When you listen to Chicago-based Animal City, what stands out most is the band’s energetic, bouncy riffs and detailed, often sarcastic lyrics about love and partying in the city. The group has been playing together in various formations for over a decade. But when you meet the four guys behind Animal City, a band made up of best friends and first cousins, what becomes even clearer than their love for penning high-energy, lo-fi tunes is their love for something else—each other.
Pop ‘stache met up with the band, singer and guitarist Dakota Loesch, guitarist Sal Cassato, bassist Doug Ryan, and drummer Levi Yastrow, at its practice and recording space in Lakeview to talk about the current tour, what it’s like to moonlight as a wedding band, and its loyalty to the Midwest—all while drinking PBRs and finishing each other’s sentences.
Pop ‘stache: So how’s the day going so far?
Dakota Loesch: Good. We’re just working on getting ready for tour, because we leave Friday. Tomorrow we’re playing a home show at Cafe Mustache, and then we have a day off to chill and do laundry. I think I’m going to cut my hair, shave my beard, clean socks, that kind of stuff. Socks are currency on tour—you can trade anything for socks. We also play as a sock hop wedding band and do Motown and all that old girl group stuff—so one of the spots we’re hitting on the tour is Denver to play a friend’s wedding.
P ‘s: How did you guys start playing as a wedding band?
Doug Ryan: My dad was throwing a surprise birthday party for his girlfriend and said to us, “I’ll give you some money if you play oldies in my backyard. Cathy would love it.” We were just like, “Okay!” Playing weddings hasaffected how we play together in a positive way. The first time we practiced for a wedding, it took us two weeks to learn twenty songs. Now, when someone comes to us with a chord progression and a few lyrics, it takes us just an hour and we have a whole song.
LY: When you play at a wedding, it’s totally not about you. Honestly, the success of a set at a wedding come down to: “Does the grandma get up and dance?” And if she does, we get a good tip.
P ‘s: So have you been making a lot of grandmas dance?
DR: We’ve made a few grandmothers dance.
LY: When you start playing Stevie Wonder, people get into it. “Isn’t She Lovely” is our big one.
DL: You have to dedicate that one to grandma.
P ‘s: How did Animal City originally come together?
Levi Yastrow: We went to high school together. Doug and I are first cousins, so we’ve known each other our whole lives.
DR: Cousins for life! What happened is that five years ago, Levi and I went to see Sal and Dakota at Reggie’s Rock Club on the South Side, and they had this Apple eMac…
DL: That was our drummer.
DR: It was playing drums! It was just awful. So Levi said to them, “We can play in your band if you need a drummer and a bass player.”
P ‘s: So you took pity on them, huh?
DR: Well, we knew their music was really good, they just seemed kind of hard up for members.
P ‘s: How do you feel the band has changed now that you have a more solid lineup? What was the band like before then?
DL: The band then was just me and Sal really scrapping and scraping and stealing as much as we could to make stuff happen, because we were just using GarageBand and other people’s instruments. It was just more of singer-songwriter inklings. It wasn’t a full band until Doug and Levi joined.Now it’s filled out, and we have a sound we work towards. Everyone also found their own compartmentalized thing to do within the band. Doug does the recordings, Levi does the aesthetic output like designing tape and CD covers, Sal does promotions and tours, and I work on the video stuff. Everyone found their little niche, or whatever, and that’s when it really felt like, “Oh, we’re in a band now.” It’s been five years of that.
P ‘s: It seems like you guys are very self-reliant. Do you do everything in house?
DL: Yeah, we love it.
P ‘s: What’s so important to you about doing everything yourselves?
DL: It’s so exciting.
DR: It’s affordable.
LY: No one else is going to do it.
DL: It’s affordable, no one else is going to do it, and it’s so fulfilling to see everything from inception, all the way through, to see a record grow up. We’ve got a four-year-old out in the world now, a record that’s been out for four years. It’s grown up so fast. [Laughs.] I like that we make it all ourselves, because we can all grow and experience the whole thing together, and then we all get to give ourselves a big pat on the back at the end together, like, “We did it!”
LY: We don’t want to have to rely on anyone else. We want to get it done our way. Doug presses all of our tapes himself. We recorded most of our “Shitty Movie” tape in this apartment, and we also did the mastering, printing, and artwork here. For me, if it can all be done in one place, there’s nothing better.
P ‘s: Are you guys traveling with any other bands on this tour?
LY: No, we’re bringing some friends with us, but it’s just us. We like touring with our best friends. Playing shows is incredible, but the best part is traveling the road with our best friends.
DL: I don’t understand how people are in bands with people who don’t like each other. That doesn’t make sense to me.
I’ve been blessed in this band to not experience that. I love these dudes. I love working with these dudes and making shit with them.
DR: We’ve seen people from bands we’re playing with on tour, they’ll get out of a show and just be like, “Ugh, I’m so glad to be away from THAT guy.” And we just think, “Well, what are you doing going around the country with them?”
DL: I go on a beer run for fifteen minutes and I miss you guys, you know?
P ‘s: Did all of you grow up with music in some way?
DR: I really wanted to get a guitar when I was in middle school, but most of my family members—my dad, my brother, my uncle—already played guitar. I was saving up my allowance, which was $5 or something, and eight weeks later, I had $40 for a guitar. My dad saw that and was like, “This guy is serious.” The next week was my birthday and he bought me a bass. I unwrapped it and was like, “A guitar!” and then I really looked and thought, “What the FUCK is this?” But then my brother showed me the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I thought, “Okay, bass is actually really cool.” We needed a bass player in the family. It was my destiny.
LY: For me, it was when I went to go see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with my great grandmother, some North Shore production at some synagogue. I was three, and apparently I drummed through the whole thing. My great grandmother told my parents they had to get me a drum set. I’ve been playing ever since.
DR: I remember thinking as a kid that his drum set was so cool—and then I got to high school and found it in the basement and saw how little it really was.
DL: I got into music because there was always music playing around my house and stuff. My parents really loved music. My dad was in a bunch of bands in high school before he became a dad..
LY: Didn’t he play flute in a Jethro Tull band?
DL: Yeah, he played flute and was the lead singer in a Jethro Tull band. He had all these weird high school bands during his acid stage. I would hear all these stories from him growing up about being in a band and learning songs. He taught me and my brother to harmonize really young so we could sing like the Andy Griffith theme. I just heard all these stories about his bands, and I was more into the idea of being in a band than anything else. Then I tried to join a band and realized, “Oh, you have to play an instrument!” [Everyone laughs.] One day I realized well, if someone is going to let me in their band I have to at least try to play guitar on top of writing lyrics to songs.
P ‘s: What do you love about being based in Chicago?
LY: Chicago’s the shit. I’ve been to a lot of different places in this country, and there’s a reason why I still live here. I don’t like other places as much. I think about what I’m doing, and I can’t do what I do anywhere else, because I do it here. This is where it is, this is where it’s been forever, for me, at least.
DL: Yeah. Midwest is best! I love it here; it’s my home. All my people are here, all my love and family is here, all my everything is here. Anything good I’ve ever done has happened here. All the stuff we’ve made together has started here.
And what’s cool about Chicago, more so than New York or LA, is that there’s a lot of loyalty here.
DR: So many people in New York or LA are like, “Fuck New York, Fuck LA, I hate where I am.”
DL: Some people do! And if you hear that around here, someone saying, “Fuck Chicago,” it’s like, “Well, then get out of here then. We don’t need you.” We rough it out, and because of that, we feel a huge, extreme pride for this place. And how good are the springs and summers when it comes around? You just look at other people and you know you’ve been through the shit together. It’s like seeing someone who was in Nam with you. Just like, “Yeah, Semper Fi, brother!” It’s awesome. Chicago summer is all about doing things, going out, going to the beach, having BBQs. And Chicago winter is just like, “I’m cold, my shoes are wet, I’m going home to my bed.”
P ‘s: The hibernation has been intense this season, that’s for sure.
DL: Oh, but we are going to blossom into one butterfly this summer, I know it. We have been in the cocoon so long that we’re just going to blow up.
DR: Just my luck it will be a moth. [Everyone laughs.]
Animal City will play at The Whistler on Sunday, May 11.