Sunday in the Park: A Sit Down with Michael Santana of Café Racer

Photo by Elo Goodington //

The first time I hear Chicago based band Café Racer, I’m not really listening. My attention is turned more towards my social media than the stage. But as their shoegaze-y set slowly progresses, I begin to look less and less at my phone until it’s tucked safely in my back pocket. I take my first real look at the band.

I notice bass player Rob McWilliam’s mellow demeanor and hair longer than my own. I see guitarist Adam Schubert swaying and strumming away on a big bodied Univox 335, the moves and model reminiscent of Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys. And I watch vocalist Michael Santana choke out lyrics in a whisper so raspy, I’m almost positive he’s suffocating in front of me.

My ears try to fit them into a genre to no avail. They’re psychedelic sounding but not overly jammy. They’re indie rock but aren’t afraid of a little fuzz. I even think I hear the tiniest twang of mountain folk. By the last song their range is evident. Every guitar is upside down, hugging a monitor, the room filling with a ferocious feedback. They have my full attention as they walk off the stage.

Photo by Kevin Allen

I ask Santana to meet me at a café in Wicker Park. When he arrives, he immediately suggests we head to the park. The real Wicker Park. I agree, figuring it’s going to be one of the last nice days in Chicago for a while. It’s an 80 plus degree day in early October. I joke I must be the only idiot wearing a sweater as we walk out of the door. He points out the Sherpa lined, corduroy jacket he’s got on.

As we head down Milwaukee Avenue, a couple stops us. They excitedly recognize Santana. We all exchange pleasantries and our plans for the night. This is how I find out Santana and I are headed to the same show later on, but for different reasons. I’m excited to see post-punk headliner Protomartyr. He’s going to support his friends in Deeper, the local band opening the show.

We say our goodbyes and continue on. I can tell this happens to him all the time.

We snag a spot on an open graffitied bench. Santana takes his heavy jacket off revealing a worn Brian Jonestown Massacre t-shirt. The direct sun makes his metallic nose ring shine and a plethora of freckles appear on his face. I finally turn my recorder on.

We make small talk about his recent move to Ukrainian Village. He likes that his new place is closer to The Empty Bottle, his favorite venue. “It’s a place that you want to hang out in. It’s like a musical, cultural center since the 90’s. They’ve been an incubator to a lot of great bands,” he says softly.

He’s living with two members of Café Racer now, Schubert and keyboardist Andrew Harper. He became fast friends with Schubert after bonding over similar tastes in music and an intriguing boss at a former job. A boss weirdly obsessed with café racer motorcycles.

Unknowingly, this would give the pair a name for their future endeavors together. “The more I said it, the more I thought it sounded good. I think it works for our music,” he tells me.

Photo by Alvy

Santana lights a cigarette and the initial puff hits me in the face. “It’s done, it’s finished, it’s mastered,” he answers when I ask about their upcoming album, Famous Dust. It comes out on local label Max Pelt Records this winter after a long delay.

He shares that he likes that the band has become more collaborative as they grow together. He thinks it makes for better songs.

He speaks highly of Schubert who he sometimes splits vocal duties with. “He’s an amazing guitar player and I feel like he contributes a lot to our guitar sound. I think he’s the most creative person in the band.” I ask more so than himself? Santana responds with a shy, “Probably.”

He goes on to speak highly of every member of the band, except himself. “I don’t know how to write or read music. I barely know what I’m doing when I’m playing the guitar,” he admits. “Everybody in the band can play guitar better than me.”

A small, coffee colored dog interrupts our conversation. Its tiny tongue hanging out into the hot air as it jumps up onto the back of our bench.

Photo by Lindsey

Santana says Café Racer is taking some time off from shows now that summer’s over. They embarked on a small U.S. tour earlier in the year and are choosy about the shows they play in Chicago. As of late, they’ve been branching out by playing all ages shows.

He likes that the younger crowds give their full attention and are less jaded than their older counterparts. “It’s refreshing to blow some kid away with the music,” Santana says. He also spills that they’re halfway done writing songs for the album that comes out after Famous Dust.

Before I let Santana leave, I demand he tell me what “baba” means. He’s taken aback by an outsider asking the question. “It’s just a stupid term of endearment, slash a pronoun,” he clues me in. It’s an inside joke of the band, a pet name they all call each other. “Now we say it way too goddamn much,” he laughs.

Our Sunday in the park comes to an end. We part ways with a handshake and a hug.

A few days later I pick up a copy of Methodrone in an Austin, Texas record shop. It’s the debut album from The Brian Jonestown Massacre. I listen to it that night. They’re just as good as Café Racer.


My Recommendation:
The band just dropped another single from their upcoming album, this time with Schubert on vocals. Check out the dreamy, lullaby-like “Pretty Trash.”

My Favorite:
Café Racer isn’t all feedback and fuzz. I haven’t been able to stop listening to this stripped down Sofar performance of theirs for days now.


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