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The sounds of the Ants attract musicians and music geeks

Craig Comstock (left) played on “Control Your Thoughts” and occasionally sits in with the Ants. Band members are Chad Bryan (from second from left), Sean McEniry, Brad Nichols, David Randall.
Craig Comstock (left) played on “Control Your Thoughts” and occasionally sits in with the Ants. Band members are Chad Bryan (from second from left), Sean McEniry, Brad Nichols, David Randall. Kent Smith

The Ants are one of the most tenured bands in Kansas City.

In more than 15 years, they have produced seven records, including the brand-new “Control Your Thoughts.”

Yet the Ants remain an underground/cult band, not among the best-known local bands but among the most respected, especially among fellow musicians.

“Musicians and music nerds,” said Chad Bryan, the band’s founder and songwriter. “Those are pretty much our fans — people for whom music means a lot in their lives. Our music isn’t for the casual listener.”

He’s hoping “Thoughts” will change that.

Bryan started the band in the late 1990s, when he was living in northern California. His goal then was to indulge his passion for experimental music.

“The idea was to play progressive rock that was slow, under control, countrified and lyrically oriented with strange arrangements,” he said. “Something that merged Palace and Polvo.”

Polvo was one of several bands Bryan had in mind when he founded the Ants, including experimental noise-rock bands Don Cabellero, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Rumah Sakit, Sonic Youth, Pavement and the Breeders, among others.

Bryan’s initial plan was to compose the music for each album and collaborate with different musicians each time to record them. No permanent band members, in other words. That’s partly why he called his project the Ants.

“One year we had an ant infestation in our apartment, and I got obsessed with it,” he said. “I started reading about ants and dreaming about them. I wrote this abstract 20-page essay about ants and about a lot of other things.

“It seemed to fit with this collaboration model I was working with — a group of people with replaceable parts, similar to ants. It wasn’t exactly a high-brow philosophy. I was just obsessed with ants at the time.”

He released the first album in 2000 and called it “The Ants Create Meaning.” By then Bryan, a native of Wichita, had moved to Overland Park. The album got a positive review from “Tape Op” magazine, a haven for audio nerds.

“Album reviews in that (Tape Op) were hard to come by,” Bryan said. “It helped us (sell) 300 albums and set up our first tour.”

The Ants would issue albums regularly. For “Sparkling Disaster Strategies,” released in 2002, and “Victory Side,” released in 2004, Bryan stuck with the collaborative model and hired different musicians in the studio. But starting with “Ideabreaker,” released in 2007, he formed what would become the Ants’ permanent lineup: Bryan, Sean McEniry, David Randall and Brad Nichols.

Bryan said a different songwriting tack precipitated the change. The goal now, he said, is to keep it interesting and a little strange but accessible.

“When I first started, my songs were very stream of consciousness, very of the moment” he said. “If I played something and I liked how it sounded, I’d record it.

“But I hadn’t learned how to develop songs. The people I play with now have given me the discipline to do that and do what are the simple things for most people who write songs, like write singable choruses and repeat lyrics — make it more accessible. I used to bury the bone.”

Bryan said this lineup comes from different backgrounds. His and Nichols’ are more experimental — “indie-rock snobbery,” he called it; Randall’s and McEniry’s is a more traditional rock ’n’ roll background.

“They’ve learned to appreciate some improvisational noise, like a 16-bar outro without much of a structure, or lyrics that don’t rhyme,” Bryan said. “From them we got country harmonies and more traditional arrangements. We’re a hybrid.”

“Control Your Thoughts” was recorded at Tiny Telephone Studio in northern California and engineered by friends who engineered the first Ants’ album. David Moore of Merriam Shores Studio in Merriam also helped produce.

The focus going in was on setting a definitive mood, a party mood.

“I feel like on our records there’s inevitably a song that would kill the mood at a house party, some moody song,” he said. “We approached this one as a party album, 35 minutes of music that won’t kill a Friday night house party. There are more rock ’n’ roll guitars, louder guitars, harmonies. Lots of Breeders. I love them.”

Over the course of 15 years, the Ants have developed a modest but loyal following in several scenes and pockets across the country, he said. And they have at least one fan in Russia.

A few years ago, Bryan got a check for “several thousand dollars” from BMI, which collects royalty fees on behalf of songwriters and publishers.

“A song from an old (Ants) album was being played in the Russian Federation,” he said. “What for? I don’t know. BMI didn’t either. It must have been bumper music because it was one song repeated thousands of times.

“It happened for a couple of years. I kept getting royalty checks. We used it to buy equipment and gear and build a project studio.”

“Thoughts” may be the Ants’ most accessible album, but their idea of accessible doesn’t mean it’s mainstream. It still appeals to “people who listen to music instead of watching TV, who make music a significant part of their lives,” Bryan said.

It’s still for music nerds and musicians like Jason Beers, a solo artist and a member of a few Kansas City bands.

“They are absolutely my favorite band in the area,” he said. “They are everything I love in a band and music. Every member has a very unique style of playing and so much personality to how they play. But those personalities mesh just perfectly.

“The songs have a quality about them that makes them fresh and always in flux. Somehow, even though I’ve listened to their albums several times, I always find something new in the music, and I interpret the lyrics just a little different each time. The Ants are a true gestalt.”

Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

Saturday

The Ants will celebrate the release of “Control Your Thoughts” Saturday at the Ship, 1217 Union Ave. in the West Bottoms. The Blessed Broke and Be/Non also are on the bill. Show time is 9:30 p.m. Admission is free.

The Ants will also be at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence on May 8.

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