We at Fecking Bahamas were very excited to hear news from Chicago math rock veterans Volta Do Mar that they’d be remastering and re-releasing their entire music catalog digitally on August 6.
For the uninitiated, Volta Do Mar created some of the most invigorating instrumental jams of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The band’s 2001 album At the Speed of Light or Day was included in our list of 100 great math rock albums you’ve never heard. The band existed in the heyday of the 90’s/2000’s Chicago math rock scene alongside bands like Don Caballero, Shellac, Tortoise, and so many other bands that helped influence the genre to what it is today. Volta Do Mar also has the distinction of being a band with two bassists that is also a part of Chicago’s math rock history with other such notable two bassists bands as Tortoise, Dianogah, and Monobody.
We were lucky enough to get the full band (Jeff Wojtysiak – Bass, Mike Baldwin – Bass, Phil Taylor – Guitar, Tony Ceraulo – Drums) to sit down with us over Zoom and talk about how the band came together, what the Chicago music scene was like 20 years ago, and re-releasing their music in a modern age.
FB: How did the band originally come together? How did you guys all meet?
Jeff: to me from what I remember. Me and Mike already knew each other and Phil moved from Flint, Michigan to Palatine, Illinois, and the three of us attended Junior High together. And from there, me and Phil, what was it? What was what were some of the first bands we had Phil?
Phil: Oh, let’s see. It must have been like eighth grade and we wanted to play or something. And it was like, okay, I’ll give you guys a listen, even though you guys cause a lot of trouble back day and everything. I think Jeff from early on, was the sort of eager beaver collaborator as far as I remember.
Jeff: I think at that time, I was still playing guitar. Phil and I were kind of were doing the heavy metal cover thing and doing that sort of stuff. And I think I like Phil was kind of in my first band, and all the way up to Volta Do Mar, which you know, so we’re playing music together for I don’t know how long at least 15 years. In high school me and Phil started playing with Tony in a band. And we did that for a couple years in high school. And then I don’t remember the timeline, but after high school me and Phil did Hash Brown. I’m so proud of the seven inch we put out, I thought that was a pretty good one.
Jeff: After Hash Brown ended we started a new band, which then became Volta Do Mar. I think even before we got a drummer it was Phil’s idea to ask Mike to join us playing bass. At that point, I was playing bass, and I thought it was a pretty cool idea to have another bass player do some stuff.
Mike: Way back when in junior high, Phil, Jeff and I played together. After we went to high school, they played together still, and we maintained our connections, and so when were getting out of college it just kind of made sense coming back together, playing music again.
Jeff: So now it was 98. And we actually recorded the first EP as Volta Do Mar with Chris Myers, as our drummer who is now like the drummer of Umphrey’s McGee. And we knew him through the Palatine scene and everything. And we I don’t know what happened. I think he was just too busy. You know, he left in the nicest way possible. Because he’s a pretty… he’s a talented guy. And maybe we weren’t up to his level ha.
Phil: Tony sort of had like a more of a, like, a better kind of artistic sensibility with drumming that we really sort of needed and completed the band. Tony was always like, one of my favorite musicians. Actually, he was a few years older than us. So maybe even like around University time, four or five years doesn’t seem like such a long time in your adult age, but around then, you know, like on a cultural development. From a cultural development standpoint, it seemed like Tony was a little further along or something. I mean, just as far as like, some of the stranger mathier music he kind of introduced me to and everything.
Jeff: So we after Tony joined us we went back and we re-recroded the EP with Tony. And that’s the one that was out and you hear today. I don’t really remember what happened for the next five years. A lot of stuff though haha.
FB: Can you talk more about the early days in the band? What was the Chicago scene and venues like back then?
Phil: I remember Fireside Bowl (Chicago bowling alley that put on DIY shows) being like, really one of the best, coolest places. It kind of felt like there was like a real kind of music loving community there. And yeah, really like such a kind of historic sort of venue too, I kind of remember when I would go see shows there and I was like, wow, you know, this is kind of a special place, kind of like once in a lifetime. You know, it’s like this kind of music scene. I remember seeing Tortoise at Fireside Bowl and I remember that was like, maybe one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I think that Trans Am played with them too. I can remember seeing Ghosts and Vodka there too and a lot of those kinds of math rock bands. It seemed like there were there were like a lot of local house shows too and things back then.
Tony: I remember a lot of weekend shows we would play, and Phil you would book shows like Friday down in like Champaign, and then Saturday, somewhere in like Indiana and then sometimes you even booked a Sunday Night show somewhere in the Midwest and I remember a lot of long weekends. We drove down to Texas for South by Southwest and I remember Phil was starting to job on that Monday at like the steel mill. And we’re like, Alright, we went to South by and played and came back and dropped Phil off at the steel mill on Monday morning were like, we’ll see you later buddy haha.
Jeff: I also remember, like not really playing with a lot of bands that were similar to us and we played with a lot of punk rock bands.
Phil: That was the kind of the DIY scene then and that was really kind of vibing and happening. I there was part of me that always liked that kind of thing, and it was like maybe we could like shock their system a little bit with our stuff.
Jeff: Yeah, I feel like there’s more times that I can remember when we’d show up to play a DIY show and would kind of go in and be like, oh, this will be interesting.
Mike: We used to play a lot of colleges, like UIC (University of Illinois Chicago), DePaul, University of Chicago.
Jeff: One time when I remember playing the University of Chicago with Cheer Accident. That was wild. Back then college money was flowing to have bands play and when they did they had these shows at DePaul like in the classrooms like DIY shows.
Mike: Jim Myers from Dakota Dakota, he used to attend those shows at DePaul. You would play in a classroom and like wow, yeah that was a thing.
Tony: Hey, do you guys remember when Phil booked us a show at Cook County prison? Do you remember that? That would have been a chance to remember. We never played it.
Jeff: I don’t think the van started that day. Do you guys remember that? I kind of remember something about the van that kept us from playing it.
Tony: Well I remember we were talking about recording it and calling it Live at Cook County Jail.
FB: That’s interesting to hear how much of a DIY scene it was back in the day. You guys are a math rock band by many, but did you guys think of yourselves as a math rock band, a post rock band, or maybe a punk band? Where did you guys see yourselves of what you’re trying to do musically? Where you seeking to be a more math-y band or it just kind of happened the way it happened kind of thing?
Jeff: I don’t remember knowing the term math rock.
Mike: When we first met myself, Phil, and Jeff met in junior high and the later Tony, and we found out we’re all into metal right? Like that’s how we all kind of started on heavy metal. Then it just spiraled from there in many ways. I mean, there was there was a lot of exciting things happening like in Chicago around that time that kind of brought us together and we all were listening to you know, anything from Frank Zappa to Tortoise to improvised music, but like at the heart of it was metal. I don’t know if you guys would agree I think like heavy metal is a huge part of why we play music.
Jeff: From the from the heavy metal thing to moving on and finding out about prog music. Progressive rock music I think that was a huge finding, like all the music that was created like in the 70s you know, the bigger bands like Yes and King Crimson and that kind of prog stuff. And you start with those and then diving deeper and deeper and deeper and finding more obscure bands. I mean, that was a huge influence and then hearing bands like Tortoise or something like that, that is really a very progressive band and also an instrumental band, and don’t need the vocal to be the melody and you can use other things as the melody and have different instruments and stuff. That was cool!
FB: What were you listening to and what kind of influences do you have by the time of recording your first full-length album The Speed of Light or Day?
Phil: As Mike said, I think it would be hard to understate the early sort of heavy metal influence. I think as we got a little older our taste started to get more eclectic. I think around that time I started to get more interested in like different kinds of global music like Eastern music, African music, and with the prog stuff, Zappa, heavy metal, and with all this sort of underground stuff that was happening, the improvised music scene in Chicago, it seemed like there was an interesting scene developing where we were and it was really kind of pretty exciting time for music.
Jeff: If you can find one of those old Fireside Bowl fliers you’ll see within a week there’s like a Tortoise and Trans Am show, there’s a DK3 show, there’s Hamid Drake playing improv, there’s just all these different things that are happening, and they’re so different, and they’re right in your backyard. And then there was bands like June of 44, and Touch and Go Records stuff, and it was all happening. There was so much music, that it was hard not to be influenced by a little bit of everything.
Chris Squire (bassist of Yes), was a huge influence, and this kind of taking the modern with the past and kind of blend it, and honestly with the stuff we were writing, I never thought stuff has to be a certain way. That’s what I thought was such a cool thing with the two basses, it gave a lot of ability to do whatever you wanted to because I didn’t have to sit there and hold on the low end. And, I could kind of be a more traditional bass player, I could do that, but I could also do whatever I wanted because there was another guy who could do it and hold down the low end. And then we could switch and I could do the low, and stuff like that. So it was really free. And I also I’ve said this before, but those five years I probably learned more on bass guitar than I’ve ever learned in my life.
Playing with another person on the same instrument was just very freeing. It was very interesting with remastering this stuff and listening back. I was just like how did we come up with this stuff? When did we write this stuff? You know, when do we have time to figure this out? I think the music just came to us really natural and it really flowed because At The Speed of Light or Day stuff that was written really fast. I think it was a pretty quick process.
Phil: Um, Jeff, are you sure? I mean, I think some of those songs were really right out of the gate and others came out of a long birthing process. I just remember a lot of hours of kind of really trying to work out. Little riffs and ideas taking a lot of time to figure out, at least on guitar.
Mike: So, we had about like 60% of those songs were written before we actually recorded them. There was a lot of improvisational stuff on the record. That album (At The Speed of Light or Day) was spontaneous and kind of worked well with the room and the way it was recorded. So that’s another thing that’s kind of interesting to think about that we like we had some tight stuff going in, but we did live in the room together and that’s how we played those songs all the time. I mean, cool thing about that record, the way it was recorded is that that was us. That’s kind of cool that we captured I that energy on the record.
Jeff: If I recall, it was recorded live. I mean, there was overdubs done, but there was no punch ins, no edits, there’s no cleaning up kind of stuff, and if we had a solid good take then let’s keep it and move on, and it’s got that energy. Where that was recorded, that’s where we practice, so our idea was to bring in Mike Lust (Guitar in Lustre King) and have him bring his studio to us at the steel mill. We recorded on his portable studio to half inch tape.
Tony: I also remember being kind of under the gun, though, because Mike brought his board to the steel mill and we only had like a weekend to do it all then we had to get his stuff back as he had another recording sessions to do. So I remember laying down all the instruments first and just like alright we got them. We did if fast and we start like after work on Friday, and then we had Saturday and Sunday, and then that’s it we’re out of time. I think we were kind of out of money to haha. I think it was about 1,000 degrees in there too. We were like, yeah, let’s record in the factory. That was being in the boiler room. It felt like being in a steel cage.
Phil: Actually it was a break inside of the steel mill that was like sort of partitioned off for rehearsal space. Yeah I even slept there sometimes. So that was kind of freaky. You know late at night I could hear like the rats kind of moving around and stuff. It was a great space, though. I mean, it was big! I mean, huge! Like it was pretty huge.
Jeff: Yeah, it was just like this big steel cage and I remember you’d walk into the building and it’s just like don’t cross that line or the alarms come on. You don’t want to turn on the alarms in a steel mill you know. They just had a toilet bolted to the floor too there’s no walls or partitions, so everyone can watch when you’re going.
Phil: Yeah, but I think looking back that’s sort of like a cost effective kind of way to kind of make something happen. And it was great working with people like Mike lust, and we knew him through the Fireside Bowl scene and his band Lustre King, it was like, he seemed like a fixture at the Fireside Bowl.
FB: Was Lustre King still an active band when Mike Lust recorded you guys?
Jeff: I think they might have just finished up as a band. I think we recorded the album right around the time he played a 4th of July show at Phyllis’ on Division Ave in Chicago. I lived on the 2nd floor at the time and Mike lived above me on the 3rd floor. Phyllis’ had these big Fourth of July shows. We attend them every year, and played many of them and so did Lustre King and a lot of those kinds of angular instrumental bands. I remember that year and Mike started playing the national anthem out of his third floor window during the show and we’re just like what’s going on? Then there’s a guitar that fell out of the window, and it was always something crazy would happen.
FB: Speaking about live shows, was there a difference in response that you guys got from playing in Chicago compared to play in other cities?
Jeff: Like I was saying before, I felt like we never played with similar bands. So you had to go in there and I don’t know if it was like, you had something to prove or anything, but it was like he went in there and felt like we had a win over people because we didn’t have vocals. And there was two basses and Mike’s playing a six string bass, I’m playing a five string bass, we had two basses with 11 bass strings! It’s like what’s going on here? And then Tony had a very unique setup too, and we set up the drums backwards at the front. So we’re already going in asking, asking a lot from people.
Phil: Looking back, that was totally correct. This strange kind of set up with Tony. But I really think Tony was doing some really interesting stuff, and had a really unique style so I think it kind of makes sense to have him in the forefront.
Jeff: Visually, it also gave like a nice shot of looking at a drummer. He’s usually behind people. When you’re working with a small stage, and the drummer is flailing around behind people, and he’s covered with a bunch of cymbals in his face at times or whatever. And you flip it and turn the set around, and all sudden you’re looking at it from the drummer’s perspective and you get to see what he’s doing and playing off the rest of the band.
Tony: Well, I will just say setting up backwards was also slightly nerve wracking each night because everyone sees your mistakes, so you have to be on top of your game.
FB: Can you talk about the remasters and they all came about and re-releasing the whole catalog?
Phil: These guys who have a label in Belgium reached out to you, Jeff, right? They said they really liked our album At The Speed of Light or Day and saw it wasn’t released on vinyl and they really wanted to release it.
Jeff: Yeah, they wrote the old Volta Do Mar email and it was Tony who saw it and forwarded that email about them wanting to do a vinyl release. Prior to that, actually a couple years ago I started to learn how to do mastering for music. One of the things I really wanted to do was take all the Volta Do Mar stuff, which had never really been up online and never been on Spotify or Bandcamp or any streaming services. I wanted to get the stuff out online, but always felt the original recordings were maybe just a little subpar because we were young and didn’t know what we were doing back then.
In the back of my mind I always wanted to get this stuff out there online and then six months ago this label from Belgium contacted us asking if we’d want to put out At The Speed of Light or Day on vinyl, and we’re still working with them on that on the artwork and vinyl pressing and everything, and we’re hoping to have that out next year. Phil redid the artwork and I cleaned up the audio so it’s almost ready and going to press soon hopefully.
For me, I just really wanted to get the music out there. We originally pressed everything on CD and we pressed a lot of CD’s, but like you know, have many CD’s do you have these days.
Mike: It’s also a weird thing too because there’s this divide between physical music and streaming, but like streaming at really good quality, and when we were around it was maybe 1 or 2 years before music streaming became a big thing, so it’s nice to have Jeff remaster all this stuff and make it sound better.
Jeff: Yeah, it was also kind of strange because this label from Belgium reached out to us and I’m looking at the release dates and the 20th anniversary of At The Speed of Light or Day is coming up this Fall, so that was just a weird coincidence too. I just worked on getting all the digital remastered then and get it out now and then hopefully will be able to get the vinyl release of At The Speed of Light or Day sometime soon.
FB: Will this be the first time At The Speed of Light or Day has been released on vinyl?
Jeff: Yes! It will the first vinyl release of any of our records, so it’s nice to finally happen.
Volto Do Mar’s entire catalog with be remastered and available digitally on August 6th, and you’ll be able to find them for the first time on Bandcamp, Spotify, and Apple Music. For now, check out the band on Youtube.