August 11-17, 2005
For more than 20 years Chuck Treece has been Philly music's jack of all trades. A behind-the-scenes look at the man behind the scene.
The woman with the most annoying voice in the world is emceeing a worm-eating contest at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention. Tatted up dudes with Mohawks and nipple rings look up from their plates to make sure that, yes, people are paying attention, however halfheartedly. After that it's time to walk on beds of nails. "Are you fucking amazed?" shrieks the host, her shrill voice rattling off the rafters and skipping needles.
Chuck Treece is not amazed. He checks out the freak show only briefly before heading for a wide open corner of the Convention Center to skateboard around the irresistibly smooth ballroom floor with his son Isaac. His punk band McRad is scheduled to take this stage tonight in what should be a high-profile gig opening for New York hardcore mainstays Murphy's Law.
Trouble is, as Treece weaves around the giant pillars in his private patch of convention floor, the tattoo fans are fading fast. There's not much to do here besides get new tats or show off the ones you came in with. The trophies for best and worst have already been awarded; the sideshow is dragging on and wearing thin.
After a brief, booming set by fellow Philly punk veterans F.O.D. who leave mysterious puddles all over the stage McRad plugs in and sets about the daunting task of taming the hall's oppressive echo and luring the tattooed conventioneers. It's somewhat successful, partly because even people covered in them can only talk snakes and daggers for so long, and partly because Treece's high, wailing guitar solos, evoking his hero Jimi Hendrix, cut through the reverberating bass. It's a hint of clarity, something tangible to focus on. The trio finishes with a heavy-metal flourish and a smattering of applause. All in all, not a bad night for a hardworking Philly punk band.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Treece, however, is not your everyday Philly punk rocker. He's the living link between Philly's old heads and its new soul, its dirty punk roots and hip-hop. In addition to McRad, which he co-founded in 1983, he's shared stages and studio time with an impossibly long list of local notables in an equally unlikely list of genres. The Goats. The Roots. Black Beans. G. Love. Huffamoose. Res. Nancy Falkow. Stiffed. Jeffrey Gaines. Ben Arnold. King Britt. Jill Scott, Jaguar and everybody who ever graced the Black Lily stage. And those are just the ones from the 215.
He's also recorded with Billy Joel, Amy Grant and Busta Rhymes. He's toured with Bad Brains and Urge Overkill. If you look sharp, you can even pick him out on that Bella Vista rooftop in the Coke Zero commercial.
When he's not on it-producer Scott Storch's private jet heading west to lay down last-minute tracks for Dr. Dre, he's sweating and singing on the smoky stage at the Khyber. Chuck Treece is well known in certain circles, but most people who've heard his work don't know his name. He's played every role but one: the star.
If you didn't know better, you'd think this is a pretty busy time for South Philly's 41-year-old singer/songwriter/drummer/guitarist/bassist/aspiring producer.
McRad is gearing up to put out only the third album in its 22-year existence, probably by the end of 2005. His other band Leiana, named for its fierce lead singer, just put out its first full-length in May. His other other band, a raw bluesy rock duo with G. Love called Lottery, should have its debut on the shelves in October. On top of all that, he's got a string of gigs playing bass with King Britt's spooky spiritual new Sister Gertrude Morgan project.
But you have to search pretty far back to find a time Treece wasn't juggling a half-dozen musical endeavors.
Growing up in Delaware, first Wilmington and then the more suburban Meadowood, he got a crash course from his record-collecting uncles and his dad, who supplemented a bus driver income by playing sax with a top 40 cover band. When young Chuck wasn't firing off questions at band practice in Dad's living room, he was watching them perform in towns like Rehoboth and Fort Dix.
Sitting back on a couch in Leiana's practice room the spacious vault in what used to be a Center City bank Treece conjures up a little dive bar in Chester called the Boots and Bonnets. "That was one of the first places I remember playing with my father. I was, like, 8," he smiles. "They gave me a drum solo."
While his dad was educating him on the ways of Earth, Wind & Fire and Blood, Sweat & Tears, Treece's regular visits to his English teacher mom in Philadelphia (his parents split up and remarried when he was little) were helping to open his mind to the budding world of skateboarding and punk rock. She'd drive him out to the skatepark in Cherry Hill, where he met McRad co-founder Zeke Zagar and a whole crew of Jersey/Philly kids starting to carve a scene out of thin air.
By the time he graduated from high school and moved to Philly in 1982, some of those guys were already booking their own bands at a revered (and since demolished) rock venue at Broad and South called Love Hall. That's where McRad put on its first show, although the band didn't actually get its name until later, brainstorming with "Sportin'" Greg Norton of Hüsker Dü at a West Philly house show. "He said "Why don't you call it McTear? Or McRad?'" laughs Treece. "We were like "Whoa!' That was a long time ago."
The band of kids (the youngest, Zagar, was only 14) threw together an 8-song demo, Dominant Force, but when a New York hotshot praised their somewhat poppy take on punk but dissed their singer Ethan Jarvis, they kicked him out of the group. "That was a mistake, listening to someone else," recalls Treece. "Hüsker Dü came back in town and were like, "Where's your singer?' Bob Mould said, you know, that's totally uncool." Not long after, Treece moved out to San Francisco, the first of several flirtations with the West Coast, and McRad was dead in the water six months after it started.
He remembers watching Slayer blow the doors off a small Cali club with Marshall stacks and a double kick drum. It was eye-opening for the 19-year-old punk. "Instead of everybody moshing, everybody was on the floor banging their heads," he says. "I remember my head was so sore. They inspired me to be more aggressive in my approach to music." He was back in Philly by Thanksgiving 1984 and started getting serious about music, playing shows and making contacts.
It wasn't long before he was calling the shots. The resurrected McRad's 1987 album Absence of Sanity (re-released on CD in 2001), became a cult classic when catchy anthems "Weakness" and "McShred" found their way into the Public Domain videotape made by pro-skater-cum-filmmaker Stacy Peralta best known these days for his 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. "And it was the coolest footage 'cause it was all street skating," says Treece. "That just blew McRad through the roof."
At the same time, he took on endorsements from companies that made boards, trucks and wheels and began participating in amateur skate competitions. He had become, in essence, a pro skater.
No longer a pro, he still skates "It's my exercise" but admits the danger. A failed attempt at a trick called a backside boneless two decades ago still has him taking seizure medication regularly. (It's been 18 years since he last had one.) An awkward collision with a fellow skater at FDR Park this past July 4 had him walking with a cane for a few weeks.
Growing up, there weren't a lot of African-Americans skateboarding or playing punk music, but Treece doesn't consider himself a pioneer or a curiosity. Which is not to say he didn't get any flack for it. "People were grabbing at straws just to pigeonhole where I was, but I just loved music and the energy of skating and punk, regardless of whatever skin color.
"That just made me feel more at home," he says. Skaters and punks relished their outsider image. Inside, however, the groups were relatively supportive and open-minded. Although he would later watch both scenes explode and subdivide into cliques ("itemized aggression," he calls it), the kids stuck together in those days. "There's tons of different styles of music, there's tons of different styles of skating or extreme sports," he says. "My youngest son is three. He has a skateboard. But back in the day it wasn't something that was accepted. As soon as something becomes accepted, the people start to pigeonhole it, and dissect it and separate it. I don't think that should really happen at all. If something's really cool and unique there's always a starting point, and hopefully never an ending point."
"As far as the whole black/white issue, if you love what you do, color is the last thing [on your mind.]"
In the late 1980s McRad faded again, and Treece moved back to California and started working on what would be his only solo album, Dream'n, for Caroline Records. He played every instrument on it, so he had to hire a backing band for the live shows. Hanging out in the O.C., he watched an ambitious Gwen Stefani, then a budding ska superstar, and just-starting-to-rage Zach de la Rocha get scooped up by major labels. The eclectic Dream'n, meanwhile, went largely underpublicized and unappreciated.
He remembers watching a Smashing Pumpkins soundcheck when both were booked to play New York's CMJ festival in 1990. "I was like wow, I'm a solo artist with a band that's put together, but these guys, they're attached to something. There's a movement."
"I figured out why some people go out there and succeed and some people go out there and fail," he says of the realization that he was a musician without a scene. As always, he chalks it up to his education. "It was a great experience, starting out just being a punk rock musician and just all of the sudden you're doing a record and you've got a budget."
Tired of eating PBJs and skating around looking for change, he came home to Philly again.
A longstanding friendship with Joe and Phil Nicolo, the producer twins known as The Butcher Brothers, led to numerous session gigs immediately. He'd regularly head out to Studio 4 in Conshohocken to lay down bass, guitar or drums for whoever needed it. That's how he ended up on Billy Joel's "River of Dreams."
"That bassline took a half an hour," he says. "I'm at Dorney Park yesterday and it's playing, and I tell my son: I played on this track. And he looks at me and starts laughing at me because he's totally into Slipknot. He doesn't care."
When Philly hip-hop group The Goats were looking for a drummer in 1991, they read about Treece in City Paper and looked him up.
"How many cities in the world can you read about somebody in the paper and call them and have them join your hokey outfit?" marvels James D'Angelo. The Goat better known as Oatie is in Italy, where he just finished working on a feature film shot in Sicilian. "Chuck plays with such a level of seriousness," he recalls. Treece was the only guy who didn't complain during cramped cross-country tours and actually enjoyed tuning his drum kit. "I don't think I ever heard him say no. He just loves to play for people."
At the same time, the Caroline connection landed Treece a stint with reggae-punk legends Bad Brains. It was a dream come true, he says. "Like a guy who's studying jazz getting to play with Coltrane before he dies."
He juggled those and other bands for a while before saying goodbye to the Brains to join The Goats to play Woodstock '94. Also around this time he was the touring bassist with Urge Overkill (fun, but "I had to wear tight pants and boots all my friends called me Tex"), guitarist with The Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy and, through his friendship with Stone Gossard, found himself playing drums behind reuniting grunge forefathers Green River in Las Vegas.
In Philly, he started jamming with everybody from promising young hip-hoppers The Roots (on their first CD) to rocker Jeffrey Gaines to singer-songwriter Nancy Falkow. "You could throw new songs at him on stage, and it would sound like he'd known that song forever," says Falkow, now living in Ireland. "You always felt safe with him in your band."
Black Beans, Treece's rock/hip-hop duo with Chris Root, was also making waves. They put out a CD on Watermark Records and did a demo for a bigwig at Capitol. "The guy wanted me to get rid of my band and move to L.A. I told him I wanted to keep my band together. Which was possibly a little bit of a mistake on my end but I'm glad that I stuck with my heart, my gut."
Treece was the house drummer during the early years of Black Lily, the revered showcase that shined a spotlight on female soul/hip-hop artists with regular gigs in New York and Philly. It was basically a supergroup every week in those first couple of years, though you might not have guessed it. Bassist Ben Kenney would go on to play with The Roots and Incubus while keyboardist Scott Storch turned into a hit-making producer and ASCAP's 2005 Songwriter of the Year (for Terror Squad's "Lean Back" and Beyoncé's "Naughty Girl," among others). And of course, the Black Lily mic was always being passed from Jill Scott to Jaguar to the Jazzyfatnastees to Kindred.
"You couldn't even think about getting those people [back] together without it being a major bank issue," laughs Treece. "Once you get a core of people doing something positive, something's bound to snap out of it."
The life of a session musician isn't always private jets and hanging out with Busta. The pay is decent, enough to earn Treece a living to support himself and four kids. And it's a nice position to be in, sufficiently in demand to be called in on big budget mixes and remixes.
But it's also not your project. A session musician is keenly aware of the dichotomy. "Is it a business situation, or is it your money? Is it art or is it work? If it's art, that's great, but nine times out of 10, I'm dealin' with work," says Treece.
"I love art musically, visually, spiritually, sonically, but music is a business. And I've always taken it seriously. And a lot of people jump in on it for all the wrong reasons. Because it's so serious but it can be taken so lightly. I'm just not one of those cats. If somebody's railing me, unless the session totally sucks and it's horrible and I've had those sessions I'll be like, "OK, this is horrible,' but it makes all those other sessions that much better."
"In a way [Treece] is a mathematician of musical styles," says Philly producer/DJ King Britt. "His mind is very mathematical and that is the basis of music: math."
Britt frequently taps Treece for live gigs like the Sylk 130 Tour and studio work with Nikka Costa, Jodi Watley and Digable Planets. Britt's current mad science experiment has Treece creating background music around the spooky, passionate singing of Sister Gertrude Morgan vocal and tambourine tracks that were recorded in New Orleans in 1968. That tour will take keyboardist Mark Boyce, Britt and Treece as far as Helsinki.
"His versatility makes him one of the most sought-after session cats," says Britt. "His knowledge of music is vast. He is always learning new styles and is so easy to work with."
As a utility player for super producers, Treece has ended up on a few memorable songs (most notably the Billy Joel tune, though his recent work on a Dr. Dre/Busta Rhymes track may eclipse that). Treece says he's happiest collaborating with G. Love or Scott Storch in the studio and isn't especially impressed and obsessed with hits.
"A hit is basically a hit. You hit, it explodes and it dies down," he reasons. "If you basically just gravitate towards a level of success. That's not called a hit, that's called perseverance. Or dedication. Or your love for what you do."
"I think the question is: What wasn't Chuck's role?" says Leiana with a youthful smile. You'd never guess she's a 33-year-old philosophy grad from UPenn and a mother of two. You'd also never guess from listening to her Page CD that it's her debut. When she decided to make a belated run at a music career, Treece came recommended by a mutual friend.
He helped turn her poetry into lyrics, and then wrote guitar, bass and drum parts around them. On the album, he played the drums and produced, leaving Leiana to concentrate on her cocky, fighty vocals.
Has playing with Treece opened any doors?
"Oh yeah," says Leiana. "A lot of times it's what it takes to [make someone] listen to the album." Right now she's got her eye on a contest in Vegas, with the top prize being a slot on next year's Warped Tour.
In the can for years now, Treece's collaboration with G. Love is due to hit the shelves in October. Once a raw, experimental side project, Lottery has the potential to draw lot of attention. And fans who lost track of Love after "Cold Beverage" may be lured back to this edgy, hungry blues record.
Treece's work with sassy rock outfit Stiffed has to be considered a success as well, although he and the band have parted ways on the eve of the release of their intense, catchy debut full-length, Burned Again. Treece and ballsy frontwoman Santi White didn't always get along.
"He was a huge part of the development of Stiffed's sound. He's definitely an OG, and really helped each of us step up our game," she says. White, daughter of the late Ron White, moved the band to Brooklyn earlier this year.
She praises her former drummer's professional attitude. "Definitely hard to be in a band with though." Personality and scheduling clashes doomed the pair. "Chuck's a dad, first and foremost. He had to handle his business."
"Santi wears her emotions right on her sleeve and you have to to bring that stuff out musically," says Treece. "Regardless of us driving each other crazy, we would still come up with some great tunes."
Considering the compliments they pay one another when they're not bickering and King Britt's praise for their combustive chemistry it's not a stretch to imagine the pair working together again down the road.
One place where Treece will be free of compromise and negotiation is the recently revived McRad. When that "band" hits the studio later this year, it will be a party of one. He's in the midst of writing all the parts now. It's been 18 years since the last album. He's ready.
"I want to just do the McRad record I've always wanted to," he says, excitement sneaking into his usually laid-back demeanor. "I can still put on the first Bad Brains record and listen to it 15 times in a row. That's all I want to do, just make a great rock record."
And if not, there's always the next one. "I feel like I got 20 or 30 years left in music. That's a lot of music. That's a lot of change. That's a lot of stuff to listen to, and to force people to listen to."
"Hopefully one day I'll have enough financial comfort where I can just build my own ramp and just chill and watch my own kids come up and skate."