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Success rains down Athanor, 40 years later

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Updated: April 16, 2013 3:21PM

Like so many others in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Greg Herriges and Rick Vittenson dreamed of rock ’n’ roll stardom.

Friends at Highland Park High School, the pair jammed in each other’s basements, perfecting what they believed was a truly groovy psychedelic folk sound.

In 1972, their band got the name Athanor, a mythological place where wind and water create rain. In 1973, the pair recorded their first single with the songs “Inner Space” and “Graveyard.”

In 2013 — four decades after that single was recorded — Athanor got a record contract. A real one, with money.

“This is a band like most bands,” said Vittenson, 63, a retired attorney. “You’ve never heard of them.”

You may have never heard of Athanor, or that psychedelic folk is making a comeback in Europe. Herriges, 62, an English professor at Harper College, and Vittenson didn’t know. They buried their dreams of rock and roll stardom in the early 1970s, after their song “Graveyard” got some radio play in Chicago. They met with a Warner Bros. representative who suggested they should abandon their psychedelic sound and try something more akin to The Captain and Tennille.

“It was like talking to people on a different planet,” Herriges said.

For Athanor, life moved on. Herriges wrote novels and taught. Vittenson worked as a lawyer, breaking out his ax to play with the American Bar Association’s house band, Malpractice. They stayed in touch, occasionally recording a song, and more recently have jammed at each other’s homes every other Friday following an Irish breakfast.

The dreams of a rock ’n’ roll record deal were gone. Long gone.

“We kept playing with no expectation of anything,” Vittenson said.

In 2012, Herriges received an email from a 26-year-old man in Dijon, France, wanting to know where he could get more of that Athanor sound. A British record label had used one of the group’s songs on a compilation disc without telling Herriges and Vittenson, creating a fake band biography in the liner notes.

“I was upset — that was my song,” Herriges said. “I had to go on to buy my own record.”

They still don’t know how that British company got one of the original 45s, but they didn’t dwell on it. Record companies approached them, wondering if they had other recordings. They ended up hiring Steve Albini, owner of Chicago’s Electrical Audio who has worked with Nirvana and The Jesus Lizard, to help convert some of their tapes to digital files. A record deal still seemed unlikely, but they figured they could give the digital recordings to their grandkids.

They remastered their music and signed with folk label Guerssen to release a 12-inch vinyl album. Then Guerssen asked them to sign a second contract, for a CD. The album was released March 7 and their CD is expected to be released in April.

“We got an advance,” Herriges said. “It’s nuts. We just couldn’t believe it. When we got the check, we really couldn’t believe it.”

Don’t expect a tour anytime soon. Athanor has always been a studio band.

“When I was 23 and looking at the future, I wondered how I was going to make a living,” Vittenson said. “At 63, this is icing on the cake.”

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