As the name implies, Loose Change like to keep things, well, loose. But in order to keep things loose Todd Kabisch, Cary Ausderan and Mike Pettit have had to learn to play tightly. They’ve learned well. After six years, Loose Change have found a comfort zone where they can wing it on stage, keep a room full of people happy and have fun doing it.
The key, according to Kabisch, is not taking themselves too seriously. Not that they view their playing lightly, they’ve simply learned to focus on entertaining whatever crowd is on hand. And it’s usually a good crowd. By the time a poker run ended its journey around town on a recent evening, the Gin Mill Lounge on State Street (where Loose Change play every third Wednesday) was already busy. On stage, Loose Change were working their way through a set that included “Only the Beginning,” “Strange Brew,” “Reelin’ in the Years” and “How Far Is Heaven.”
Kabisch says the band is as busy as they want to be, a condition due as much to their stage presence as to the wide range of classic and modern rock tunes they cover. “Always Loose and open to Change,” proclaims their website. “We provide a satisfying experience at listenable levels (my emphasis).” Hmmm, listenable levels. That in itself is an achievement. Loose Change have figured out that people like to talk to each other while the band plays. It’s nice to be able to chat up the girl next to you at the bar without having to scream in her face and possibly dislodge costly dental work.
Loose Change got started six years ago in drummer Mike Pettit’s basement. Pettit and Kabisch were just sort of fooling around, trying to find a way to play again after years with previous bands but without the attendant pressure of having to make it to the big time. Pettit’s been playing drums for 38 years, some of them with a band called Banshee that actually had a record and were a step or two away from national exposure.
“I had aspirations of making it big with Banshee,” Pettit says. “We had the whole album and 45 things. We had gone on the road, but things just didn’t work out. Poor management.”
Pettit also spent time with a band called Terran, playing Freimann Square when that was possible back in the 1980s. For a number of years he taught at Guy Zimmerman Music.
Kabisch learned his guitar chops playing with David Todoran in The Eleventh Hour and later Zig Zag Railroad. He also played in Rushville Whig and the Shelly Dixon Band.
“That was a great experience,” Kabisch says of his time with Todoran. “He was a great mentor, a really talented guy.”
Kabisch says he always wanted to be a guitar player. When other kids dreamed of being firemen or policemen, Kabisch says he just wanted to play guitar. Now he’s living not only his dream but the dream of boys in general because, when he’s not on stage playing Doobie Brother hooks on his guitar, he’s on a hook-and-ladder truck chasing fires as a Fort Wayne Firefighter.
So Pettit and Kabisch were running through bass players in Pettit’s basement trying to find the one that clicked. They found Cary Ausderan. Ausderan, a Northrop High School graduate, had been in the band Risk and continues to play in side projects, as do Kabisch and Pettit.
In the beginning, Loose Change dug deep into the songbooks of the bands they wanted to cover, looking for obscure tunes and B-sides that would tweak the ears of serious listeners. But as their repertoire grew to the current 150 or so songs, the off-the-wall stuff became less central to their show. Their audiences started filling in the gaps with requests. “We started bringing the crowd into the show, letting them be a part of the evening,” Kabisch says. “Whether it’s playing requests or a song we never did before.”
Audience members frequently come up on stage and try their luck at performing. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. “We’re not afraid to take a chance on people,” Kabisch says. “When we get lucky, we’re pretty good at turning a song into a 10-minute jam to let whoever is on stage have some fun. We’re also good at turning them into two-minute songs if it’s not working out. Either way we just want to have fun. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Loose Change never work off a setlist. They decide what to play next on stage. “Wednesday’s at the Gin Mill is really off the cuff,” Pettit says. “Usually one of us will pull out something we haven’t played in years. It keeps everybody on their toes.”
It also keeps the audience from getting bored. There’s little on-stage chatter directed at the audience. Kabisch says they prefer to let the music do the talking.
“I’m not much of a joke teller,” he says. “It’s better if I just shut up and play.”
Or sing, as the case may be. Though Kabisch handles the lion’s share of the vocals, each of the band members takes turns at the mic.
“We have good blending harmonies,” Pettit says. “A lot of times we jump around on parts. It keeps things fresh.”
Loose Change have some original songs as well. One of them, “Off My Mind,” made it onto the Edge Essentials CD in 2003. They’ve recorded numerous others as well, but Pettit says, when it comes to their own material, they tend to turn into perfectionists. “We’re very picky about the originals,” he says. “We’d rather take the time and perfect a song. With ‘Off My Mind,’ we recorded it and then found some changes we wanted to make at the last minute. So rather than just change the parts, we re-recorded the whole song. But originals rarely make it into a set. “We do originals only if requested,” Pettit says.
Loose Change found a formula that works and they’re sticking with it: play songs that resonate with the audience; play them at levels that don’t require a bullhorn for conversation; encourage crowd participation; and, above all, keep it loose. “Always loose and open to change,” Pettit repeats. “As good as it’s going right now, I can’t see much changing with it. We just want to keep adding songs. Keep it fresh and add more and more songs.”