music morsels The Band Mates Network December 2007

CROSSROADS - Chevelle Drummer Sam Leoffler
by Mark E. Waterbury

Sam Leoffler
Photo by Andrew Hammerand

I am sure there are a number of fledgeling musicians out there that look up to bands like Chevelle. Why not? Major label deal, platinum albums, charting singles, high profile tours...who wouldn’t want to emulate them? The problem is most young musicians look at their heroes and dream of being just like them, but don’t apply the work ethic necessary to get there. The gods of rock didn’t magically transport Chevelle up the mountain to success. They had to bust their asses, primarily in the way that most bands who have become successful have, by performing as much as they can. PERFORMING, PERFORMING, PERFORMING!! A simple paradigm if you break it down that seems to be so difficult for most to follow, no matter how many times you relay the success stories to them of those who have worked so very hard and played every nook and cranny to boost their careers. It worked for Chevelle, and the strange thing is, they did not have actual goals of becoming famous when they first began to prowl the stages of the Midwest. Maybe there is a message there, too...

Chicago, like most large cities can be a very tough market for bands just getting started. Back in the mid 90’s, the Leoffler brothers, with Pete handling vocals and guitar, Sam on the drum kit and fourteen year old Joe replacing the original bassist, Chevelle formed and began to infiltrate the Windy City’s party and festival circuit. “We honed our music first, and then we just played everywhere we could,” Sam recalls. “Once our music was as good as it could be, we got to know established local bands and got on bills with them, playing backyard parties and other events.” The brothers also went to concerts where similar bands performed and talked to the fans there as well as handing out flyers for their own concerts. “This was the best way to let people know about us,” Sam notes, "because these are the people who actually go to shows. It started to work, and some of those people would show up at our own shows.” It was not too long before the local clubs began to catch on to the buzz Chevelle was creating. They were soon playing at notable venues including the Double Door, Lounge Axe, and Fireside Bowl. Although the band members were tenacious performers, thoughts of becoming “rock stars” had not even entered their minds. “We didn’t have any far reaching goals at all,” Sam muses. “We just wanted to play the songs that we were writing and have people there to hear them. I don’t think here was a formula; there is no one show or one anything that makes or breaks anybody, and you have to get that through your head. You just have to realize that it’s going to be OK no matter what happens. I think that made our shows a lot better because it took the pressure off.”

Chevelle gradually started performing beyond the Chicago region, and were soon noticed by Steve Albini, the former Big Black guitarist who was by that time a highly regarded producer, having worked with dozens of acts including Nirvana, Bush, Cheap Trick, and the Pixies. Albini collaborated on the first Chevelle album “Point #1” which was released in 1999 on Steve Taylor’s short lived Squint Entertainment label. The boost from the album’s release helped get them on tour legs with popular acts including Sevendust, Filter, and Powerman 5000, and they continued to perform their own shows, too. “Those tours helped us become a better band because we got to play in front of more people and become more comfortable with our live show,” Sam notes. Chevelle’s buzz was becoming more obvious and widespread, and when it came time to record their second album “Wonder What’s Next,” they signed a major label deal with Epic Records. The album went platinum in less than a year as the band gained even further popularity with a main stage slot on the 2002 Ozzfest Tour. Following the live album “Live From The Road,” Chevelle recorded their third studio album in 2004, “This Type of Thinking Could Do Us In.” Shortly after that album’s release, bassist Joe Leoffler decided to leave the band, perhaps creating the first bump in the road for Chevelle’s career. The bump did not deter Sam and Pete as they brought in their brother-in-law Dean Bernardini to replace him. “We all have our things that we go with,” Sam notes, “and we never really wanted Joe to quit. He just got burned out on touring and traveling so we sort of understood it. With Dean, we have known him for a long time. We knew his capabilities and bringing him into this was the only way to go. It wasn’t even that much of a transition because he was familiar with us. It was the right thing to do.”

After the tour ended, the band entered the studio to record their fourth album, “Vena Sera.” Unlike many other bands, Chevelle does not turn out album after album every year or so, considering that in their twelve year existence they have only released four studio albums. “We spend such a long time on the road,” Sam explains. “Also, when we are writing, if we don’t love a song we stop working on it or completely rework it. We take the time to make sure that it is as good as possible, and even when we are done with a CD, it is like it is never done, it is never finished. There is always something we could have done better. We don’t get the instant satisfaction when we listen to a CD right after we recorded it, it is only a bit later when it has been out for awhile that maybe we can sit back and realize that what we have done is pretty good.” “Vena Sera” features several songs with multi-subjects, and also touch on topics including reverse evolution, hypocrisy, and consumerism among other subjects important to them. The vocals also have a bit more of a melodic touch than their past records. “It was a conscious decision to make a more melodic record and add in more harmonies. You always want to develop as a band, and even though we have always considered ourselves a melodic hard rock band, we want to develop further within our own genre.”

Of course, as soon as "Vena Sera" hit the shelves, Chevelle hit the road for a hectic cross-country tour. Even though they are a major label act, they still hang out in front of the tour bus and talk to their fans, asking for their feedback on the shows, keeping this grass roots method of fan connections intact, as they have been doing since they were playing in the back yards of Chicago in the mid-90’s. Looking back, the guys in Chevelle are pretty amazed that they have become as successful as they have. Perhaps that is the greatest lesson to be learned here. Since they were always about performing constantly and improving on their musical craft, while not being weighted down with a rock star mentality, they surprised themselves and are enjoying the successes that most people dream of but don’t really work at. “When we all look back, we are honored to have come as far as we have. I think we started to become successful because number one; we have good music. And number two; we were in the right places at the right time. We had to work long and hard to get in those right places, but that is what you have to do.”

Sam Leoffler's advice for musicians: “Play every show possibility you get, whether it is a party or an event or a club show. I would not go on tour right away unless you get on a good bill with someone where you will be in front of a crowd. I also think it is a good idea to get your own recording gear to record your albums, because that will save you a ton of money. Make sure you have good music, and if you do that and play out frequently, then sooner or later people are going to get together with your songs."

Chevelle - Vena Sera
Epic Records - 88697 02698 2

With their fourth studio album, Chicago’s hard rocking Chevelle inject a bit more harmony without sacrificing any of the intensity. If anything, there is more of an emotional power, fueled by the molten guitars and thundering rhythms that they are noted for. “Antisaint” storms out of the gate like a lion unleashed and ready to pounce. “Well Enough” has a dramatic groove and the right dose of hookiness. “Paint The Seconds” intersperses acoustic harmonics with blistering passages. With strong, thought-provoking lyrics, and further maturity and innovation in their songwriting, Chevelle also keeps their integrity intact, something many major label acts lose by their second or third album. This factor could speak vehemently for the band’s past and future longevity.

Division of Serge Entertainment Group