Strange But True

The Rank Strangers have terrific--if bizarre--chemistry, a trunkful of hooks, and a singer/songwriter who says he lives "in an Old Testament world." They may be the best local band you've never heard of.

"The Rank Strangers, to me they're a real band," says Dunlap. "They'll go out there and play hard for anyone. If you catch 'em on the right night they'll blow you away. They're one of those bands who might have the best show of their lives playing to six people in Ames, Iowa."

The genesis of the Rank Strangers was like that of 10,000 other bands. Wisti and drummer Doug Durbin met in junior high back in Mason, Michigan. "The band was conceived in 1984 in Mrs. Snyder's physics class," Wisti says. "We just wanted to form a band to play Clash covers."

Wisti and Durbin moved on to Michigan State after high school, gigging around East Lansing and eventually hooking up with Wait.

"East Lansing was a college town without much of a music scene," Wait remembers. "You automatically just knew everybody who was doing anything interesting. Those guys were calling themselves 11:55, and I'd seen them at a bunch of basement parties and thought they were fun and sort of intriguing. At the time they had a revolving cast of guitar players and I met Mike at a party and eventually worked my way into the band."

That was 1987, and the group kicked around for a few years, eventually getting bored and changing their name from gig to gig. 11:55 became Big Gulp became Power Wagon became John Brown. In 1990 the band start thinking about getting out of Michigan.

"There were all these possible places," Wisti says, "and we didn't really know anything about any of them. Minneapolis was basically just a random choice. I do remember that when we started thinking about coming here my mom ordered me a subscription to City Pages so I'd sort of know where it was I was going. The first issue that came had Trip Shakespeare on the cover."

"Still," Doug Durbin says, "we moved here not knowing a single person."

"And we still don't know anyone," Wisti adds.

Wait stayed behind a year in Michigan, finishing school and tying up some other loose ends. In the meantime things had started to move pretty quickly for the band--now the Rank Strangers--in Minneapolis.

Longtime Gear Daddies/Jayhawks soundman Paul Smith was at the board for an early Uptown show and liked what he heard. He got ahold of the band's four-track demo and passed it around to friends. Billy Dankert heard the tape and went to check out the band. "Mike was just so odd," he remembers. "He's one of those guys who just sticks out in any crowd. They were a really captivating band, one of those bands that just plays all-out all the time, and Mike's a truly inspired singer. There was a sense of spectacle, with all that energy and Mike's contrary personality, and his--I don't know--brutal fashion sense."

Those were strange days for a band with a pretty high standard of strange. What Wisti was singing about, often as not, was Jesus. Onstage, his edgy, wild-eyed, finger-pointing rants came off as eerily inspired and hugely entertaining--an odd latter-day variant of punk. Again and again he would search the crowd with a trembling, accusatory finger, shouting out, "Do you believe in Jesus?" Did he, for that matter? Crowds at the Entry or the Uptown or the 400 found it riveting and a little uncomfortable. The band behind Wisti gave no quarter and got none; it was always ferociously loud, and when things went bad onstage it was like witnessing the botched demolition of a large building. Wisti had, and has, an incomparably withering way with the insolent remark, and between songs he seemed helpless to resist jabs at his bandmates, the warm-up band, the crowd, the club. And then, without warning, the band might launch into a perfect, complete side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road, or 20 minutes of Tommy.

Unfortunately, when Dankert and Tom Herbers took the Rank Strangers into the studio to record their Crackpot debut in the fall of 1991, the production didn't manage to capture the clumsy, impassioned air of their live shows, and what was left was a batch of songs full of odd religious references and the usual country-rock touches. By the time the CD, Far Cry From Here, finally came out a year and a half later, Wait had rejoined the band from Michigan and the Strangers were no longer the same outfit. On top of the time lag, the disc caused some reviewers to brand them proponents of a most perplexing sort of born-again Christianity.

"When I joined the band a year ago," says bass player Davin Odegaard, "people would say to me, 'Is that that Christian band?' It's hilarious."

"Not to me," Wisti says. "I'm not comfortable saying I don't believe in God, but I guess from a career standpoint it was a mistake. When you're pursuing ambitions you go through phases; stuff that's going on in your life works its way into the songs. I still have that apocalypse obsession, but the whole thing was a little more insane in those days. I can't say I regret it, but those days were a tough way to be."

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