Story • Jake Krez
Photos • Rena Naltsas
Eli Cohen never saw the swarm coming.
Having hiked somewhat down the side of a small berm just off the corner of Hubbard and Milwaukee street near the west loop to position himself for a photo, the Manwolves guitarist reached for a small billboard to keep his balance. Little did he know there was a full hornet’s nest tucked just inside the corner he reached for.
Immediately a thick black mass rose into the sky behind him. A terrified look crossing his face, he let out a “get outta here” and scrambled down from the ten foot ledge with the rest of his bandmates ahead of him.
That photo may have been a bit of a failure, but the summer as a whole has been a series of successes for Chicago’s latest underage band to blend sounds into something new: Manwolves. The six-piece group is made up of Evanston High School alumni just past their nineteenth birthdays. Since stepping into the scene just after graduation, they’ve since become regulars on bills across the city, popping up on a seemingly daily basis while finding an artistic home amongst the next wave of the Chicago Renaissance.
While Evanston is most definitely a suburb as any CPS alumni will be quick to make note of, the area has consistently produced talent that has permeated the city’s borders from Steve Albini and Eddie Vedder to ProbCause and Kweku Collins. There is however a CTA train stop, a lifeline to the town on the edge of Chicago that served as a pipeline to one of the country’s most eclectic and inclusive music scenes.
The guys first caught on outside of their hometown through the power of the internet. A quick glance at their Spotify account reveals a trail of increasingly talented singles that reach back as far as 2014 when they were still jonesing for a driver’s license to unlock the full potential of the metropolis to the south. Taking a page out of their hip-hop counterparts putting the city on the map once again, Manwolves has created a buzz by eschewing full-length releases. Instead, they’ve chosen to focus on single releases, churning out a new one on an almost bi-monthly schedule in the time since, each one building on the next. While the ante has certainly been upped as of late, it all started as something to pass the time with classmates.
“We all started as friends in middle school, real talk,” said vocalist Jamie McNear, 19. “We all wanted to play music but it wasn’t like we were all seeking each other out because of their musical talents or whatever, we just all wanted to be in a band. So yeah it was just a bunch of friends getting together reallyputtin’ some shit out ya know?”
Numbers on Spotify and Soundcloud, blog posts and social media can make hard for any artist or act maneuvering in the modern music world to lose track of where they stand in the greater scheme of things. For Manwolves, any symptoms of a big head or growing ego are quickly receded by taking a quick glance in their musical periphery. More simply: it’s easy to be humbled coming up in today’s Chicago.
While they may have started outside city lines, their place in the next wave of the current Renaissance is palpable and sensical. If the first wave started with
the rise of rap locally, Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, released in April 0f 2013 and the break up of seminal band Kids These Days a couple weeks later can be seen as catalysts for everything that’s come in it’s wake. Manwolves were collectively finishing up their freshman year at Evanston High School during that time. Four years later, diplomas in hand the group of long time friends sits poised to follow in the footsteps of that very scene; adding to its lineage along the way.
A recent show at the Chop Shop in Wicker Park on August 11 captured the essence of the role the guys play in the city. Sandwiched on an eclectic lineup between Tasha and headliner Ric Wilson, they proved an ability to operate across several soundscapes. McNear, on vocals fits the band well. A blue-collar singer for sure, he doesn’t look to overly impress, instead finding comfortable tones that often come off as conversational. Combined with the confluence of horns, drums and guitar behind him, the band operates somewhere between the feels of 90s bands like Sublime that aimed to cross between genres without fully committing in any direction.
“We never really all sat down and was like ‘ok we’re going to make a genre-blender’ type of band and it was just like ‘shit what do we all like’ and what did we all individually like fuck with and it just kind of came together like clockwork, it really worked out well, said McNear.”
“I still don’t think we ever experienced a moment where everything sounded perfect just yet and I don’t know that we will probably,” said Henry Wolf. “We will, but I see us as always growing. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a moment where we have that golden sound like ‘oh we reached it, this is the finishline”
The greater finishline is somewhere in the distant future. For now, the guys are wholly focused on the task at hand. The majority of the band is forgoing a college foray for an education via Renaissance while McNear takes Music Business classes part-time at Columbia College. In no small terms, the band is central to each member’s life and they couldn’t be more psyched about it.
“We realize ‘ok this is fam’. We’re all fresh out of high school, none of us are going to college except Jamie,” said drummer Julian Freeman. “For us it’s all about how we’re going to commit to each other and the funny thing is seeing how certain little areas will get affected by that because obviously we slack in different ways but overall we all want this to work not only for ourselves but also for each other which really helps.”
Diving in fully has served those in their periphery well. The Burns Twins, Lenae, Wilson and more are part of a larger contingent moving the scene forward with a class of new faces. While solo acts are always welcome, the group has found a nice lane acting as a break in other show’s lineups, as they did recently at the Chop Shop. Talking to the guys, they often refer to the band as an experiment in growth. As the group of friends continues to evolve and move forward through the eventual benchmarks of the scene both local and beyond, it’s obvious that it’s for the right reasons. Manwolves operates as a sort of consensual benchmark for a newfound post-adolescence.
“What was really helpful for us early on was being able to see people or talk to people who get millions of plays a song and saying ‘this is what we do, you go and do it like this, package it and make it a product people can look at’. It’s about not just listening to a song,” explained Freeman. “One of the reasons that we’ve been trying to do this is so that we can package not just a single but say down the road we want to put out something bigger it wpnt just be like the Manwolves single, it’ll be like a whole-ass burger, which is quite ironic, I don’t eat meat.”
“This is just like the breadsticks,” added McNear. “It’s endless breadsticks, we’re really eating out here. But once that full-course meal comes you gotta take that pre-dinner shit before you can really experience the whole meal. Pre-Dinner Shit! That might be the album title (laughs).”
Its obvious Manwolves are taking cues from those around them in more ways than one and finding success melding it into their own work. Singles, EPs, albums or whichever way they choose to move, it’ll be with a decided amount of sought wisdom behind it.
“Artists like Tasha, Ric, Thelonious, Burns Twins, everyone’s making cool stuff right now so it’s cool to have these people next to us somehow,” said Freeman. “They start making moves and we haven’t been making moves, well shit time to get going you know we gotta keep up. So it’s super motivating to have people in our level being able to look at them and see what we’re both doing and figure out how we can both move forward and level up on this shit, because there are levels at the end of the day.”
Stepping off stage right to a standing ovation and calls for encore after their Chop Shop set, the guys are full of energy. While the summer has brought a series of successful shows that have built on one another to create and exciting buzz around the guys, it’s still easing into nonchalance. For them, good sets are still something to get up about and backstage they trade hugs and high-fives before heading back to the capacity crowd to talk with friends and take selfies with fans. As staff broke down their instruments and prepped the stage for Wilson, the guys made sure to assemble back stage-side for the beginning of his set as Cohen rubbed away the last of the previous day’s hornet stings. Because while things may be going well lately, taking cues from elsewhere will make it sting considerably less.
“I think we all realize we’re in a pretty good spot, I think we all do fully realize it thought because there hasn’t been any major setbacks, knock on wood, and it’s all kind of grown,” said Wolf. “Just as a gradual type thing whereas it just makes sense. We did a couple shows on weeknights where it was more than 270 people came on a Monday or a Wednesday and that’s so raw, we’re stoked for that to happen but we were never into the doing shitty house shows for ten people. We kinda skipped that and we’re glad for that.”