Pete Loeffler, lead vocalist and guitarist for Chicago hard-rock trio Chevelle, is wandering through a crowd of protesters gathered as they scrawl various slogans on their signs. The scene is a familiar one in 2011, but it comes with a new soundtrack: Chevelle is in its second day of shooting a video in Los Angeles for new single "Face to the Floor."
Given the current political climate across the country, along with the lyrics to the song railing against greed, it might sound like Chevelle is producing a music-video conceptualization of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not necessarily, says Sam Loeffler, older brother of Pete and the group's drummer. He views it as more of a "general statement" but acknowledges that the trio has brought the realm of politics into its music — a mixture they've never experimented with in the past. Within a nationwide atmosphere of contempt against the powers that be, this artistic transition was inevitable.
"Now we have to," Loeffler says.
The impending release of Hats Off to the Bull, the band's sixth studio album, signals that change.
Loeffler explains that the band isn't taking sides across the political spectrum per se but that it does favor one side in a battle he characterizes as "America versus our current government" — they're pulling for the underdog.
"Right now, I think that people in America are the underdog — it's brutal," Loeffler says.
In fact, the group decided the album's title would be Hats Off to the Bull since it most represented standing with the underdog, Loeffler explains. Never Bet the Devil Your Head was also up for consideration for the album's title — the same title as a short story penned by Edgar Allen Poe — as was the name Envy. Hats Off to the Bull, however, fits the bill.
Chevelle's staunch opposition to greed is highlighted in the album's aforementioned single, "Face to the Floor," even including a specific stab at Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff. Pete Loeffler has previously explained his not-so-favorable opinion on Madoff, saying, "He raked people over the coals, stole, and is a terrible person."
Despite this new exercise in politics and standing with the disadvantaged, don't be too quick to toss the polarizing "Occupy" title at the group, as Loeffler distanced himself, and the music, from the label. "I think there's a lot of people who I agree with that are doing the Occupy thing, and there are a lot of people who are doing it that I don't agree with," he says.
Still, the group has flirted with the "Occupy" label and recently billed performances in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as "Occupy Chevelle." The occupation spreads to the Southeast on the band's current U.S. tour, which stops in West Palm Beach for the 16th running of the Buzz Bake Sale on Saturday and concludes December 16 in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The political clout of Hats Off to the Bull comes a decade after the band's initial rise, with 2002 breakout record Wonder What's Next. It yielded a trio of hit singles in "The Red," "Send the Pain Below," and "Closure" that remain among the band's most cherished. By the following summer, they were sharing the main stage at Ozzfest alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Korn, Marilyn Manson, and Disturbed.
After three more studio albums and countless tours, Hats Off to the Bull — slated for release on December 8 — is getting its fair share of hype. Aside from high rankings among the various radio charts for "Face to the Floor," Chevelle is scheduled for a release-day appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Five studio albums in, Loeffler admits it becomes more of a challenge to create tracks that embody the distinctive songwriting and melodic hard-rock sound that brands Chevelle but explains that the process forces them to progress musically.
"As a musician, as a band, your writing is always developing," he says. "Our writing has certainly developed — you learn how to not only say things lyrically. We've published more than 70 songs, and they're all different — we certainly hope they are — but you have to make something different, something you love, and it gets difficult."
Loeffler says the band searched for new tones to experiment with, aided by producer Joe Barresi, including digging into stockpiles of records released as much as five decades ago. Smaller changes — expect a talk box and an organ to make appearances — advance the range of sounds Chevelle adds to its catalog without abandoning its signature style.
Parsing out his younger brother's writing ability isn't an easy task. "We don't like things to be on the surface very much," he acknowledges. The subject matter of Chevelle's lyrics has historically been inspired by things experienced by the band, like "Vitamin R (Leading Us Along)," from their third album, inspired by a friend of the brothers who developed an addiction to Ritalin. The same inspiration of maintaining the "deep" aspect of the lyrics still applies.
"Pete really likes to write about things that are going on around him," Sam Loeffler says. "He doesn't really like to write about 'he did this,' 'she did this,' 'I love her' — things like that."
And the trio remains observant. The brothers, along with bassist and brother-in-law Dean Bernardini — who replaced Pete and Sam's younger brother, Joe Loeffler, in 2005 — seem to be keen on turning their surroundings into music. The fact that Sam Loeffler says his brother writes 300 days a year doesn't hurt either. "It's about all of us seeing what's going on, not just in our families or in our lives, but we meet a lot of people, and people tell us a lot of things," he says.
The political message Chevelle wants to express back to the people with Hats Off to the Bull is simple but bears repeating: Get involved. Learn something, advocate on behalf of something, pay more attention to local politics — hell, Loeffler says he thinks Chevelle will get involved in something that might help put the country back in the right direction. "Something's going on," he says. "We're just poised for change."