Q&A: Cardinal Harbor

To residents of the Berwyn, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, Euclid is nothing more than the name of a residential avenue. During the day, it’s filled with cars. At night, the lights of houses and street lamps illuminate it. From day to day, that’s all there is. It’s an ordinary street. But somewhere along that street, not far from Taco Yo and Wire, sits a  home of inspiration to the bandmates of Cardinal Harbor. A home, so influential, it’s been honored by an entire album; the third for the progressive rock group made up of Spencer McCreary, Chris Hills, Joel Stapleton, Scott Carrick, Mark Andersen and Taylor Dalton.

At the corner of Euclid and Roosevelt, McCreary occupies a couch on the stage of Friendly Tap, a local coffee shop and bar. “We want to play here, but we’re maybe a little big for this stage,” laughs McCreary, settling in as he gets ready to explain his passion for this venue, this suburb and Cardinal Harbor’s infamous street.

LLL: Let’s talk about your last album Euclid. What is it about this album that means so much?

Spencer McCreary: The album Euclid is the reason that I asked [for the interview to be at Friendly Tap in Berwyn]. I’m big on seasons. I mean, music has its own story sonically. You can listen to an instrumental piece of music and it will say something. Then as a band that has lyrics, there has to be some sort of cohesive message or overall tone around it. The album Euclid is toned by this place; from the block right down here to Fitzgerald’s, [it] has been this monumental area for this group. So many things have happened in these walls and other places around town and there’s an incredible scene going on literally right here. It’s really easy to get lost in the noise of Chicago bands. You play shows and there’s a bottom line. The immediate question is “How many people can you draw?” Whereas places like Friendly Tap or Wire or Fitzgerald’s, it’s first and foremost about music. They like saying, “You’re doing something different or weird and we want you to come do that here”. That’s why we named [the album] after the street cause we live on Euclid. If you listen to that record from start to finish, it kind of resolves itself. It starts off pretty empty, but then that last song, which was written by Chris [Hills] in that house, it means a lot. It will always mean a lot. This whole place means a lot. This is the first time I’ve ever been a part of something like that; been part of a band that had a goal.

LLL: Cardinal Harbor has released three albums, all with a very different and distinct sound. Was the sound transformation a conscious one?

McCreary: It’s funny because the band has been very different from when we started playing to now. It was the stereotypical college band where a few guys got together and tried to play music. Our first record, Faces on Parade, was well done by this guy we met in college, but we didn’t have a lot of control in the [recording] process. We had a bunch of songs and just kind of threw them at people whereas now we’re trying to keep everything in house and figure it out, as far as recording goes. It started as this thing to do around Wheaton College and then I realized how good of musicians the other guys were and was like “Whoa, we could maybe write more meaningful music.” The second album, Cold Season, was a step in the right direction, but I like to think that we have one record right now and that’s Euclid. That is kind of everything we’ve been doing leading up to finding our own sound [and] finding our voice as a band. The idea of that album ended up being about us and our experiences. It is a conscious effort to say we want our songs to sound like this and this is what Cardinal Harbor started to sound like.

LLL: Cardinal Harbor is working on putting together a new album. Has anything changed in regards to how you’ve put together this release?

McCreary: With this new thing, we’re working on finding ways to build platforms of sound with other people. Initially, me and Chris Hills would write music together and then bring other people in. [Now, we’re] finding out that guys in the band can write songs and are really good at writing different textures. You then have to build yourself up and put yourself on that platform. If you’re writing for a sax, it’s hard, but it’s fun to build these soundscapes that a saxophone can stand on. That was kind of the zone for Euclid and especially for this new album in the works. We’re writing it as if it’s the last thing we’re going to do. Not in a sad way, or even to say that this is the final thing, but it’s the one we’re going to give a big push for, [whether that’s] pitching it to labels or finding and investing in promotional things. I think the way we’ve been writing has been more meaningful. Even as a member of the band, you start to hear other people’s voices. You always knew they were incredible musicians because they’ve been playing with you for five years, but improvising a line on the spot where there was nothing before is a way better way to make music than to sit down and write it all out.

LLL: How do you balance shows in Chicago so as not to overexpose your music?

McCreary: It’s hard man. It’s so hard. For a long time, we would take anything that came in our inbox and play as much as we could. Not only do you get burnt out, your songs get burnt out and it’s hard to get people to come. You want people to come to the show and have it be meaningful and memorable, so you have to have people around you that help make that happen. It’s silly to be a part of showcases where you don’t know any of the bands. I mean, that’s good in its own right, but it’s hard to have a successful night when that’s the case. And [it’s not about] the genre. You can have a metal band play before us or after us. That’s cool, as long as it’s a metal band that is going to support us as much as we’d like to support them. That’s where you really run into problems when people aren’t really willing to be friends.  Chicago is a tough place to play, but it’s exciting because there are really cool venues and you can put together your own bill as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.

LLL: What moment in your musical career felt like the greatest triumph?

McCreary: There are a million places [we’ve played] that I could say felt like triumphs for our band. But something that meant a lot? There’s this taco place right down the street called Taco Yo that we go to all the time as a band. We played at Wire one time, and that was a great night because we had our buddies from Michigan called Watching for Foxes [come] down from Grand Rapids, [and] we had a Taco Yo hangout. We were ordering, and they all know our orders and stuff, and they have TVs in there that usually play a bunch of old soap operas, but we were ordering and all of a sudden a video that we did in Ohio started playing on the TV. We were like, “Why do we recognize that song?” Then we look and there are our ugly mugs up there playing. Apparently [the owner] listens to our music.

LLL: Any advice or words of wisdom you’d like to share?

McCreary: Not that I really have any place to give advice, but make friends and love the people around you. It’s amazing how interconnected the music world is, especially in the Midwest. Just be nice. Play hard. Have fun.

Cardinal Harbor’s next show will be on Thursday, June 8th at Uncommon Ground in Lakeview. The night will also include a performance by Myna MacArthur.

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