“I thank the band for just about every good thing that’s happened in the last five years,” Lindsey Charles confesses. Reached via phone during her band’s tour of the southeast and Mid-Atlantic states, the lead singer’s excitement for her energetic combo is palpable and contagious.
The Cell Phones are a threesome of Hoosier 20-somethings who have found their way to Chicago through some sort of magical magnetic attraction. On record, most recently on the full-length, self-released Get You Alone, the group sounds like a chaotic splattering of potter’s clay flying from an out-of-control wheel. If that’s hard to imagine, they describe themselves variously as “girl-pop meets grindcore” and “garage mathy dance grind metal pop post-punk funk-a-dunk punk Chicago.”
Singer and lyricist Charles met drummer Justin Purcell at Indiana University in Bloomington. But she didn’t sing in a group in high school or college:
“I wanted to, but I didn’t think in high school I was cool enough to be in a band and I didn’t really know how. My dad had given me an acoustic guitar which I don’t play well, and I tried to plunk out some songs, but nothing ever made any sense. In high school and college I did a lot of musical theatre, so that’s how I got my kicks singing.”
Her final performance in college musical theatre was in the “pretty intense” rock opera “Hedwig and The Angry Inch,” and she sang a set of songs from the ’90s before the curtain opened. “That’s when Justin first heard me sing, and I think that’s where he got the idea. I realized that I liked doing it—I was a closet singer. I can sing the crap out of anything in the shower,” she laughs. “I remember moving to Chicago after college and thinking … I totally fucked that up, I’m never gonna be able to sing in a band now, I’m an adult and I can’t be in a band anymore.” But then fate intervened. Charles bumped into Purcell, who didn’t realize she had moved to Chicago, and when he called her later and asked if she wanted to be in a band, she couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
Arriving at her first rehearsal for The Cell Phones, Charles met drummer Purcell’s friend and the third member of the trio, bassist Ryan Szeszycki—who’s known Purcell since middle school. Not only had he also attended IU, but he had dated a girl who lived in her dormitory a few years before she enrolled. Now that Charles and Szeszycki are getting married, she likes to joke that her fiancé lost his virginity in the exact same dorm room she lived in, but that “we have not confirmed that,” she giggles. “That’s part of our invented bio … I think it’s kind of funny.”
May 2013 saw not only the release of their first full-length album, it also brought another good thing, the surprise engagement of the bassist and singer, in the Infinity Room at The House On The Rock, no less. They hope to walk down the aisle sometime next year—Charles says, “We have grandmothers who are like, ‘I want a ceremony, I want everything, and I want it before I die.’ Let me know if I’m over-sharing,” Charles warns, “Ryan is next to me and he’s rolling his eyes.”
And how does the drummer feel? “We’ve tried very hard not to “third-wheel” him,” she laughs, “but he’s responsible for bringing the two of us together.”
At least there’s no guitarist to add another wheel. Given the noise the trio make on the record, and not having had the opportunity to see them live, it’s natural to wonder how they make so much sound with no guitar. “I know, right?” Charles says with a laugh. She explains that her bandmates are “into metal, grindcore, hardcore and punk, and they love their music loud, and when I first joined the band they put me through the gauntlet of loud music, and obviously that’s what they want. Ryan has an acoustic bass which should not make much noise at all but he’s hooked it up to these giant bass cabinets … one pumps out a higher end kind of guitar-ish sound, and the other a much lower, full, muddy bass sound and he uses a pedal to pan between the two or to play both or one or the other.”
Purcell and Szeszycki “wanted a strong singer that has a lot of personality in order to match up to this immense sound,” so she was inspired by both Karen O. from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, and both she and Szeszycki are fans of “doo wop and oldies and stuff like Buddy Holly, The Crystals, Shangri-las, Lesley Gore … Blondie’s a big one. I’m a big fan of strong and very individual, unique frontwomen.”
Composition-wise, the other members of The Cell Phones give Charles maximum latitude in the lyrics department, for the most part. “I remember being very shocked that anyone was going to give me the freedom to write my own lyrics … it’s kind of fun but it’s also kind of terrifying.” She overcame her initial intimidation and realized that “you have to write what you know, you have to write what you feel, so I write a lot about personal stuff: I’ve written about my period, being loud during sex, I wrote a song about my older brother (“An interesting kid, kind of handful for my mom to deal with,” she says), Ryan’s into racing cars, so I wrote a song about a woman getting hit by her lover’s car in a race.”
Of course, once Charles and Szeszycki started dating, all she wanted to do was write love songs about how happy she was, and the bassist was a little uncomfortable with their personal life being shared in such a way. But then, “there was a song that was particularly hard to write, I just didn’t know what to write about, and I thought it would be really silly to write a song about how he doesn’t want me to write any songs about him. That’s super-meta, but once I finished it and told him what it was about he laughed at me and rolled his eyes,” which he seems to do frequently and gave the qualified blessing: “Alright, whatever.” On “Lyrical” Charles sings, “I know it gets you mad, you don’t like the attention like I do, but my life’s an open book, and you have an entire chapter, and I know every word by heart.”
“Lyrical” appears on To Get You Alone, along with eleven other tracks, only two of which exceed the three-minute mark, so in addition to addressing personal issues, The Cell Phones like their songs loud, fast and brief, and they have worked up a few new ones on the road they’re excited about too. “We’ve been experimenting with the process of songwriting, and what we enjoy doing. We’ve been trying very hard to keep moving,” Charles says earnestly.
As with everything else about The Cell Phones, even though Charles is talking via cell phone from more than 700 miles away, her excitement about being involved comes across as clear as crystal, as does her enthusiasm for where she finds herself today, singing and writing for one of Chicago’s best and most innovative rock trios.
Listen to The Cell Phones’ music, including their most recent record, two earlier EPs and the 2010 recording celebrating their favorite holiday, Halloween, and look for them in costume on a Chicago stage on October 31, 2013.
And, check them out at The Township Oct. 21, 2013.