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After his band nearly sold out Chicago’s Beat Kitchen in February, Friko front man Niko Kapetan realized that his time spent hustling was paying off. He had been working to establish a name for himself as a musician since he was a student at ETHS – charming friends’ parents to let him set up concerts in their backyards, dropping off letters to the neighboring houses to thank them for putting up with the noise.

The members of Friko, all ETHS grads, are (from left) Luke Stamos, Bailey Minzenberger and Niko Kapetan. (Photo by Nando Espinosa Herrera)

Four years later, he stood and watched as the crowd, packed wall to wall, sang along to his lyrics. It was a scene Kapetan had long awaited. The show affirmed for him that the compositions he forged from his experiences spoke to something bigger than himself. It also proved, once again, that the indie-rock band, which includes Bailey Minzenberger and Luke Stamos, could get a crowd to erupt into dance.

The pandemic had made playing sold-out shows seem like a pipe dream. After a year of livestreams, playing for virtual audiences, Friko prioritized getting back on stage. The band has built a name for itself, performing in Madison, Minneapolis and other spots across the Midwest. Most weekends Friko performs at Chicago venues like the Golden Dagger, the Empty Bottle and Schubas, building up a loyal fanbase as a player in the city’s music scene.

Recently the members of Friko sat in their Rogers Park living room discussing their music-making process and group dynamic. The trio said they’ve been grappling with how to maximize their sound as a three-piece band for live audiences. They are excited about their recent additions of distortion and layered backup vocals.

Stamos joked about dressing up as Yo La Tengo on stage, citing the influence of the veteran three-piece band on creating a depth to their songs with limited instruments. Friko peppers its performances with strategic effects pedals and feedback, sonic elements that help build the “wall of sound” during live performances.

Minzenberger added that they have recently started to play around with arhythmic improvisations to hold up the quieter sections of the songs. Each member brings a distinct flair to the music, but onstage they merge into one entity.

Nonmusicians might imagine the music-making process as methodical, the result of concrete steps. Yet the members of Friko describe a process that borders on the mystical. Minzenberger said their performances are like a group meditation, with band members turning off the analytical portion of their minds to feel the room’s energy and stay in touch with the presence of the other members on stage. For the band, it is an effort of the body and the unconscious, not the work of orderly thought.

Back at Evanston Township High School, Kapetan experienced frequent panic attacks and he confided to his mother that all he wanted to do in his life was make music. He graduated in 2018 and decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music at Columbia College. That didn’t feel right either, and he dropped out after a year to focus on his own music full time. In fall 2019, after the first summer detached from an academic institution, Kapetan released Burnout Beautiful, a collection of demos written throughout his high school years.

For Kapetan, the album provided a sense of closure for that time in his life and early experiments with making music. Looking back, he is aware how much his sound has developed since that demo album due to his own growth and collaboration with his band members.

The trio cite a host of past and present shared experiences that connect them. All three graduated from ETHS (Kapetan and Stamos in 2018, Minzenberger the year before), have families who live in Evanston, and now share an apartment in Chicago. The band recently started collaborating with ETHS seniors Alejandro Quiles and Molly Ferguson, who sometimes play cello and violin during live shows.

For Kapetan, an emotional purpose drives the production of each song. This process seems as much about self-soothing as creating art: He describes an agitation that pushes him to work on a chord progression, which eventually builds into a full guitar part.

At times, he said, he sings along to a track from one of his musical influences, reworking the melodies and associating his own lyrics with songs he admires. The process is a way to release the stories, emotions and obsessions that he didn’t know he needed to express. At first his effort is private, then later open to input from Stamos and Minzenberger.

The results are layered, orchestral melodies that connect with punchy drums to shake the audience to its core. As visceral as the music is, the lyrics are cerebral, drawing sensory images in the listener’s mind. The smell of chalk on an empty street, rain pouring into an open window and dancers, ballerinas specifically, are objects of Kapetan’s fascination.

In the band’s most recent EP, Whenever Forever, Friko balances universality and intimacy. Listeners can enter into the music with their own memories and hold on as Friko’s world expands around them. Over the course of five songs, Friko explores love ending before it has the chance to begin, the frustrations of early adulthood and how passion can be painful to bear.

Kapetan said he has always believed that he would make it in the music world – because, he said, he needs to. That belief may be necessary to sustain the intense self-discipline and drive that the pursuit of music requires. At this point in their journey, Friko’s members are able to look back at where they started and appreciate the huge steps they’ve taken through their commitment to craft and deep love for music – and one another.

RoundTable readers looking to experience a Friko show live can attend a performance May 3 at Sleeping Village and a Niko Kapetan solo show May 6 at the Red Room. Two records, Burnout Beautiful and Whenever Forever, are on Spotify and Apple Music.

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