By Andy Downing
RedEye special contributor
9:28 AM CDT, July 19, 2013
Filligar, a band of brothers anchored by siblings Johnny, Ted and Pete Mathias (longtime pal Casey Gibson rounds out the lineup), has become accustomed to life on the road.
In addition to sustaining a hectic tour schedule, the roots-rock group, which splits its time between Los Angeles and Chicago, recently spent the better part of two weeks working as musical ambassadors in Azerbaijan, a country bordered by Russia to the north and Iran to the south.
"I thought someone was playing a practical joke when they first told me [about the trip]," said Johnny Mathias, 24, who resides part-time in Lincoln Park. "But after looking into some of the logistics, we said yes."
By phone, the frontman discussed the highlights of the trek, the band's forthcoming album "Hexagon" and the last time he was drawn into fisticuffs.
You recently spent a couple weeks in Azerbaijan working as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department's Arts Envoy program. How did the trip come about?
We did an interview on Pakistani radio about a year and a half ago [for the State Department], so we were in their database. We were in Las Vegas one day when we got the news they wanted to take us to Azerbaijan.
What was the highlight of the trip?
The whole trip was one succession of highlights, but the best part might have been going on the Azerbaijani equivalent of "Good Morning, America," which was called "Salam Azerbaijan." That was a totally different cultural thing, even though it was a talk show. I think over time we'll be able to get to all these different details, but that was one highlight out of many.
How would you describe the setting over there?
Baku, which is the capital city, looks a little bit like Las Vegas-meets-Chicago. I wasn't sure what to expect, but when we touched down the first thing that strikes you is the lights in the city. They have these two towers called the Flame Towers, and they're these massive LED screens that are just projecting images of flames. It does have an American vibe. We went to this one mall, and it easily could have been somewhere in Iowa. Everyone over there was super welcoming to us as Americans, and I wasn't sure that would be the case just given its proximity to Iran.
Did you have to take any additional safety precautions?
I was thinking we'd have an armed convoy or something, but there wasn't any hostility at all. There wasn't that one moment where someone was yelling at us. There was nothing at all that even made us look over our shoulders.
You spent some time collaborating with local musicians, right?
Yeah. The whole aim of the program is to use music as a means to acquaint different cultures with each other. One of the first things we did was go to the American Cultural Center in Baku and meet with 20 [to] 25 musicians who were in rock bands there. We also did a recording of this song by the Azerbaijani rock band Yuxu called "Xezerin Sahilinde." We played it at these concerts and whatever band opened the show, we'd have them come up and do a solo or sing a verse of whatever.
Do you think you'll continue playing the song here in the States?
[Laughs] I don't know. Unfortunately I don't have it memorized. I had a little cheat sheet on the ground with the lyrics. I might need to bring that on the road if anyone wants to hear it.
"Hexagon" is a tougher sounding record, and there's a real bite to the guitar parts on songs like "Money on the Dark Horse." Did you come into recording wanting to flex your muscles a bit more?
The working title for "Money on the Dark Horse" actually had something to do with ZZ Top, and it was going to be our "Sharp Dressed Man" or whatever. But there really wasn't any conscious attempt to be badass.
On "Atlas" you sing about "rolling with the punches," and you have a song called "Knock Yourself Out." When was the last time you were in a fistfight?
[Laughs] In Madison, Wisconsin, though I don't think any of us consider ourselves fighters. It was years ago; I think I was still a teenager at that point. We were going out and some kid was running his mouth and it developed into a Floyd Mayweather meets Manny Pacquiao bout, but both lightweights.
You're the youngest of three brothers in the band. Was there any sense of sibling rivalry amongst the three of you growing up?
There's always rivalry, but there was nothing that was ever a problem. Pete and Ted are twins though, so I'm sure as toddlers they were fighting to see who could crawl first.
Filligar, 6:30 p.m. July 27 at Taste of Lincoln. $10 suggested donation.
Johnny Mathias personality test
Last album you bought? "'Bloom' by Beach House."
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? "I think probably Daft Punk's 'Alive 2007' album."
Song you never want to hear again? "That's a tough one. I think probably that meme song. What is it? Oh, 'Harlem Shake' by Baauer."
Best concert you've seen in the last year? "Black Sabbath at Lollapalooza."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? Tame Impala
Favorite movie ever? "Mars Attacks"
Chicago's best music venue? "Chicago has a lot of great venues, but I like the Aragon Ballroom."
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