Jason Narducy on Turning His Tween Punk Band Verböten into a Rock MusicalVerböten runs through March 8 at The House Theatre Chicago
“I’ve played Riot Fest, I think, nine times, if you’re including the Denver and Toronto iterations,” Jason Narducy estimates. He’s a familiar face at Riot Fest, spanking the four-string plank for fest faves Bob Mould and Superchunk as well as fronting his solo-project-turned-band Split Single. The fest even provided Narducy with a pivotal moment with his son: “I think it was in 2016, when my son was 10 or 11, and my wife came onstage with my kids during our set. I looked back and made eye contact with my son, and I think that was the first moment he realized that this is what his dad does.”
Of course, when Narducy himself was that age, he already knew a thing or two about being onstage in a band. Long before backing up personal musical heroes like Mould, Narducy started cutting his teeth at the tender age of 10 in Evanston punk band Verböten. Along with fellow local kids Tracy Bradford (vocals, age 14, also notable as Dave Grohl’s cousin who got him into punk), Chris Kean (bass, age 12), and Zack Kantor (drums, age 11), Narducy and Verböten strove to be a convincing hardcore band at a time when it was extremely unusual for children to be doing such things.
Regardless, they were largely accepted by the same early local scene that nurtured Chicago legends like Naked Raygun (a scene, incidentally, chronicled in the great doc You Weren’t There, which was recently featured in our column Punk Rock Movie Night).
Nearly four decades later, Narducy is revisiting a fictionalized version of that past with Verböten, a new rock musical written by Chicago playwright Brett Neveu. The play is loosely based on his and his bandmates’ youthful misadventures, but endeavors more to capture the overall spirit of the band and the time they inhabited. Narducy composed the music and lyrics for the play, a mix of punk and classic pop sounds. We got him on the phone to talk about the play and his early entry into punkdom.
RIOT FEST: Brett Neveu reached out to you first, right?
JASON NARDUCY: Yeah. We both live in Evanston. He teaches classes at Northwestern University, and he’s written around 30 original plays. Some of them have run in Chicago, but also some in New York and London.
About five years ago, he was watching that show Sonic Highways that the Foo Fighters people put together, and he saw me interviewed about Verböten on the Chicago episode and said, “Hey, I think I’ve met that guy! Our kids go to the same school!” Brett liked the story of Verböten, so he invited me out to pitch this idea.
So, he hadn’t been familiar with the story prior to that?
That’s right, and we’d only met once, at a PTA meeting or something. [Laughs] The idea was flattering and surprising. As he remembers it, he pitched it as a musical, with me writing the songs, from day one. I don’t remember it that way, but I think that’s because I was so intimidated by the idea that I was just trying to absorb the concept of there being a play at all! It wasn’t until later that I thought “Oh, wait, I’ve got to write music?”
Writing the music was pretty scary at first, but once I rolled up my sleeves and got into it, it was exciting. It was an opportunity to write the songs that the original Verböten would have been happy to play! I’m a better songwriter now than I was when I was 11, but I can still reach into the things that influenced us then. It’s fun to create this new Verböten and have them play more authentic hardcore songs than the actual group did.
Right. One’s faculties when they’re that age are usually more limited.
Yeah. We got there a couple times—some of it you hear, and yeah, it’s definitely punk rock from 1983—but we’d also veer into new wave, Go Gos/Cars territory (which, y’know, were also great bands and influences of ours).
For the adult characters in the play, I tried to write more 1960s/70s-influenced music. Funny thing: it’s January 16 (when we’re talking), and on January 7th, I think, the writer, director, and musical director all reached out to me to request I write a children’s song for the play. ‘Could you write something that’s a minute long? The Tracy character is going to go into her room and put on a record from her childhood.’ I was like, ‘okay… this opens in nine days, right?’. Anyway, I went down in my basement and started working on it, recorded something on my phone, and it’s quickly becoming a favorite song among the cast and crew, which is really funny.
It’s been an exciting process. I’m still getting notes about rewriting some verses to fit characters better, things like that. It’s coming down to the wire, but it’s also really invigorating and exciting to watch this thing evolve, even days before it goes public!
How close does the story hem to what actually happened with Verböten?
Well, the goal was to capture the spirit, and Brett did a great job doing that. There are things in the play that definitely didn’t happen, and things that definitely did. Basically, it’s not a documentary, it’s a musical, to be performed in musical theatre for people who want to sit down and be entertained.
That said, Brett interviewed all four of us before he wrote it, and used that information to create a two-day story which delves into the big question with this band: namely, how did four kids from Evanston comes together to form a punk rock band in 1983, and what drove them to do it? In short, it was propelled by turmoil at home, the isolation that a lot of kids feel, and really, luck. Nowadays, you’ve got the School of Rock, the internet, a bunch of ways for music kids to find each other, but back then it was really different.
To get back to your question, though, none of the four main characters in Verböten are exactly like who we were. The Tracy character is the closest, but there’s major differences. In the play, Chris drinks all the time, and Chris didn’t drink in middle school. The character that’s based on me isn’t sure if he wants the band to stay together, or even play a show, and I can tell you with great clarity that I was never unsure about that! I don’t know if I’ve ever canceled a show, but I loved being in that band and it meant everything to me.
The most important thing, though, is that people get something out of this and enjoy the experience. I was talking to Chris recently, and said that it felt like someone had taken our band and made a comic book about it!
If you’re a tween in a band, that’s the height of dreams, right? KISS had comics about them. That’s making it!
Yeah. Maybe that’s next!
Do you remember the first definitively punk rock thing you heard or saw when you were a kid, where you knew it was something for you?
Good question! We were fortunate in Evanston to have this store on Dempster Street called The Record Exchange, and a lot of the slightly older teens who were into punk rock worked there, so it was cool to go in there and see kids you looked up to working there. They had a punk rock section, so you could find the records easily enough. We also had WNUR, Northwestern University’s station, which would play punk rock.
Other than that, though, there was just a network of friends. Tracy and Chris were great sources… they’d go down to Wax Trax and shop, and bring these records back and let us tape them. So, I had Jodie Foster’s Army, Articles of Faith… basically, I’d take Chris’s 45″ collection and make 90 minute tapes of all these songs!
I relate to that. For years, the only copy of Double Nickels on the Dime I had was a really shitty dub of it, so when I finally got a real copy, it almost sounded wrong.
Oh, sure. I’d record stuff off the radio with a portable cassette recorder, and that’d really sound bad. My first copy of The Who’s Live at Leeds was that, from a radio station playing the whole record on a Sunday at 10:00 p.m.
My first punk rock record, though… I’m not sure. I can say that Group Sex by the Circle Jerks is one of my favorite punk records of all time, and I remember listening to that in my little apartment. Articles of Faith, too, especially ‘My Father’s Dreams’ and ‘Bad Attitude’… I listened to those songs constantly, I loved them so much and still do. Also, my dad did take me to see Rock & Roll High School, and bought me Road To Ruin, so that’s actually probably my first punk record.
The theatre company asked the original Verböten members to put together a playlist for the half-hour between doors and curtains. We thought was a cool idea, so we pooled our ideas and put it together. Tracy picked this song by Generation X, “Kiss Me Deadly,” which I don’t remember hearing back in the day, but I listened to it yesterday and it just sounded like arena rock to me! That said, when it gets to the end, I’ll be damned if the last 30 seconds of the song doesn’t sound like Paul Westerberg based his whole career on them. It might be a coincidence, but it just sounds so much like a Replacements song. I’d never expect that Venn diagram, but it’s pretty eerie. It’s interesting, though, listening to those old songs, because some of it still sounds dangerous, and some of it just feels like pop songs.
Right. It’s been absorbed into the nomenclature of pop music.
Absolutely. Like, there’s a Siouxsie and the Banshees song on there that sounds like it could be at a dance club. As really young kids trying to fit into the punk scene, there was a level of insecurity: Do we belong here? Can we pull this off? Now that I’m going back to that music, I can see that we were doing fine. [Laughs]
Those pre/freshly post-pubescent ages are embarrassing. Is there anything in the play that you felt uncomfortable revisiting?
Yeah, my relationship with my dad. My parents divorced when I was four, and I lived with my dad, and it wasn’t easy. He’s a good person with a good heart, and we’re good now, but there was a lot of turmoil. I think that pushed me away, and into the band situation. It was my way out.
In telling the story, we used some things that happened or were said, and we exaggerated it for dramatic effect. So, I called my dad maybe a month ago to say this was going on, and sent him the script so he wouldn’t be surprised. He was open to it, and I’m glad we talked about it, but there’s probably more for us to talk about.
Doing this, though, has definitely made me think about every documentary or autobiography that I’ve read in a different way, because you can’t tell the entire truth. You have to tell the story in a way where you get to the important stuff, but also not hurt the people around you in the process. That was probably the biggest challenge. I give Chris, Zack, and Tracy a lot of credit for even going along with it; they weren’t so sure about it at first. I remember reaching out to Zack and Chris to tell them that I didn’t care about the project nearly as much as I care about our friendship, and that I’d be fine with leaving it as an interesting idea that didn’t work out. They sat on that for awhile, but then we figured a way forward, and now everyone is kind of enjoying it. It’s a treat to see the attention it’s getting, and it really is a cool story.
What do you think the preteen versions of your bandmates would think about a rock musical being made about them four decades later?
Not even possible. You have to remember what musical theatre was back then. By now, there’s been enough of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Tommy, musicals that are more rock, which paved the way for this to even be possible. My goal, though, was for there to be actual punk rock songs in this one, because I haven’t seen that before.
As a music fan, of course, I’d like for it to be ten times louder than it is in a musical! There’s nothing you can do about that, though: you’re interspersing between music and dialogue, and it can’t be dialogue at 50 dB and music at 120 dB! So, you know, you hope that the music and lyrics carry enough power, and that people feel where the song is coming from.
Verböten (written by Brett Neveu with music and lyrics by Jason Narducy, directed by Nathan Allen) runs through March 8 at The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Tickets are available from The House Theatre of Chicago. Some shows are already sold out, so get those tickets fast!