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Mike Reed poses for a photo outdoors.

Mike Reed knows pretty much everyone in Chicago music circles. He’s a venue owner and working musician and the producer and co-curator of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Manuel Martinez

One of Chicago’s busiest musicians takes on loneliness. This is what it sounds like.

This story contains audio samples. Press on any grey audio player to hear a sample of a song.

When Mike Reed isn’t behind a drum kit, playing with Chicago’s bleeding-edge improvising musicians, he’s almost always at one of his two West Lakeview venues: Constellation or the Hungry Brain, both essential stages for avant-garde acts of all stripes.

Don’t see him in the crowd? Try looking where the people aren’t. Reed, 49, usually floats at the periphery, perches at the end of the bar or watches evening headliners from a nook in the Constellation black box.

“Some of the people I really enjoy talking to might be in the spotlight, but they tend to have this loner aspect to them,” said Reed.

For a loner, Reed knows pretty much everyone. He juggles several working bands, serves on the programming committee of the Chicago Jazz Festival, and founded what became the Pitchfork Music Festival, which he still helps produce and curate. That’s just a sampling. Those connections allow him to string together interesting collaborations other bandleaders might not think of — or pull off.

A band poses for a photo

The Separatist Party is (back row) Cooper Crain and Mike Reed with (front row) Marvin Tate, Rob Frye, Ben LaMar Gay and Dan Quinlivan.

Photo by Line Raud / Courtesy of the artist

His latest group, The Separatist Party, brings together six self-professed loners: cornetist Ben LaMar Gay, woodwind player Rob Frye, synthist and guitarist Cooper Crain, synthist Dan Quinlivan, spoken word artist Marvin Tate and Reed. Frye, Crain, and Quinlivan make up the Bitchin Bajas, Chicago’s beloved psych-synth unit; Reed Gay, and Tate have, too, performed together as a trio. The sextet works well together — so well, in fact, that they recorded a self-titled debut, out Friday, before performing live as a unit.

When The Separatist Party embarked on its first tour in August, of Europe, if they weren’t rehearsing or performing, band members scattered like seeds to the wind. Because, you know: loners.

“Everybody’s completely on their own thing until soundcheck,” Reed said.

The album cover for the Separatist Party

The album is the first of three on the theme of loneliness.

Courtesy of the artist

Reed envisions The Separatist Party as the first in a trilogy on the theme of loneliness, gathering different bands for each installment. The second, The Silent Hour (out September 2024), is inspired by a 2017 New York Times feature about a Queens man who died in his apartment, anonymous and alone. The third will reference boxes of items once owned by the late bassist Fred Hopkins — affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the influential South Side music collective — which recently found their way into Reed’s hands. That album is tentatively titled The Magic Book That Inspires Creativity, after a journal Hopkins kept.

Compared to the rest of the trilogy, Reed said the The Separatist Party is “more groovy,” drawing on references from krautrock to a 1975 collaboration between minimalist composer Terry Riley and trumpeter Don Cherry.

Here, Reed walks WBEZ through five tracks from the album. Press on any grey audio player to hear a snippet of the song.

"Your Soul"

From the jump, The Separatist Party sets the head bobbing. However, you’ll notice the central groove of this opening track feels just slightly off-kilter. Reed actually filched the guitar and synth lines from somewhere else: a jumpy, calypso-inspired tune called “What Happened at Conway Hall, 1938?” by Dutch cornetist Eric Boeren. (Reed and Boeren recorded a version of it with Reed’s quartet People, Places & Things on the 2013 album Second Cities: Vol. 1.)

Reed took basslines from two different sections of “What Happened…?”, inverted one — in other words, flipped the line upside down — and layered them atop one another. Because the two basslines are different lengths, they fall in and out of phase as the tune goes on, giving the track that off-balance feeling.

"We Came to Dance"

The considered pauses between Tate’s verses make his contributions sound like in-the-moment improv. What’s really happening here, and on the entire album, is more multilayered. Tate recorded himself reciting prewritten lyrics, which Reed then snipped up and shuffled, like magnetic poetry. After that, Tate would record the newly rearranged lines again to hone their pacing and cadence.

“I’ve done that with [Tate] before in other projects … We could really kind of get into these strange sorts of viewpoints,” Reed said.

"One of Us"

“She wasn’t always a Karen.” With that tantalizing line, Tate launches into a vivid tale about a white woman who grew up on his block. She was, as the title goes, one of us — until she wasn’t, spitting slurs at her childhood friend. Or were those her true colors all along? Tate, who based “One of Us” on a real woman he knew, leaves the question open. “Most of his stuff definitely has autobiographical qualities to it, but of course enhanced in certain ways,” Reed said.

"Rahsaan in the Serengeti"

The only song on the album that’s not an original, “Rahsaan in the Serengeti” was composed by Chicago saxophonist Ari Brown and recorded on his 1998 album Venus. The title is an homage to the late, great jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, famously able to play more than one saxophone at once. Likewise, Reed arranged the tune as an homage to Brown, whose wife passed away just before the pandemic. “I had been thinking about him a lot,” Reed said. “People like that, how were they dealing with this type of isolation?” This version recasts the original’s piano motor rhythm on synthesizer, with Gay’s cornet and Frye’s saxophone cavorting over it.

"Eric’s Theme"

Bringing the album full circle, the Eric of “Eric’s Theme” is none other than Eric Boeren, the Dutch musician behind the basslines which inspired “Your Soul.” Reed kept up an email correspondence with Boeren during the pandemic, which sometimes turned dark. “He was very distraught about playing music and whether to continue to do it,” Reed said. As a tribute to his friend, Reed takes a lullaby melody Boeren composed and reharmonizes it.

Hannah Edgar is a Chicago-based culture writer. Their work appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Musical America and Downbeat.

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