Saturday, April 29, 2017

Strung Out in Chicago Takes On a Whole New Meaning with Chicago's Best Cover Band - Interview with Jeff Sismelich of Strung Out

Strung Out Members (l to r) Tom Culver, Ted Spaniak, Jeff Sismelich, Jeff James, John Chisari

For me, music is the most satisfying, sentimental, heart-tugging, time reversing, pleasurable (and I could keep going) of all of the arts. There are deep emotional attachments with music, particularly music one came of age to. Music isn't like a film or a television series. As much as I love filmed entertainment there is rarely a time I go back again and again, but can anyone actually know the number of times you have listened to a song that was released when you were ten years old, fifteen years old, twenty years old? Yet, we still listen and enjoy over and over and over again. I read recently the music that embeds itself into your life the most are the songs that were released between the ages of ten through 22. I would agree with that assessment. As I look back on my life, which I do with some regularity, that is the 12 year period of music that resonates most with my heart and soul. With that, I was thrilled to encounter a Chicago based cover band that produces heartfelt and passionate interpretations of music from the 1970's. Thanks to guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist, Jeff Sismelich for taking the time to answer a few questions about the music. 

Before I get to the interview I wanted to note a recent encounter with a young guy who couldn't have been more than 18 years old. We were both waiting to give a song request at an event. He was thoughtful and offered me the first go, but I said "no, you go first." He then looked at the keeper of the music for the night and stated "anything by Journey." I wasn't going to request Journey at that moment, but my heart was so settled by the young guy loving Journey I just looked at them both and said "ditto." I walked away knowing the world is not what it once was, but for this one brief moment in time, it felt just right. Don't Stop Believing.  

You can check out the performing schedule for Strung Out at their site:   

Judith: Jeff, I've seen Strung Out a couple of times and you guys are good! I love the sound and the respect you pay to the original arrangements and yet you make a few creative tweaks along the way. You are all impressive musicians. How did the band get its start? 

Jeff: We formed Strung Out in January, 2012. I was playing in The Blooze Brothers (Chicago’s premiere Blues Bros Tribute) as the Jake character with our cello player, Tom Culver, who founded the band in the 1990's. Jeff James our drummer was also in that band. Tom was interested in putting something together so that he could play more cello.  He’s been classically trained since he was a child, and teaches junior high orchestra. We are in large part unique in that we have an electric cello as part of the band.  So after trying different iterations (acoustic, trio, quartet, etc.), our drummer Jeff introduced us to Ted Spaniak, who he had played with in a couple of different bands.  Ted is a really talented guitarist and piano player. Once he was on board, we decided an electric classic rock band seemed to make sense, so I contacted John Chisari, a bass player I knew. John was last the piece we needed, and Strung Out was born.  We booked a few shows really quickly and were off and running.  Now I book most of our shows, but we all pitch in with our various contacts and opportunities. We've been fortunate. We plays clubs, festivals and corporate events. 

Judith: Are you all still working beyond the band? If so, how does this alter and affect your schedule? 

Jeff: We all have real jobs. This group is really great about making and keeping commitments to the band. We rehearse fairly regularly to add new material, and play primarily on Friday and Saturday nights as often as we can.  During the summer, we play more weeknight shows, like fests and concerts in the park.  Tom is Director of Orchestras at School District 102 in LaGrange Park. Ted teaches English at Rich East High School in Park Forest.  Jeff is a Lab Manager for TestAmerica Labs in University Park. John is a salesman for RiteRug Flooring in the Chicagoland Area. After over 20 years in the television editing business, I now own and manage my family business, Papoose Children’s Center in Oak Lawn. The Center has been around for 55 years.

Judith: Strung Out plays a variety of different music styles from the 1970's and a little bit of the 1960's. Was this just love of the music from your generation or was there more behind the decision of what to cover?

Jeff: It was mostly our love of that era.  It’s the music we all “grew up” on. We all appreciated the diversity you’d hear on the AM radio when we were young, but we also recognized that there was a musical void out there among working cover bands.  There are a ton of 80’s/90’s bands who are great. There are several great 50’s/60’s acts, too, but we never heard bands covering the 70’s with the diversity that we wanted to present.  It’s the memories that are attached to the songs that people really relate to.
Judith: You can repeat that. Yes, the memories are deeply held emotional attachments. You play everything from iconic One Hit Wonder songs (Dancing in the Moonlight, Magic, Brandy -You're A Fine Girl) to songs by some of the definitive acts of the era. How do you come up with your playlist?

Jeff: We argue a lot. LOL. It’s really difficult sometimes to come to a consensus. There is so much material in the decade we all love. That’s why we come up with the medleys we play.  How do you pick only one Three Dog Night song? We couldn’t, so we put five of them together. I’m a big fan of the one hit, kinda cheesy stuff.  Other guys like the more epic rockers like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, & The Who.  We get it all in our sets and we strive to add the most fun and interesting material we can. 

Judith: The musicianship shows and you have superb material to choose from. Where were you all trained?  

Jeff: Tom studied cello since he was really young and then majored in music in college. I believe our drummer, Jeff James, also studied percussion in college.  Ted took guitar and piano lessons in his youth, then went out on the road. I think John took some guitar lessons as a kid, then switched to bass and started learning on his own. I played the trombone in high school, but switched to singing after I graduated.  I’ve never had lessons in voice, or guitar or keyboards. I’ve been fortunate to play with some really patient and helpful musicians who helped me progress to where I’m at.  Which compared to the guys in this band, ain’t far!  I think we’d all agree that any proficiency we each have has come from playing a lot over several decades.  Nothing beats experience!

Judith: I got all excited when you played Todd Rundgren. He was certainly one of the most talented people of the era. I have loved Todd since junior high. He was/is an incredibly gifted songwriter, singer and producer. Were you a big Todd fan?

Jeff: Absolutely!  I came to Todd in a round about way. Of course, I remember his radio hits in the 1970’s, but I was a huge Utopia fan in the 1980’s. I worked my way backward from Utopia to his early solo material.  Then, after Utopia, I loved the stuff he put out in the late 80’s up to now.  Truly a brilliant musician. 

Judith: Jeff, Just going with your opinion, who were the best bands of both the 1960's and the 1970's?

Jeff: Best is hard to define. Simply due to the diversity and experimentation that came out of those decades.  Since I was a trombone player, I was always mesmerized by Chicago. I also loved Blood, Sweat & Tears, but bands like Yes, Kansas and Genesis all helped create a new progressive music genre. Then Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and The Who rocked out harder than most. I also loved James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green and all the great 1970’s soul music; and how do you not put the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the list?  Clearly, I’m overwhelmed! 

Judith: Who was/is your go-to female singer?

Jeff: There were so many great artists. Ann Wilson of Heart. Susan Tedeschi.  A Canadian singer who had a short lived career named Amanda Marshall is incredible. Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, and Linda Ronstadt are played pretty regularly at my house, too. 

Judith: Well, the obvious next question is who is your favorite male singer?

Jeff: When I was seriously starting to sing, I was a huge fan of Steve Walsh of Kansas and Lou Gramm of Foreigner.  Those guys had incredible power, range and emotion. My voice is nothing like theirs, but I was inspired. When I started singing in horn bands in the 80’s, I really came to appreciate blues and R&B guys like Freddie King, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown. To me, the great singers, whether they are male or female sing with soul. It doesn’t matter how many high notes you can hit, you’ve gotta make the audience feel something. It’s not easy, and that’s why the greats are great.

Judith: Stung Out plays throughout the Chicago metro area. Does the band have plans for going beyond the market?

Jeff: We’ll play just about anywhere!  We’d love to expand our reach as much as possible, but we really aren’t planning to take over the world any time soon.  We’re incredibly thankful for the loyalty of our audiences.  We recently celebrated five years together and over 200 shows, so it is kind of hard to plan on much more, but maybe next year.

Judith: Dream venue! If you could play any one venue in the country, which one would you choose?

Jeff: Red Rocks Amphitheatre which is outside of Denver.  It looks like an awesome venue!

Judith: If you could have dinner with just one musician/songwriter/singer from the era who would it be?

Jeff: Wow! You’re making me think! I think it would be Warren Zevon. He wrote songs with great heart, sadness, and humor and some were also pretty weird. I read his biography and it really made an impression on me.  Not sure I could have kept up with him, but dinner followed by cocktails would be most intriguing. It’s sad he’s gone.

Judith: The proverbial stuck on the desert island question: You are stuck on that island and you can only take five albums with you. What would you be taking?

Jeff: These are off the top of my head, and I’ll probably want to change the list tomorrow, but here goes. I'll give you six instead of five!

Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The Beatles - Revolver
Jeff Beck - Wired
Steely Dan - Can't Buy a Thrill
Deep Purple - Machine Head
Crowded House - Woodface
Chicago Transit Authority - Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago's first album)

Judith: Did any one musician influence your work more than any other? 

Jeff: In 1980, I started as a lead singer with a bunch of local guys who are still some of my best friends. We had a trumpet, trombone and sax player in that band and one of the guys gave me a cassette of an album called Hearts Of Stone by Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes. A fun horn band out of New Jersey.  I had no idea who they were, but I related instantly.  Johnny is a gravelly voiced blues guy who sounds like he is having a party on every cut. So, I’d say Southside Johnny was really the guy who made me think I could pull off being a singer and have a great time while doing it.  Thankfully, so far, so good!

Judith: The rock and roll hall of fame has been notorious for making certain artists wait a long time for their induction. Is there an act that hasn't been inducted that you would like to see finally get their due?

Jeff: There are several! Jethro Tull, Todd Rundgren, Warren Zevon, Bad Company, War, Harry Nilsson, The Guess Who.  I don’t envy or blame the Hall Of Fame.  Picking favorites is not easy, or fair.  I’m sure they’ll get it right eventually!

Judith: Music is such an essential element of film. Imagine films like Rocky, The Magnificent Seven, The Mission, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without their scores. The joy of watching A Hard Day's Night! In your opinion, what is the best music film of all-time?

Jeff: It's still hard to top Woodstock, even after all these years. It's so iconic with incredible performances. Same with The Song Remains the Same. Great bands captured at their peak. I gotta mention The Blues Brothers. It was pretty inspirational. I also liked a documentary called Muscle Shoals about the music and musicians who worked in that historic studio and another about a legendary producer called Tom Dowd and the Language of Music. I'm a classics kinda guy!    

Judith: Since you spent much of your career in media, television and editing, what do you feel is the best use of music in a current television series?

Jeff: I loved the music in Breaking Bad. In that same vein, music is great in Better Call Saul. My other favorite would probably be Fargo. It's an odd and quirky show and the music they use is great. Eclectic and mood making. I'd love to have a job picking music for television. 

Copyright Chicago and Then Some 2017


  1. Great to see this post and this band. Few days back there was a music concert at one of event space. I along with my few friends attended it and had a great fun there. Want to attend more concerts in future.