Instant Classic: Chief

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Published August 27, 2010

PHOTO COURTESY OF DOMINO RECORDS

Chamber. Chillwave. Hazy. Lo-fi. Pedals. Vocal Reverb. Neo-psych. All terms and ingredients that have gone into what has passed, in recent years, for indie rock. None of them apply to the Los Angeles four-piece Chief, a band that has more to do with the straightforward, harmony-rich pop rock of another era than anything currently thought of as “Twenty-First Century.” Yet indie giant Domino Records, home to such spiky UK acts as Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand, and experimental pop bands like Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective, is putting its considerable promotional heft behind Chief, who as its album title, Modern Rituals, suggests, aspires to merge classic and contemporary.

“In retrospect, yeah it is slightly strange considering what Domino is known for,” concedes Chief’s drummer Michael Fujikawa, “but I think that they just like good music and it’s not a niche thing with the label. And hopefully we’ll prove that to be true.” After several months of courting, the label signed Chief at last summer’s Glastonbury Festival (the band has thus far gotten more attention and traction in the UK than here). By late 2009, the guys were ensconced in a Los Feliz studio working on their debut with producer Emery Dobyns, who transformed some songs, including current single “Night & Day” and “Stealing” into something more radio-friendly. Classic radio, most likely. It’s a word that the band doesn’t shy away from. In fact, they embrace those frequent Crosby, Stills and Nash comparisons. “This is obviously 2010, not the ’60s,” says guitarist and vocalist Evan Koga, “but our focus has been on songs and harmonies, and a lot of the bands from that time had really strong songs.”

 

Chief’s backstory is bicoastal. All members are Angelenos, and the music clearly comes from left of the continental divide. However, the band formed in the mid-’00s, a continent away, when three of the foursome were students at New York University. A four-song demo of Koga’s that included an early version of the rousing “Mighty Proud” persuaded Fujikawa and his brother, guitarist and vocalist Danny Fujikawa, to sign on. More songs, New York gigs, and press followed, while Danny grew into his role as the band’s second songwriter, contributing the melancholy “This Land” and the pretty, inspirational “You Tell Me” to the mix. They also added a bassist, in childhood pal Mike Moonves, son of CBS president and CEO Les Moonves. How does one of America’s media titans feel about his kid dropping out of school last year to devote himself to Chief full time? “He got on my case a little bit,” says Moonves, “and asked, ‘Is this the right thing, with the music industry where it is?’ But I just asked that he let me figure it out, and he trusts me. Both my mom and dad are failed actors, so they know what dreams are all about.”

The band would seem increasingly to be living theirs. The guys have planned a fall US tour  with Portugal, The Man, as well as two European treks before the end of the year. And anyone who wants to question where Chief’s throwback sound “fits” in today’s current landscape might be advised to recall Fleet Foxes, another band that trades in rustic, west coast harmonies, and which went on to be one of the breakout acts of 2008. “It’s apparent that we are different,” says Michael, “that we’re not exactly like what’s happening, or what might be considered ‘cool’ or whatever, but we just do what we do and hope that people get on board and like it.”

See John Norris’s entire interview with Chief next week at Noisevox.