If Chicago art-pop quintet Office have learned one thing in the indie world, it's that you can't take yourself too seriously.
"You can't really bum people out," Office founder Scott Masson said recently on a tour stop in Los Angeles, "because music is supposed to be sort of an escapism from the reality. You can show people the reality, but present it in a way where there's a lot of love involved and a lot of fun."
Office have taken that lighthearted approach to every aspect of their music, which drummer Erica Corniel coyly describes as "Jihad Surf." While that might be a hard category to pin down on the iTunes Music Store, where the band's song "Wound Up" reached 300,000 downloads as a prestigious single of the week last year, Office have definitely crafted their own brand of pop — with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
But don't let the word "pop" scare you. While it might be the best way to describe Office's catchy mix of boy/girl harmonies and upbeat tempos, aided by Corniel's background in dance music — aside from this band, she's made a name for herself in the Chicago DJ scene — the genre-bending group fuses elements of folk, glam and dance to create a sound, and live show, all its own.
During their early shows in 2005, Office even outfitted themselves in 9-to-5 attire, complete with onstage stenographers. According to Masson, "Chicago at the time wasn't really embracing the fun aspects of music. ... There's an element of headiness involved with that, but we took it to kind of like the fun extreme."
"A ridiculous level," added keyboardist Jessica Gonyea, who started in the band as one of the onstage "secretaries."
But look underneath all that fun pop music and you will find some complex songwriting. Inspired by Blur and the Beatles for their subversive lyrics, Masson pens songs with a wink and a nod. The track "Possibilities" is a modern take on the breakup song, where forgetting an ex is as easy as deleting them from your hard drive. But instead of setting it to a predicable and heartbroken tune, Office amp it up to a danceable, pulsating melody.
"It's this idea of kind of hiding the truth, as pretentious as that sounds — you know, kind of putting it under the rug so that the people who are enlightened can kind of grasp it and the people who are just there for a good melody or a good beat can just kind of sing along," Masson said.
Whether fans are there for the meaning or the melody, they might catch the band as its inebriated alter ego, Rawfice. During a less-than-ideal gig in Indianapolis over the summer, Office dealt with the situation by dropping their harmonies and picking up the tempo. "It ended up being a terrible sound; nobody was there, and we just decided to have a few drinks and put on a punk-rock show," Gonyea remembered.
It's that fun approach to music on which Office have built their buzz. Garnering attention from sets at South by Southwest in 2006, the band returned home to a monthlong residency at Chicago venue Schubas. That same summer, Office were honored to play right in their backyard, scoring a last-minute replacement at Lollapalooza after Boy Kill Boy canceled.
Office's ultra-dancey live shows have loosened up the cynical indie crowd and won over fans in the last year, including former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. After bonding over burritos and karaoke, the band signed with Iha's label, Scratchie Records, which released the group's debut, A Night at the Ritz, this fall. The album combines remastered tracks from Office's 2005 self-released demo, Q&A, with a few more cuts from the 80-song catalog the band has amassed. "We wanted to call it Greatest Hits, but that's a little cocky," guitarist Tom Smith said.
When it came time to make a video for "Oh My," Office dug up an '80s porn called "Possessions" and spliced their performances into the flick. Gonyea likens it to "Weezer's 'Buddy Holly' video, but with porn." She added, "We cut out all of the dirty parts. It's pretty safe for work. I mean, my dad's seen the video."
It became such a hit on YouTube that it made its way to one of the film's actors, Tom Byron. He sent the band a signed copy of his latest, um, release while Office were on tour with Earlimart in Philadelphia. It read, "Dear Office, Liked the video, here's some of my work."
Wrapping up that tour this fall, their first full U.S. jaunt, the band learned a few things from its experience on the road. "Bring Febreze on tour, and try to avoid Montana, 'cause all you'll have to eat is, like, beef jerky and Corn Nuts," Corniel said.
"Watch out for bars next to hotels," bassist Justin Petertil also warned.
"Any place that looks like you might get murdered there, you might get murdered there," Gonyea said.