Artist Spotlight: Friko

    Friko is the indie rock duo of vocalist/guitarist Niko Kapetan and drummer Bailey Minzenberger, who met in a music theory class in high school. Kapetan started the project in 2019 with his childhood friend and bassist Luke Stamos – who’s no longer a member of the band but played on their debut album, Where we’ve been, Where we go from here, out on Friday – releasing Burnout Beautiful, a collection of 12 demos, that year. The group showcased their musical chemistry on 2022’s Whenever Forever EP, cementing their place as part of Chicago’s young Hallogallo scene along with bands like Horsegirl and Lifeguard. Co-produced by Scott Tallarida, with additional production from Jack Henry, and mastered by Heba Kadry, Friko’s first full-length is a stirring and dynamic expression of their sound, balancing exhilarating freak-outs with moments of dreamy contemplation. Featuring contributions from Free Range’s Sofia Jensen and Finom’s Macie Stewart, the record is marked by a communal energy that animates it just when the songs veer into noisy, melancholy abstraction. “I’ll laugh, you’ll cry/ Our world inside a song,” Kapetan sings on ‘Until I’m With You’, his voice almost breaking. The song is lonely, yearning, yet commits – like the album as a whole – to framing music as a form of communion in itself.

    We caught up with Friko for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about their journey as a band, their songwriting process, the making of their debut album, and more.

    Do you mind talking about how the two of you crossed passed and what your first impressions of each other were?

    Niko Kapetan: We went to high school the same high school. We were in a music theory class, but we didn’t talk at all. I graduated and went to Columbia, and when I started my year, the engineer for this record asked me to play bass in Bailey’s band. I was doing that for a while, which was amazing. My band I had with Luke from high school was breaking up – we were a five-piece, everything-at-once kind of band, and we wanted to be simpler, to be a three-piece, so we asked Bailey to play drums. The first impression I had of you was intimated because you were a hotshot drummer.

    Bailey Minzenberger: [laughs] Oh my god.

    NK: But once we met, I knew you were an honest, down-to-earth, good person.

    BM: That’s really funny, hearing that was your initial first impression. I didn’t know you felt that way. My first impression of Niko – I have a very clear memory in my head of after Jack [Henry] had asked him to join the band, I had been listening to your demos for a little bit and I really loved everything I’d heard so far. I remember for our first rehearsal, I just have such a clear image of me walking into Jack’s mom’s basement, and I was really nervous because we had never officially met before. And I just instantly liked you lot, you were really kind and excited about music. And you were very quiet – a lot quieter than now that we know each other better.

    NK: It was a lot of long time developing friendship between us, and Jack, because you two were close for a while.

    BM: Jack and I have known each other since pre-school, yeah.

    What did you gravitate to in each other’s music, and how did that appreciation change once you started playing together?

    NK: For, I was surprised the music you were making was much more patient, and it still is now. Just being able to sit in the music, and that’s something, even with newer stuff, I’m always trying to work on. I’ve always just gravitated towards pop-sunk songs, that tightened structure, but that patience – and also musicianship, because me and Luke never really did any stuff with music in school. We were always detached from that cool group of people and always thought of them as, like, musicians musicians.

    BM: It’s really flattering that you think of it in that way. It’s interesting because I played in a jazz band in high school through the music program, and I played in some of the classical ensembles as well. but I always felt like I was playing catch-up because I didn’t know how to read music and everybody else around me did, so it was a huge learning experience. But because I heard your music before I met you, my draw to you was that I really just loved the songs that you were writing, and I was also beyond impressed hat you had done that all yourself. Niko did all the Burnout Beautiful demos, played all the instruments, and it’s all home recorded. Once we started working together in Friko, your ferocity and excitement and just drive and passion for music was really beautiful and very motivating for me. When Niko asked me to join Friko, I had been playing drums for a year or so, maybe even close to two years because I studied drums for a very short period of time in college. Studying music academically didn’t really work for me, and I realized that once I had gone to college. I think just being in that environment in that time period of my life, I just needed a big break from it. When I think of Friko in the beginning, it was what got me to love the drums again and got me passionate about playing drums again. I really owe that to you and your kindness in letting me into that world.

    For you, Bailey, outside of playing drums, what was it that didn’t work for you in that rigid academic environment that you found in Friko? And for you, Niko, what about bringing other people into your process worked better than doing a lot of it on your own?

    NK: Slowly going into not doing it myself definitely added a magic to it that I don’t think you can get when it’s just you doing stuff, especially when it led to us recording this record. Once you have a lot of people contributing stuff and people are truly a part of it, there is more of that untouchable magic you feel because it’s coming from other people’s hearts. What they’re bringing to the table is intangible to you, so there’s more magic and excitement. I grew out of just liking to make and write in Logic, that wasn’t as fun to me anymore, so it made it fun again playing with other people that I really enjoy playing with.

    BM: There was a lot of value in the rigidity of studying music for me, and I learned a lot even in my brief time period there. I’m really grateful for everything that I was able to soak up, but like how I was describing what I was feeling in high school, it did still kind of feel like that. I was in a jazz performance program, so I felt like a fish out of water, and it was really good to push myself like that, but it was a kind of rigidity – it was certainly at the time of my life as well – that felt more exhausting than energizing musically. I think playing in a band comes with an inherent level of rigidity because you all need to show up to rehearsal on time and make sure that you’re prepared, but it feels different, at least for me.There’s a lot more like passion to tap into every moment, especially with you and the way that you play and the way that you create. With the rigidity of being in a band or what’s expected of you, it’s like, I want to show up for you, so there’s this external feeling of: I’m gonna practice, I’m gonna make sure I know everything. And because of that, I’m showing up for myself too.

    When it came to following up Whenever Forever, was there a moment where you realized you working towards a debut album? 

    NK: Other than when we scheduled the time to record the rest of the record – which I guess is kind o that but not really – it was when we recorded the song ‘Where we’ve been’. That was when it felt like something that came together in a very special way.

    BM: I agree with that, too. I think additionally, our recording process of the band has been pretty fragmented over the years, getting into the studio when you can sort of thing. For the EP, a lot of that was 7am to 4am slots, just working when you can – sometimes it was once a week, and then you have to wait two weeks, so it’s kind of all over the place. But for this record, we were really lucky to be able to book out seven straight days, so we were all in a routine together of waking up fairly early; Niko and I would grab coffee and tea, and then we would go to the studio and we’d be there all day. Being in that mindset continuously for a week straight, and all being in it together on the same wavelength, that allowed it to cement itself for me, too, because it was like, “This is a thing that we’re doing together.” I feel really grateful for that. And I feel really grateful for the fragments, but it’s a different appreciation [laughs].

    How much of the songwriting was done when you went into the studio?

    NK: Going into the record, at first, we just had these four songs: ‘Crimson to Chrome’, ‘For Ella’, ‘Cardinal’, and another more upbeat song that didn’t make the record. We wanted to record the songs and start sending them out to folks, so we did that. We didn’t actually have a complete record when were sending those four songs around, but we were telling people we’re frigging excited, this next thing we’re gonna do is gonna be the thing. We felt like we were coming into a band at the time, even though we didn’t have all the songs yet.

    BM: I think when we went into the studio, we had like 98% of the songs done, but when we went in, we thought we had 100% of the songs done. Originally, ‘Where we’ve been’ had a different ending, in the moment now where it opens up and there’s a big vocal refrain – when it got to that point, we would all devolve into chaos and make noise, and then it would go into the usual outro. We tried to record it that way, and it just wasn’t feeling right. Scott Tallarida called us into the control room, like, “Hey guys, this isn’t working, the song’s not done.” And that was a really crazy thing to hear, because you’re literally in the studio tracking this one particular thing. We talked about it for a little bit, and I think we maybe spent less than five minutes talking about it, because my belief is that, if you have an idea and it’s fresh, especially if everyone’s already feeling a little downtrodden, you should just go and do it without thinking too much. I feel like what you’re trying to access by practicing is that you can eventually get to a point where you can play expressively without thinking. So we talked about it and deliberately didn’t practice the new arrangement that we had come up with, and then we went in and recorded the song, and that first take ended up being what you hear on the record. It’s got the live vocal, live bass, live drums, and live guitar, and it’s got a bunch of overdubs as well, but the base of the song is that initial new arrangement choice. It’s always good to embrace change, and I think a lot of magic can come from it.

    NK: That might be a good thing to do for the second record – leave little holes for when we record to preserve that magic, maybe.

    The first thing that struck me about the album is its communal focus – that “we” in the title extends to many of the songs, and the ones that are the exception tend to be more introspective and piano-led. Lyrically, do you have a sense of the subject or the perspective of a song and how that transforms from something personal to something communal?

    KP: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it that much, but the two piano songs are definitely the most “I”-forward songs. Subject-wise I’ll normally go off something I’m saying, the focus line of the song. ‘Where we’ve been’ started off with “And your teeth hurt more than the day before/ It’s time to get another job,” which was very personal for me. My first year of college, I had horrible wisdom teeth issues, and ever since I dropped out of college I’ve been in between jobs. But that song particularly had this, like, “This needs to feel like a bigger song.” I wanted it to feel like this is for all of us in some type of way. When you get to a song like ‘Until I’m With You Again’, it feels like a simple children’s song; the world needs to be really small and one person’s focus. But that’s definitely not a conscious thing. I always like big-sounding songs that also feel intimate.

    How self-conscious are you when you’re writing about something personal? Do you feel the need to step back and examine what it is you’re expressing?

    NK: Yeah, I feel like it’s almost like treating a song like a person. Nobody wants a song that’s super self-loathing. All the best songs, in my opinion, and what I see people around me listening to, there’s a lot of grievances and deep sorrow, but there’s the light in it. You can’t be without that in a song. Even with sad songs, if you end it and you don’t offer that little bit of hope, it feels empty.

    Is the feeling of the song something you talk about as a band in order to achieve that?

    NK: A lot of times, the lyrics are done when we start arranging it. Especially lately, Bailey will have some input on lyrics, we’ll just kind of some input on lyrics, and it just helps me think about where it can go and where it should go. But with this record, it happened over such a long period of time that none of it was really conscious. It’s one of those things I definitely don’t have too much of an explanation for.

    BM: I don’t think we really talk about it too much as a band, in terms of, “This is the feeling I’m going for.” Oftentimes we all just naturally try to feel it out as we’re playing things for the first time, and sometimes I’ll cycle through four or five different drum parts until something starts to feel right. But there’s an initial emotion or feeling that you’ll get when you hear a song for the first time, and I feel like it’s about finding the way to express that feeling in a drum part, combined with everything that you’re bringing forward. It feels kind of like an unspoken thing. I do loosely remember you talking about ‘Until I’m With You Again’, the children’s song aspect of it, and that was partially why we decided to use cowbells and stuff. But the way that you feel about a song that you’ve written is naturally going to be different than how an external listener interprets it.

    NK: Or even within the band, all of us have different interpretations of a song.

    Bailey, do you feel like you need to have that strong initial feeling locked in before you try out different drum parts?

    BM: Across the board, I always have really strong feelings about all of the songs. There is a really great trend that we have going where every time Niko plays us a new song, I cry [laughs]. I just feel very touched by everything. Also, that doesn’t mean inherent sadness, it’s just feeling really connected to it and being really moved by it. From the very beginning, there’s usually a lot of emotions, and when I’m playing something, it isn’t necessarily like, “I’m playing to anger right now or I’m playing to sadness. It’s hard to find the words for it, because when I feel really connected to a song, even if it’s something that’s happier, I tend to feel this blanket melancholy. And I love that feeling; it’s not necessarily sadness, but it does feel heavier. I think when we’re initially planning stuff, I’m kind of existing in that space; when we write, we tend to loop things and exist in a space together for a long time. It’s really meditative. That helps, too, to just sit in the feeling, sit inside of the music together and play and experiment.

    NK: A lot of it’s technical – I feel like we try to use our knowledge of how music should work. The feeling is not always there; in fact, it’s not there probably half the time, and it’s nobody’s fault, because you have to put in that work to piece everything together in a technical way to get back to that.

    BM: That’s a really good point. ‘Chemical’ is probably the most heavy we’ve ever gotten about any kind of songwriting. We were in Minneapolis at the time, we were staying at a friend’s place. There was a practice space attached, and we had an entire day before we had to play that evening, so we decided to work on that song. The entire song was there already, basically, but we were trying to fit it into the band. I think we probably spent like three hours just talking about, “How many bars should this section be? How many bars should that section be?” We were trying all these different drum patterns to try to keep it interesting. That was probably the most technical we’ve gotten with anything, but that was also really fun. That song is so fast and so energetic that even if you have to get a little bit technical about something, you can feel a lot of fire from that, too. I think that’s one of the many things that I really love about this band, too, is it’s stretching that academic muscle and thinking about things that way without the fear of raising my hand in class; still getting to explore those things and learn music theory, but in a way that’s very patient.

    Could you share one thing that inspires you about each other, be it on a musical or personal level?

    NK: Musically, it’s Bailey’s love for doing many different things. We work completely differently that way, because I do one thing, creatively; this project was kind of the only thing. But Bailey can collaborate with other people and play everything. That’s always been something that’s been incredibly inspiring. And as a person, I think it’s just your composure and patience and kindness. It’s constant and real. I’m the least patient person, so I say that a lot, because that needs to be weighed out.

    BM: Thank you. I think with songwriting, for as long as I’ve known you – Niko and I have now been living together for about three years – it’s just something that is part of your life constantly. You live and breathe that, and it’s a really beautiful thing to be around. I feel really lucky, because if I’m walking past you in the kitchen or something, I get to listen to what you’re singing. You’ve always been constantly creating, and I’m really inspired by that, because it can be difficult to keep up with. Just seeing do it so often gives me hope. And then personally, I love how silly and lighthearted you are. Sometimes I can get  I can get super serious about things or really nervous, and you will be making everybody laugh and it helps calm me down a lot. You’re really good at lifting people in that way.

    NK: Thank you. I think sometimes we have to remind each other when we do stuff that it is – I love the phrase “It’s just music,” because it’s so counter-intuitive. It’s obviously not, but when you take things too seriously, it’s like, we’re not doctors. You have to have some lightness of heart to even perform or make music. If you’re taking it completely seriously all the time, it’s not going to work.

    BM: Yeah, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Friko’s Where we’ve been, where we go from here is out February 16 via ATO Records.

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