By Rob van Alstyne
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By Emily Weiss
From only a glance, you might think you know what to expect from honky-tonk swingers Accident Clearinghouse. The playfully cartoonish sleeve of their recently released third album shows the six band-members looking wistfully at the album title, By Blood and Marriage: The Accident Clearinghouse Story. And the album's first number, "In Heaven There Is No Beer," does nothing to dispel the impression of a band working the sunny side of the eight-lane highway that divides good-time rockin' and No Depression moping in the y'allternative nation.
But Accident Clearinghouse is even more novel than that, sporting an affection for junk-shop eclecticism, a pair of fine singers, and a knack for gussying up vintage dance music with indie-pop melodies. Since forming in 1996, the band has created soundtracks for an indie hillbilly porch party while subtly bending genres. Take the odd melodic touches on Blood and Marriage. There's the freaked-out theremin and threatening baritone sax of "Cannibal Man" (which features members of the Hot Heads), the Pixies-like throb of "General Washington," and Mike Brady's jazzy guitar chords on the otherwise straight-ahead, washboard-heavy rocker "H-E-L-L Bound."
"My playing style is based on a lack of any kind of knowledge of the music," Brady admits in a kind of Tom Noonan deadpan when asked about his banjo skills. "I borrow a lot from Half Japanese."
The most easily identified member of the band, Brady is tall, with a toothy grin and a pair of thick Clark Kent glasses. At times his warm, steady harmonizing with the band's dimpled and energetic lead singer, Quillan Roe, can sound like John Doe backing Buddy Holly. When the two mesh, they manage to steer '90s Americana into '80s Amerindie in a way that has seemingly never occurred to BR5-49.
It's no surprise, then, that the group doesn't register with hard-core country fans. "We don't sound authentic enough," admits Roe. "When we tried to play at Dulono's, the guy flat-out told me, 'You don't sound enough like Flatt & Scruggs.'" What's less easily explained is the fact that, by the band's own admission, Accident Clearinghouse hasn't cracked the consciousness of Lee's regulars or No Depression magazine subscribers.
Perhaps this is due to a stylistic irreverence that's beer in the face to alt-country conventions. Brady, Roe, and Tranberry have been playing together since their mid-'90s days at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul--initially experimenting with Fugazi-influenced post-hardcore, then techno, and eventually forming a Beasties-inspired hip-hop crew called Superknumb.
"Between '93 and '94 was when the Pharcyde's first album and Spearhead's first album came out, and I really wanted to do hip hop," remembers Roe. "But I was also just getting into bluegrass. For a while I was really torn. But then I heard a Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys record, and that decided it." The Ellington-influenced Western swing that Wills had popularized in the '40s and '50s became Roe's primary passion, and the avid fan of the Pogues and Uncle Tupelo soon convinced Brady, a Minutemen fanatic since his teens, to make a go of it around town. Initially taking a page from local roots rockers the Carpetbaggers, Clearinghouse played without a drummer for their first ten gigs, leaving rhythmic duties to upright bass slapper Jeff Tranberry before recruiting a full-time drummer, Scott Berndt. (Berndt has since been replaced by current beat keeper Kevin Riach.)
These days, the band's members occasionally stray from the Clearinghouse to ply their wares with other outfits. Pedal steel player Matt Marohl lives in Chicago, where he works as a Lutheran minister. Tranberry and Roe play with washboard scraper Rufus Moon in the Moon Brothers. Brady also fronts the moody indie-rock duo Clog and plays with Riach in the poppy Florida, while Roe and Moon play together in a Misfits tribute band called Der Kindestod ("Child Death").
This last project might surprise anyone taken with the musicians' wholesome, bookish appearances--four members wear glasses--but Accident Clearinghouse isn't hiding any dark edges. Band members say they don't take drugs, don't smoke, and don't drink much. Tranberry's worst vice is an addiction to collecting Star Wars action figures. Fact is, it's all but impossible to imagine that principle songwriter Roe has anything resembling the temperament of his fictional gunfighter from the new album's "Wichita Trail." But the exceedingly friendly singer admits to being a mean drunk in the past, and in lyrics he's still given over to Cash-isms like "I've got a cold, dead, black heart."
These days he has the passion of a proud new band manager, and he earnestly believes that Accident Clearinghouse--perhaps the most important project going for its members--could be a ticket to seeing the world. The band has toured vigorously around the region and opened locally for everyone from gospel-influenced funkers the Sensational Joint Chiefs to punk rockers the Short Fuses. Accident Clearinghouse's headlining sets can last up to four hours, and they've already written a fourth record and half of the fifth. "I'm trying to get a song ready for the seventh album," says Brady, laughing. "I need to reserve the space." The prolific Roe says he's also preparing an Elvis-style gospel album of devotional tunes.