The Grip of Love
Pixel Grip brings outsider music to the masses
BY PAT MORAN
Pixel Grip is a group of outsiders making music for outsiders, Jonathon Freund says. The electropop trio has even coined a term for their own genre – “disco delinquent,” a mischievous nod to their dance and pop hybrid.
“Our music is funky and it has a groove but it is in no way considered disco,” vocalist Rita Lukea explains. “In the same way we’re not really goth either.”
So just what are they? The video for “Plastic Enemies,” a cut off the Chicago trio’s debut album Heavy Handed, encapsulates Pixel Grip’s esthetic, a mix of freedom, risk and professionalism. As dancer Orb Box performs in nighttime parking lots and graffiti tagged back alleys, Lukea’s ethereal, slightly slurred vocals balance on a knife edge between playfulness and dread. All the while Freund’s swarming synths cascade like melting icicles over drummer Tyler Ommen stuttering shape shifting rhythms. The band cites French House, synth pop and EDM as influences, but fellow Chicagoans may hear the classic industrial sounds of the Wax Trax Records label turned sexy and far more accessible.
The median age of Pixel Grip is 24, but the trio has been wood shedding and honing their sound since the members have been in their teens. The work seems to have paid off with the successful release last April of Heavy Handed on Feeltrip Records. SoundSplice spoke with Jonathon, Rita and Tyler about being a band apart on the cusp of a popular breakthrough.
SoundSplice: Are you bridging indie pop and electronic dance music?
Jonathon: We all grew up on pop music, songs with great choruses and hooks. That’s something we hold close to us. In the last few years the influence of dance music [has grown]. It’s exciting to blend the two, having those dance moments of repetition, experimentation, groove and rhythm plus moments that are more song oriented. We use both of them as devices and tools to make interesting music.
Rita: We like to play things that are dark and funky, but the three of us are really interested in creating memorable and powerful songs.
How did each of you get into music?
Jonathon: I grew up in a family that loves music. My parents would play a lot of New Wave records, [and] I would play any crappy little keyboard we had around the house. The first band that I loved was Tears For Fears. My parents would play them all the time. I still love them to this day.
Rita: My first introduction to music was my playing violin in elementary school and in middle school. I eventually stopped playing because I was a delinquent. My earliest inspiration is Daft Punk. I am forever a huge fan of electronic music and French House. Another key early inspiration for me was Lifehouse [Lifehouse’s self-titled 2005 release]. That record changed my life. I would put it on and sing along with my ear buds in, but I couldn’t hear my own voice. One time I sang along through a speaker and I could hear myself, and I realized that I was hitting all the notes and I could mimic the vibrato. I realized, “Oh shit I can sing.”
Tyler: Growing up I thought I was going to be a vocalist. I sang at my parent’s friends weddings and I really enjoyed that. But I grew up and my voice dripped three octaves, so I gave up on singing. I got a little confused. I started playing piano. Then I played tuba for a little bit. When I was ten years old I saw this band called CKY play and it was the first time I saw a drum kit at a rock show. I immediately knew that I wanted to play drums.
How did the band come together?
Rita: Jon and I were both in the art club at our high school, Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake. Just through chatting we realized that we love the same type of music. He invited me over to his house to see if we could put a track together. We decided to do a cover of “Crystalized” by the xx. In about an hour or two, Jon produced a rough demo. We put the vocals on it in one take. We realized that we had an amazing chemistry together.
Did you two start playing shows soon after that?
Jonathon: Oh no. That took forever. We hid in our apartments and basements trying to make something we were confident in. Looking back, all the material was perfectly decent enough to play live but we were so insecure. We didn’t know how to play live, but we knew we didn’t want to do it in a boring way. It took us a while to go from our bedroom synth pop phase to playing sold out shows. It was a lot of trial and error.
Rita: When Tyler was added to the mix he added so much movement and energy with his drums. It really pulled everything together. We realized than that we had a really killer set. We didn’t really feel complete until he joined.
Tyler, when and how did you come into the fold?
Tyler: We all went to the same high school, all a year apart. We knew about each other for the longest time, but I wasn’t actively making music with them yet. I was playing with other groups. Then when we were all in Chicago, I went over to Jon’s place. I played drums on an iPad. We all felt like it could be something great under the right circumstances, but it wasn’t the right time. Then in the summer of 2017, Jon reached out to me. I came over and we just started rehearsing and started playing shows.
Jonathon and Rita, had you played live as a duo before?
Jonathon: We did. Before that we experimented with having guitars which was a mistake. We had to go through our awkward fantasy to get where we needed to go. We just added a bunch of people [to the band] that never met our vision
Rita: Jon and I respect each other and honor each other’s talent, [but] they didn’t have the correct approach or energy when they were working with us. Sometimes when you work with different instrumentalists they want to take over and steamroll the project. It was a good experience to have the guts to just fucking cut them out. They weren’t contributing in a way that we needed.