When indie-pop singer Knox Fortune asked his friends Chris Bailoni and Clay Frankel to open for him at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall last November, they were a little hesitant. “We were like, ‘We’re not even really a band!'” Frankel recalls. “But he was like, ‘Aw, c’mon. We’ll get drunk. It’ll be fun.'”
A year later, Bailoni and Frankel’s rollicking synth-pop duo, Grapetooth, is still going, with an electrifying debut LP and a reputation as one of Chicago’s wildest live acts. “It feels bizarre,” says Bailoni, 25.
Prior to that first show, he and Frankel — a founding member of garage-rock outfit Twin Peaks — were roommates who had been making music together for a few years with no real plan to release it. They came up with the name Grapetooth hours before the Lincoln Hall show, basing it on an inside-joke term for someone who’s overly fond of wine. The instant local buzz that followed surprised them both.
“It’s certainly strange,” says Frankel, 24. “But I guess you gotta just trust the music.”
Directly inspired by seminal synth-punk duo Suicide, Grapetooth’s 10-track debut splits the difference between rah-rah Replacements-style punk eccentricity (“Violent”) and Eighties synth atmospherics (“Death”). Add in the fact that Grapetooth’s live shows are a chaotic choose your-own-adventure saga, sliding between giddy dance party and full mosh pit at a moment’s notice, and it’s no wonder this duo is so intoxicating.
The two band members took very different paths to where they are now. Frankel grew up steps from Wrigley Field, took up guitar as a preteen and, after meeting his bandmates in Twin Peaks during high school, became a full-time touring musician before he could vote. Over the last eight years, he’s made three full-length albums with Twin Peaks and played A-list gigs from Lollapalooza to Coachella.
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Bailoni, by contrast, had never played a live show before Grapetooth. While he majored in music production at local Columbia College and recorded music for years in his bedroom under the name Home-Sick, he says he always figured he’d wind up as more of behind-the-scenes player in the music industry. He was so nervous before their first gig that he chugged an entire bottle of wine before stepping onstage. “I shut my eyes and just started dancing,” Bailoni recalls.
He and Frankel are sitting at a wooden table at their Logan Square walk-up apartment when we meet. Jazz music hums in the background; Frankel scours the Internet hoping to replace a lost pair of shoes (“It’s like walking on clouds with these, but I left them in Indonesia”) and Bailoni explains how he overcame his stage fright. “I was just whaling my arms around, and then I opened my eyes and saw people freaking out,” he says. “I realized if you dance, they’ll dance. It’s a simple thing. A feedback loop.”
Knox Fortune, born Kevin Rhomberg, went to high school with Bailoni and got to know Frankel and the rest of Twin Peaks through the local scene. When he asked them to open for him, he didn’t much care if they were serious about being a band: “I think they only had four songs at the time,” he says with a laugh, “but their four songs were so good and so up my alley that I had to ask them.”
Fortune says watching them perform that night — Frankel flailing around the stage like an overserved raver and at one point even falling into the crowd — convinced him Grapetooth were for real. “Honestly, they could go up there and sing karaoke and it would still be really entertaining,” he adds. Seven months after that first show, Grapetooth headlined Lincoln Hall as headliners and sold out the venue. It was just their fifth show.
Grapetooth’s genesis is as happenstance as their overnight success. The two musicians vaguely knew each other through Bailoni’s ex-girlfriend, but it wasn’t until they bonded at a bar one evening in late 2015 that the acquaintances decided to make music together. “I was just like, ‘I’m gonna go to this fucking kid’s house that I barely even know,'” Frankel remembers. “I knew he had some sort of studio in his bedroom. But that’s all I really knew.”
Bailoni says their early recordings were “a little awkward,” but over the ensuing months the two formed a close friendship, moved into the first of three apartments they’d share together, and steadily began assembling songs. For the first few years, creating music was simply their preferred way to hang out. “Honestly, we would just smoke a lot and talk,” Frankel says.
After their first gig, however, Grapetooth began taking their music more seriously. The pair bonded over obscure Japanese synth-pop bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra and, more specifically, its drummer-composer Yukihiro Takashi’s solo track “Drip Dry Eyes.” “That’s enough sometimes,” Frankel says, noting that a single song can inspire a band’s entire sonic palette. “Weird music can come from anywhere.”
For a guitar-rock lifer like Frankel, Grapetooth’s creative process is a new one. Most Twin Peaks songs, he says, begin with him or one of his bandmates bringing in a chord progression or melody. A Grapetooth song, by contrast, always leads with Bailoni firing up the Logic Pro software on his computer and creating an electronic drum beat before Frankel adds guitar lines and vocals to the mix. “Right there, that already puts you in a world of music that’s a lot different than rock and roll,” Frankel says.
With Frankel about to start working seriously on Twin Peaks’ next album, Grapetooth’s future is up in the air. Both members agree they’d like to tour this spring, and Bailoni says he already has ideas for a second album: “Lord knows when that will be though,” he says.
Not that they’re worried. “People have been asking us, ‘So what’s next?'” Frankel adds. “It’s like, ‘Man, we just got to the top of the damn mountain and put the album out!'” He turns to Bailoni and the bandmates simultaneously burst into whooping laughter. “We’re just figuring it out as we go.”