Daydream Believers

Five skeptical spin doctors probe for local music's pulse -- a City Pages roundtable

And that for me is the essence of the Clash's greatness, over and beyond their music, why I fell in love with them, why it wasn't necessary to do any boring interviews with them about politics or the class system or any of that: Because here at last is a band that actually preaches something good, but practices it as well.

--Lester Bangs

Try to say that in 1998--about a band, hell, a whole genre--and you're left feeling kind of hypocritical. Don't believe it? OK, how many shows did you see last month? How many records in your collection were released in the past 12 months?

Don't worry, it's not your fault. Malaise is the craze in rock these days. Supposedly massive music trends have the staying power of Saturday night sitcoms. No one has as yet shown to replace Kurt Cobain. The winner of this year's City Pages New Music Poll sounds like the goddamn Rolling Stones.

But the faithful remain faithful. And so, we at CP recently gathered a gang of fans and musicians as passionate as any the Twin Cities have to offer. We kicked the proverbial corpse around for a while and came up with a heartbeat.

Actually, a few of 'em. Some were out of sync and a couple were in dire need of CPR. But hey, you gotta start somewhere. And if what follows reads like a whodunit, it's actually more of a "who's doing it," or better yet, "who's going to be doing it"--this year, next year, and well past the daunting year 00 that's just around the bend.

The Panel of the Faithful consisted of:

Jon Dolan, City Pages music editor;

Simon Peter Groebner, frequent CP contributor;

Lori Barbero, Babes In Toyland drummer and "House of Babes" DJ at the 400 Bar every Tuesday night;

Bill Sullivan, owner of the 400 Bar and former road manager for the Replacements and Soul Asylum;

Kim Randall, owner of No Alternative Records;

Slug, local rapper and member of the Rhyme Sayers hip-hop consortium;

Rod Smith, longtime local DJ, co-proprietor of the Electric Polar Bear Club, and possibly the owner of the most omnivorous pair of ears in town.

CITY PAGES:Let's start with the hipster complaint of the decade: When did you realize that "alternative music" was a meaningless term?

BILL SULLIVAN: It is?

CP: You don't think so?

SULLIVAN: It's not an empty term for me, because I use it all the time. "What kind of band do you guys have tonight?" "Oh, they're college alternative." Or, "Oh, they're alternative rock." I say that to people, and people say, "Oh, OK." If a metal band calls me up and says, "Can I have a gig?" I can say, "We only do alternative music." They say, "Oh, OK man, bummer," and I get to hang up. I can actually talk to some people and describe a band like, "They're a little more alt-country than Americana, but they're definitely not No Depression," and people will go, "OK. Cool!" I mean, we actually know what the hell we're talkin' about.

CP:So these are totally meaningful terms?

SULLIVAN: They mean a lot to me. But I know what you mean. In 1986, when I was a little punk, the band that I worked for [The Replacements] signed with a major label, and suddenly you were talking to people from "alternative marketing" instead of people from "rock marketing." You talk about empty terms--well, I say there you go, now that the major record label has a marketing department for it, it's basically over. They make fun of David Geffen on sitcoms at this point, you know?

ROD SMITH: In the post-Nevermind era it's a marketing strategy. In the period, say, from '91 to '94 or '95, what was marketed as "alternative" was so much like the mainstream. I think that's when it really became an empty category.

CP:So what was the difference between a pre-Nevermind post-punk band and a post-Nevermind alternative band?

SULLIVAN: The Replacements were definitely post-punk, 'cause they stole all of [The New York Dolls'] Johnny Thunder's songs for their first gig. And that's kind of the definition, right? "Who did you cop?" Alternative bands are the ones that listen to the Jam...

CP:Or the Replacements?

SULLIVAN: Or the Replacements. Alternative bands listen to the Replacements.

LORI BARBERO: I've always hated the word "alternative." I've always hated "alternative," "grunge." And--what's it called? "Girl rock"?

CP:Riot grrl?

BARBERO: Riot grrl! Oh, whatever! I hate it. Hate it!

SMITH: They were calling you "foxcore."

BARBERO: I remember when [Sonic Youth's] Thurston Moore did an interview in some magazine, and he did a list of his favorite "foxcore" or "superfox" bands. I remember reading that, and thinking it was kind of cool because it was Thurston. That actually didn't bother me as much as "riot grrl" or "grunge."

CP:Do you remember the first time those words were used to describe your band?

BARBERO: I remember the first time I ever saw grunge. It was our first show in Seattle, so it was probably about 1987. We were playing at the Central Tavern, and the posters for the show said, "Menstrual Grunge from Minneapolis." I was like, "Whoa!" It's one of the only posters that I really remember. Except for one time we played in Atlanta. We played the Masquerade and I remember the poster had "Three-Piece Female Band!" in huge letters and then "Babes In Toyland" was, like, one-third the size. And I thought, "That pisses me off!" If Hüsker Dü was playing, who's gonna go, "Three-Piece Male Band"?

SULLIVAN: But now the Central's part of the blues walk in Seattle, and the Masquerade is just a big, stupid disco. So, screw them, huh?

CP:When did you become a riot grrl?

BARBERO: I was never a riot grrl.

CP:How about "riot grrl legends"?

BARBERO: They called us the grandmothers.

SLUG: This is meaningless, because these are only empty terms for the small percentage of us elitist fucks that care. It's just music--either it sounds good or it doesn't. The labeling is done by the people who create music and the people who write about music, but realistically, the average person doesn't give a shit what you call it. If they like it, they buy it; if their girlfriend likes it, they buy it. It's easy to get hung up on what's going on and forget about the fact that this person is dropping the money that they worked for because they want something to listen to in their car or in their home. It's music and they love music.

CP:Kim, what's the story about having a label called No Alternative?

KIM RANDALL: It started out with that whole post-Nirvana thing. And it was partly a pun on what is alternative music now. I think that the term came out used because it was, you know, "alternative to the mainstream." But once it became a label for a genre, it was so absurd that people kept using that term. And so I was trying to think of something that more accurately reflected what was going on in music.

CP:Are there things that guide you in picking bands?

RANDALL: Not really. What I tend to like gets rooted in certain melodies or influences. But I don't go out saying, "I want this kind of band that has to fit in these dimensions to meet the bottom line."

CP:That does lead to a bigger issue we wanted to touch on. You're about to release an album by a local singer-songwriter named Dylan Hicks who's started using samples. And earlier this afternoon some of us were talking about having gone to see Polara, a local alt-rock band who's experimenting with drum 'n' bass and sampling. The opening band that night was Sukpatch--three indie-rock-type guys using hip-hop tracks but not necessarily rapping or even rhyming. Five years ago everyone up there would have been playing guitars. Do you think this plays into the "end of alternative" discussion?

SULLIVAN: Electronic music is something that people are into. It's something to do. It's cool, you know? You get some interesting stuff. What the hell? People have always experimented, right?

CP:What would a rapper think of that show?

SLUG: I wouldn't go so far as to call Sukpatch's tracks hip hop. They're sampling breakbeats. So many people do that now, and I'm sure that it's an extension of hip hop in some weird, bastardized way. I would put them along the same lines as, like, Beck. It's a really danceable and happy...

SULLIVAN: The Beastie Boys' frat years?

SLUG: Well, I wouldn't even categorize Sukpatch guys as hip hop, or even hip-hop influenced.

CP:Whatever you call it, do you think Beck and Sukpatch are good or bad for hip hop? They do seem to have influence, because they make white kids go, "Hey! These beats are funky and fill me with a strange desire to get down on it."

SLUG: Honestly, I don't know if they have too much of an effect either way. Because the kids I sell hip-hop tapes to [at the Electric Fetus] don't even know who the fuck Beck is, and Beck's, like, huge. If I had Beck on the system, I'd have at least three different people come up to me and ask, "Yo! Who is that?" And that would be based on the fact that, yeah, there is a familiar breakbeat being used. Or that Beck is kind of rhyming in his own little way. And so it would probably spark interest, but there are also purists who would be like, "Hey! That's not right for him to do that."

SULLIVAN: Rickie Lee Jones. Didn't she try to rap at her show? Now that is wrong! Come on! That's like your dentist playing Helen Reddy.

CP:There has been a lot of industry talk about dwindling club attendance. Do you think that's actually happening?

SULLIVAN: When it's a show worth seeing they're packed. Whether the weather's bad, whether the weather's good, it doesn't matter. I never buy that "Oh, it's a little cold tonight."

It's more of a saturation thing. You don't want to check out a lot of stuff because almost anybody can get signed. I was at South by Southwest last year. I went to a couple of showcases, and I was like, "Play your fucking guitar! Jeez!" I mean, it was just "plink, plink, plink, plink." What the hell? I've heard better shit around campfires! And these bands are showcased at South by Southwest and people have these $100 passes on and they're watching this, and one record-label guy's going, "What do you think?" and the other guy goes, "Uh, I dunno...What do you think?" And I'm like, "He fucking can't play!"

SMITH: A lot of it is people choosing pop music as, like, a career option. And then making music becomes something they have to do.

SULLIVAN: I was talking to Steve from Maxwell's in Hoboken. I started to ask him a question about these bands--these young bands that can't seem to build a draw--and he's like, "Yeah. They've been around for two years, and six or seven people are coming out to see them, and they're like, 'Steve! What can you do?' And I'm like, 'Kid, your friends aren't even coming in, why don't you break up?'"

BARBERO: If you have a record label, you get all these tapes in the mail. I just went through a huge bag of cassettes that I got when I was doing Spanish Fly records. I put them on my attic steps, and I decided, "Well, I'll listen to these while I'm cleaning the house, or something." And I think out of about 200 tapes, I kept maybe two. It's not that I'm so picky, it's just that they're...

RANDALL: It's true. You can't even clean the house anymore.

BARBERO: No, I mean, you just put it on and you're going like, "Uhhh!" There's no energy. It's just like they obviously want to play, but they act like it's just horrible having to do it.

SULLIVAN: I know a place that'll give you 50 cents for those tapes.

CP:Was there a time you guys noticed that this was obviously a trend or an escalating problem?

SULLIVAN: I don't know if I've even decided if there's a problem.

CP:Well, you just said that everything sucks, so I would assume that's a problem.

SULLIVAN: I don't think I said that.

CP:That in the last few years there's been a general decline in musicianship?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, that's what I meant.

SMITH: But you don't want too much musicianship in rock, or you'll end up with Phish. The technique has to be matched by some kind of vision. And not only is there a lack of musicianship, there's a lack of vision.

CP:Bill, you just talked about this problem of saturation. Do you think that there's a correlation between this supposed drought of good new music and the birth of this new, amorphous thing tagged "The Electronica Revolution" that's expected to replace the old guard? Or do you think that's just media hype?

SMITH: I don't think there's a sense of replacement at all, I think there's a sense of addition. I mean, if anything, the death of alternative has maybe opened up a space where rock can get some kind of underground again.

SLUG: A good example is this thing with [the Chicago experimental rock band] Tortoise. I've been reading a lot and hearing a lot about that thing they had going on in Chicago with all these different people from different bands playing in a free-form collective jazz kind of thing. That sounds a lot like the shit that the [local DJ/musicians collective] Groove Garden is doing here. And, I mean, that's basically your underground rock scene. Who cares who's playing? These people are going to be down here, they're gonna be jamming, and they're gonna be good.

CP:Let's get specific. What were the records or bands you liked from last year?

SULLIVAN: Locally or nationally?

CP:Both.

BARBERO: I like Slug.

SMITH: I liked Ousia.

CP:How so?

SMITH: There's something irresistible about fat drones and beats that sound like they came from the universe next door.

CP:Slug?

SLUG: I liked the record by [the New York underground hip-hop group] Company Flow. I just got a CD player, so I've been listening to [the acclaimed local free-jazz band] Happy Apple for the last two nights, and I really like that.

CP:Bill, what do you think of that whole scene?

SULLIVAN: I was comparing it to the Three Stooges. Guys like it, but chicks don't. To them, it's just a bunch of slaps and bops. It's like the weather. Wait five minutes, you might like it better, because you never know what the hell they're gonna be doing next. I've only seen them live, and it's been completely different every time.

CP:So we have this proliferation of about half a dozen miniscenes that would have never been around five years ago. Do you think that one of these things can offer what punk offered 15 years ago?

SMITH: Why not imagine that all of them can offer it? It might be that this monolithic point of view we have is a relic of the broadcast age, and as you start to see more microbroadcasting and more Net radio, that monolithic culture is going to fade away. There might not be many Elton Johns or David Bowies, but people might be able to do what they want to do and make decent livings at it. [On the Web] it doesn't take that much money to get started, and you can do pretty much whatever the fuck you please.

SULLIVAN: That reminds me of something. I met this guy and he's like, "Hey, we met in Louisiana when you were with the Replacements in '82, or something like that." I'm like, "I don't remember." He says, "Yeah, we opened up for them." I'm like, "Really?" He goes, "Yeah, we were called the Bobs," or something like that. I'm like, "I don't remember." So he goes, "Well, that's why I changed our name to Fuck."

CP:It's amazing no one thought of it before now.

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