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New Bloomington Rock Band Finds Purpose During Pandemic

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Joe Borbely said creating the debut album for the Bloomington-based Progressive Space rock outfit CAPS LOCK was almost literally a life-saver.

“This gave us something to work together,” said Borbely of staying active during the pandemic while dealing with other difficult life problems. “You know, this project was everything. I cannot understate that, like just it was the biggest thing.”

The man best known musically for his role in the Twin Cities cover band Jack Dupp & the Empty Bottles dove head-first into writing what became most of the music and lyrics for the four-song EP “Higher Standard of Deviation” during the pandemic. 

But he was quick to give props to producer/engineer/bassist Micah Hattaway for bringing the album to full fruition.

“If you look at a track like ‘White Tornado,’ it was kind of a short song when I brought it to the group. We added a verse and an instrumental section. We added an intro and outro. It started minimalist, and now it's this cacophony by the end of the song and it's like, I don't know what we got. We always say it turns into like a roller skate dance battle after,” said Borbely, adding the song title was ripped from a youthful dream where he remembers fiughting a “man-sided white tornado."

CAPS LOCK is rounded out by keyboard player John Wyatt Danenberger and drummer Travis Wheet. The quartet drives in the progressive space rock and roll lane with influences including classic rock legends Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. “White Tornado” has a vibe similar to The Doors staple “Riders on the Storm.”

“It was CJ Lackey of (the Bloomington-based rock band) Old Smoke. Chris Lackey was in the crew for a while. Micah gave him some direction and some of that Doors stuff, you know, the Rhodes tinkling piano stuff that's in there. It's totally like, improv from him. But that was Micah’s vision.”

“Honestly, when I first wrote the little bouncy riff I was thinking Grateful Dead. It might not come off like that. But that's what struck me when I wrote that riff a while ago.”

And the disco section?

“I don't know where that came from,” said Borbely, pausing to recall the inspiration. “Medeski, Martin and Wood actually.”

Really?

“Yeah, was a big influence for the base of that section,” said Borbely.

“Incontinental Congress” is the song of the four on “Higher Standard of Deviation” that sticks out both musically and lyrically. Borbely said the first word in the title is a play on words.

“We've got a Congress that really is kind of blocked up, you know, nothing's really happening,” he explained. “So that song is definitely politically motivated. The second verse in that song has been continually blowing my mind.”

Fractured, there’s nothing left but dust Then you’re left with nothing but us We’ll take the place, we’ll take the place, we’ll take the place of what you made The only way that you can’t be free In a cage that you cannot see We’ll make those chains, we’ll make those chains, we’ll make those chains Fit comfortably From “Incontinental Congress” by CAPS LOCK

“And I'm talking about as a country, we're just so fractured right now. What you saw on Jan. 6 … I don't claim to be some kind of psychic or anything, but it's scary what that verse is about and what we are seeing right now,” said Borbely.

Understanding the unlikelihood of a self-described Progressive Space Rock band having a hit song, the hooky as all get out “Incontinental Congress” would be the one on this EP.

“I don't shy away from hooks,” said Borbely of the melodic song that would sound right at home on a classic Foo Fighters album. “There's a song (‘ … & On’) on Erykah Badu’s second album where she's talking to herself and the chorus is ‘what good do your words do if they can understand?’ You can be as artistic as you want. But at 44 I'm running out of time. So, I just kind of I write with some pop sensibilities, I guess.”

There are other, perhaps somewhat surprising influences on this EP. Surprising at least for the “genre” the band has adopted. It’s not often one hears Pink Floyd, the Doors and Deep Purple cited alongside  Duran Duran and other 1980’s pop rock. Borbely and Hattaway embrace 80’s pop-rock for especially the synth influence.

“We're kind of a ‘Dad band,’” said Borbely. “We're older. Micah and I are kind of the two-headed monster driving this thing. That dude is just influenced by everything. That was his era, for sure. So, we could be guitar-bass-drums-keyboard. But that's not what we want to be. The studio is what spoils us in order to really flesh out these songs and decorate that cake.”

Back to the implication that 2020 on top of the pandemic was a very difficult personal year for Borbely and another band member. He said having the creative outlet in 2020 that became the EP got him through the pandemic and the personal issues he was dealing with.

"I don't know where I'd be without it. I really, really don't. A big part of happiness is having something to look forward to. And when everything shut down … there's not a lot going on, you know, there's not a lot to plan for."

The next step is to take this highly produced album to a live audience. "Hopefully in 2021," said Borbely.

Is the band able to replicate the studio sound in front of a live audience?

“I can't wait to find out,” he said. “It'll take a while to figure it out. But we're at the point now where we're starting to do that. Because it's gonna get warm and we're gonna play outside, dang it.”

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.