Aug. 17 2011 10:37 AM

Local indie-rockers have serious chops, big ambitions and one of the best booking agents in the biz

Jackson Milgaten (seated left) and Scott Wheeler (seated right) take inspiration from Talking Heads’ Remain in Light
Photo by Anthony Levas

During a late-night rehearsal one recent Sunday, the guys in Cuckoo Chaos were looking loopy. They were about to go on a two-week tour with Ganglians and they’d been cooped up in their cramped Miramar practice space since 6 p.m., nursing a fifth of Jim Beam and powering through their set multiple times.

But on their fourth and final run, they were totally dialed in. As bassist Garrett Prange and drummer Dave Mead laid down one unrelenting groove after another, guitarists Scott Wheeler, Jackson Milgaten and Jeremy Scott wove together the kind of intricate figures you might hear from a Congolese soukous band. They barely exchanged words as they charged through their songs in just under 40 minutes.

It’s game time for Cuckoo Chaos. Earlier this year, the local indie-rock band signed to The Windish Agency, a company that books tours for big names like Animal Collective and Girl Talk. The band’s new booking agent is Tom Windish, the company’s founder and one of the country’s most influential tastemakers. Though Cuckoo Chaos are relatively unknown nationally, they want to deliver.

“We’re like freshmen in college on a sports scholarship, and now you gotta make those plays to be starters. And then from there, you gotta make those plays to be drafted into the NFL,” Wheeler says. “That’s the progression that I try to keep in mind.”

Cuckoo Chaos might not have the kind of catchy singles that launched Windish clients like Foster the People and Cults to fame, but they do have serious chops. They’re all seasoned local musicians in their 20s and, together, they make a perfect storm. Woman, a seven-song EP that comes out on Lefse Records on Sept. 13, is an infectious piece of tropical indie-pop with dense grooves and hummable hooks.

“I think it appeals to a wide spectrum of people,” Milgaten says. “There’s so much intricacy to the songs that we’re writing that music geeks can totally dig it. But so can, like, sorority girls.”

Their resemblance to Vampire Weekend is undeniable—they aren’t insufferably buttoned-up, but they’ve got crisp vocals and a buoyant sound, and the straight-ahead track “Bad Bad Men” is a dead ringer for Vampire Weekend’s “Holiday.” Still, their new material is decidedly less pop-oriented. In “Shadow Squish,” a stunning track they performed at The Casbah last week, Mead pounds out a polyrhythmic four-four beat as Milgaten, Wheeler and Scott trade off on vocal harmonies, fluid guitar lines and blasts of scorching noise.

“The Sesame Street word for the new album is ‘patience,’” Wheeler says. “Woman is, like, everyone kind of shredding. Out of the gates, it goes. And I think we just started taking a more atmospheric, jazz approach.”

Cuckoo Chaos started several years ago as Wheeler’s mellow, freak-folk project. But last year, he started listening to groove-based music like Talking Heads and one day announced to his band mates, “I want to make an album that sounds like Remain in Light.”

Gradually, everything fell into place. Mead joined the band, Scott switched from drums to guitar and Prange replaced the band’s old bassist. Their rehearsals would stretch for as long as six hours. They won Best alternative at the 2010 San Diego Music Awards; they piqued Windish’s interest when Lefse Records sent over their music.

Now, they want to show Windish they’re serious. When he offered them the opening spot on a North American tour with Anna Calvi in May and June, they drove 48-hours straight to play the first show in New York City.

“You don’t want to disappoint Tom, you know?” Wheeler says. “It’s like disappointing God. He’ll send you to Hell.”

To Cuckoo Chaos, Windish is a man of mystery. They’ve talked with him only briefly and they still seem a bit mystified why he’s taken them under his wing.

Reached by phone at his Chicago office, Windish explains that he simply likes their music.

“I have a lot of faith in what they can do,” he says. “I’m not thinking that they’re going to blow up next month or next fall or even next spring, but I think they write great songs, they’re really talented at playing their instruments, and, at some point, they will get connected with a good label and enough people will hear about them, and they’re going to like them.

“Hopefully, big things will happen,” he adds. “On the flipside, maybe none of that will happen and I’ll still be happy to help book them.”

Cuckoo Chaos play with Ganglians and Little Deadman at Soda Bar on Friday, Aug. 19.

Correction: This article originally reported that a Cuckoo Chaos song is called "Suicide Squish." It's actually called "Shadow Squish." We're sorry for the error.