Pondering ‘Prog’ – The Tea Club

It seems as if the band is considered progressive rock by default: if there is no way to compartmentalize their music into an existing genre, it is conveniently sorted into this collection bin of odds and ends. Progressive rock, then, could not be an easy scene to get into — in defying classification, it should be difficult to know what makes a band peg themselves as ‘prog’, which may ultimately be all that holds it together as a genre.

This label could simply designate various strange novelties in music, but may indicate more than what is missing in the giant canopy of rock’s pre-established music scene. A sense of the ineffable qualities that hold a band in the progressive rock genre might be glimpsed between what a few members of this Barrington-based band had to say about music.

Founded in September 2003, when brothers Pat and Dan McGowan — who both play guitar and sing vocals —  were joined by Joe Rizzolo on drums, Jim Berger on guitar, Becky Osenenko on keyboard and Charles (Chuck) Batdorf on bass, The Tea Club was formed. Pat explained, “We really didn’t start off as a prog band, but a lot of music we listened to was ‘proggy,’ so it just kind of turned out that way. We started leaning in that direction. I really loved a lot of the ‘70s prog, and in my search for new prog, I didn’t feel like anybody was really getting it right. So we took a shot at writing the stuff that we wanted to hear but weren’t hearing.”

The Tea Club
The Tea Club (from left to right) Becky, Charles, Joe, Dan, Jim, and Patrick. (Adam Peditto Photography)

Dan elaborated, “We just always liked and wanted to write music that was musically and lyrically imaginative, but also intensely emotional and endearing. I think those are some key qualities that make people call something ‘prog’.” Pat tagged on, “The time signature and tempo changes are kind of a must. There’s always some element of virtuoso playing nine times out of ten…Yeah, we would be coming back from our friend’s house, and we would be talking about Metallica. We’d ask our dad, ‘Do you listen to Metallica? Our friends like Metallica.’ Our dad would be like, ‘Yeah? Why don’t you try this — here’s some King Crimson. You’ll like this. No one will ever understand you.’ ”

Their style and direction is colored by these main influences: King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis and ELP (Emerson, Lake and Palmer). Especially inspiring to the formation of their sound, Dan spoke of one Yes song off Relayer, “The music is so layered, there’s so much going on that you don’t pick up on until you’ve heard it a hundred times. You just get immersed in it. The first time I heard ‘The Gates Of Delirium,’ (which lasts a lengthy 21:50) I thought the end was the most beautiful melody I’d ever heard.”

The Tea Club released their new album Rabbit on October 9th. Following progressive rock tradition, the songs on Rabbit form a concept album, unifying a theme or story; Rabbit relies upon the realm of the fantastical, a familiar place for prog song, the lyrics narrating mystical stories and places far away. The third track, “The Night I Killed Steve Shelley,” meta-dramatizes an incidence of Pat’s notoriously terrible sense of direction, when he sends the drummer of Sonic Youth far from home and into the heart of crime-ridden Kensington, Philadelphia. (Steve Shelley survived this incident of negligence.)

There is of course more to the band than just music. Their shenanigans, like this navigational story, showcase an exploratory fun spirit, their affinity for taking in new ideas, and a willingness to share both. They performed in a show at Temple University on 4/20, organized and run by the students (which, unsurprisingly, did not end well) and annually attend an event called Chucktoberfest, a Halloween themed show held at bassist Chuck’s house. The only rule for entry? Thou must come in costume.

Dan explained, “It [Chucktoberfest] is a bit of a harvest festival. We all love autumn, it’s all of our favorite time of year…we celebrate by gathering a bunch of good bands and playing. It’s usually a good time for us to debut new material, since we always seem to get into the creative mindset around fall. We usually just take donations for that show. It’s supposed to be a party atmosphere.”

Outside good gatherings, there are pitfalls to the genre for those who have never heard it; the best summaries from the members about the musical predelictions of prog’s artists and listeners, when not quite getting (or appreciating) the concept, were from Chuck: “Pretentious,” and Becky: “Tastefully corny.”

Considering misunderstandings, Dan spoke of it more seriously, “The good prog is really good, and the bad prog is really, really bad — probably the worst music you can possibly imagine. But when it’s good…it’s the hair-raising moments that give you chills…prog tends to be more imaginative. You can tell more of a story without thinking, ‘Oh shit. I probably have to repeat the chorus.’ It’s about having the freedom to write music however you want to, whatever makes you happy or sad or laugh or cry or dance…The freedom in prog is to do whatever the hell you want.”

There is a difference between what is progressive in the passage of music development and bands that simply think they are ‘prog’ for the stories told through their lyrics. Pat regards the current prog scene with apprehension, “Most of the bands that I think are writing music that is really ‘progressive’ aren’t really considered ‘prog bands’. Dredg, The Flaming Lips, French Kicks… Stuff in the actual prog genre that I like would be Pineapple Thief, Angalagard, echolyn, and Anekdoten. There are bands who sit down and write ‘prog’ music, and there are bands who write music that is progressive, and I hope The Tea Club can be one of the latter…Most rock music lyrically is just about sex. If you hear a song on the radio and it’s not about sex, it’s probably a prog band — but then again, you are hearing it on the radio, so it’s probably not a prog band. It’s either Radiohead or Tool.”

Most important to The Tea Club’s idea of progressive rock, in what they think should be achieved in communication to their audience, is a feeling of exploration — the willingness to try anything musically so an album can take you to a different place. This bearing could provide an antidote for those sick of manufactured pop ballads, composed of mostly hook and little substance. There is a potential escape route from the over-sexed, over-played music that invokes little more than perhaps a desire to dance.

Progressive rock may have a small audience now, but it has a vitality to it — a desire to not only connect but journey — something that slowly becomes extinct in genres that do not grow. As Pat says, “The music industry is in shambles right now. I think everyone can agree with that. The record labels have no idea what to do. They’re clueless. We had someone make the reference that it is like the Wild West. There are no rules. No one knows what to do. Everyone is shooting each other down and making things up as they go. I think you can do it on your own.”