Interview by Alessandra Cognetta
Leslie Hunt is the lead singer of District 97, a prog band from Chicago that is (not so) slowly conquering the American music scene and establishing its own name at home and abroad. Their work is a surprisingly fresh combination of different styles and musical experiences, with two full-length albums released and an ever-growing touring activity. If you want to know more about District 97 (and believe me, you want to), this is the right place to start!Hello and welcome to Femme Metal, Leslie! We’re really glad to have you here with us. District 97 has just finished their US tour, how would you describe this experience, now that it’s over?
I thoroughly enjoyed myself! Each show was a success in its own right, and I absolutely love performing this music. I also love our fans! They are some of the most genuine and appreciative people I have ever met, and I am so honored to be on the receiving end of their loyalty. It was definitely a challenge to play eight nights in a row, especially since my performance style is getting more and more theatrical as our sound evolves, but as soon as we would play the first note, I was able to transport myself to the headspace required to experience the song as if it were my first time.District 97 has never been featured on our Webzine before, could you introduce the band and its members to our readers?
Sure! I’m Leslie, and I sing, dance and play tambourine sometimes. Jonathan Schang is the drummer, primary composer, bandleader, AND he manages everything that happens behind the scenes, so we all give him serious props. Jim Tashjian plays lead guitar and sings backgrounds. Rob Clearfield plays keyboards and additional guitar. Patrick Mulcahy plays bass.Your second album, “Trouble With Machines” has been released this summer. Can you show us some “behind the scenes” on the songwriting and recording process? I also found the cover art really intriguing, who’s that man and what is the strange machinery he’s staring at?
This album was more collaborative than our debut, “Hybrid Child” in that we all brought music to the table. We were also way more hands-on in the studio, and worked together throughout the mixing process as well. Our new album is a fantastic representation of each of our musical stylings, as we each had a say in what made it and what didn’t. Jim and Patrick brainstormed the idea for the cover art together, so I cannot speak for exactly what the inspiration was, but I’ve been using the steampunk art direction as a model for some of my looks on stage!John Wetton from Asia is on the 10 minutes long track “The Perfect Young Man” (and he achieves such perfection, at least voice-wise). Could you give us a bit of insight on this collaboration? Can we expect more duets in the future?
John Wetton wrote Jonathan a message out of the blue, asking him to send him a District 97 t-shirt, and from there they struck up a friendly correspondence. Whilst recording our new album, Patrick suggested that Jonathan approach John about singing the role of the male villain in “The Perfect Young Man”. Jonathan sent him an email with the subject, “A Longshot Question” and to his surprise, he accepted immediately and even went above and beyond what was asked of him by adding some very cool, multi-layered backing vocals to other parts of the song.All your albums up to now feature cellist Katinka Kleijin from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, even though the cello contributions seem to have been reduced on “Trouble With Machine” in comparison to “Hybrid Child”. Why did you decide to include a cello in the first place?
Patrick and Rob knew Katinka through some mutual acquaintances on the Chicago jazz scene. She came to Lily’s Bar to check out District 97‘s second gig as a instrumental band and was particularly impressed by their reworking of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time: Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets”. (Coincidentally, that was my first exposure to District 97 as well, as Jonathan had invited me to open for them with a solo set.) That piece was a favorite of Katinka‘s, and they invited her to play it with them a few months later. She really enjoyed herself, and eventually the decision was made to incorporate her into all of the their material.
Since we mentioned Chicago in the previous question, what can you tell us about the Chicago current music (prog in particular, of course) scene?
We have found that the prog scene in Chicago is not as prevalent as it is in on East Coast, but we are still able to draw a nice crowd when we play live. We also don’t play in Chicago very often, so when we do, it’s treated like a special occasion. Overall, the Chicago music scene is great, in that it’s very diverse, accessible and riddled with world-class talent.Let’s talk a bit more about you, Leslie. You were a Top 10 Finalist in the 2007 American Idol edition. What brought you to American Idol and what do you think American Idol itself brought to you in terms of skills and experience?
I decided to audition for American Idol on a whim, after a near-death experience in Brazil, and was pleasantly surprised to make it to the top ten females. It taught me that I actually had what it takes to pursue music as a career, especially after witnessing so many eliminations all around me throughout the audition process. It was a lesson on how to deal with nerves, how to take care of yourself whilst having to keep up with a demanding schedule, and it also pushed me to choose an artistic identity.There are other singers who got into bands after participating to a talent show, the first one that comes to mind is Sirenia‘s vocalist Ailyn. What is your opinion on these kind of shows and what can they do to help artists who want to break through?
I think that in this day and age, with so many musicians and artists trying to achieve the same thing, any little edge you can give yourself is valuable. People have kept in touch with me since 2007 because of that show, and people that watch the show give me the time of day because they see that I was a part of it. These are people that would not know about me otherwise. It’s not a bad feather in the proverbial cap!You started as a solo artist. Ever thought of pursuing that career once more, in the future?
I actually released another solo album in May, so in a way I have never stopped, but District 97 is definitely keeping me busier than my solo stuff is at the moment. I am a single mom with a three-year-old daughter, so I unfortunately don’t have the time needed to drive that ship into the spotlight right now, but I look forward to a time when I can have both sides of my artistic self playing a prominent role in my day-to-day life.I must say I really liked your stage outfits and make-up, are they inspired by something in particular? What role do you think they have in music, especially during a live performance?
Why, thank you! I have a BLAST coming up with unique looks for each and every show. I have a variety of characters that I play during a set, so my outfits are usually a combination of what they would all wear on any given day. It also depends on how I’m feeling that day, or how the venue inspires me to dress. Music is never just about the music for me. It’s about the characters, the movement that the music inspires, strong emotions that need to be expressed, and of course, visual inspiration. Our live show is a HUGE part of why we have made it this far, and I want each show to be an experience that nobody will ever forget, including myself.District 97 is going to play in the UK next year, at London’s CELEBR8 Festival in May. What are your expectations from the European audiences?
I hope they dig us over there! I don’t really know what to expect, if we keep upping the ante between now and then, I don’t see how we won’t go over like gangbusters. We are truly unique and I think people recognize that.That’s it, thank you for being with us, we can’t wait to hear more from District 97! You can leave a message to fans and readers here.
Thanks for reading this interview! Thanks for your support and interest in what we do! We love being able to share our current happenings with you, so please like us on facebook and join our mailing list if you haven’t already! Hope to see you at a show! 🙂