The Chemistry Set
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The Chemistry Set

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The best kept secret in music


"Into The Light"

Thirty-five-year-old guitarist and songwriter Steve Duncan had countless live performances at local and national clubs notched on his belt, so he considered himself to be pretty comfortable onstage. He’d played guitar with Grand Street Cryers and Tabula Rasa, bands that had attracted sizable followings from the ’90s into the new millenium. But when time came to front his newest musical entity, The Chemistry Set, he felt a little as if he were starting from scratch. He realized two things: that a guitar is quite an easy instrument to hide behind and that when you decide to assume lead vocal duties — as he has, along with singer-keyboardist Meredith Knoll — you are looked at by audiences in a way they never look at other musicians.

“There were definitely a few shows early on where I was like, ‘Now, why did I think I wanted to be a singer?’” Duncan recalls of The Chemistry Set’s debut in 2003. “We picked venues where I knew I’d be comfortable — The Wreck Room in Fort Worth and Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas — but I still felt like people were looking at me sideways, thinking ‘So now the guitarist wants to be a lead singer ...’.”

Actually, he clarifies, “I was scared shitless.”

In the end, Duncan decided, what the hell? Whether the final result was good or bad, it was a new life experience. Besides, “I’d been writing songs that I wanted to present in a very specific way. The first year [as a singer] was a lot of little baby steps, of testing the parameters of my voice. But I feel good about it now.”

What Duncan is saying is that The Chemistry Set is almost in full sprint. The band — with Cory Helms on bass, keyboards, backing vocals, and a signature glockenspiel, and Joshua Hoover on drums — has just released The Chemistry Set, their full-length debut.

Although there’s a weird glow of innocent yearning radiated by The Chemistry Set, the word “experimental” hardly applies. The band members’ collective current enthusiasms — Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, The Shins, and Duncan and Helms’ ardor for the delicately crafted tunes of Joanna Newsom — speak mostly about a desire to develop, hone, and sustain a level of musicianship that’s at once accessible and rooted in exploratory guitar riffs and imagistic lyrics. The album plays like a sad child whose moods are constantly being rescued by a large and generous imagination; it’s a melodic carnival of melancholia that’s obsessed with the end of the world, the end of relationships, and the places where we choose to isolate ourselves. Musically, The Chemistry Set evinces Duncan’s bedrock taste for 1960s British pop with lots of pretty melodies (“I don’t think ‘pretty’ is a dismissive adjective at all,” he said), offset by the rolling, almost martial percussion from Hoover. “Into the Light,” using its title as an ultra-hooky refrain, is about redemptive surrender to God or creativity or self, take your pick; “The House of OK” is a hiding place full of marginalia (“A plastic guitar and an old music stand / A brown paper bag full of red rubber bands”) that flirts with the subject of the mundane as a form of suicide; and “She’s The Alpha” suggests love as the ultimate source of innovation, with Duncan’s guitar ringing gently throughout. The album’s leitmotif is Helms’ mad-merry glockenspiel chiming away no matter how apocalyptic Duncan’s lyrics get. During a typical live set, Helms starts plunking away at those keys that sound like handbells for three or four songs, and it’s the instrument people most often comment upon.

The four pieces of The Chemistry Set fell into place the typical way: The area rawk scene acted as a giant, amorphic DNA pool, squeezing out new bands composed of members of old bands like they were cellular organisms. In 2002, Duncan’s then-group was dissolving, and he began an intensive search to find musicians best-suited to be both collaborators and midwives for the material he was rapidly amassing by himself. The hunting grounds were what The Chemistry Set’s bio jokingly calls “Post Rock Show Social Enlightenment Sessions,” a.k.a the parties thrown by bands, their friends, and hangers-on after gigs. It’s not surprising that Duncan remembers when he asked Meredith Knoll to join, as they have since become a couple: During a party at his house, she walked over to the electric piano in the living room and started free-associating notes along with the c.d. that was playing. Knoll, who is a graphic artist, hadn’t played in a band since college, and that wasn’t a serious musical affair. She had zilch experience as a live singer, although Duncan liked her voice. He said, “Will you be in my band?” She said, “OK,” and after Duncan met Helms and Hoover through the glowing recommendation of friends, The Chemistry Set was assembled for fresh and daring harmonic experiments.

The Chemistry Set was recorded in a rented house in Dallas’ Lakewood neighborhood using just a personal computer, the Cu Base recording program, and some halfway decent mics. The album achieves the quality that Duncan and company wanted — “That sense of being inspired at 3 a.m. and singing and playing quietly so you don’t wake up your roommate.” Everyone contributed production ideas, and Duncan says the only points of contention were between him and Knoll. It came down to different musical philosophies. “I tend to want things big, to say, ‘We need an electric guitar here,’” he says. “Meredith wanted things kept down a little more. She’d say, ‘How about a mandolin instead?’”

Thanks to the musical connections Duncan had established with Grand Street Cryers and Tabula Rasa, The Chemistry Set is out of the gate galloping with strong press behind the c.d. and headlining dates at the key clubs in Fort Worth and Dallas. Those same connections also remind Duncan of the long list of fellow musicians who’ve “been through the major label wringer” of corporate contracts, artists who found out on the internet that they’d been dropped from their label or had their projects inexplicably shelved due to the revolving door of creative management minds. The band hopes to snag the interest of a solid independent label with a strong distribution department, then let touring and the internet take care of the promotion.

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"Music Award Nominees"

Best Song - The Chemistry Set, "Lee Minor 7" - Dallas Observer

"Best Of"

"Best Local Release" - Dallas Music Guide


Full length self titled CD


Feeling a bit camera shy


The Chemistry Set

In 2002, after years and years of working at an all-Tasmanian health foods store, and reinventing the Vietnamese language, Stephen decided to take a stab at songwriting. So, he created The Chemistry Set and began his search for a horn section consisting of 9 physically fit musicians with handle bar moustaches. This never panned out, however, but he did happen to meet a few interesting people along the way. Fate threw several parties in which these individuals became acquainted with one another. In the rock world, these are often referred to as “Post Rock Show Social Enlightenment Sessions”.
First there was Meri. There was just something about her. Maybe it was the fact that she played the dulcimer, and wore men’s overalls. Or maybe it was the fact that she had every word from the Back to the Future trilogy memorized. They quickly became friends, and began writing songs about the songs they were writing. Their first collaborative effort, “I am writing a song, this is the way it goes” came quickly in one of their first sessions. They developed this a bit more, and the songs started to get a little more complicated and even had melodies.
Then Cory came along. Stephen and Meri didn’t quite know what to think of him at first because he would wear only vests and talk about the extensive research he had done on rare insects such as the Nicaraguan nut beetle and the Zimbabwean cicada (who self combusts in order to fight off its enemies). Anyways, the more they talked, they found out Cory was also a musician and had spent several years playing the steel drums for a reggae cover band in Jamaica. The money soon ran out. Apparently, people can only take so many reggae versions of Shock the Monkey and Jailhouse Rock. So he came back to the states to become America’s premier purveyor of authentic, custom designed fanny packs. He also continued trying to make a bassoon sound like Randy Travis. The trio was now onto something. However, with the instruments they had chosen, they would need a drummer.
That’s where Josh came in. Cory knew Josh from a creative movement class they had taken together. He thought it was only fitting to suggest him, even though Josh had no musical experience whatsoever. Except for the countless nights he spent sitting in his room playing Midnight Oil songs on his mouth harp. Josh declined the invitation at first, as he had no desire to pursue musical endeavors. His main focus was perfecting his Christopher Walken impersonation and hitting the circuit as a stand-up wrestler. One day, he had an epiphany. He looked in the mirror and saw Gary Busey’s reflection, and knew he had to change. He took Cory up on his offer, and moved forward with the decision to become a drummer. The musicians began playing together and found that there was good chemistry. They also enjoyed spending time with one another after practice by playing tetherball, newcomb, and pin the tail on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. They were now a band. Their music comes from a wide spectrum of influences, including the most commonly shared: David Bowie, the Beatles, the Flaming Lips, Led Zeppelin, and not Simple Plan, or any of those other bands that sound exactly alike or are just horrible. Stephen, Meri, Cory and Joe-hash each provide their own unique elements, which in turn has taken the group to another magical land not foreseen by Stephen’s initial vision. Another common thread within the band is that all of their instruments are custom made from recycled unicorn bodies. Listen to what others have to say:

“Top Ten Best Local Release“ - Dallas Observer
“Best Local Dallas Release“ – Dallas Music Guide
“Boo-ya, I’m Tom Petty” – Tom Petty