Local rock band lands record deal four decades after their start
Greg Herriges (left) of Deerfield and his bandmate, Rick Vittenson (right) of Lincolnshire, were in a rock group in the 70s called Athanor. Photo taken on Friday, March 8, 2013, at Harper College in Palatine. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 19, 2013 3:18PM
LINCOLNSHIRE — In 1972, two guys from Highland Park, in their 20s were had dreams of becoming America’s next big rock sensation.
Their journey began around 1965, when they discovered the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. Greg Herriges was on his way to learning how to play the guitar, keyboard, harmonica and mandolin, Rick Vittenson would soon be a student of the six- and 12-string guitar and bass; they first worked together in a cover band called 4-To-Go.
Herriges, now living in Deerfield, and Vittenson, now living in Lincolnshire, wrote music with a lot of guitar effects: distortion, the wah-wah pedal, even recordings played backwards. Herriges, 22, at the time, started teaching in a high school and his earnings are what paid for recording sessions, and new guitars for their psychedelic band. In those days, he read volumes of poetry, which eventually led him to a name for the band: Athanor.
They laid down rough ideas in Herriges’s apartment, the walls of which were lined with recording machines, then went to Chicago’s Paragon Studios to finalize the music on 16-track, two-inch tapes. They released their first single “Graveyard,” had a lot of psychedelic effects, “Inner Space” jangled with an Everly Brothers-style harmony and would sometimes hear themselves on WVVX FM radio.
Two more singles followed. Warner Brothers contacted them — but told them they needed to sound more like lounge act Captain & Tennille. Vittenson and Herriges were not interested in that style.
No other record labels called.
“We got discouraged, and then I started writing fiction, and Rick went back to school,” Herriges said. “We fell apart, and we didn’t see each other for years.”
But they did try to keep up with each other as the decades rolled on. Herriges is now a professor and Vittenson a retired lawyer.
Fast forward to 2011, when their dream they had given up on, was about to come true.
Herriges, now 62, got an e-mail at work from someone in France. The writer was a 20-something man, who said he had purchased the compilation disc that included Athanor’s “Urizen (Your Reason)” and he liked the song so much he wondered where he could buy it on vinyl.
Herriges was dumbstruck.
“I said ‘What CD collection?’”
He and Vittenson, now 63, quickly learned that the psychedelic underground of the ‘70s was enjoying a considerable revival in Europe, fueled by a new generation of kids making music videos of forgotten songs that had never had videos in the first place, then posting their work on YouTube. Some British record label had pulled together a bunch of dusty old singles, including Athanor’s “Urizen (Your Reason)” and sold them in one collection as their own.
To their surprise, Vittenson and Herriges found their own song for sale on Amazon.
“I thank them very much for having done it,” Herriges said, “but I’m still going to come after them for royalties.”
There was more: “Graveyard” had videos now. The Frenchman who had contacted them was a well-known music blogger…he named “Graveyard” his song of the year for 2011. Young rock fans in Europe had gotten a hold of music that barely made it out of Chicago.
“Then we started getting queries from record labels,” Herriges said. “Apparently, we fit right into this scene. They encouraged us, ‘See if you can put something together.’”
The 40-year-old garage band that no one had ever heard of suddenly had a future…but to reach it, they would have to burn their past. Well, technically, they had to bake it.
They dug up their old master tapes from Paragon, which were in fine condition, but out of date. To convert them to 21st-Century WAV files, Vittenson and Herriges would have to bake them, which would make them perfect for a short time, and leave them useless in six months.
Athanor wanted more. They baked the tapes.
In the process, they crossed paths with famed producer Steve Albini, who oversaw the transfers for two of their songs at his Electrical Audio studio.
“My jaw literally hit the ground,” Vittenson said. “We didn’t know it was that ‘Steve.’”
In their 60s, the retired lawyer and the teacher signed the contract they had waited more than 30 years for. Guerssen Records released “Flashback,” their entirely untouched, 12-song album, in Europe on March 7, and it comes to the US on April 2. Fans can find it on Amazon, and iTunes is a probability.
“I always knew it was good, and I was always surprised that we didn’t make it back then,” Vittenson said. “Being discovered at the age of 63, it’s amazing.”
The pair are writing new songs again, with plans to record and release another album in the works.
“When we signed the contract we were like ‘Oh my God, this is what we wanted when we were like 22,’” Herriges said. “We’re in our late youth.
“It was a dream that we had when we were in our 20s, and then, we gave up on that dream,” Vittenson said. “That dream has now come true, which is very, very strange, and extremely wonderful.”
Herriges said he always worried about what might have been possible if the two had put the real world aside and focused on Athanor.
“You believed in the songs,” he said.
As it turned out, though, so did others.