Music: Keys to Success

Up-and-coming Chicago trio oh my god pushes the Rock envelope with keyboards, bass and drums

Chicago's oh my god have an organ to grind, but there's nary a guitar in sight.

Like all successful Rock trios, Chicago's oh my god consists of three powerful musical entities. Bassist/vocalist Billy O'Neill and drummer Bish are a fluid and diverse rhythm section, providing an appropriately slippery foundation for the band's shifting Classic Rock/New Wave/Art Pop/Punk sensibilities.

Unlike the majority of Rock trios, oh my god differs from their conventionally structured brethren in one very significant aspect: The third leg of the trio, Brian Berkowitz, known far and wide as Iguana (or Ig), plays keyboards. There are no six-stringers in this Rock-hard, hyperkinetic power trio.

"In this particular band, I've almost consciously avoided other organ players, by which you might include Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff and all the guys that are Philadelphia-born Hammond organ masters," says Ig from oh my god's bus as they head out of Washington, D.C. "Around the time our band was getting together, I got pretty interested in using the organ like a guitar, in terms of the tones and the types of chord voicings that I use. A lot of that is from the Bob Mould and Hüsker Dü school. Some would say Jon Lord and Deep Purple, because of the overdriven organ, but I don't play any of the same chords or even in the same spirit as that stuff. It's definitely a lot of punky, distorted guitar, like Wire's Pink Flag, where it sounds like somebody punctured the amp with a pencil, and it's really distorted and nasty sounding."

When oh my god initially hooked up in the late '90s, the band actually worked with a guitarist for a handful of gigs. Internal friction forced him out of the group, and Ig (who has many years of experience playing with the likes of Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Van Morrison and the late, great Junior Wells) began implementing a frenetic keyboard style that more than compensated for the absence and hasn't necessitated any augmentation since then.

"We often considered that if a guitar player came up to us and wanted to join and had great ideas, we'd be all for it," says Ig. "But that's never happened. We got more comfortable in this form and I got more adept at covering more ground, so we haven't found a need to change any of that. And I certainly am sort of a hog also. I like to play a lot of those low end bass parts and the midrange guitar parts, so I feel sort of territorial."

As for the band's name, while it sounds like it could have been a fan's reaction to their sonic approach or physical configuration, or perhaps even a reflection of the band's own spiritual perspective, bassist/vocalist O'Neill recalls the more mundane origin of their nomenclature.

"It's funny, because people ask us if we have a particular religious affiliation and the answer is no," says O'Neill, whose stage presence has been described as a blend of Kurt Cobain and Charles Manson. "We were looking for a name, which is a very painful, somewhat irritating process, if you ask me. I almost hate the idea of having a name. Basically, we put in a pizza and about 40 minutes later we thought, 'Oh, my God, that pizza's still in the oven.' So we chose that, because it's part of the vernacular and you hear it a lot. It's more 'Aha!' than anything else. It is just that."

With a sound that has been compared favorably to everyone from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Weezer and Devo to the Cars, Deep Purple and Steppenwolf and a range that encompasses the space between flat-out Rock and the subtler and more emotion-laden moments of great Pop, oh my god would seem to be positioned to accept a lot of label attention. The band has self-released the majority of their catalog to date, including their eponymous debut EP in 2000 and their full-lengths Well (2001), The Action Album (2002) and their latest release, last year's You're Too Straight to Love Me. Interrogations and Confessions was released in 2003 through the auspices of a small label with some decent distribution, and the band appreciated the widened scope. But pursuing this avenue isn't necessarily oh my god's primary concern.

"My greatest challenge and focus is just working on being a better player and a better singer and having more fun and more freedom of music," says O'Neill. "I feel like to whatever degree I'm successful doing that, the other parts of it will fall into place naturally, and wherever they do fall, I'm at peace with."

"We like to vary the tones and the energies of the different songs, but every time I say that's the important thing for the course of a show, I think about The Ramones," says Ig. "All of the songs are about the same tempo, the same tones and a lot of the same changes and it never got boring and they were great. That was their thing. I guess the best thing to do is figure out what your thing is and do it all the way."

Oh my god has figured out their thing and they are most assuredly doing it all the way. And, oh my God, the thing is good.

OH MY GOD performs at the Southgate House on Saturday with Chaselounge and Junior Revolution.