For the first 10 minutes I knew Chris May, I followed him through the West Loop in Chicago, walking about 20 feet behind him on the other side of the street. This was good. It gave me time to observe the artist/director/model/musician in his native habitat, an opportunity to see if “Chris the guy” matched the persona of “Chris the founder of the Synesthesia Collective.”
May slipped into a coffee shop, and there I made my move.
Over the course of an hour, he revealed the story of his life, one that slips through the labyrinths of fashion, art, film and music with ease, pausing to take influence from each thing while being faithful to none. His most recent project, Caught on Film (an electro-synth-pop CD EP released under the moniker Venue), ties together these worlds and pulls double-duty as a chronological rehash of the past 18 months. It thumbs its nose at convention, willfully smirking at the electroclash scene, offering a Devo-esque blend of poppy new wave, neo-industrial and pseudo-sexual rock pastiche.
“The EP is my role as witness,” May explained. “(It’s about) becoming totally enveloped, taking a step back and finding peace. The (nightclub) scene allowed me to take a closer look at what I thought was important and redefine my ideas of true happiness.”
May, the son of Park West developer John May, was exposed to the nightclub culture early in life, rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Bowie when May was just a toddler. From his early teenage years until now, he’s had his hands in all sorts of artistic pots, collaborating with performance artist Toula Vivilakis in Synesthesia (an artists’ collective concerned with breaking boundaries among fashion, art and music); exploring art rock in bands such as Schlitz Family Robinson and now Venue; modeling for such high-end designers as Armani and Jil Sander; and producing videos for TheBong.com, The Bug Eye Show (once selected by Fox as Chicago’s best cable access show), and Victory Records bands Catch 22 and Snapcase.
May first flirted with electro and dance in the late ’90s after the dissolution of Schlitz, about the same time he was completing his film studies at Columbia College Chicago. It was there he met future Venue collaborator Zak Marcom. Obsessed with the work of artists from Mike Patton and Stanley Kubrick to Andy Warhol and Underworld, the two set out to create music that would synthesize their disparate influences into something totally new.
“I wanted to bring back the fun into dance culture,” May said. “We were about breaking down the scenes and the limits of self-categorization.”
For nearly two years, May and Marcom collaborated, parting ways in January 2002, the same month May began “Synesthesia Thursdays,” a weekly residency at the Big Wig nightclub in Wicker Park. Synesthesia Thursdays brought together DJs, installation artists and visual artists. One of the first “electro” happenings in Chicago, the event had already run its yearlong course long before Miss Kitten and Peaches became household names.
It was also during 2002 that May worked on tunes such as “Zzzzz…” and “Moving to NY,” a song May said speaks to the challenges of being an electronic musician/artist in a city such as Chicago. “For a long time, it seemed everyone I ran into was saying, ‘I’m moving to New York,’ and it became the ‘cool’ thing to say,” he said. “Chicago takes its time (to recognize artists). I guess it’s the nature of the city: Go out to shows, cross your arms and contemplate if what you’re watching is cool or not.”
But May, like acid-house pioneer Felix Da Housecat, wasn’t interested in becoming a “hometown hero.” “Suckers,” a track from Caught on Film, won the Electronica category in the May 2003 Diesel-U-Music Awards, resulting in an opening slot for the Rapture and De La Soul show at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. Moonshine Records is going to press 1,000 12″ singles of “Suckers,” and May is now fielding offers from labels interested in releasing the next Venue CD. He hasn’t committed to anything yet, preferring to cast his fortunes wherever time and space find him. Indeed, as the last words of this article are penned, May is spinning at “A Fuckin’ Art Party” at Minna Gallery in San Francisco, while his Synesthesia cohorts gear up for a West Coast tour and plan for a film collaboration.
“I’m after enlightenment through chaos,” May said. “It’s the way I’ve always gone about it.”