Chicago’s rock band ROOKIE kicked off the Tito’s stage on Lollapallooza’s second day. Cigarettes and 312 beers in hand, the six-piece oozed retro energy while they played a set infused with ‘70s rock and cosmic country. Their hit “One Way Ticket” drew curious spectators and loyal fans with its infectious hooks and choruses, mainstays of ROOKIE’s classic rock sound.
Joe Bordenaro (drums/vocals), Justin Bell (keys/vocals), Dimitri Panoutsos (guitar/vocals), Christopher Devin (bass/vocals), and Max Loebman (guitar/vocals) formed ROOKIE in 2017.They released their debut album, ROOKIE, in 2020 and will release their sophomore follow-up this fall.
Redacted Magazine spoke with Bordenaro and Bell after the group’s Lollapalooza performance. The full conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
How did the band form? How did you guys get started?
Joe: I moved to the city out of high school, when I was 18, and I started a band called Joe Bordenaro & The Late Bloomers. And then Max Loebman, who’s the lead singer in our band, was in a band called Yoko and the Oh No’s. And eventually, he did a solo project called Max and the Mild Ones, and I joined his solo band. He also played in my band, and then we met Dimitri [Panoutsos], I think Max was friends with Dimitri, just through playing guitar and stuff like that. Then we met Justin at U of I playing a house show with his band, The Threads. So he joined the band and Chris [Devlin]we met just hanging out at Treehouse Records. That’s how our band formed, and we’ve been together for three years now.
Are you all from Chicago?
Justin: The Chicago area. None of us are from the city proper. I’m from Lemont, [Joe’s] from Lockport on the Southwest Side, and the other guys are all North Siders.
Did you come to Lollapalooza when you were younger?
Justin: I did. In 2012 I went and couldn’t believe it, I just got a little bit of money for graduation from eighth grade. I bought tickets and got to see Black Sabbath, which was one of my favorite bands back then.
Joe: I’ve been here. I saw Paul McCartney headline, Phoenix. It’s awesome being able to play here. It’s a dream come true.
What were some of the first gigs you guys played?
Joe: We did a lot of basement shows and backyards. We played Schubas and Lincoln Hall quite a bit, right when the band formed. And Empty Bottle’s been good. We’re having a release show at Empty Bottle in November.
Justin: It’s the day after Thanksgiving and the day after that. We’re playing two shows at Empty Bottle. That would be the 26 and 27of November.
Joe: 26 is sold out. 27 you can still get tickets.
Are you playing with anyone?
Joe: It’s our record release show, so it was actually scheduled a year ago. And then COVID happened, so it got canceled. So we rescheduled it all the way until November. We’re playing with Tobacco City, a band called Brbra Bush, Bur.
Justin: Duke Davenport.
Joe: Yeah, Duke Davenport. It should be pretty fun.
So, playing Lollapalooza is a very big accomplishment, but what were some of the challenges you faced to get to this point?
Justin: I think, like everyone,the past 16 months have been hard. Just rolling with the punches of COVID was the hardest thing and trying to be resilient through that. We had to mix up a new team of people since COVID started, which was new for all of us. And I think learning the ropes on our own without a manager. Learning about the business side of music was a challenge. The music side of the music business is hard enough for us, now we have to do the business side.
Would you eventually want a manager?
Justin: Yeah, we’re hoping very soon.
During COVID, were you able to do music full time, or did you have to supplement with other jobs?
Joe: I have a job. But we were able to record a new record during COVID which was great. We self-recorded it with our friend Anthony in Chris’s basement. Now we’re getting ready to start a new cycle and build the team up.
What was it like releasing an album during a pandemic?
Justin: We have a unique story about that. That was the first record, and the last time, we’re putting one out on Friday, the 13. The record came out that day, and that’s when everything shut down. March 13. In some ways, we put it out right at the last second before COVID started.
Did you get to play that material at any shows?
Joe: No. We were on tour with Twin Peaks and we were driving to Pittsburgh. They had gotten to the venue like 30 minutes before us, and they were like, hey, show’s not happening. Everything’s getting shut down. So we just drove from Pittsburgh to Chicago, and then we’re in lockdown. We canceled the Empty Bottle show.
Justin: Yeah, we’re driving home through the night from Pittsburgh, and we’re calling the Empty Bottle. And that’s when Pritzker came out and said – I’m maybe I’m misremembering the exact number – but he said no gatherings over 500 or something like that. And the Bottle’s capacity is not that high. So we still could have done it, but we made the decision not to. We postponed it two weeks. We were very bummed about not getting to play for two weeks. And then that turned into this. But now we’re very excited because we got to play here.
Is this the first time you played that material live?
Justin: A lot of it, yeah.
How does that feel?
Justin: It’s cool. It feels like spring boarding into the next phase of the band. And there’s not a better place to do it than here.
Joe: Yeah. We love writing and playing. So just being able to just keep playing new things, it’s exciting for us.
What do you think the next phase of the band is?
Justin: I think we’re gonna see what this record that is recorded and being mixed right now can do. And I think probably take that on the road and play and see what that can transform into. And start working on the next one.
Joe: Yeah, we’re doing Bonnaroo coming up in September. And we’re doing a full tour through September of this year. We’re doing Treefort Fest and some touring in October, we’re going out with a band called the Shivas. So we’re gonna finish touring out this record, and then I think all next of year, circumstances willing, we’ll be on the road and have a new record out.
What artists would you say influence your music?
Justin: With the last record, it was probably a lot of Neil Young. I joined the band halfway through that recording, so you should probably answer that question.
Joe: A lot of classic rock. We all like Neil. Chris is really obsessed with wall of sound artists like the Ronettes, Max loves country and rock. So it’s just a whole smorgasbord of 70s-inspired rock, I would say. Now, we’re the two Dead Heads of the band.
What do you say to people who think rock is dead?
Joe: Maybe? I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a good question.
Justin: I think that rock probably is not dead, and you can see that here. But music, in general, is very much alive and well. I think it’s more on us, being musicians, to try to help grow something new, meaning not just trying to be a 70s Rock Band, you know?
How do you make sure that your sound stays fresh?
Joe: I think there’s so much more music now. Everyone can find their own thing. As long as we stay true to what we like listening to and feel inspired to play, then good things will happen. And hopefully, people will party and like the music. We just want to have a good time and make people dance. That’s about it for us.
Justin: As far as keeping it fresh, I think that the five of us have such eclectic taste in music that we can tap into that separately, and then build it up together. That’s probably what keeps it fresh instead of jumping in with a direction and trying to just be another band that’s already come and gone.
I know you guys came in the DIY scene. How do you think prepared you for this experience?
Joe: We really appreciate being able to play with good sound systems, because we have a big band. Playing the DIY shows prepares you more for getting through the hard, sweaty times. You know, going through the show, making sure everyone’s OK, having a good time. But I think playing something a little bigger, like Lollapalooza, with a whole team of people working sound and making sure you can hear everything gives us more musical freedom, rather than just trying to party.
Justin: I think playing the DIY shows, being so close to the people that are listening to the music, informed me of what it is to be a performer. Trying to make sure that everyone’s all a part of the same thing, and that there’s not some disconnect between the band and the crowd. And here, we’re very far from the people that are enjoying music.
What are your some of your favorite songs to play live?
Justin: I know it’s not a very good answer but I like playing all of them, with special emphasis on the new ones. “White Lies” is a song that Joe wrote that I think I like the best now. But I like playing covers too.
Do you have any favorite songs to cover?
Joe: I like playing “The Way You Do The Things You Do.”
Justin: I like playing Bob Dylan songs a lot. And the Grateful Dead is an obsession of mine. Getting to do any of those types of songs is very exciting for me.
Are there any like current artists that are doing what you want to do?
Justin: I think Neal Francis really blew my socks off.
Joe: A lot of cool keyboard playing in that band.
Where do you see yourselves going in the future?
Joe: We added Justin and Chris in the middle of recording the debut record. It was already set as a rock record, so there was no real creativity in the studio or anything, we just learned all the songs and then recorded them. This album was more collaborative. Everyone brought three to five songs to the table that they wrote and we all learned them. And I think the sound has definitely matured. I think we’re listening to each other as musicians a little bit more. And just trying to create more special musical moments between ourselves, and to get the vibe across to the audience that we’re all playing off of each other and making something that we all enjoy.
Justin: The second record is definitely less classic rock-heavy, and I think we’re going to do more exploring of the music that we really like listening to.
Since you’re all from the Chicago area, does Chicago have any significance to your music?
Joe: I’ll say when we go on tour, I love coming back to Chicago. I think it’s the best city ever..
Justin: Chicago’s the greatest.
Feature image: ROOKIE by Justin Bordenaro
Kira Leadholm is the co-editor-in-chief of Redacted Magazine. Kira recently returned from a year living in Kazakhstan where she reported on the climate crisis, LGBT+ rights, labor issues and the arts. Currently, she studies social justice and investigative reporting at Medill School of Journalism, and she holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago.