CRACK

Chicago post-punk purveyors Stuck are raging against our broken systems

04.06.24
Words by:
Photography: Jessica Hill

From the decline of capitalism to climate change, personal grief and mental unravelling, Chicago’s purveyors of tightly wound post-punk, Stuck, are raging against our broken systems the only way they know how – through a mix of empathetic fury and fun

Chicago post-punk band Stuck are knee-deep in the first UK date of their debut European tour, at south London’s New Cross Inn. Before the show, singer and guitarist Greg Obis was feeling sleepy after a massive portion of fish and chips – his first ever – but any signs of lethargy have long since evaporated. He tees up a couple of new singles for the crowd, explaining that the first of which, Deep Tunnel, is about the Chicago sewage system. “Sounds like shit,” a heckler jokes, somewhere within the charged atmosphere of a moshpit on standby. Flicking back a few stray hairs from his fringe, and finishing the last of his preparations, Obis smiles to himself and replies: “It does sound like shit, I could not agree more.”

The show is a bracing experience: each track is just as impeccably taut live as it is on record, each breakneck transition even more discombobulating. Stuck’s songs are full of unforgiving snares and duelling, paranoid guitar lines that warp and mingle, or bleep like a smoke alarm that’s been installed in your brain, while David Algrim’s punchy bass lines buffet your face like a strong wind (he credits the bruising art-punk of Dissertation, Honey by The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower as an inspiration). This is a band just starting to hone the control they can exercise over a crowd, and having an absolutely joyous time in the process.

 

But it’s joy underpinned by righteous indignation. Deep Tunnel is one of Stuck’s angriest, most visceral tracks yet: over barbed wire guitars, Obis’ staccato vocal turns up the heat on simmering resentments, until they boil over completely. “Our best laid plans, gone to shit now,” he croons, self-mockingly, like an internal monologue that’s curdled.

“Chicago was built on a swamp,” Obis says when he dials into our video call from the band’s hotel room in the Netherlands. It’s the first night of the tour, five days before the London show. He tells me how his home city has a system of underground tunnels designed to reduce flooding, but the climate crisis is pushing this system to the brink. “Just last summer we saw these waves of heavy rains that caused all this flooding. People’s basements are flooding all the time and it’s going to get worse, probably.” The song is about this overspill, and the parallels with Obis’ own mindset: “No matter the best efforts I’ve made to set myself up for success and mental stability, there’s still this sense of wasted time. And I’m just looking at my own life and being like, ‘Oh, I’m like 33 now and I have zero prospects for any stability or longevity in the future,’ and feeling just very dark about that,” he says matter-of-factly, his brow furrowed.

The mental stress present throughout Stuck’s work, which addresses themes from oppressive policing to the miseries of the internet’s algorithmic swirl, is at its most pointed on their 2023 album, Freak Frequency. On its title track, there’s a rising note that stands as a kind of symbol for the band’s approach – and the inclusion of it speaks to Obis’ work as an audio engineer with the Chicago Mastering Service. “[It’s] called a shepherd’s tone,” he explains. “It’s this sort of audio illusion [where the note] keeps rising in pitch… but then slowly, another one comes in behind it, so you kind of get this sense of constant tension. That was a metaphor that I was really leaning into and I felt like it described the time we were all living through.” The shepherd’s tone isn’t present on every track, but the struggles Obis sings about on City of Police or Time Out are just as migraine-inducing. It’s an approach informed by the times we live in, as well as a love of bands that switch between control and chaos – groups like Uranium Club, Marbled Eye, Jesus Lizard, Protomartyr, Gilla Band, Preoccupations and more.

 

“I’m definitely not narcissistic enough to think our music will change anything… That doesn’t make it pointless”

 

Stuck started out at a time of discontent for Obis. He’d been in two bands, Yeesh and Clearance, both of which had broken up in quick succession. “I personally was very jaded and wanted to not make music any more,” he says, “but I was also booking a lot of shows in Chicago at the time and I wanted to get a band together. So if I was having a hard time finding an opener for a show, I would just be like, ‘My band will play!’ and it will be fine.”

Through a mixture of mutual friends linking them up and tumbling around the whirlpool of the Chicago DIY scene, the band setup came together. Obis was joined by drummer Tim Green and guitarist Donny Walsh in the initial line-up, but they’d only played a couple of shows before David Algrim – who is also guitarist and singer in gaze band Gentle Heat – was “convinced to play bass”. Neither Walsh nor Green had toured before, and their excitement helped stir Greg from his funk. Walsh departed the band in 2022, meaning the band is now made up of three members, joined on this tour by Zach Elias who stepped in to join Obis on guitar duties. Together, they complement Obis’ freewheeling fury perfectly: Green wields an easygoing power from behind the drums and Algrim brings a frontman’s presence to the outer flank of the stage. “I wanted to be playing with people I hadn’t played with before,” Obis says. “I was just trying to cast a pretty wide net with people I didn’t know.”

Stuck released their first album, Change Is Bad, in 2020. It was an uncompromising debut, and one that gave expression to grief. “That record was all about both of my parents dying and [me] being very obsessed for a time with mortality and existential dread, and that being the first death that I had witnessed in my life of somebody close to me,” Obis says. “I couldn’t help but see the parallels between that and the kind of death cult of the US and the total disregard for human life there, and everywhere in the monoculture that we [exist] in.” Tracks like Bug Song are a howl of pain in the face of an economic system designed to extract and exploit: “I’m the cicada who is screaming for help / I am the yellow jacket stinging himself / I am the bedbug bleeding the world dry / I am the ant labouring till I die.”

 

 

 

If there was any levity on that album, it was oblique. Obis recalls selecting the cover’s figurative artwork – a piece by Berlin-based artist Tali Bayer – on the basis there was a kind of morose comedy to it (“It was like, ‘this guy kinda seems kinda dopey and sad!’” he laughs). For the most part, the album was necessarily serious. “Change Is Bad really helped me work through some grief and some really complicated feelings. And it felt really good to write. But I think it is gone,” he told music website Ears to Feed in 2021.

Obis is at his most effective when trying to glean something universal from the way external pressures intermingle with personal anxieties. Freak Frequency was written during the pandemic and shaded by its claustrophobia, but its themes of inescapable anxiety and tension resonate beyond that context, taking in a longer view of capitalist decline. The concept for the album came to Obis when he was looking at a mixing board and drawing parallels between acoustics and politics. “It’s this idea that I kind of got obsessed with,” he explains. Doing soundchecks as part of his work as a audio engineer, he’d reflect on the rogue frequencies that would take off and start feeding back through the monitors. “A big part of my job was ringing out those frequencies,” he says. The album is, in part, an exploration of how society and our minds are subject to similar patterns. In the same way spaces between sine waves shrinks as the frequency rises, Obis observed the downward trend of late-capitalist decline coupling with an ascendent trend of increased psychological tension. Or, as he puts it on album highlight Lose Your Cool: “stress becomes me.”

This shift in subject matter was also directed by another kind of feedback: the punchier their live show became, the more their accelerated transitions and bewildering sonic swerves made it into recordings. “Our live show has informed the sound of our more recent records because we’ve grown as a live band, and that’s so much a part of what we are,” Algrim says. It taps into the band’s penchant for having fun, too. “We’ve played with a lot of bands that maybe took themselves a little too seriously and it’s a little exhausting. It sucks the fun out of it.” 

 

A Stuck live show can feel goofy in spite of channelling all their political rage and personal struggles. “I always love ending on Change Is Bad because it’s like a minute long and it feels kind of like a prank on the audience to end on something so short,” Obis says. He also likes to hide behind his guitar amp – a habit he says he stole from Shellac.

Stuck’s greatest trick is that none of their playfulness diminishes the seriousness of the expression in their work, though Obis is sceptical about his music making any kind of difference. “I think [music is an] important reflection of our time, but… I’m definitely not narcissistic enough to think [our music will] change anything.” However, he concedes this “doesn’t make it pointless, and I think it does draw attention to things”. In fact, there’s one track that addresses this theme head on: Playpen of Dissent, on which he sings, “Art is important, but it won’t solve our problems / […] I have to talk to my neighbours, I have to talk to my co-workers.

Ironically, this song has made a difference to one fan. “We played an all-ages show in Salt Lake City and some teenager came up to me and was like, ‘I started organising because of Playpen of Dissent.’ And I was like, ‘That’s wild.’ That completely blew my mind.” 

It’s a disarming moment of happiness from within the noise, and a reminder that whatever Obis writes about, he brings enough empathy to connect with a crowd.

“I was just like, ‘Man, that’s really…’ I dunno. It made me want to cry, you know?”

 Freak Frequency is out now on Born Yesterday Records

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