Feature: The Pretty Black Chains


Derek Knowlton, left, and Kellen McGugan practice behind Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa last weekend.

He went from a crowd of 1,600 to an audience of two in a matter of hours.

OSU alumnus and musician Kellen McGugan sat quietly in the passenger seat of his roommate’s dusty white Pontiac Grand Am Saturday. The two left Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa for home in Oklahoma City.

McGugan is the frontman of the Oklahoma City-based band The Pretty Black Chains. Hours earlier, the rock quartet opened for The Smashing Pumpkins on Friday night in front of a sold-out crowd.

McGugan’s music career rang at high note.

It would be cliché to say he was on top of the world, but the song pulsing through the speakers suggested otherwise.

Lyrics to the Nas song “The World is Yours” belched through the stereo and bass rattled seatbelts while McGugan lifted his skinny, 6-foot-tall frame and pushed his hands through the moon roof.

The rush of wind made the car sound like a rollercoaster.

“I sip the Dom P, watchin’ ‘Gandhi’ til I’m charged/Then writin’ in my book of rhymes, all the words pass the margin/To hold the mic I’m throbbin’, ” Nas rapped.

The music and the drive home to Oklahoma City was a quiet celebration for McGugan. His band performs in Stillwater 10 p.m. Friday inside of a garage at 4820 S. Country Club Road.

  • Show business

About a month ago, tickets went on sale for The Smashing Pumpkins show at Cain’s Ballroom.

It sold out in less than a day.

Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan chose one local band to open.

His selection was The Chains, so bandmates Derek Knowlton, Kurt Freudenberger, Jonathan Martin and McGugan performed in front of 1,641 people.

“I think everything I’ve done was a stepping stone to get there,” McGugan said in an interview.

His roommate spun records on two turntables in their apartment as he connected thoughts about the night he opened for a band that has sold millions of records.

“I’m just lucky to play with who I play with,” he said.

McGugan started hanging out with The Chains guitarist Knowlton two years ago, shortly after Knowlton’s now defunct band The Stock Market Crash dissolved. The same night the two surfed the Internet for a leather jacket, they wrote a song together.

“I can’t even remember the name of it,” McGugan said.

His remark reflected the dizzying pace of The Chains’ lifestyle. This summer, the band crafted two albums worth of new material. At Cain’s Ballroom, the quartet didn’t play a single song off “Ceremonies,” the band’s debut album which was released Saturday.

After the Tulsa show, empty plastic cups and aluminum beer bottles littered the Cain’s Ballroom dance floor: evidence of an enjoyable concert. The smell of stale beer lingered in the air as The Chains were bombarded with autograph requests, digital cameras and dozens of new fans.

The soft scratching of brooms against the hardwood dance floor contrasted with the loud, bustling effort the band made in order to arrive for a sound check earlier Friday afternoon.

  • On the Road Again

Jonathan Martin driving to Cain's Ballroom.

Led Zeppelin’s 1969 track “Dazed and Confused” blasted inside The Chains’ tan minivan. The trip from Oklahoma City to Tulsa on Friday was supposed to be a two-car adventure, but nine managed to squeeze into the seven-seat van.

The car lacked air conditioning.

Inside the van, Knowlton stripped to his shorts, the kind everyone’s dad wore in those old basketball photos from the ‘60s.

“I’m used to being hot and uncomfortable,” Knowlton said. “I’m in a band. It’s fun. It’s like family.”

Everyone clutched the top of the car when Martin turned sharply.

McGugan said Martin isn’t the best driver, but he can back up the trailer better than anyone.

The Chains drummer Freudenberger talked to a roadie sitting next to him in the van about the cost of playing two shows in a single weekend. He will lose about $300 in night shifts at Oklahoma City’s Café do Brasil.

“I not about money,” he said. “It’s about playing.”

He wasn’t the only member making a sacrifice last weekend.

The Chains bassist Martin left his fiancé at home. She’s about to have twins.

Knowlton skipped a few shifts at Warpaint Clothing Co., his store in Oklahoma City’s Plaza District.

However, the band arrived in Tulsa well before its sound check, but The Smashing Pumpkins practiced too long and The Chains forfeited a sound check.

“We’ll just have to sound check like we do at The Conservatory,” Freudenberger said.

  • Making and breaking records

On Saturday, the band did just that.

It was a slightly more intimate affair compared to the Cain’s Ballroom show. A couple hundred of the band’s fans crowded into the dilapidated Oklahoma City venue to celebrate the release of the band’s first album.

Knowlton frantically lit candles and hid incense sticks between speakers.

It helped rid the venue of its stagnant odor.

“I told you I’m OCD,” he said. “It’s our show and it’s going to smell like our show.”

Martin’s fiancé sat in the corner of the venue fanning her face and waiting to hear her husband perform.

After the show, a fan confronted McGugan. He held the “Ceremonies” album and said he missed hearing the old songs.

“We do, too,” McGugan said. “There’s just a time and a place for everything.”

As the two parted ways, Conservatory owner Jim Paddack surveyed the crowd and made an announcement.

“If you’re not with one of the bands, get out now,” he said.

That’s something The Pretty Black Chains will hear again.


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