If there was an indie-rock Jeopardy! category, the following would certainly be a question: “Who is the only musician to have played with Bob Mould, Robert Pollard, Superchunk, Britt Daniel, and Telekinesis – and served as the inspiration for Dave Grohl to devote his life to playing music?” If you answered Jason Narducy for $5,000, you’d probably win that episode.
“Watching Jason was the first time I thought I could start my own band, and write my own kind of music,” Dave Grohl says. “Jason totally set my life in this new direction. It wasn’t a Jimmy Page or KISS poster I had – it was fuckin’ him!” Indeed, if indie rock has a Zelig, a Forrest Gump, it’s Narducy. “Jason’s been doin’ the rock since he was a snot-nosed little punk,” Robert Pollard notes. “And I can attest from his work with me on the road that he’s got it down. And it’s not going to stop anytime soon.”
Narducy’s career in rock does prove uniquely epic upon inspection, and continues as such to this day. He first appeared as a co-founder of Verböten – one of the seminal acts in the Chicago punk scene that produced groundbreaking bands like Naked Raygun and Big Black. Narducy then went on to become frontman/songwriter/guitarist for Verbow, another beloved Windy City outfit who signed a major-label deal with Epic/Sony during the ‘90s alt-rock bubble. He followed that up with an ongoing, nearly decade-long run as indie-rock’s secret weapon – serving as bassist and backing vocalist for indie-underground icons like Mould, Pollard, and Superchunk, as well as Seattle’s indie power-pop faves Telekinesis.
Now Narducy is returning to center stage as a bandleader with Fragmented World – the debut album from Split Single. A new project formed with fellow travelers Britt Daniel (Spoon, Divine Fits) on bass and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats, Bob Mould, Ben Gibbard, Robert Pollard), Split Single proves equal parts solo project and collective. “I liked the concept of a split single,” Narducy says. “It’s a communal thing: two bands have to work together in this handshake commitment, which then exposes each band to the other’s audience. It’s also the name of a two-stroke motorcycle engine invented at the turn of the century to be more efficient and powerful than previous engines. All those things together seemed to really reflect the spirit of what we did.”
The nucleus of Split Single came into being during a rare lull for Narducy at the end of 2011. Narducy hadn’t written new original material for eight years – until an unexpected challenge popped out of the ether: a friend, Steve Dawson, asked Narducy to do a solo set to support Dawson’s band Dolly Varden at famed Chicago venue Schubas in January. “I thought, ‘What if I wrote and played ten new songs?” Narducy says. “The show went well, and three songs I’d written for it – ‘Never Look Back,’ ‘Love Is You,’ and ‘My Eyes’ – actually ended up on Fragmented World. I was happy being a band guy, and still am – I’ve had enough day jobs to realize this is the best one ever – but I ended up writing forty more songs. I realized I had to do something with them.”
“I’m used to hearing Jason making me sound better, but it’s funny and familiar as well to hear his voice standing out in front again,” Bob Mould says. In fact, it was during recording sessions for Mould’s Silver Age album in San Francisco that February, Narducy played the demos for bandmate Wurster, creating additional momentum. “Jon really responded to the material,’” Narducy recalls. “Playing with him so much, I’ve learned he’s the best type of drummer – one who raises the energy and really pushes the song along into a complete whole.” “I think a drummer’s job should be to support the song and not get in the way of it,” Wurster says. “And these songs were so good I really didn’t want to get in the way of them.” “Britt Daniel was then the first person I thought of to round out the recording collective,” Narducy continues. “We’d known each other a long time, and had talked about collaborating after playing together at this L.A. Bob Mould tribute concert in 2011. He’d told me bass was his favorite instrument, and I knew what Britt would bring to the arrangements and backing vocals would be invaluable.” “The songs were great – I wasn’t sure what to expect, and there were some curveballs!” Daniel says. “I’m always wearing so many hats, so I loved the idea of being in a band where all I do is play bass on someone else’s stuff. I felt like a session musician, which was so cool. Still, I got pretty in depth: there were no preconceptions, which is what collaboration is all about.”
After a single impromptu practice – “We rehearsed at Britt’s house for a couple hours the night before we started recording,” Wurster says. “Jason was playing acoustic guitar, Britt was on an unamplified bass, and I kept time tapping on my knees” – the trio settled in for a brisk four-day session overseen by studio guru Ken Sluiter (Jerry Lee Lewis, Kelly Hogan, OK Go, The Mekons). “There was no time to second guess,” Daniel laughs. “I haven’t made a record that fast in the last fifteen years!” Recording took place at Los Angeles’ hallowed Sound Factory, whose pop cultural bona fides proved inescapable.
“There were a lot of Linda Ronstadt records on the walls,” Narducy notes. “All these records from our childhoods were made there,” Wurster adds. “It was fun to open the bathroom door and see a gold record for The Four Seasons’ ‘December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)’ – one of the first records I ever bought – hanging in the corner.” Daniel, meanwhile, had to cope with an onslaught of hilarity from Narducy and Wurster (who’s becoming as well known for his comedic work with Tom Scharpling and writing for TV series like Tim and Eric Awesome Show as for his percussive skills). “They were constantly making spur-of-the-moment, funny videos,” Daniel says. “It’s their routine that they clearly do all the time: someone will say something humorous, and Jason will instantly document it. It was a lot of laughs.”
Fragmented World also represents Narducy’s new artistic growth, as his peers and bandmates recognized immediately. “I’m a fan of Jason’s work – it’s classic late 20th-century pop music songwriting,” Mould says. “We both share a real deep respect for popular music as an art form and its history – from The Who to The Beatles through Cheap Trick, punk rock, and all the things we’ve done.” “I love the record – it sounds like a band playing together, which is something I don’t hear a lot recently,” Wurster says. “Jason is a fan of great songwriters like Pete Townshend, Lennon & McCartney, Bob Mould, Robert Pollard, and Strummer & Jones, so it would only be natural that he’d write such well-crafted, memorable pop songs.” “I know that if people appreciate what I do, then they’re going to appreciate what Jason does, because we all do the same things,” Grohl notes. “We write songs that mean something and play them as fucking best as we can, with everything we have.”
The material on Fragmented World ultimately spans the breadth of Narducy’s history, while artfully exploring a gamut of styles and emotions in ways he’s never approached before. “Never Look Back” and the title track, for example, evoke the entire legacy of power-pop in short, sharp blasts. “There’s a lot of early Cheap Trick in the song ‘Fragmented World’ – along with Nick Lowe, The Beatles, Big Star, Guided By Voices,” Narducy says. “I laugh when I hear it; I could probably go through every part and tell you what song it came from. The short arrangement is very Pollard, and the guitar solo very Doug Gillard. You can’t help touring with great songwriters like Mould, and Pollard, and Superchunk and not learn something about songwriting!” “Monolith,” meanwhile, updates Narducy’s punk roots: “It’s a snarl song – the record needed a little piss and vinegar.”
Elsewhere, Split Single songs like “Waiting For The Sun” and “Searches” ring out as updated tributes to the golden age of indie that inspired Narducy’s evolution as a musician – blending melancholy vocals and chiming psychedelic jangle with more jagged post-punk influences. “There is something about those songs that reminds me of the ‘80s – those kind of hooky R.E.M. choruses mixed with the darkness of The Wipers,” Narducy says. “‘Searches’ is one of my favorites,” adds Daniel. “It’s got a moody melody, but lots of nervous energy – the way those Wipers’ songs were still pop songs, but there was something so dark and heavy about them.”
As such, songs like “My Eyes” and “Last Goodbye” reflect the passages that Narducy has gone through of late – from losing a loved one to cancer to the passing of his best friend from Lou Gehrig’s disease. “I didn’t realize it until we were mixing the record, but there’s a real theme of loss here,” Narducy says. “A lot of things happened to me, and that inevitably came in. Even during the poppiest, lightest moments, the lyrics can be really dark.”
“Jason’s life is different now, and from when he was writing music before: playing other people’s music, having children, starting businesses – all that ‘behind’ stuff that makes us who we are as musicians,” Mould says. “He’s gone through a big growth process, learning and working alongside peers in a supporting role, complementing what we write, and now he’s back writing his own music. He’s got a different perspective than he had years ago. He’s always been an amazing musician, with an amazing voice, and a great ability to pick a moment. When he’s singing his thoughts, it’s very strong and unique – but now it’s more mature, more developed.”
Then again, Narducy’s output has had a long time to evolve: he’s been writing songs since he became a pre-teen sensation on Chicago’s ‘80s punk scene. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston – the unlikely spawning ground of bands like Big Black, Urge Overkill, and The Effigies – Narducy co-founded the group Verböten at age 11. Inspired by the Misfits, Circle Jerks, Sex Pistols, Hüsker Dü, and J.F.A., Verböten would play all-ages shows with the likes of Naked Raygun, recorded professional demos, and appeared on local television programs.
“It was a unique moment,” Narducy says. “My dad liked classic rock, but punk was our music. I was like, ‘This is mine – I get this.’” Verböten even made a fan out of the irascible Steve Albini, who praised the group in his column “Tired of Ugly Fat?,” published in the important Midwestern fanzine Matter. “Verböten were a pretty cool little band,” Albini recalled to author Paul Brannigan in his biography This Is A Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl.
Grohl, in fact, is another of Verböten’s high-profile early adopters. Grohl’s cousin, Tracey, was Verboten’s charismatic singer; during one summer visit to Evanston, she took him on a tour of the Chicago punk universe, culminating in him watching a Verböten basement rehearsal – promptly blowing the 13-year-old Grohl’s mind, and altering the path of his life forever.
“Tracey said, ‘I have a band of my own, and I was like, ‘Really? What covers do you play?’” Grohl remembers. “And she said, ‘We write our own songs.’ And it just blew my mind: I played guitar in a cover band, and I’d sort of written songs of my own, but I’d never dare ask someone to play them – you didn’t do that when you were 13! But she was a punk rock singer, and her band was writing their own material, playing their own shows, and had gone to a studio and made a demo tape. I met Jason when I watched them practice. He had a Gibson SG – the AC/DC guitar! – but was such a shrimp it made the guitar look huge. They were fucking children: it was so nuts, because we were around the same age, yet they were completely their own little independent band. Seeing someone else do that made me realize it was possible, and inspired me to do it myself. I thought, ‘If that kid right there does it, then I can do it, too!’ After that, I came back to my crappy little suburb and was like, ‘Hey, guys – I’m punk rock, motherfuckers! Eat shit!’ And when I bumped into Jason 20 years later, that’s when I realized, more than any records I listened to, or heroes I had – he’s actually the one who inspired me to do stuff on my own.”
Those worlds collided anew when Narducy toured with Grohl, with Bob Mould serving as the support act on a number of Foo Fighters shows in 2012. “Bob Mould has the greatest band,” Grohl says. “And from that connection – I’d known Jason for years, I’d met Jon with Superchunk in the late ‘80s, and Bob being one of my heroes, of course – I just felt at home around them.” “Dave’s just so generous with the spotlight,” Narducy says. “He’s the most graceful rock star I’ve ever met.”
Mould, meanwhile, first encountered Narducy at a sound check in 1991, while doing a series of acoustic solo concerts in Chicago. “We talked for a while about music, and he gave me a tape of some of his songs,” Mould says. “I took them home and listened to them, and they were really great.” Mould quickly started having Jason & Alison – the acclaimed duo Narducy had formed with cellist Alison Chesley – open shows for him. Jason & Alison eventually transformed into the full-fledged four-piece rock group Verbow, and Mould was tapped to produce Verbow’s Epic Records’ debut, Chronicles, in 1997. “I got to see Jason’s abilities,” Mould says. “We worked well together, and got to be closer friends.”
After releasing two full-lengths and touring with everyone from Frank Black to Morrissey, Verbow officially broke up in 2003. That year, Narducy did a short promotional tour playing alongside Liz Phair, but it was Mould who truly kickstarted Narducy’s status as star sideman. “I’d stepped away from playing rock music live for about seven years, and when I came back in 2005, that was the perfect opportunity for us to work together,” Mould says. “It was the rebirth of me as the rock guy again, so I needed good support, and Jason was the key to it. He’s a really good sounding board, and there are a lot of similarities in how we look at music. Over our 9 years together, it’s gotten easier and easier.”
The release of Fragmented World isn’t the end of Narducy’s current spate of activity: a touring version of Split Single will be playing shows in 2014 (the group already opened a series of Midwestern dates for Divine Fits this past April). According to Narducy, the format and lineup are designed to morph with whatever changes come down the pike. “The idea is to always play with friends, and keep things as portable as possible,” he says.
Narducy continues to be an active member of Bob Mould’s band and Superchunk’s touring unit, of course – but more original music from him will inevitably appear on the horizon. “One of the great things about Jason is that he’s a lifer,” Grohl says. “I met him when he was just a little kid with an SG, writing and playing music because he was passionately driven to do it. He’s always done it for that reason – and he’s still doing it. When you see someone like him, it gives you faith in being a human being. In this day and age where you want music to be real, Jason’s the real deal: he’s got the craft, and he’s trying to find the truth. He’s one of the good ones, and the good ones last.”