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Radar Eyes: They love melody, chaos, cassettes

Greg Kot

6:58 PM CDT, March 21, 2012

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The drums, as Sonic Youth might say, pound an expressway through your skull. The bass forcefully walks the divide between rhythm and melody. Guitars throw a curtain of dirt over everything, and then smear it around. Beneath all the mayhem, melodies emerge and fight for room in the hectic mix.

It's not a new formula, one that dates back to at least theElectric Prunes''60s garage-rock nugget "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)" through the chainsaw-guitar pop hooks on the Jesus and Mary Chain's mid-'80s debut. But the Chicago quartet Radar Eyes reinvigorates that formula as well as anyone on  "Radar Eyes" (HoZac), the band’s unofficial debut.

Radar Eyes' 2010 album was a limited-edition cassette-only release that isn't available anymore. Singer-guitarist Anthony Cozzi went the cassette route because, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

"I used to have a pickup truck when I was working in construction, and it only had a tape player," Cozzi says. "I was buying tapes at Reckless (record shop) for 50 cents: old punk tapes, tons of great stuff really cheap like the first tapes from (Chicago bands) Disappears and Cave. It gave me the idea to do our album that way as well."

The antiquated media, with its hissy, degraded sound, suited the music.

"It squishes all the sounds together," Cozzi says with a laugh. "If you're doing a driving, psychedelic thing, it's perfect."

Radar Eyes followed with a couple of singles on HoZac and built a reputation as a kicking live act, building anticipation for its debut on CD and vinyl -- HoZac's specialty.

The release brings Cozzi full circle in his relationship with HoZac cofounder Todd Killings, who ran a record store and was part of the music scene at Illinois State in Bloomington-Normal during the mid-'90s. Cozzi, who grew up in south suburban Alsip, was playing in bands while attending Illinois State, and he and Killings struck up a friendship. After college, he kept playing guitar and writing songs in private, but found himself drifting.

"I started a lot of drinking and partying, and that became the focus of my life through most of my twenties," Cozzi says. "It was depressive. When I quit drinking, a few friends of mine were forming a band and needed a guitar player."

The band, Night of the Hunter, played a dark, noisy brand of punk with an unhinged lead singer. It fell apart when the quartet tried to record an album. "We had a reel-to-reel eight-track recorder that kept breaking," Cozzi says. "The machine kept breaking and the band finally broke up, too"

Before the end, one of the band members, bassist Nathan Luecking, began writing songs with more of a pop feel, drawing on the Jesus and Mary Chain's first album as inspiration. "On a whim we started working together on these basic, garage-pop songs, and one night we brought them into a Night of the Hunter rehearsal," Cozzi says. The singer didn't show, so only drummer Shelley Zawadzki was there. Soon after, the three split off to form Radar Eyes.

Luecking, who contributes several songs to Radar Eyes' HoZac album, left the band last year to move with his wife toWashington, D.C., and Cozzi took over as the band's primary singer with Zawadzki, bassist Lucas Sikorski and guitarist Russ Calderwood. The album was recorded over two years in two less-than-ideal locations: the living room in Cozzi's old apartment, and the basement below his current place in Logan Square.

Apparently he has really tolerant neighbors. "We do a lot of daytime recording," he says.

As charming and rough-hewn as that do-it-yourself approach may be, "Radar Eyes" stands as an excellent reminder of the inspired chaos that two guitars, bass and drums can still stir up.

"I feel really good about how far this band has come," Cozzi says. "Everything from here on out is just a bonus. All I ever wanted was to have a record out on a label I liked. I was a teenager when my dad taught me a few chords on the guitar and I learned to play along with the Ramones' 'Loco Live.' Now we're all in our thirties, and it's a little harder for all of us to take three months off our day jobs and tour. It might be different if we were an Internet sensation."

They're not exactly an Internet-friendly band, with the bulk of their music released on non-digital formats. But Cozzi is still hoping to make a living off the love of his life. He recently received a degree from Columbia College in arts entertainment media management.

"I hate the idea of this being a 'hobby band,' " he says. "The connotation is that you don't take it seriously, and that gets under my skin. At the same time I can't dedicate to this full time. I wish I had this opportunity when I was 21, but I'm grateful that I finally have it now. I'm trying to find a balance. There's that nagging voice in your head about what a responsible 35 year old should be doing. Maybe I should find something that gives me the stability that I don't have. But for now I have to have a little faith that things will be alright."

greg@gregkot.com

Radar Eyes with Night Beats, 10 p.m. Saturday at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Av., $8; emptybottle.com.