The Sonic Power of Lifeguard

Last Friday, the Chicago trio Lifeguard released their final single of the year, the shattering "Taking Radar," which reaches beyond the quiet-loud dynamics, hinting at a more explorative and fearless direction amidst all the rupturing chaos.

Photo by Carlos Lowenstein

Over the past couple of years, the Chicago music scene has been thriving with a new wave of underground artists who'll listen to pretty much anything, whether its King Crimson, Fugazi or any of Calvin Johnson's projects. One of the rising bands from this scene who take familiar DIY cues and craft them into contemporary molds is the rising trio Lifeguard. The Chicago teens are known for melding noisy guitars with jerky, but often melodic rhythms and craft intricate songs.


Lifeguard comes from the "Hallogallo" circle that includes fellow bands like Friko, Dwaal Troupe and of course the much talked about Horsegirl (who recently signed to Matador), who all collaborate to make a genre-fluid musical palette that's also socially aware with a DIY ethos in the vein of Elephant 6 bands. And being surrounded by Chicago labels like Born Yesterday and Trouble in Mind, who have an ear for the DIY spirit, there's plenty of room to grow as musicians.


Comprised of vocalist/guitarist Kai Slater, bassist Asher Case (the son of Brian Case, currently of FACS and formerly the brains behind Disappears), and drummer Isaac Lowenstein (who along with Case, was part of an earlier version of Horsegirl and who's sister Penelope Lowenstein plays guitar and sings in), Lifeguard have been releasing music since the beginning of 2020 starting with the release of their debut EP In Silence and the single, "Tin Man," and barley six months after, their debut album Dive, whose last three songs really hinted at the moody, explosive direction the trio have been embarking on. With tinges of Television, Unwound and of course the forefathers of Chicago's post-rock scene Tortoise, there's unlimited aspects of noise to Lifeguard's sound, which is clear-cut from their debut LP to their most recent single.

With swarms of brooding guitar chords that intertwine with tangled rhythms and a nervy melody, the trio blast through the new single "Taking Radar." In the final two minutes, the distortion masterfully sprawls towards spacey ambience — a statement of intent and snapshot of a young band growing and stretching their sound. Speaking about the new single, the band said via email, "'Taking Radar' is about how people ignore things and find pleasure in that ignorance. You don't want to check the pulse, you keep your radars low." The new single is also accompanied by its B-side, the pulsating and wiry "Loose Cricket," which is five minutes of the trio whipping their habitual post-rock tension with spoken-word vocals and more unpredictable forms.


We recently chatted with the up-and-coming trio on their beginnings, the recording of the new single and the thriving Chicago music scene.

Paperface: How did you all meet and form Lifeguard? Also, what was your vision when starting the project and where did the name come from?


Lifeguard: Asher and Isaac met through a music program in 2019, and wanted to start something, but it was hard to find other people with similar taste that played an instrument. We met Kai when filling in for some Horsegirl members at an open mic. We exchanged numbers, jammed, and things clicked. The name doesn't really have meaning, it was just a replacement for our incredibly shitty previous name, Self Titled.


Collectively, how do each of you shape the dynamic of this lineup?


Asher plays bass, Isaac plays drums, Kai plays guitar. We use our voices too. Lifeguard wouldn't sound like Lifeguard without us three together and what we bring to it. What those elements are is hard to pin down, but we love to counterpoint melodic parts that wouldn't be very melodically intact on their own and only work in the context of the three-piece's dynamics. The same sense of counterpoint kind of carries over in the rhythms we like to use, often starting songs with the crazy shit Isaac comes up with on the kit.

Take me through your process in making music. Where do you record and how do you approach writing songs?


No one writes full songs for the project. Every song started as a jam or just one part. Recently we've been moving parts between songs, mixing and matching, so if you were to hear demos from two months ago, there'd be a part from a completely different song snuck in there. Both "In Silence" and "Dive" were recorded at Electrical Audio here in Chicago, and everything since has been recorded at home by ourselves. In each situation we've taken the lead on doing the mixing and production and we do plan to return to a studio for LP2.


Kai, I know you also front Dwaal Troupe, but do you guys maintain any other musical projects within Chicago’s underground scene or has Lifeguard been the main focus?


Kai is the main songwriter in Dwaal Troupe; that project writes in a much different way, most of it being Kai and Charlie's [Johnston] homespun recordings with additions from a loose recurring group (or troupe) of people. That's how we've written so far, anyway, but there is new material we are working on that is much more in the vein of how Lifeguard writes. A Towering Raven, which is a bit of a Dwaal Troupe side project, is a much looser band that Asher and other friends outside of the Dwaal Troupe live band have contributed to. The idea with that band and much of Dwaal Troupe's material was to have both a recording project and songwriting outlet. All these projects sound different from each other and I think talking about how these bands operate is really the main inspiration we take from the '90s, all of us, with the ethos of stuff like K Records, Dischord, Elephant 6, Flying Nun, SST, Touch & Go, etc.


Speaking of the Chicago scene, how would you describe it? Besides Isaac being Penelope's sibling, it looks like you have a very close-knit circle with bands like Horsegirl and Friko. Are there any other up-and-coming bands coming out of the scene?


Charlie from Dwaal Troupe has another project called Post Office Winter that everyone should hear. Please listen to Post Office Winter. And talking about how the scene works, most of the time no matter what specific members a band has, there's always a sense of collaboration across member lines. Penelope from Horsegirl did stuff for both Lifeguard and Dwaal Troupe and we all want to help each other's bands out.

Chicago also had a very lively underground scene in the ‘90s, especially with post-rock bands. Besides Tortoise, are there any other Chicago bands who have influenced your sound?


For sure! Tortoise adjacent projects are a huge pit of inspiration with bands like Gastr del Sol, The Sea and Cake, and Bastro that we all love. Others like Joan of Arc, Melkbelly, Pool Holograph, Moontype, and older ones like Trenchmouth, The Jesus Lizard, and Material Issue are all great.


How would you say you've progressed as a three-piece since the debut EP In Silence from early last year.


In Silence feels a little brighter and maybe more psych than our newer stuff. We've definitely been going deeper into colder guitar sounds and themes, as well as more Asher-sung songs.


You're closing out the year with the new single “Taking Radar.” It’s one of your most ambitious releases thus far that will surely keep listeners on their toes. Take me through the recording of this new single and what exactly did you envision for it?


Both our previous singles "Receiver" and "Sun Ra Jane" sounded pretty angular and direct to us and "Taking Radar" felt different in how fluid and less sparse it was. Although it still captures a similar energy and tone to the rest of the singles, we think.

The single's B-side “Loose Cricket” certainly lives up to its name with how adventurous it is. How did the session go with this one?


It was tricky to get a solid take of "Loose Cricket" down. We wrote the song all the way back when Dive came out, so it had shifted in-and-out of our sets throughout the year. Keeping the energy and tempo consistent throughout the whole song was hard.


Are these past couple singles standalone or are they going to be part of the next LP? Also, where are you at with the next release?


These two singles are a standalone thing with Chunklet Industries. We're currently writing the album, and we have a demo session planned for early November.


It's been just over a year since you released your debut album Dive, which was recorded at Steve Albini's famed local studio Electrical Audio. Looking back at that album, what are your thoughts on it now?


We've changed a lot of course, and it feels like a genuine snapshot of where the band was at that point and what we had written up to that point. We wouldn't really ask ourselves how we would do it differently if we had a second chance because it's out there, it's done. And that's cool. If there was no finalization in music we might all go crazy.