“I just can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Reynolds, who brings CELLRS to Chicago’s Subterranean Saturday. “I don’t even want to.”
So when Reynolds — who plunked out his first tune on a piano at age 5 before moving on to guitar, drums, trumpet and cello — met fellow Columbia College student Adam Novak — who had been training vocally in addition to being skilled on drums, piano and guitar — the musical connection was pretty clear.
Reynolds and Novak began writing music together in the fall of 2010, and a year later started playing around with recording a few songs.
“Adam and I have a kind of yin/yang relationship (for lack of a better cliché metaphor),” Reynolds said in an online interview. “We both push each other to write outside of our comfort zones and can openly criticize each other without ego, because it doesn’t come from a place of negativity. It’s more like ‘Hey, that guitar riff is a little corny or simple. I think you can make it better.'”
Still it was one more year until CELLRS was officially born.
“I wish we would have gotten the ball rolling a lot sooner with our band. We never really had that fire to get out there and start a band for real until those first few songs. We played them for friends and they were like, ‘Guys, people will like this!'”
Three years later, that motivational push proved to be right. The two-piece has earned quite a following. Winning the Hard Rock Cafe’s Hard Rock Rising Battle of the Bands in 2014 didn’t hurt. They’ve played to a sold-out crowd at the House of Blues, and checked off a list of some of Chicago’s most revered music venues, including Metro, Double Door, Subterranean and headlining Lincoln Hall twice.
CELLRS’ unique sound is a big part of that draw. Building on a foundation heavily inspired by the blues familiar on the Chicago scene, Reynolds and Novak create musical structures with elements of funk and rock that are both comfortable and excitingly new.
“The bluesier stuff came easily, but I felt like we were slowly closing ourselves into a box,” Reynolds said. “So we’ve tried to find ways to write songs that incorporate that while still sounding fresh.”
The majority of CELLRS’ offerings online can be boiled down to a select few songs and some videos, but word-of-mouth has kept the booking offers (and the fans) rolling in. “People would come to the shows just to finally get to hear the music. It almost felt exclusive.”
CELLRS’ reputation as a fun-to-see band is born from a history of going to see fun-to-see bands. “We kind of miss the ’90s energy behind rock bands. They felt larger than life. I remember being a kid and being more excited about what a band like Blink-182 would say between songs than what they actually played.”
“We try to have a lot of energy,” said Reynolds, who grew up in the southern Illinois town of Robinson. “We’ve been known to pull people up on stage, or a lot of the time Adam or myself will jump offstage and play in the crowd. We want people to feel like they are part of a show, not at one.”
Reynolds joked that another draw is that Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native Novak spent some time as a professional model. “That helps a little to have a talented frontman that already gets paid for their looks. I mean … it doesn’t hurt.”
CELLRS has made that passion for the music a full-time gig, working nights as bartenders to give them time for their next big steps: An EP due for release early next year, a new official music video, setting up a release show and pressing a 7-inch limited release vinyl. “We are a lot more confident in these new songs, and have been in a studio with some really amazing musicians and engineers.”
The as-of-yet-untitled new release builds on the blues base they’ve already established, but with some new tricks mixed in. “It’s definitely us embracing the soul/funk side of rock ‘n’ roll.” Demos of some of the new tracks also feature layers of ’90s pop-rock, some ’80s synth, and a sprinkling of piano and organ.
Reynolds said they plan to play six of the new songs when they take the Subterranean stage Saturday at the Comasoft EP release show, where they’ll be joined by friend and drummer Jonathan Marks. And of course, Novak will handle the vocals.
“I’m a good enough musician to know that I’m not that good of a singer,” Reynolds said. “But hearing someone else sing songs that maybe I wrote a lot of the lyrics to is still really fulfilling.”
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Comasoft EP release (featuring CELLRS, Emilie Brandt and Down Vega)
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12
Where: Subterranean, 2011 W. North Ave., Chicago, (773) 278-6600 or subt.net