Smile Politely

An Evening on the Sofa with Santa

Local indie rock outfit Santa has evolved into a staple band of the C-U music scene, playing two shows during this year’s Pygmalion Music Festival and busy with multiple dates well into November. A five piece group with psychedelic tendencies, Santa has stabilized their lineup and is now focused on their unique and recognizable melodies and textures.

Where I am from (Rockford, Illinois) a band such as Santa would find themselves performing in nothing more spectacular than a humid church basement, plugged into an outdated soundboard, amidst a dwindling number of local musicians and supporters. The presence in C-U of a band like Santa reaffirms my faith in what a local music community could be and also what types of acts it takes to maintain the appeal.

By sitting down with some of Santa’s members (the only absentee being bassist Otto Stuparitz), I aimed to gather their insights regarding Champaign-Urbana’s musical community; the positives, the negatives and what could change. Not only that but also touch on what type of transitions they are soon to face when it comes time to expand their fan base beyond this populous collegiate territory.

Smile Politely: Who are the original Santa members?

Stan McConnell: (lead vocals & guitar): I am.

Mack McConnell: (guitar): As am I.

Smile: How long has Santa existed?

SM: Our first show was April 4th, 2006.

Smile: So you and Mack basically founded the group?

SM: Yeah. Mack and I were playing open mic nights for a long time. What happened is I’d write a song and rather than just tell Mack the chords and let him solo over it, we actually cared about musical composition. So we started to get our friends to go and people liked it. It was always our dream to start a band because, you know, that’s how we started to love music originally.

Smile: How many lineups has Santa seen?

SM: Well our first bassist quit then Otto came. Chad and Marty left the band so then Steve and Tommy came. We also had an auxiliary percussionist and he left the band after Otto came. If you want to count that, I don’t know. He was incredibly auxiliary. [Laughter]

Smile: Are you guys comfortable then with where you’re at as a band?

SM: Yeah. I mean as far as we can tell.

Tommy Trafton (keyboard): It’s really working out better than it ever has.

Smile: Could you guys discuss some immediate goals for the group and how you plan on turning those into broader ambitions?

Steve Plock(drums): Right now we’re playing as many shows as we can and right now we’re booked till November-ish but we’re talking about taking time off maybe over winter break and just write a bunch of songs.

TT: We’d like to get something done by the end of the summer on record.

MM: Geographically we’re expanding out of the Midwest. We have a show this weekend in Carbondale. We’re becoming familiar with St. Louis and Indianapolis and Madison, Wisconsin…

SP: Iowa City

MM: Yeah. Iowa City and we’re trying to get up to Minnesota. Take our humble little city of Champaign-Urbana and make a bunch of concentric circles. We’re trying to get out there.

Smile: What were your musical experiences like in high school and how well did they carry over into Champaign–Urbana’s scene? Did you find it to be daunting? Or was it inviting?

SM: It was both for me. I started writing songs when I got to high school about – you know – this girl or that girl or this time I had with my friends at a theme park or whatever. I was actually in a band with Steve in high school and we played all original music, which was kind of unique for our high school. Meanwhile, I was always showing our shit to Mack who was real supportive over the phone. Then we all got to school and it was very inviting because it was like “Holy shit. Mack and I are in the same zip code, we’re getting better at guitar just because we can play together everyday and holy shit, we’re at the place we dreamt of going to when we visited the campus in 8th grade and now look – they have open mic nights for guys like us.” So it was inviting but when I took the stage for the first time, I was nervous. I grew up in a small town and I was just that kid who wrote songs and I was special because of it but then I became, you know, very intimidated because there’s like 7500 kids in our class.

SP: Yeah, like the first time I started playing here was like bar-band/cover-band and I did that for like a year and a half. It kicked ass. It was a ton of fun but playing [in Santa] is a whole new dynamic.

Smile:How would you guys say the local music scene suits you? Would you say you’re satisfied? Is there anything that’s disappointing? Do you appreciate going to school here and do you feel if you were somewhere else things may be better or are things great here?

SP: Judging from other people we’ve talked to at other schools, most of which have been small, all they can do is complain about nowhere to play or no cool bands so I’d say Champaign-Urbana has a pretty sweet thing going on.

MM: And I think we have a pretty sweet niche in CU. We have a pretty cool thing going on because there’s a pretty large breadth of music that’s happening. Amongst our contemporaries that are local bands – like among the ones I really respect like Snowsera and The World’s First Flying Machine, Tall Tale, Carl Hauck, Elsinore, Headlights, The Living Blue. All these bands are really fantastic but I feel like we could play a bill with and we wouldn’t be competing in genre. It wouldn’t be like “Oh, there’s the same thing twice.”

SM: Just in reference to the school, I mean, we’re a big 41,000 Big Ten school so there’s no specific scene that’s emerging. Like “Oh Hey. This is a pop-punk pocket of northwest Chicago.” Or “This is the grunge of the Pacific Northwest” [laughter] There’s nothing like that happening and I think that’s cool.

SP: There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of Hip Hop. There’s a lot of Punk stuff too. I don’t even know where it happens. I just see a lot of flyers for it everywhere.

MM: I was there for a lot of the northwest Chicago punk thing and I watched all of those bands get huge and they’re doing super well today. But because they were kind of doing the same thing at the same time, there was this real clear definition of a path to follow so I suppose success was pretty guaranteed if you were good at it. But in a place like Champaign-Urbana where everyone is doing something different, you definitely have to blaze your own path, which is cool but I guess it is kind of frustrating because there isn’t a channel that you can go down.

SP: The thing about a college town and student bands is that they usually break up when they graduate or they move to a different city. I don’t think there’s any local band made up of students that don’t go to school here anymore. Like Elsinore didn’t graduate from U. of I. and just stick around so I’d say that may be why there’s not like this path.

SM: There is a huge amount of student bands and I’d say one of the paths or scenes that’s typical to the whole big university is the whole bar band/cover band and there’s definitely that scene. But what’s cool is that there’s this whole separate scene that has artistic integrity as well. You know there are bands that practice once a week and play to that scene and they’re cool with that. But we’ve had a lot of lineup changes and that’s because we want to be the best band we can be. Yeah, we’re a local band but beyond that we want to be good band wherever we’re at.

TT: There’s a frustrating difference that has been established between student bands and just bands. You talk to Hot Cops or Tractor Kings and there’s this disconnect or stigma between groups with members out of school and groups with students in them. You know, they’re all above school. They’re older than us.

SM: Too cool for school.

SP: Just like marketing for shows like “Oh, this show’s downtown Champaign. We have to try so much harder” because students don’t go downtown but then it’s like locals don’t want to go see a student band downtown so it just makes it really weird. There are two very distinct audiences.

SM: There’s a wall but if you put yourself in their shoes, the wall makes sense.

TT: At the same time, there are bands like Headlights and Elsinore that try to help student bands grow.

MM: They’re also awesome role models. Like if you want to see an awesome band, go see Headlights or Elsinore. They’re fucking great acts. It’s cool to have that in your neck-of-the-woods too, you know. Like if there was a brand for Champaign-Urbana it’d just be “Totally Unique”. It’d be “Absolutely Unique” – that’s the brand.

Smile: We talked about local venues a little. Is there some type of venue that’d you like to see maybe bridge that gap between “the student band vs. local band” stigmas?

SM: Yeah, I mean, I think there could probably be one more.

TT: I do think Champaign-Urbana’s really fortunate with all the venues it has and even places that aren’t venues. You can go to the Quad and there’s a band playing or like Allen Hall is really good about having small bands play.

MM: I want The Red Herring to start having a lot more music and I think they’re going to after Pygmalion.

TT: Yeah, they’re trying every weekend now.

MM: Oh Yeah, if that worked out, it’d be a kick ass place to see a show. It has that basement feel, the cool funky interior and stuff.

SM: I think the venue we need is something on campus where anyone can book a show no questions asked. At least for the first show, you shouldn’t have to wait to play. It’d be reflective of an even bigger scene.

SP: Look at Canopy. They used to have open mic nights but they don’t do that anymore. Other places might but Canopy had a drumset, mics, amps. I do think that if The White Horse took itself seriously as a venue, it’d be a pretty cool place.

You can check out more of Santa at or go to their next show in town at Mike ‘N’ Molly’s on October 16th.

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