since scrubbed from digital platforms–using Ableton and a Fostex tape machine. They self-released the songs and immediately went all-in on playing live, further developing their improvisational performance style.
“We were touring basically every other month for a while throughout the US and Canada, focused on building our live show up so when we put out our record, we wouldn’t be green babies. Though we probably will always be green babies–just a little more ripe.”
That summer, coming off a touring leg in western Canada, they added Nick Togliatti as a more permanent drummer and got down to business demoing and rehearsing what would become their debut album. In December, they went into Highland Recording Studio in Phoenix, Arizona for two weeks of tracking.
“We pretty much resumed touring right after that.”
Building a base of live experience certainly doesn’t hurt, but Jarvie says the real core of Dendrons’ experimental sound is a strong set of relationships. The band was founded by childhood friends who reunited after years spent separated by state lines, and he attributes the success of the recording to those enduring bonds. After all, every song on the album was written as a group.
“Everything is a product of love. There’s a level of obsessive detail on the record that is the product of us all being good friends who are comfortable with each other’s idiosyncrasies and forgiving of each other’s time.”
You can hear that thorough composition and arrangement in deep tracks like “Etched” and “Sunspots,” with their intricate synths and rapid, bitcrushed drum rolls. They’re atmospheric, off-beat, and packed with one-off sounds that flare up and fade.
“It required healthy communication and built up rapport over so many years, but we are constantly learning from each other still,” says Jarvie. “Life outside the band is constantly pulling us all in different directions, giving us new things to be inspired by and talk to each other about.”
After additional recording at The Terminal in Evanston, Illinois, mixing by Matt Labozza and Tony Brant, and mastering by Sarah Register, the album was finalized in spring of 2019. On May 22, 2020, it was released digitally and as a vinyl LP by Earth Libraries. But all the while, the songs continue to evolve as the band continues playing and experimenting.
“We find new ways to explore the same piece of music dynamically, and our mood is always changing with it, too,” says Jarvie. “Sometimes I feel I no longer relate to the lyrical content and sing with more of an ironic detachment in the live setting. Then in the next six months, my mood comes back around with them and I’ll hit the lines with more vinegar than how they were written.”
That aspect of Dendrons remains on hold for the moment; as a result of an ongoing global pandemic, they’ve had to cancel one tour in the U.S. and another in Europe.
“We are sincerely looking to reschedule these shows again as soon as possible,” says Jarvie. “In the meantime, we’ve been writing a lot of demos and exploring sounds and concepts for a follow up record that we’re hoping to finish writing soon.”
Dendrons the album leaves the door wide open for any sound the band might pursue next. Along with the heart-pounding immediacy of the songs, one of the most exciting elements of Dendrons’ experiment is their open-mindedness to what rock music can be in a given moment.
“Dendrons is a composite, more than anything. I like how vague the term ‘rock’ is,” Jarvie says. “Frank Zappa in an interview once alluded to the fact that anything through a fuzz tone guitar becomes ‘rock music,’ including traditional Hawaiian music or, like, a foxtrot. That stuck with me.”