Chicago. The “Windy City”. A name which initially caught on after being used as a jab at the town’s politicians (for being ‘full of hot air’), and not because of the brisk breeze that blows in from Lake Michigan – although the wind is inescapable wherever you find yourself in Chi-Town. It’s certainly enough to convince Retirement Party’s Avery Springer to walk home from work (rather than cycle as usual), conscious that the wind might make for too much interference on the phone line. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and while the Windy City lives up to its name, so does that of classic Midwestern hospitality.
And while Springer has certainly got under the skin of the city – and vice versa – she originally hails from a Detroit suburb, moving out to Illinois partly for college and partly because it’s a great place to play whip-smart indie-rock. Joining the likes of Dowsing, Ratboys, Mother Evergreen and Kali Masi, Retirement Party play music that sinks soul-deep, but will move your feet all the same.
Moving to a new city – and one where she didn’t know a lot of people in the music scene – would have been daunting to most. But for Springer there’s an air of inevitability about it, as if this was something that was always going to happen.
“When I was back in Michigan, I quit my high school band in a fury because they wouldn’t give me any creative control. I then started a full-band solo project called Sunglasses On A Plane and I was like, ‘I’m gonna move to Chicago, and I’m gonna get real bandmates,’” she laughs.
And that’s what Springer did – eventually joining up with Nick Cartwright and James Ringness, people Springer now calls her best friends. Yet Sunglasses On A Plane (shortened to SOAP) was short-lived, as the band soon received a cease and desist from a Minneapolis band with the same name – “a bunch of fedora-wearing dads that play psychedelic rock” – jokes Springer. Despite the name change, Retirement Party remains close to Springer’s original goal for SOAP – and recently-released debut LP Somewhat Literate is a glowing realisation of this talent, refracting adolescent and early-twenties concerns through a wry, hyperactive mind.
All of this history feeds into making Somewhat Literate the album that it is. Built on a circular theme, it opens with the remark “I think the cancer’s gonna kill me, cuz I got a real bad sunburn when I was 13”, before closing with “At the end of the day maybe it’s cancer that’s going to kill me”. It’s a question that lingers at the back of the mind throughout the album, sandwiching nine songs of unfiltered musings from Springer that touch on ideas of betterment and self-worth, combining creativity with a job, and mental health.
“The track listing, it’s funny. Once I wrote ‘Seams’ I knew the album was done,” says Springer. “I definitely meant for it to circle back in that sense. There’s the beginning and the closing song, then a whole bunch of shit in between; all my worries, everything. Everything that goes through my head. It’s supposed to be like looking into the mind of Avery,” she says.
The result is an album that feels an intimate reading of a journal, featuring asides and occasional musings that break the fourth wall, making the listener aware of the narrative structure of the album. “I try to explain myself and not rely on this recurring plot,” she sings on ‘Truck Stop Casino’, directing the audience through commentary and annotation.
This tone of self-discovery and desire to share is apparent even from the album title, which Springer says came about after working through a rough mental patch: “It was coming out of the winter into the spring and summer,” she says, “I’d just started therapy and figuring myself out and figuring out how to manage being happy. So it was a process of learning how to read myself – so you know, being Somewhat Literate.”
Recorded over a five month period, it also proves the intensity with which Retirement Party work, as if they exist in the centre of a whirlwind where everything moves at hyperspeed. Having formed in October 2016, the group released their first EP Strictly Speaking just three months later. With rough versions of the songs already sketched out by Springer – and having jammed previously with Cartwright – she decided they needed a drummer. The following day Cartwright’s friend Ringness was on board and the whole EP was recorded barely a month after the first practice.
Having cemented the line-up and sound, the group soon built up a loyal local fanbase thanks to their willingness to play any show going, just to get themselves on the bill. Cartwright’s day job working sound at Chicago’s Subterranean venue (one of the hottest spots in the city for up-and-coming bands and DIY punk shows) also helped to open doors, putting them front and centre with touring bands passing through Chicago. “We make fun of the fact that we have a residency there because we play there so often, but it’s actually really nice as it’s a great all-ages venue,” laughs Springer.
A chance meeting with Prince Daddy and the Hyena helped shape the future of the band, bringing them into contact with Counter Intuitive Records’ Jake Sulzer. The bonds between the bands and label are tight, showing a shared sense of community and ideals, and a desire to create a scene that is inclusive and progressive, by promoting all-ages shows and championing art from under-represented groups. A cursory glance at any of the Twitter feeds from Counter Intuitive acts shows that such motivations are never far from the top.
“Counter Intuitive is like a family,” says Springer. “I honestly have no idea how Prince Daddy ended up in our lives. It’s like they appeared one day, and now our drummer drums for them half the time. We’re great friends.
“Then, when they came through Chicago last summer, we opened up for Mom Jeans [another Counter Intuitive band]. Again, it was an instant connection with these people and these bands.”
Such relationships made signing with Counter Intuitive seem like the sensible option for the record. “Ultimately the decision came down to working with our friends,” says Springer. “I’d much rather be talking to my friend every day about the record than some person, where I’m not sure if they’d be trying to screw me over. There’s definitely a level of trust, but we get to succeed with our friends or fail with our friends.”
The plan now is to turn Retirement Party into a full time project – or at least combine it with other creative outputs (including solo project Elton John Cena) to make music a full time ‘job’. This drive is reflected in the song ‘Passion Fruit Tea’, and in particular the lyrics “I’ll keep drinking passion tea to just get the taste of it”, which captures the aspirations of a band trying to make it in the music business. When asked about these dreams, Springer’s answer underlines her resolve, and emphasises lifelong dreams that spur her on.
“When I was really young – before I could even play an instrument – I always thought that it would be so cool to be a rock star. As I got slightly older, I was already like ‘that’s just a dream, you should get a degree in music business so you can have something a little bit more realistic’, so for the longest time my focus shifted to that. And now it’s kinda gone back,” she says.
There’s a brief pause. “Screw it, you know?” she says. “Why not try and play music?”
Much like the circular theme of Somewhat Literate, it feels fitting to find ourselves back at the start of the story, with Springer returning to childhood dreams after time spent away dealing with life at large. Ironically, it is this ‘life’ that colours much of the album, giving Springer the content to make songs that are relatable and expertly drawn. And, as someone with Scottish genes, songs don’t get much more relatable than those that advocate the appropriate use of sunscreen…