If you were a regular attender of local shows or music fests in The Before Days, there’s a very good chance that Chicago Sound Check photographer you saw flitting around the stage was Denis Cheng.
But recently, in addition to his top-notch concert photography, he’s been reconnecting with another talent, one which is putting him on the other side of the lens. And eventually on stage.
Today, Cheng’s new band, Dog Spelled Backwards, released the single “The Arsonist,” the latest in a string of works the new heavy rock quartet — with Max Sterner, Zak Zuñiga and Anthony Ofenloch — has been dropping on the scene this year.
For Cheng, it’s a return to a love that grew during childhood in his native Anaco, Venezuela, when he first picked up a guitar at the age of 11 or 12.
“I got my guitar, and I started obsessing about it, trying to learn as much as I could,” he said. “I never took lessons or anything so I learned about it myself.”
Cheng played with a death-metal band in high school, but he said he set music aside when he went away to college for his studies and other interests, like playing soccer.
In his twenties, he joined an old friend and wrote three or four songs, but his plans to jump into the music scene in earnest really blossomed when he decided to move up to Chicago, which he did in 2017.
“It wasn’t as easy as I thought because we’re in a new city where you’re still learning the language, it’s hard to make new friends,” he said. Cheng tried looking online for musicians, using message boards to find some people to play with. But when things didn’t click right away, he turned to another creative outlet. Concert photography.
“Getting a band together wasn’t working out, and I really needed a hobby,” he said. “When I picked up the camera, I was like, ‘Even if I’m not gonna have a band, at least I want to be part of the scene.’”
“This is perfect. I can go to concerts again,” he said. Now focusing his efforts on photography, Cheng started to make a name on the scene for his skills behind the lens. He has shot local shows at intimate Chicago venues as well as national acts at major festivals like Lollapalooza, North Coast and Riot Fest.
“I didn’t want people to think that I was doing photography because it was like a ladder for me to get on a band or anything,” he said. “I wanted people to really acknowledge what I was doing with photography, because I really wanted to do that. Photography was life-changing. Amazing. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the photography. I mean, it’s like a fossil. A piece. You put it all together and it’s who I am right now.”
Finding the right bandmates can be like finding the right relationship; sometimes when you stop looking it finds you. And when his attention was focused on his own freelance photography and the Chicago Sound Check community, something clicked.
“My dad sent me my guitar, and I started playing a little bit on my own again,” Cheng said. “And then that’s when I met Max (Sterner). …. And here we are today.”
Dog Spelled Backwards got its start toward the end of 2019, and with only a couple months to get things together before Chicago locked down tight for the pandemic, there hasn’t been a chance for the band to hit a stage yet. But as the DSB family grew, their sound started to gel and they started recording songs.
“So after 20 years, I finally am doing something with it,” Cheng said. “Not that I want to get famous, but it’s something that I’m really proud of, the kind of music I was wanting to make.”
And just as Cheng took a tough journey that lead to him carving out his niche on the scene with his photography, once venues start opening up Dog Spelled Backwards is bound to find its place in the hard rock and metal ranks in Chicago.
“I wouldn’t be the same person if I weren’t here,” he said. “I wanted to be outside of my comfort zone. I want to build something out on my own from zero. And that’s what I’ve been doing. … I think I’m on the right direction, and I love my friends here. I love my life. It’s been amazing.”