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Astana, Kazakhstan • 23 August, 2022 | 11:05

How to Become a Rock Star in Chicago

Yevgeniy from Almaty on busking, crazy parties, and psychedelic rock

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Qazaqstan Monitor: How to Become a Rock Star in Chicago

Yevgeniy Nechunayev embodies a brand of the American Dream that leans towards a more romantic life of freedom and creative expression. On an average work day in Chicago, the Almaty native assumes the role of a successful leasing agent who helps people find their next home. Off work, he gets to be more of his true self: a boyfriend to Olivia, a dog-owner to Adele, and… a guitar player in a rock band!

On the zoom call with QazMonitor, Yevgeniy had a familiar demeanor of a cool and unapologetic musician who lives to entertain his audience, whether through songs or wild stories of his busking days, performing at the Fourth of July parade, and relearning a playlist hours before a gig.

But first, an obligatory academic profile

In the summer of 2011, 17-year-old Yevgeniy moved to Florida after getting accepted to Daytona State College. He was still undecided on the major. There was only one thing he knew for sure though: he wanted to be a musician.

“Any teenager from Kazakhstan back in the days understood that you can’t just tell your parents you want to play rock music [laughs]. There must be some academic background.

I took general education courses in Florida and transferred to Chicago to complete my associate degree at a community college. Then, I took a summer break and went on to finish my bachelor’s in Business Administration and Management at Roosevelt University in Illinois. I chose it after much research and ‘shopping around’ many private universities give out good scholarships. A strong motivation letter helped me get a scholarship that covered 65–70% of my tuition. And the rest of it was paid by—well—mom and dad, I would have been nothing without you."

"For everyone planning to study in an American college, remember that years 3 and 4 are when you got to make a move. The first two years are easier, since you can explore while trying to figure things out. After that, you must decide exactly what you want to study."

The last years of college was a mixed bag of different internships, musicianship, and contemplating graduate school. Yevgeniy decided to become a Master of Science in Real Estate. The rest is history.

Certified guitar head

Like many teenagers in Kazakhstan in the early 2000s, Yevgeniy bought his first instrument in a street market in Almaty—a cheap acoustic guitar. Today, the certified guitar head owns ten instruments with a memorable story tied to each one of them. Here are the top three.

My first ‘real’ guitar is Gibson Les Paul. It was a Christmas present from my grandma who I was visiting in Florida back in 2008. I remember how I was nagging my parents to buy me the guitar. The ‘official agreement’ was that I get straight As the following semester. I worked so hard for it that, to this day, I can still remember the happiness I felt when I got the gift.

Another ‘axe’ Yevgeniy plays is signature model played by Alexi Laiho, the guitar player of Children of Bodom, a famous Finnish metal band. “I was lucky to get it signed by Janne Wirman [keyboard player of Children of Bodom]. I was at their gig at Joliet, Illinois, and some gut feeling made me take the guitar to the concert.”

A vibrant red bass can be seen hanging on the musician’s wall, perhaps as a reflection of its owner. “My friend and I were playing at Chicago ‘L’ [subway] station; it was back in my college years. Some shady looking guy approached us and offered me the bass for about 15 bucks. Sure, it was in horrible condition, but a couple of updates and investments later it sounds as good as new.”

Busking like crazy: $1000 overnight

Yevgeniy lives in Chicago, the city of deep-dish pizza, Al Capone and Lollapalooza music festivals. Before getting to know the music scene, our guitar hero spent a lot of time busking—playing music in the streets of Chicago with his college friend. Some of the memories from those days are still vivid.

“First, you must get special permission to play music at certain spots along the way to the subway stations. No one can secure those spots, though. We often came to the stations at 5 or 6 in the morning only to find some tap dancer already there, waiting for the rush hour."

Busking in the subway is a different world with its own rules and full of crazy and dangerous characters. My friend was attacked with a knife once, and I was threatened with a gun several times. One kid stole $10 from our guitar case as we were playing in winter. It was so cold that we wore fingerless gloves and always kept a couple of hand-warmers around. Anyway, it still was a fun time. We could make $300-400 a day for the two of us. I mean—one popular song could make you thousands over the course of weeks.

"I remember one Halloween night when it was 1 a.m. and hundreds of passengers were waiting to catch the next train. We couldn’t waste the chance, so we plugged in our amplifiers and started rocking hard right at the station. That immediately got the party going, and since everyone was a bit tipsy and relaxed, they were quite generous. We made at least $1000 that night and our pockets were full of song requests and girls’ phone numbers.”

How I Met My Drummer

“My first band in the U.S. was called Hanging Death. I was just going to different gigs and shows, networking with so many people. Then, I heard from my friend Frank that a band was looking for musicians. That was when I met our drummer Nick Frasch, whom I can easily call my best friend—my brother. We were playing thrash metal in bars, suburbs, and even in the neighboring state of Wisconsin. The biggest venue we played at was Park West Theater in Chicago. However, the band didn’t work out because of creative differences and different views on the direction of the band."

"Long story short, Nick invited me to another band called Earth Radio in 2017. We revamped it with a new lineup and started to become more present on social media, posting songs and jamming sessions. The band has been around for nearly seven years now. We’ve been constantly recording; there is some visual or audio memory from every gig we have ever had.”

A harmonious blend of genres and crazy parties

How would you best describe your band? You guys have a Red Hot Chili Peppers or Frank Zappa kind of vibe.

“We surely have been gravitating towards this sound lately. The easiest way to describe our sound is psychedelic rock or jamtronica—a mix of improvised music and EDM. But we’ve always been open to experimenting with different genres. We’ve been influenced by so many bands, like Pink Floyd, the Doors, and even Black Sabbath. Music doesn’t have boundaries.”

Yevgeniy admits that they put emphasis on live performances as they rely on word of mouth for their popularity. Making new friends with other players at jam sessions is crucial for fostering a local community and finding new gigs.

“Today, we have a community of five awesome bands playing psychedelic rock in Chicago. We usually perform in similar venues, which could be anything from bars and small club to charity events and festivals. Before the pandemic, we even hosted our own small festivals. We started crazy music parties for 200-300 people in a steel manufacturing warehouse. Police and firefighters were involved, for sure.”

Earth Radio performed at the parade dedicated to the Fourth of July [Independence Day of the US]. The band played hypnotic riffs and smooth rhythms on a platform moving through the streets of Chicago suburbs. The weather was beautiful. The crowd was having fun. It was perfect.

The Broadcast: Rocking through the pandemic

In 2020, most public performances and music tours were cancelled. What did you do as a band?

“We recorded an album called The Broadcast (available on all platforms) and did several live streams on Facebook and Twitch. There was a great online concert at Cairo Ale house in Chicago shot on multiple cameras. The venue is owned by two brothers, and they hosted several bands for a fundraiser to help their place stay afloat during the pandemic.”

You had the album release party in August last year. How did that go?

“I was freaking out. Our second guitar player quit the band right before the party. I had to relearn all the songs, as the whole album was recorded with two guitars. I rearranged my parts, and we eventually pulled off the gig. It was a lot of fun. Now the core of the band is a power trio: me, Nick (drums) and Alex Smith (bass guitar). We play with other musicians on a regular basis though, like with Mickey Moore, our keyboard player. We are also proud to have our own lighting designer Jimmy Gatley and sound engineer, Eric Roach.”

Any song from The Broadcast you want everyone to check out?

We are proud of all of them. The song Squares is my favorite. I would even call it my child [laughs]. The keyboard parts, the sax, the clarinet—that song is my pride and joy.

Was it easy to record such a complex album?

“During the album recording, there was a lot of tension coupled with instances where we would argue about the songs. Things can get to a point where people start interrupting each other. I think you must always ask your bandmate ‘What exactly do you mean?’ It’s important to hear out every voice in the band. When we started recording, there had already been a couple of songs Nick and I made together. The other players (Andy and Mickey) also brought their demos and unfinished ideas to the table. We finished their songs, so now they are an important part of Earth Radio’s repertoire.”

Any upcoming shows?

“We’re having a concert at Live Wire on April 22. This is a historic metal bar in Chicago, which has been around since the 80’s. The July 4th parade is totally on the list. Until then, the plan is to work on our social media content to promote the band since we want to go on tour. If you look at the U.S. map, our route is going to be U-shaped: down from Carbondale to St.Louis, Arkansas, Nashville and up to Indianapolis. It’s a work in progress. Over the years we have made friends hanging out together with so many musicians from all kinds of places.

At this point, anyone can hit you up and arrange a concert. There is a wave of new bands these days, forming communities around all sorts of genres. Open mics, jam sessions: you must do a huge lot of networking so that you can play in many places.”

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