The Away Team

Internationally acclaimed psych-rockers Salamander are a nearly invisible presence on the stages and airwaves of their home town

Erik Wivinus doesn't quite get it. Since releasing a debut album in 1992, his remarkably good psych-rock outfit, Salamander, has become one of the few nationally acclaimed young bands in town, while remaining largely unknown in local rock circles. Twenty-eight years old and sporting a tight-fitting sweater and bowl cut, the retro-styling Wivinus looks like he'd fit right into a Minneapolis scene that has long idealized mid-'60s chic, from the Dig's legendary early-'80s mod-pop to the Hang Ups' alt-updates on the Left Banke and the Kinks. Yet as Wivinus sips coffee at an Uptown restaurant on a snowy night in late December, he gives off an air of someone who has been let down by the very infrastructure that's supposed to support bands like his.

"Getting on local radio is like pulling teeth," he says. "Last month our CD was number 10 on Princeton's college station, and we've been in MIT's top 20 for a little while. But I sent Radio K a copy, and they've flat-out refused to play it, even on their local show. I don't understand it. We've been written up in The Wire, Alternative Press, Magnet, in Belgium and Italy, but Radio K just ignores us. Maybe if we had a cute girl in the band..."

It's all but impossible to imagine Wivinus's hypothetical pop nymphet fitting into his band's acid-tweaked dream-rock. Salamander's music doesn't conjure Nuggets-era sweetness, so much as Syd Barrett's dappled Pink Floyd and Mayo Thompson's free-noise legends the Red Crayola. And you can barely blame local-rock cognoscenti for not being intimately familiar with their critically lauded oeuvre, as the band has done little to make its name on local stages.

"When I saw [late local band] TVBC, I took their ethic that you should play a show only, like, twice a year," says the shy, quiet Wivinus. "With a lot of bands--Balloon Guy, for example, when they were playing a lot--people end up skipping your shows if you play every week. I like having our shows be events." Calling a Salamander show an event might be an overstatement, but, in a local rock scene that's saturated with bands that play too much, Salamander's infrequent live schedule makes each performance a treat.

The group began in 1992 as a droning folk duo comprising Wivinus and guitarist-vocalist Sean Connaughty. Adding keyboards and drums, the group morphed into the baleful noise-rock band heard on 1997's Red Ampersand and 1998's Red Mantra. Yet, between forming in '92 and arriving in stores five years later, the group has folded and reformed a number of times.

Salamander was in a dormant state in the spring of 1997 when Wivinus took one of their demos to Providence, R.I., for the first Terrastock festival, a psych and post-rock benefit for British fanzine Ptolemaic Terrascope. There to promote his improv group Gentle Tasaday, Wivinus slipped the cassette into the hands of festival co-organizer Nick Saloman. Much impressed, Saloman passed them on to Terrascope editors Phil McMullen and Tony Dale, who run the psych-oriented Camera Obscura label from their home in Australia. Dale's offer to release a posthumous Salamander CD convinced Wivinus to re-form the band and continue recording.

The music on that album and its recent follow-up suggests Spacemen 3 or My Bloody Valentine at their most oceanic, or one of Sonic Youth's epic guitar sprawls. Drummer Bryce Kastning grounds the music, laying on cymbals like a bop drummer, while Doug Morman's looped bass riffs provide a steady pulse. Over the top, Connaughty and Wivinus don't so much "trade licks" as exchange frequencies. Wivinus picks away at a simple progression while Connaughty conjures feedback. Wivinus then shifts skyward until his drone almost overwhelms the rising tide of the other musicians. Finally, he brings his guitar back to earth. Then they repeat the process. What makes these open-ended drones compelling is Salamander's sense of dynamics. For all this band's wombscaping, their tidal intensity has a physicality that's plainly lacking in most '90s post-rock, and its more than worthy of the unlikely buzz it has generated.

Yet while that buzz translates into plenty of subcultural cred, it amounts to precious little on the band's home turf. The group's refusal to slog through the Twin Cities club scene undoubtedly plays a large part in this, as does its fluctuating lineup. Drummer Kastning, who does experimental sound-installations under his own name, recently took a hiatus from the band, and Salamander cover artist Connaughty is currently in Savannah, Ga., getting his master's degree in design. Wivinus is still involved with Gentle Tasaday, and Connaughty also records as the Vortex Navigation Company.

So is Salamander's tale an abject study in slacker malaise or a tale of diffuse overambition? The world will soon find out. The band is tentatively planning an East Coast tour for the summer, where a stop in American's neopsych capital, Philadelphia, should help buoy the band's national profile. And they've just returned from laying down tracks for a new album to be released in mid-to-late 1999. Locally, Wivinus is slated to play a solo set at Jitters on January 29, though no plans have been made for a full-band performance, a fact that Wivinus shrugs off with sheepish bemusement. "The fact that we have CDs out is kind of an accident to begin with, so we just take it one step at a time."

 

Erik Wivinus plays January 29 at Jitters; (612) 333-8511.

 
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