Someone I respect very much – the rare man that got old without getting mad – once told me that how much you love something is less important than how far you’re willing to go for it.
What was I willing to do? What would I give up? A couple of nights and weekends, like a factory hand nursing a small bout of alcoholism? How much was I prepared to sacrifice? How far was I willing to go? Eighty percent of everything is luck, he said, but eighty percent of luck is getting yourself in the right spot for it to happen to you and not some other schmuck.
I don’t know how much you buy of all that. It’s easier to blame dark forces, an indifferent market and the prosperous and prolific tribe of “haters” who have nothing better to do than keep good men and women down.
But I do subscribe to the philosophy of Tevo. The Book of Tevo. The story of a guy who nobody was waiting for and nobody invited to the party.
Tevo Howard doesn’t play all that much in Chicago; I think there are veteran scenesters that still don’t have much idea who he is. Most of his records are pressed in Europe rather than back home. He doesn’t complain about this. And he doesn’t have a team or a crew or a massive organization other than the usual partnerships one establishes to make a living in the business. He collaborates often enough – with Tracey Thorn, with Kate Simko, with his dad – but I can’t get the image out of my head of Tevo crouched over some black machinery with wood panelling, harsh light overhead, working alone and never with much fanfare.
Sort of like this…
The story’s been told so often it’s become refined as a fable, but it’s still illustrative. Tevo Howard began DJing back in the late 1980s, which one can mark as the start of something but probably not anything in the shape of a “career.” After detours to study music, literature and law, Tevo was working toward an MA from DePaul in 2006 when he walked away from it all and started building the first iteration of Beautiful Granville Studios. How far are you willing to go? That’s pretty far.
And in the interest of a tidy story, that’s usually as far as the narration goes. But I’ve always been curious about how Tevo’s first record was made, and received; it turns out nobody asked him that before.
“I remember pressing my first record and selling my beater of a car after having it towed to the dealer,” he said. His car yielded $600 to cover the final costs of BGR001, titled About Fourteen.
“When the car dealer asked me how to start the car, I was walking out the door with the loot. My answer was to say anything, man, so I said, ‘Push start!’ and kept going.”
About Fourteen was pressed up, and Tevo held a release party at Kstarke Records. “About Fourteen” wasn’t just the title but an accurate prediction of its target market – the party netted a grand total of 14 copies sold.
You can imagine how one feels after that. “I went to get the records that didn’t sell, extremely depressed and trying to hide my sadness from Kevin Starke,” Tevo remembers. “On my way out, Kevin wrote down a phone number and the name ‘Phillip’ and said to call.”
“Phillip” was Phillip Hertz at Crosstalk International. Tevo dragged 50 records on the train to his appointment, and left the box while Crosstalk had a listen (it was too heavy to drag it back home). Checking in some time later, he was told that not only did they like it, but they’d sold all 50 copies.
“I was so excited that I just had to lie down and close my eyes for a few hours,” Tevo remembers. “He asked if I had any other releases in mind, and it all began. I skipped BGR002 and BGR003 stayed on Clone’s chart for close to a month as a top seller.” And About Fourteen – the debut record that looked like a cosmic joke at his expense – has rounded out about 10,000 copies sold since then.
People love stories like this. It’s usually for the wrong reason. They see the payoff and they miss the work. It’s great when good things happen to good people, but nothing just “happens.” Tevo was an unknown producer when he threw a release party that sold barely a dozen records; he was operating a label without any music when he sold his car to press up the records to begin with. Seeing where he is today without that context is like imagining a space shuttle evolving directly from the Wright Brothers’ plane. There were thousands of small steps, some audacious moves and terrible wrecks. But it got there anyway.
Tevo’s sound has evolved since About Fourteen, but not his approach. There’s a certain rigidity to a Tevo Howard composition – every note appears to be meticulously placed, like a steel nail locking into a groove. His melodies are ruthlessly tight. The word that comes to mind: “order.” Like a Martin Hannett of Chicago House, give him a bassline and a drum pattern and he’ll make marvels.
This tight grasp reaches a grotesque culmination with “Sequence Report,” Tevo’s alias for more experimental, electro-based and ferociously electronic music. Vanity is the second album from Sequence Report, in which even the human voice is an electronic module, an animated diode which sometimes surprises you (and sometimes unnerves you) by how “human” it sounds. Perhaps it’s the way it quietly “processes” and communicates themes of love and violence and self-glorification despite being metaphysically incapable of all three. Vanity is science fiction in musical form – not the space opera of Star Wars or Jeff Mills’ rapturous epics of outer space exploration but a depiction of a world terrifyingly familiar to A City in America, Circa 2015. Tevo drills down beneath the bedrock with this record, intentionally or not. Taken on a track-by-track basis it has its moments but as a whole album, I couldn’t stop listening.
And it may seem like a leap from this dystopian opera to a cover of Madonna… and yeah, it is. Madonna’s hit “Holiday” is the title track for Tevo Howard’s Black Electro Orchestra’s latest EP. Here you have the classic elements of Tevo’s irresistible style – the chords following a steady but meticulously plotted sequence, like a melodic EKG – applied to a forgotten and mostly discarded artifact of consumer technology. Apparently, the thin, cheerful sound of “Holiday” comes from MIDI files (of the variety you might have heard automatically playing on a Geocities Madonna fansite circa 1997), “assigned to analog drum machines, tuned and tweaked to versions that were up to date to the classic sound of Chicago House.” It’s probably the most thrilling version of Madonna I’ve heard in years! Tevo’s affinity for the material is undeniable – he knows House Music like the back of his hand but short fragments of ’80s pop and early dance music are embedded in a lot of his original productions. This whole EP is just incredibly delightful. These are made for DJs but if you want more from this project, there are shorter versions on Cosmopolitan 1987, a twelve track album of ’80s cover songs.
I don’t think you need me to point out that processed MIDI versions of songs from the ’80s or albums on dystopian themes or even the live project “Ruby” that Tevo’s a part of aren’t an obvious ticket to fame and riches and popularity. If anything, Tevo’s career has been about short-circuiting expectations, dodging instead of leaping ahead, deliberately tracking off into directions both uncharted and unanticipated. Tevo started (to the extent there’s a definite date for when anyone “starts” a life in the arts) at the age that many people are hanging it up. Maybe that’s why he feels free not to worry too much about where this is all leading. Maybe this is just the unconventional artist with an unconventional outlook that he is. In an industry growing languid and boring by convention, Tevo Howard and his records will always surprise you. Even if you don’t see the labor behind them.