The Countdown

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Somewhere within the universe that inhabits the electro synth of Miss Kittin, the well-tailored indie dance of the Killers and Head Automatica's hardcore for the dance floor exist Roxie and Stiff Starr. They're electronic. They're punk. They're The Countdown and they're here to get asses shaking. Roxie and Stiff -- aka Tamar Berk and Steven Denekas -- have been mixing it up in the Chicago scene for years as members of various rock outfits. Now united as a musical duo (and a married couple), they've released The Countdown's Scratch & Sniff EP on Invisible Records.

Rock Star Journalism: When I interviewed [Invisible label head] Martin Atkins a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he first heard of you guys when someone at Kinko's dropped him your demo.

Tamar Berk: Actually, that was Steve who used to work there. He was like the rock and roll dude at Kinko's who did fliers for all the bands.

RSJ: Prior to him giving Martin the demo, were you even considering Invisible as a label you would want to sign to?

TB: I knew about it in terms of it being an industrial label. I didn't really consider what we were doing industrial, so, no. We weren't even thinking that anybody would get what we were doing in terms of putting it out. We had people that liked it, but I was like, we can put it out ourselves, which is exactly what we had done with our five-song EP. But Steve came home one day and said, "this dude from Invisible Records, I gave him the EP." And I thought he probably won't like it, since it's not heavy industrial stuff. But we got a call.

RSJ: How do you feel about being on a label where most of the other bands aren't very similar to what you're doing?

TB: Part of me feels that it's good because then we stand out. It also opens up some of his regular fans of Invisible bands to something a little different. And they're very open-minded people, so that's nice. Other than that, I'm not sure if his normal route of marketing necessarily works for us, but I don't know yet. We've only just put that EP out in October. It did really well in radio, and we've gotten e-mails from people who are fans of Invisible bands and they've all been positive -- never any real mention of it being odd to be on the label.

RSJ: Some might put your music in the indie dance category that's been coming to the forefront right now. Do you see bands like The Killers and The Bravery as peers, or do you feel like you're doing something else entirely?

TB: I would say the reason it's a bit different is because we don't have live drums at all. We have a sampler that has all the drumbeats, and it's just the two of us on stage. I definitely think that, in that vein, it's dancey. And that's what we're going for -- we would prefer everybody in the audience to be dancing.

RSJ: You mentioned that you've been receiving a lot of radio airplay in your area --

TB: Yeah, people had been playing our EP before Martin put it out with Invisible. But he did the college radio thing where he sent it out and it was getting played all over. I mean, we reached the Top 200 in CMJ, and at the time I had just had the baby, so we hadn't even played out. So, it was really exciting to see that people were really reacting to it without us playing.

I know [Martin] would have liked us to have been touring at that point, but I'd just had a baby. He released it in October, and I had the baby October 16. I see that he's concerned about the way things are gonna go with us, but hopefully we can make it work. We've already been playing out quite a bit; we couldn't do many of the Pigface dates, but we're going to LA and San Diego, we're gonna go to New York, we're going to Michigan and Detroit. There's a lot of Chicago shows; we're playing this big festival here called the Block Party.

RSJ: That's the Q101 festival?

TB: Yeah. So, in fact, things are going well. I think Martin wanted us to do this Pigface tour, and it just didn't work out. It was a little too soon for us, especially with the baby. But we're managing to work it out now, and I hope he can see that. When he gets back from the tour we'll hopefully be able to plan more stuff with him. And we want to put the full-length out as soon as possible.

RSJ: Is the full-length recorded at this point?

TB: A lot of it is. A lot of it Steve and I recorded in our studio, kind of the same way the EP was done. We recorded all the songs, and we brought Martin all the Pro Tools files and him and Steven [Seibold] just tweaked the hell out of it, made it sound amazing. So, that's really what we would be doing with the full-length too.

RSJ: You've both been in the Chicago music scene for quite some time. How has this been a positive or negative experience?

TB: On the positive side, there's a lot of bands, a lot of places to play, a great network, really great clubs. It's a great town to be a band in. It's easy to find practice spaces, easy to find equipment, it's not that expensive and all of that. On the negative, it's a very indie rock town. It's a Thrill Jockey town and a Bloodshot town -- there are amazing bands on those labels, but for stuff that we're trying to do it's just been a bit difficult in several respects. [In Chicago], there's a rock scene and an indie scene. There is a punk scene, but it's kinda hidden away. And most of it was at the Fireside when they were open -- we played there a ton.

I think that Chicago has this inner circle that decides which bands are the "it" bands. And they stick to those -- either the same people or the same network of people all the time. They're not necessarily extremely open-minded. But at the same time, Steve and I are having fun, and we're not trying to be a buzz band here. We have our own buzz within our own people. We're not trying to get signed to Interscope.

RSJ: You performed at the Outsider Electronic Music Fest in New York. How was this experience?

TB: It was incredible. There were bands from all over the world. Each band got a chance to play maybe four songs, but it was just so cool to be a part of it and know you're where it's at for that moment. And we got to meet the girls from W.I.T., who are kind of [festival founder] Larry Tee's project -- the electroclash girl band. Everyone was just nice -- nice people, nice club, great time.

RSJ: I can see The Countdown fitting with the electro scene. Were you interested in the Fischerspooner type stuff that was coming out of New York a few years ago?

TB: Oh, it was amazing. Initially, we were called electroclash cause people didn't really know what to call us. But we were writing a lot more with guitars, and a lot of that stuff doesn't have guitars. Actually, we just played on Friday and this girl came up to me and said, "you guys are like industrial meets new wave." And I think she's kinda right. I also think we're a lot more punk live -- a lot of that's cause of the guitars. I don't know, it's a little different. It's almost like Big Black.

RSJ: You covered one of their songs, "Bad Penny" --

TB: Yeah, we did. There was a very good reason for doing that. A lot of bands that are doing this electronic stuff I think really owe it to a band like Big Black in terms of them being the pioneers of using a drum machine and guitars. So, we kind of did that as an homage to them and just to say, hey, this isn't new. We're just saying thank you and loving it and trying to do something with it.

RSJ: It was interesting that you covered that particular song too, seeing as it's not really a song you would typically expect a woman to sing.

TB: Oh, I know! Yeah, we were joking about it and I said, Steve, I think I should sing that cause it would be hilarious. And it also then fit into our quirkiness. One of the things that Steve and I want to do really intently in our live shows is entertain. It's not entertaining like Pigface -- which is like this crazy almost circus thing -- it's more of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs entertaining. Like, we're just so into the songs, you can tell we're having fun up there.

RSJ: How would you say your music has progressed since what was on your debut, Communicator?

TB: Much more guitar heavy. Also, with Martin and Steven working on it, it really showed us the power of the drumbeat and the stops and the breaks. I think when we were recording that, we didn't have the skills that Steven has and the ear that Martin has to make the songs complete. We got them down, and they were catchy, but it's that final mixing and editing that really made them complete. Communicator was a lot more barren, a lot more keyboards. Now, even though we love the keyboard, we're throwing in a lot more guitar.

RSJ: How did you get involved with Radio 4 for the remix of Human Resources?

TB: Phil Palazzolo, who is the Radio 4 sound guy and also tours with them, is a friend of mine. I met him in New York when I was in another band that was playing there. Then, when we got signed, I mentioned to Martin that maybe he'd want to remix something. I called Phil and he said he'd love to do "Human Resources," so, him and Anthony [Roman] got in the studio and remixed it.

RSJ: Being quite familiar with Radio 4, I could tell exactly who did that remix when I first heard it. It definitely has their touch to it.

TB: Oh, totally, the disco beat. It has a completely different feel, but I like it too. I love hearing remixes; I'd love for more people to grab our stuff and do it.

RSJ: You've been recognized for your songwriting on several occasions. You were a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest --

TB: Oh, yes, I was. I have this whole other side of me that's a pop songwriter. My first band, Starball, was a total pop rock band. So, for me, writing is just part of my life, even though I do many different styles. Things have always gone well with the writing, but the most fun is when you write for a live project. So, the stuff that I've been writing for The Countdown is the most fun, cause I know that it will come to life on stage instead of just being in a movie or tv.

RSJ: Do you think songwriting is something that is often overlooked with electronic based music?

TB: Well, I don't want to say that across the board, but I have heard some absolutely horrendous stuff. Any Joe Schmo can push play on a drum machine and sing some crappy lyrics over it and call themselves an electronic band. But, at the same time it's also cool that anybody can do it. Anybody can try something and come out with something that's unique and different without having to be a so-called musician. Which is really punk rock actually.

RSJ: You also have a solo album, which has more of an electronic element. Would you say this was somewhat of a bridge between your older work and your new work with The Countdown?

TB: Yeah, you hit it on the nose. We had just bought our studio, and I was learning Pro Tools and learning how to edit. So, the EP I put out was a complete experiment on my part that bridged the gap for me to see how I could move into a more electronic thing and then also keep some pop elements to it.

A lot of the songs that are on Communicator were based on a rock opera that I started to write a long time ago. I wrote them before I met Steve, so this is about '97-98, and I had this really huge idea that it would be on Broadway like Tommy. It was kind of a sci-fi rock opera, and a lot of those songs are on that first LP. So, even though the EP was a bridge into those songs, I always knew I wanted to do something like that.

RSJ: I know the two of you worked together on the last Starball album. Is that how you first met?

TB: Yeah. I lost a bass player, and Steve was in this band called Entertainment, which somebody told me had broken up and he was available. The thing is, I didn't think of him as a full time member, I just wanted him to play the show we had at the Metro. Hearing about him, I was sure he wouldn't want to do a girly pop thing, but he was into it. And, as he says, he liked me. So, I think he wanted to play the show, but he probably wanted to get in my pants too (laughs).

RSJ: What made you realize that you could work well as a musical duo?

TB: When he liked the songs I was writing for Communicator, I was like, I can't believe this guy likes these songs. And he said, "let's try to do this stuff and put it in our computer and work on it." We were just having so much fun that I was amazed. Mostly because he didn't want to change a lot of it, he just wanted to enhance it. So, at the time because I was still going through my "I know what I want" phase, I was happy about that. But now he plays a much bigger role in the writing.

We get along great, but in practice we actually fight like a motherfucker. And then we come upstairs and we're like, okay that was fine.

RSJ: I could imagine there could be some difficulty to having a band with a person you're married to.

TB: Before, when I was writing, it was just for me and my voice. And now when I'm writing a lot of stuff I'm thinking about his voice and what he will sound good at and also what he would like to sing. So, that can be a challenge sometimes because he's like, "I'm not gonna sound good singing that!" So, there's petty arguments, but overall we have an amazing time on stage together. We have this game where we try to top each other, and it's really worked well. I remember reading something about The Who in an interview, and they had said that even though they didn't get along in the studio most of the time, when they got on stage they had so much respect for each other that they got the best things out of each other.

RSJ: Looking at the clip on your site, it seems like you have a lot of fun on stage.

TB: Oh, we do. Somebody just recorded another of our recent shows, so I've gotta put some more clips on it. Live shows, I think both Steve and I would agree, are the most fun thing about being in this band. Having good songs that are catchy and conveying them in a really fun way, not trying to be too intellectual about it.

RSJ: Finally, one more thing for you: have you actually tried out the Jello recipe in the cd insert for Scratch & Sniff?

TB: What's funny is we bought that Jello, and we were gonna make it for that picture, and then we didn't have the right shaped mold, so we just ended up buying it. But, no I have not tried it. If you do, let me know.

RSJ: So, no guarantees on what that comes out like?

TB: No!