While Jason Barnett and Doug Walker, the founders and masterminds behind local power pop band Chess Club, would have you believe that they’re not encompassed in the Memphis music scene. But having your debut full-length record, entitled A Generation of Pleasure Seekers, produced by Jeff Powell (known for his work with Primal Scream, Afghan Whigs, Big Star, Bob Dylan, and Alvin Youngblood Heart), with guest performances by local heavy hitters Susan Marshall (Memphis Rhythm Band) and rapper Free Sol, doesn’t exactly qualify them as outsiders. One could call them lucky, maybe, but certainly a band with more than a few admirers. Many of those admirers will gather Saturday night when they host a CD release show at Neil’s on Madison, a venue they claim is one of the best sounding rooms in the city.
Walker, who plays piano and keys for the group, moved to Memphis in 1991 from Columbia, MO to follow his dream of learning to play the blues.
“I moved down here with a romantic idea that didn’t pan out,” says Walker. “I quickly realized that a white boy from the Midwest ain’t gonna make it.”
After playing in a number of bands, some semi-successful, others not so much (Walker spent some time living on a bus in NYC playing with a group called Junk), he met Barnett through a former girlfriend. They sat at a party one night and discussed their musical ambitions. After talking about playing together for over a year, Barnett pushed things into action towards the end of 2003 when he drunkenly called up Walker and invited him over to jam.
“The fist night we were like, ‘wow this is really cool’” says Walker. “The songs are certainly influenced by our previous bands; they’re what happen when hard core punk and industrial guys try to write pop.”
After playing a plethora of local gigs and releasing three EP’s, the group, who has had no less than 11 people come and go as their rhythm section, finally settled on drummer Dave Wells and bassist Jason Hatcher.
“We were kind of cracking the whip and not really letting people in,” admits Barnett.
Their big break came when they caught the ear of Cameron Mann of Young Avenue Sound.
“I’d actually been keeping up with them for the last two years and came across their old EP about a year and a half ago. I was struck by two things: Jason’s vocals, very falsetto and unique delivery and second, Doug’s gigantic keyboard set-up and his choice of old-school analog synth sounds,” says Mann. “I decided that I wanted to get them in the studio to do something.”
“We talked for about a year with them, and they connected us with Jeff Powell, and we looked at it as a co-op opportunity,” explains Barnett. “It was a combination of them hooking us up and us bringing our friends in; it’s just that our friends are all top-notch musicians.”
Mann inked a production deal with them for Young Avenue Records, and a plethora of locals were as called in, including Free Sol, accordion player Rick Steff (Cat Power, Lucero) and Billy Swan’s daughter Planet Swan. Marshall, who is the wife of Powell, acted as den mother during the two weeks of recording and also shows up on two songs, Boy on a Bicycle and Leche Marron. But it was working with Powell that seems to have made the biggest impact on the album.
“Jeff coaxed out the best performances, he did a really good job of making us feel at ease,” says Barnett. “We all have our shortcomings as musicians or writers or people, and he was really good at getting a good performance without making an issue out of those things.”
“What came out in the end was something that everyone involved is very proud of,” says Mann. “It is a diverse record that showcases the band’s range and treads the line between pop and indie rock. In fact, the band describes their sound as “pop noir.”