In the mid-1990s, musician Chris McDuffie (aka, Whitejacket) found himself done with his first tour of academic duty, and biding his time slinging popcorn and soda at a movie theater in Denver, Colorado. Little did he know, this was freshman orientation for his post-graduate studies at the University of The Apples in Stereo. Well, sort of.
McDuffie says that it was during at movie theater gig that he met coworkers Martyn Leaper and Rebecca Cole, members of the Elephant Six band The Minders. Through them, he met Rob Schneider, the principle artist behind The Apple in Stereo.
At the time, the Apples were enjoying the buzz behind their critically-acclaimed debut, Fun Trick Noisemaker, and finishing its follow-up, Tone Soul Evolution. Schneider and McDuffie hit it off, and McDuffie says being asked to join the Apples for a tour behind Tone Soul Evolution was “really more because he thought I was a nice guy than for any sort of virtuosity on my part.”
That self-effacing quality is fairly built-in for McDuffie.
Several years, and a couple of albums down the line with the Apples, McDuffie had grown antsy. Though he’d earned a virtual master’s degree in DIY indie rock under the tutelage of Schneider and others in the band, McDuffie wasn’t complete musically. He’d briefly attended graduate school before joining the band, and now that he’d had a mix of both real-world and university schooling, he was ready to put his rock and roll world on hold as he hit the books again.
It was the early 2000s, and McDuffie had moved to Chicago for love, and schooling. He was in a relationship with Lisa Pekarek, now his wife, and came here for her, and to start on a second degree – this one in music.
McDuffie says that in the past, he’s been hesitant to reveal that he went to school for a degree in music – going so far as to create a somewhat outrageous tale (ala a music hero of his, Bob Dylan) – but he’s since grown comfortable in his academic skin.
He’s also grown ever-so-slightly more comfortable in his musical skin. Several years ago, he started crafting some of the songs that make up his new solo debut, Hollows and Rounds. He hadn’t really taken a sincere stab at songwriting until that point, but once he started, McDuffie says that the songs started to flow out. He says it was the music training he’d received that allowed him to take germs of ideas and bring them to fruition in ways he’d never imagined. He says the burst of inspiration and creativity was “gratifying, but also weird… I was suspicious of my own stuff… All songwriters borrow stuff they’ve heard elsewhere, but I was worried and thinking ‘is this real? Is it as original as I think it is?’”
And it is real. While McDuffie’s solo project Whitejacket (a reference to a literary influence of his, Herman Melville) does wear its influences on its Beatles-esque sleeves, Hollows and Rounds is a well-crafted record that stands strong on its own.
Another late-era Beatles influence that McDuffie will hopefully break soon is that, until now, Whitejacket has been a studio-only project. In fact, the band’s appearance on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift marks its first-ever public performance. With a little bit of luck and a nudge, Chris McDuffie’s experience playing and touring with The Apples in Stereo will kick in, and get him back on stage in support of his new project.