Interview: The Arts of Life Band at North Coast Music Festival

When the lineup for North Coast Music Festival was released, I immediately hit the Internet, doing what many of us music aficionados do but sometimes won’t admit to: I googled the bands I didn’t know to get a taste of what I’d be listening to come Labor Day weekend. When I got to Sunday’s lineup, one band in particular stood out to me: The Arts of Life Band. As I thought to myself what a great band name it was, I did a little more sleuth work to discover I had stumbled upon a hidden gem in the lineup.

The Arts of Life Band is an amazing collaboration between disabled and non-disabled artists playing what they describe as “danceable party music with a rock edge”. They are one segment of the larger Arts of Life program, which creates an artistic environment for developmentally disabled adults here in Chicago, focusing primarily on visual arts. After listening to their song Shark Attack on repeat, I knew I had to get in touch with this band. I chatted with Ryan Shuquem, Artistic Director for The Arts of Life and band member Mike about what the band is up to and what we can expect from their set this Sunday.

Gozamos: So to start off, talk a little bit about the band and how it got started.
Ryan Shuquem: It started when I started at Arts of Life – that was 2006. I did a band rather than traditional music programming. I felt like it would give people a sense of identity and belonging to something, and it’d be a good way to break into the scene and meet people – having that type of identity, rather than the other type of program, which would be recital based.

How do you get new members of the band?
RS: The process is to make a demo tape with two songs. You’ll need assistance from a volunteer. If you have a demo, then you’re pretty much in. We’re at the point where we have a lot of singers right now, so I can’t take them all. A few too many singers at the moment. The people that are officially Arts of Life community members that play instruments – there’s a guy on guitar and there’s a woman on percussion, currently. The rest are volunteers from the community that play in other bands around town.

Do those volunteers play permanently with the band? Like is the same group, or do they change in and out depending on the gig or their availability?
RS: No, it’s the same group, but I have to alternate some singers sometimes. I may have to leave some out if we play at a club, but I’ll get them next time. I rotate singers. Like lately, we’ve been focusing on new material because we were getting ready for recording, so for a couple months I was only working with people on the new record. But now that that’s done, I might go to the people that weren’t on the recording, and the people on the recording might take a little break.

Everyone [Arts of Life members] does painting or drawing in our program as a default, so that’s what they do when they’re not doing music. Most of the time, they’re doing visual art. Music is only like once a week.

So you mentioned a new record. I can imagine it’s quite a process to get the recording done since there are so many members of the band. How are the song writing efforts spread among such a large group of people? Is it a collaborative thing, or are there a few people that take the lead?
RS: It’s one on one. The collaboration level depends on who you’re working with. Our process is to step back as far as possible. I try to give the lead to whoever I’m working with. That’s my process, and if they need more help, then I’ll step in, but I really have to do a lot of laborious filters, I guess you could say, to make sure that happens; to make sure I’m not taking control, so I have to be very careful about that.

You guys are playing North Coast this year, you’ve had many gigs in the past. You’ve played Empty Bottle before and a few other venues. What would you say is one of your most memorable gigs so far.
RS: Most memorable show? We like the Old Town School a lot, we had a good time. Anything else Mike? What’s your favorite show we’ve done?

Mike: The Empty Bottle.

RS: You liked the Empty Bottle? What did you like about it.

Mike: How we played.

RS: Oh, you liked how it sounded?

Mike: Yeah.

RS: Okay, Mike liked the Empty Bottle. The Old Town School environment was really nice, and people were super friendly. I don’t know, it felt kind of cozy, kind of homey to me. And we had an art show going on at the same time, so a lot of people from the group that hadn’t seen us before got to see us, and they were excited. So that was fun.

So is there any thing special you guys are doing for North Coast? Any new songs we should keep an eye out for?
RS: Yeah, we’re going to do all of our new songs because we’ve been working on them for awhile. We’ve got one that’s pretty heavy, so it’s kind of exciting. It’s a pretty wild song, it’s called Bears In The Trash. It’s about Bears In The Trash.

Bears In The Trash? I’m excited to hear it.
RS: It’s a heavy number. So yeah, we’ve got some good stuff. The recording’s going well, actually we’re mixing right now. Not sure when it’s going to come out. We’ll probably just be shopping it around to find somebody to put it out.

Well let us know when it comes out, so we can review it for Gozamos.
Definitely, for sure.

Don’t forget to catch The Arts of Life Band this Sunday at North Coast Music Festival, playing the Magic Hat Local Stage at 1:15 PM.

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