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June 10, 2004

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George W. Bush might be bad for the fate of humanity but he's the best thing to happen to punk rock since sculpting gel. With a right-wing religious crusader in the White House, the American underground--in music as well as other creative fields--has just what any artistic movement needs to stay healthy: something to rebel against.

But Challenger's Dave Laney isn't taking much comfort from music-based anti-Bush movements like PunkVoter. "Bands have been taking a noticeably more political stance in the last year, and I think that's good," says the singer-guitarist from his Chicago home. "But I'm not very psyched about the state of music in general. Maybe the politics of punk are getting more on the table but the ethics are getting covered up a lot more, with major-label packaging deals where bands are putting their records out on indies financed by majors. And very few people are caring about it."

Laney has steadfastly stayed independent. Both of his main musical projects, including the seven-year-old Milemarker and the new Challenger, have released their records on Jade Tree, a Chicago-based label unaffiliated with major corporations. The music of both acts has a political stance, and on Challenger's debut Give the People What They Want in Lethal Doses this is apparent in fast and furious wake-up calls like "The Trojan Horse" and "Brand Loyalty". Taking aim at the instant-gratification mentality that marks American society, the disc's 10 lethal tracks of guitar-based dynamite leave no question as to Challenger's stance.

True to its name, the new band is giving Laney and fellow Milemarker members Al Burian and Noah Leger a workout. Though the songs are more straightforward than those of their other, more established group, the tunes are actually harder to play.

"They're faster and not as droney, so I have to concentrate a little more," says Laney. "It's been a long time since I started a new band and had to get up and play a set of entirely new songs. So getting used to everything means the shows are a little bit more held back than with Milemarker. It's starting to change, though. The first shows were more rigid, but we're loosening up."

Besides a difference in tempos, Challenger's lineup strays from Milemarker's in the addition of bassist Jessica Hopper and the absence of keyboardist and singer Roby Newton. Hopper also heads the firm that, until recently, has handled Jade Tree's (and, hence, Milemarker's and Challenger's) PR for the last 10 years.

"Al and Jessica lived together for a long time, and she's been a friend of ours, so it seemed pretty natural," says Laney, who is at the Brickyard with Hopper and crew Sunday (June 13). "She's played in groups before, so it wasn't like 'You hold a pick like this.' "

The singer and publisher--he recently put out the sixth issue of his free magazine MediaReader--says Challenger is also meant to be a little more accessible than Milemarker. "One of the ideas behind the lyrics on the record was to write more like anecdotes, though there is some depth there. I think sometimes, although I never really saw it, with Milemarker some of the songs might be too politically heavy-handed for people to get into. So with Challenger the message is there if you want it, and if you don't you can just take the songs at face value."


Shawn Conner