The Lottery League: Where lots of Pabst and idealism have turned the Cleveland music scene on its head

In the shadow of a highway overpass, an old factory booms and screeches to life — not with the sounds of industry, but with the cacophony of Cleveland rock.

It's just past nightfall on a cold, slushy Tuesday in March. Dozens of musicians, fresh off their day jobs, have retreated to this Ohio City relic of commerce, now the Rock and Roll City Studios. Once home to a bustling manufacturer of hydraulic presses and cement mixers, it's now a labyrinth of 70 practice rooms, each hardly bigger than a broom closet.

Amid the aural chaos of this D.I.Y. conservatory, tucked away in room 408, the members of Ghandi SS set up their equipment. They look like a lineup of the music scene's usual suspects: the urban electronic guy, the cool-chick bassist, the slovenly rocker dude. They're the characters you see in dingy clubs all over town. But seldom do you see them in the same band.

Behind the drum kit sits Matt Fish, patiently waiting to wail. Fish, a 35-year-old punk-rocker, is still in his checkered chef pants, just off work from his trendy grilled-cheese restaurant, Melt. His clean-shaven head is covered in a black beanie, his sinewy arms drenched in tats.

A few feet away, Davis Straub lifts his bass guitar from his grizzly-bear frame and takes a swig from his oversize bottle of Bud. Decked in a well-worn Indians T-shirt, a cig dangling over his untrimmed beard, he looks like John Belushi with a Jew 'fro.

In the middle of 408, Noah Hrbek quietly erects a brigade of guitar pedals. He's a decade younger than Fish and Straub, and an entirely different breed of rocker. While his cadaverous body might be a sign of malnutrition to most, it's the pinnacle of indie-pop hotness. It's shrouded in the standard-issue shoegazer uniform: a way-too-small shirt, plaid slacks, and an old cable-knit sweater.

Then there's P.P. Envy. A minor legend in the local rock scene, she's the longtime bassist for Kent's Kill the Hippies, a band that's been writing irreverent punk anthems for over a decade. Like any self-respecting grrrl, Envy keeps her hair manic-panic red to match her guitar strap, which looks like a skinned muppet.

Finally there's Adrian Bertolone, who sets up his gear — a microphone, some headphones, and a panel of knobs. He's the band's "noise guy" — part hip-hop, part Intelligent Dance Music. With his fitted hoodie, slouchy jeans, and immaculate tricolored Pumas, he's the strutting definition of Urban Backpacker.

A month ago, these five strangers — five working stiffs scattered throughout Northeast Ohio — were bonded only by their need to organize noise into song. But on this March night, with the din of other bands warring in the background, they're setting out to create their own sound. The goal seems modest enough: They must write and rehearse 10 minutes worth of music over the next several weeks, and perform their new tunes at the Beachland Ballroom on April 12.

Gazing at this motley crew, it's impossible to guess how their disparate worlds will mesh in song. After all, they have two bassists, a singer who describes his musical preferences as "noise," and a scrawny shoegazer who hardly seems interested in talking.

But that's the point of the curious Cleveland music experiment known as the Lottery League.

From the Beatles to Black Flag, musicians have long relied on likeminded friends to fill out their bands — an organic process in which one person has a guitar, another a drum kit, and another a mom who'll let them practice in the basement. Even when musicians do resort to "Drummer Needed" fliers, they are always careful to list influences, lest they end up with a Juggalo auditioning for their Britpop group.

But recently, some local musicians wondered what it would sound like if the goth girl teamed up with the hip-hop guy, if the opera singer crooned over the metal dude's riffs. So they devised a plan to draft 147 local musicians into 33 new bands, and force them to write, practice, and perform their own music in less than nine weeks. It's an exercise in idealism, one that disregards everything from taste to standard instrument lineups, all in deference to the experiment's only real rule: No one can be in a band with someone they've played with before.

And it's why these five misfit musicians are looking at each other now, anxiously, as drummer Fish starts clicking the band off into a song. "This is gonna be rough," he warns, and the noise ensues.

It all started with a joke.

Last fall, Ed Sotelo, a journeyman rocker from Old Brooklyn, was sitting at a bar, watching the Cavaliers and nursing a beer. As the images on television barreled into his brain, they collided with the visions of rock utopia that have a permanent home there. And suddenly, Sotelo, a web designer by day, found himself confounded by a nagging, relentless "What if?"

Over the years, Sotelo has played in a slew of local bands. His résumé reads like a Who's Who of the Cleveland rock scene — from Cobra Verde to the New Lou Reeds, Viva Caramel to Proletarian Art Threat.

It's not unusual for such a dedicated scenester to have such a lengthy rap sheet. Cleveland musicians often test the limits of their respective cliques, trying every possible configuration of eligible bandmates until they burn out or, less likely, "make it." Sotelo was feeling the former.

As he watched the Cavs — a group of people with different skill sets but the common obsession of finding basketball nirvana — Sotelo wondered what would happen if he applied sports-influenced principles to the local music scene. In his head, he began shuffling musicians from band to band, considering what could be if every band in Cleveland broke up, and all the musicians were assigned to new groups with total strangers. Soon after, he fired off a rant on MySpace: Fire all their asses and start a citywide draft!

"It was just this smart-ass joke," he says.

But Jae Kristoff thought it was sheer brilliance.

Kristoff is a devoted veteran of the Lorain rock scene, which, like most small-town scenes, is mostly a handful of "weird" kids into punk. "There are probably 20 people from the Lorain scene that are totally interchangeable," he says.

He's known Sotelo for years, through shows at the Grog and Beachland. When he heard of Sotelo's rant, Kristoff's head swam. "I was really fascinated by the communication aspect," Kristoff says. "I wanted to see how people would find ways of coming together. I just imagined it being incredibly awkward."

It was the sort of grand idea that usually dies once the hangover kicks in, but Kristoff is an unusually driven rocker. He'd already successfully pulled off one crazy project — the Land of Buried Treasure — in which he stayed up for three days straight, separately recording 40 different musicians and splicing the cuts into a 72-hour-long song. "Anyone can sit up drinking beers and come up with amazing ideas," he says. "It's a matter of doing it."

Kristoff quickly began firing off e-mails to friends excitedly announcing his plans for a region-wide musical draft. "I didn't want it to be a draft per se," he says. "Like in kickball, where the last person is standing there like 'Why didn't you pick me?' Because I'd likely be the last person picked."

Instead, he suggested that they randomly assign people to bands through a lottery. "If anyone could pull it off," Sotelo says, "it would be Jae."

It's around 7 on a Saturday night in February, and the Asterisk Art Gallery, a tiny space in Tremont, is awash in red, white, and blue, with bunting and balloons giving it the feel of Opening Day. Gaudy centerpieces of exploding gold stars precariously line a long table, on which sits a single Bingo-ball hopper. Because this is an event run by indie-rockers, a Kermit the Frog song squeaks from the speakers.

If it weren't for the clientele, a visitor might think he'd stumbled upon a really weird Republican fund-raiser for seniors. But this is Lottery League Draft Night.

Hipster girls, their makeup-less faces framed by cat-eye glasses, greet men with bushy beards and equally exaggerated eyewear, who lug six-packs of Pabst, bottles of J. Roget champagne, and flasks of Jameson. Scattered among them are older rockers nodding their greased pompadours at young men with Slayer-like locks. The electronic kids in their North Face coats huddle in a corner, checking out the cute violinists in their peacoats.

That the event happened at all baffles many of the musicians in the room. "A lot of people thought it was just another Cleveland thing — a great concept with no follow-through," says Ken Janssen, a singer who books bands for the Beachland.

"I thought it was the best idea ever," adds Fish, the drummer/grilled-cheese magnate. "I just thought it was never gonna happen."

Kristoff knew he'd face serious apathy from Clevelanders, who seem genetically destined to expect disappointment. So he rounded up five go-getters, guys with inroads into every musical clique. "We knew that we needed at least five people with really different backgrounds to pull from their respective groups," Kristoff says.

The five of them spent months recruiting participants and working out the draft details, and even gave themselves a made-for-reality-TV name: the Council of Chiefs. They met every Wednesday in the back room at Gypsy Beans and established the laws of the league. Rule No. 1: Participants had to have experience playing in a band. "We didn't want to exclude anyone," says council member John Delzoppo. "But we needed to make sure that people understood what it meant to be in a band."

But Rule No. 2 was the most important: No one can be in a band with someone they've played with before.

This was no easy task. By the time they stopped accepting applications, they had 147 participants, many of whom had played together. So the guys created algorithms and spreadsheets listing the various incompatibilities among players. They assigned each person a number and printed up packs of sports-inspired trading cards that featured each musician along with band stats and other random facts.

Then they took another page from the sports world: They organized a mock draft. Using a Bingo-ball hopper, they began drawing balls etched with the players' numbers. After several dozen draws, they all gazed at each other in amazement. "The pairings — it was like magic," says Delzoppo. "We were like, 'Holy shit! This is totally gonna work!'"

Now the real draft is upon them. The guys walk onto their makeshift stage, sending the crowd, which seems to believe in pre-drinking, into a wave of whistling and applause. Kristoff dons a Mexican wrestling mask. Chief Matt Majesky wears a gorilla suit. And all of them sport Devo-like lab coats.

Posted on the wall behind them are 33 Roman numerals — one for each band that is about to be created.

They spin the ball hopper, which releases the first number. "Number 83! Scott Pickering," one chief announces over the PA. Another grabs a blown-up version of Pickering's trading card and posts it on the wall under the first Roman numeral.

As the draft rolls along, the Pabst and Jameson set in, and the band configurations seem equally drunk. One band ends up with three singers. Another consists strictly of men with huge beards. The lead singer of Nunslaughter, a metal band, discovers that his newest musical counterpart is an indie-pop songbird. And a married couple randomly ends up in the same band.

By this time, the chiefs don't even need their "sheet of incompatibility." When the council assigns one guitarist to group number 14, the crowd erupts into a drunken chorus of "No!" Having referred to their handy trading cards, even strangers know he once shared a band with another member of 14. "It just spread like wildfire," organizer Mike Pultz says. "It was contagious."

It's now the fifth round. One person's already passed out in a corner, still clutching a balloon. After five hours of drafting players, almost all 147 are assigned to bands. People begin stumbling around the room, searching for their new mates, squinting into strange faces between glances at trading cards. They jot down phone numbers and dole out hugs to complete strangers, moved by the Pabst and the possibilities of the unknown.

When the members of band No. 27 find each other, they quickly start bouncing around ideas for names, like giddy fifth-graders at summer camp. "Anal Cheater," one suggests. But his bandmate mishears. Thus, the Anal Cheetahs — a band that includes a brooding singer-songwriter and an Autoharp-playing neuroscientist — are born.

It's around midnight when the draft finally ends. P.P. Envy, bassist for Ghandi SS, is the final draw — the Lottery League's version of football's Mr. Irrelevant. The council shoos everyone from the room, ordering them into the next-door bar. "That's it, folks," Sotelo announces. "Now get to work!"

A month after the draft, back in room 408 at Rock and Roll City, the members of Ghandi SS barrel through their new songs.

As Fish busts into a symmetrical beat, Straub's beefy frame hunches over his bass, picking out a catchy, almost prog-rockish riff. Meanwhile, Hrbek, the shoegazing axeman, layers on atmospheric guitars as Bertolone tosses in even more noisy, atonal effects.

At first, everything is a little off. But somewhere in the fifth or sixth bar, the band clicks into a groove. Everyone finally finds the song's real rhythm. Each instrument helps the hook along, adding a unique touch, just as it should.

Despite its members' differences, Ghandi SS has quickly found its sound. You could almost compare it to the established stoner-metal outfit Sleep — a strange pick, since there's not a metal dude to be found in room 408. "I was surprised how we all immediately saw eye to eye," Bertolone says. "We just got right into practice, and it felt like a band I've been in for a while."

The writing process has been surprisingly organic, Straub says, usually starting with a part someone already wrote and building from there. "I just came in here and hoped to learn something," Straub says. "So far, I've never played with someone like Noah, with his shoegazer sound."

"It's cool to hear what Noah is putting over songs," Fish chimes in. "It's like, 'Whoa! I never would have done that.'"

The members of the new Chicago UK have made similar discoveries. At a charming old house in Tremont on a recent Monday night, the band gathers to practice in a living room cluttered with records, music equipment, and screen-printed posters. Morte Treehorn, the longtime leader of local legends Kill the Hippies, sits at the drums, though he typically plays guitar and sings.

The Chicago UK somehow ended up with three different crooners. But the compromise came naturally. Treehorn quickly offered to play drums, while David Russell said he'd happily play keyboards and do backup vocals. Lead vocal duties were left to Ken Janssen, the raspy-voiced frontman for garage rockers the Hot Rails .

But like Ghandi SS, the Chicago UK quickly locked into their sound — a sort of noisy riff rock with "stupid lyrics that'd be pretty racy for 1941," Janssen says. They already have three songs and are working on more. "No one wants to be that guy — that asshole," Janssen says. "So it just makes the writing more efficient. We muscle through the songs and eventually get somewhere."

Eight weeks after the experiment went live, all 33 bands have begun rehearsing. Shockingly, not one has quit. If nothing else, the Lottery League has proved useful in creating some of the world's most ridiculous band names. Among them: Born Raped, Big Sex, De-humidifier Vs. Humidifier, Twist It Nasty, Old Dildo, Bourbon Outfitters, and the consensus favorite, Good News for People With Credit Problems.

But for the organizers, there is much more at stake. In two weeks, all 33 bands will play the Cleveland music scene's home stadium, the Beachland. And Chief Mike Pultz, a WRUW DJ and concert promoter who's organizing the show, has set out to create a gig never before seen in Cleveland — with 33 bands playing seamless 10-minute sets on three stages, one of which he's having built specifically for the show.

Pultz can see it now: the Ballroom completely packed as the first band lights up the main stage. Barely able to wipe away the sweat, the audience turns toward the second stage, where the next act blasts into another powerful set. Then the whole group wanders into the Tavern, where yet another band is getting started. "It's going to be insane," he says. "We're completely revamping the whole place to make this happen."

Wrapped up in the new, almost surreally positive sense of community that the Lottery League has instilled in the music scene, Pultz says he's most excited about the communal pre-show meal. "That's gonna be my favorite part," he says. "Just the feeling of this big family, celebrating all that we've worked towards — let's eat this meal and then have the time of our lives and make this night exactly what we hoped it to be."

As the bands fine-tune their songs, a buzz is building around a few specific acts. The Anal Cheetahs have sparked curiosity, as they've supposedly adopted their Autoharpist's country-music influence. Born Raped is also drawing interest, thanks to its wildly diverse lineup, which features Jim "The King of Death Metal" Konya and Roxanne Starnik, a songbird from pop acts like JJ Magazine and Blisse Anonyon Atu. Rumors also abound about Hapsburg Lip, an indie all-star band that includes a member of the Akron Symphony Orchestra. "I've heard they have like 10 songs already," Straub says.

But mostly, everyone is talking about Good News for People With Credit Problems. And it isn't just the name that has their attention. The band's MySpace page already features five songs, including an artful cover of Parliament's "Maggot Brain." Their influences range from rock and blues to "blood, guts, bruises, and quality late-night local television." Their sound is a mixture of fuzz, experimental riffs, and blue-collar rock — an aural portrait of Cleveland.

Though the Lottery League will officially end with the April 12 showcase, Good News bassist Tony Erba says his band might continue playing beyond then, as are several others. "The last thing I need to be doing right now is another band," Erba says. "I recently had a heart attack. I'm supposed to be slowing down. Which of course means, fuck yeah, we'll keep doing the band."

As for another Lottery League — well, it probably won't happen. Musicians are hopeful, and have even talked about reunion shows and a local-celebrity version. "They should get Mike Stanley to do it," Straub jokes. But for the organizers, what makes this project so unique is the fact that it was originally destined for failure, successful only because of the contagious wave of excitement that filtered through the scene.

"It's never as good the second time around," Kristoff says. "We're just focusing on all the excitement and build-up now. But we'll see."