Music: 'Dresses for Successes

Locals The Sundresses play SXSW two years running and get started on a big year

Keith Klenowski

The Sundresses (L-R) Brad Schnittger, Makenzie Place and Jeremy Springer

Tuesday's open mic night at Allyn's consistently draws some of the city's best singer/songwriters to test new material or just get some exposure. On this crisp February evening, several of Cincinnati's finest talents — including Whitney Barricklow and members of Ruby Vileos and Buckra — take their two-song shots at an appreciative Allyn's audience.

Awaiting their turns are the Sundresses' guitar/drums tag team duo of Jeremy Springer and Brad Schnittger, individually performing new songs and well chosen covers. Bassist Makenzie Place is also in attendance, but only as moral support for boyfriend Springer and bandmate Schnittger.

Springer's up first, debuting "Asia, Now," a song he's written piecemeal while chemically meditating on downers. "Andrew Jackson's got a hold on me/Ben Franklin will not leave me be," Springer intones over the slow, skronk acoustic Blues riff. He's ultimately unhappy with his rendition and cuts it early ("I don't have to impress anybody," he says). He finishes with a moving, slow-burn version of "Strange Fruit," an appropriate cover considering the proximity of the 40th anniversary of Malcolm X's assassination. ("Everything I learned about being a human being, I learned from Malcolm X," says a reverent post-show Springer.)

Schnittger's next with his new original song, "Vodka."

By admission, he's the Sundresses' sensitive ballad writer and his song and performance are proof; smoother and more subdued but just as powerful. Schnittger closes with a darkly shaded minor key take on Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," sounding like Nick Cave updating the soundtrack from That's Entertainment!

After the pair's well-received performances, everyone retreats to Allyn's back room to discuss the Sundresses' brief but potent history. The band started three years ago after Springer's apprenticeship with Beel Jak and I May Run and Schnittger's time with Crimson Harbor, the Lunchbox and Jake Speed and the Freddies. To that point, Place's only practical musical experience had been in Hamilton High School's marching, pep and concert bands.

"My last band played at Anthony Munoz's retirement," she laughs.

After Schnittger and Springer met, they decided they were meant to play together ("On paper, we should not even be friends," says Springer laughing). They almost immediately devised their patented guitar/drums mid-set role reversal. Non-guitarist Place picked up the bass left in Springer's apartment after I May Run's dissolution.

"She said, 'Is this how you play bass?' " recalls Springer. "I said, 'Yeah, that's how you play bass.' Brad came over and she played bass for him and we all laughed for a long time."

"They weren't laughing at my bass playing," Place clarifies.

"We thought, 'This is a ridiculous idea but it'll work,' " says Schnittger. "We were laughing at the ridiculousness of what we were about to try."

What the Sundresses were contemplating was a twisted take on the Blues, a Pere-Ubu-meets-Wall-of-Voodoo-at-Jon-Spencer's-company-picnic genre branch that defies convention and description. After slightly more than a year of local gigging, the band had written and recorded their impressive debut, The Only Tourist in Town, which has sold about half of its 1,000-unit pressing. "We could always sell more," says Springer. "They're at Shake It." Schnittger adds, "$5 for 13 songs ... that's a bargain." And Place offers the Sally Struthers angle: "We still owe my mom $400 from the recording." And they claim they're no good at promotion.

Currently the Sundresses' are thinking about (or trying not to think about) their second consecutive appearance at South by Southwest, the annual weeklong music industry shindig in Austin, Texas, in just a few weeks. The band's debut last year at the tiny Blender Balcony was a marvel of wound-up art-damaged Blues/Rock energy and, as Springer noted that night, only their ninth out of town gig at that point. Their passion at that show attracted the attention of Cory Dennis, a West Coast label rep in attendance who offered her services in managing the trio and updating their Web site.

"We'll be playing SXSW for the second time before our third anniversary," says Springer. "I just like saying that. It doesn't completely register as true."

A majority of the band's SXSW excitement concerns their placement on the Fat Possum Records showcase, billed with local friends the Heartless Bastards and opening for Blues Explosion bassist Judah Bauer's side project. They fully understand the pressures involved with this kind of high-profile gig, but they're confident they'll make a good showing.

It's difficult for the trio to juggle day jobs, rehearsals and gigs — Springer cooks at Donna's Diner in Covington, Schnittger works at Kenwood's Half Price Books and Place waitresses at P.F. Chang's — but they're all committed totally to the band cause. They're writing new songs, a split CD with 4192 is coming out in the spring and, while they confess to aspirations of a label signing and tour support, the Sundresses also take things a day at a time without wallowing in the fantasy of Rock stardom.

"Our main goal is to be able to do this as our job," says Schnittger. "That's pretty much the only goal."

After a moment's perspective, Springer admits one concession in this regard. "I want to be the perfect band," he says with equal measures of jest and seriousness. "In the sense there are songs with no flaws, not technical proficiency so much, but where every song is written for the song and is in itself separated from the rest of the music but at the same time connected. The Beatles did that. They were a perfect band, that's why everyone ripped them off. That's my goal."

Springer pauses, amending his thought with a smile. "Personally, I just want to be bigger than the Afghan Whigs so I can throw it in that fucker John Curley's face."

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