By Emily Eveland
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The four clean-scrubbed, barely twentyish musicians in Arch Stanton are leery of calling what they do rock 'n' roll. They prefer "pop," befitting a scene where the designation gets batted around in ways neither Andy Warhol nor the bean counters at Billboard would recognize. More precisely, they do "power pop," which, as drummer Matt Alexander defines it, means, "We take our melodies from a lot of '60s pop bands, but we're a little louder." It's a summation that might have elicited a cringe from the band's idol, John Lennon, who hated fudge words as much as he loved rock 'n' roll (apostrophes and all). But cut 'em some slack: Lennon's career began a decade and a half before the members of Arch Stanton were born--an equivalent span of time separates Lennon's birth and Louis Armstrong's earliest King Oliver recordings. Ever since, pop has become, like jazz before it, the fudge word for an era.
And besides, when it comes to musical genres, definitions are spurious by definition. Like pornography, the current argument stands, you don't have to define pop in order to recognize it. So whatever extraneous qualifiers are habitually affixed--"power" or "pure" or "Brit"--it's understood that whatever pop may be (attention to songcraft over visceral kicks, say), it is certainly not "rock," or more precisely, not "rawk" or "punk." Arch Stanton aren't those things, to be sure. But unlike some of local pop's more genteel elders, who seek ever more polite ways to express a melody without being so insistent as to demand you remember it after the fact, Arch Stanton don't pare down their gargantuan hooks in the name of modesty. They're also young enough not to know better than to admit they've already outgrown a just-released compact disc they're still trying to place on store shelves. But the band's square-jawed singer-guitarist Brian Larson does just that, insisting, "On a good night, I like the live show much better than the record. Our songs have evolved, and we've added guitar parts and harmonies." He inspires not just unanimous nods from his bandmates but a grateful sigh from his interviewer.
The local CD in question, Arch Stanton, is hardly an accurate document of the brash and modish group I caught in a sparsely populated 7th Street Entry a few Mondays back. The hooks are still apparent, but their melodic ingenuity calcifies on disc, and the pristine production betrays the most willfully bland modern-rock aspirations. Most surprising is the astoundingly ordinary guitar sound; lead ax man Andy Herder joined after Arch Stanton was in the can, and you can credit him with the dynamic shifts and quirky textures the band now marshals. Live, the quartet indulges a fondness for staccato "Have to Admit It's Getting Better" guitar blurts, with Herder goosing Larson's intricate chords with Revolver-era squiggly solos. The musicians spit and sweat in their suits and sideburns, obviously confident enough onstage to cut against the craft they've honed.
But when I mention the Entry show, the band erupts into a flurry of apologies, murmuring abjectly about excessive (and, they insist, atypical) alcoholic lubrication. "That was definitely the worst of our shows there," Alexander declares flatly. The band has converged on Minneapolis from their respective suburbs (Larson and Alexander hail from Mounds View, bassist Matt Hibbard from Apple Valley, and Herder from Robbinsdale) for an interview at Muddy Waters on South Lyndale. And as we sit outside at a picnic table, the weeklong drizzle ebbs into a shroud of humidity that mats Larson's usually buoyant Afro. I disagree quietly with their version of the concert, but demur as they recount their history.
Like a lot of teens, Larson and Alexander formed the original Arch Stanton for a high school talent show five years ago, but were serious enough to record their first disc by the end of their senior year. (The name, by the way, means nothing to anyone.) The band quickly became standouts in the emergent youth pop and alternative Christian-music scene cohering around the cozy St. Paul café the Coffee Shock, which, not coincidentally, is owned by Alexander's mother. Hibbard joined on bass shortly afterward, and then, five months ago, Herder, his former bandmate in the local retro-pop outfit Flies Phist, took up lead guitar duties.
Despite Arch Stanton's obvious chops, lyrics played a key role in appealing to the clean-cut teens at the Coffee Shock, who usually sing along quietly during the group's concerts. After a moment's deliberation, Larson determines that his song subjects boil down to "life, love, and spirituality." On disc, religious rock poesy like "If you're losing faith/Keep it alive/It won't be long/Before He comes back down" deals with the third of those topics a bit more forcefully. But while all four band members identify themselves as nondenominational Christians, they refuse to call Arch Stanton a "Christian rock band."
"We don't even recognize that as a category," Alexander says dismissively.
"It'd be wrong to say, 'They're a Chris-ti-an band 'cause they're Chris-ti-an boys playing Chris-ti-an guitars,'" jokes Herder in an exaggerated Southern drawl. "We're not going to paint a big cross on the bass drum," laughs Larson. "But we don't wanna just sing about, I don't know, chicks and money and stuff."
"At least not until we have chicks and money and stuff," Herder adds.
For a guitar-pop group to cite the Beatles as their most defining influence is redundant, if not essentially meaningless--like a hip-hop DJ crediting James Brown's sense of rhythm. But it's also telling. Twenty-one is too damn young for a local band to obsess over craft: Such preoccupations are best left to old-timers who've pissed away their quota of innovation. Still, Arch Stanton's fab heroes weren't just paragons of craftsmanship; they were a paradigm of a communal creative esprit. An older Lennon disparaged this image as prefab gimmickry, but it has nonetheless persisted as the ideal of how a band should collaborate and co-conspire.
And if Beatlemania began as rebellion without politics, then each successive generation of Beatlemaniamania ended up as enthusiasm without rebellion--harmless, but not charmless. As the four members of Arch Stanton cross 24th Street against the light, Hibbard leaps up on Herder's back and they stagger down Lyndale, and I find myself hoping they don't allow their perfectionism to curtail their impulse to clown. After all, as that other British band from the '60s said once the initial illusion of youth-culture liberation wore off, it's only rock 'n' roll. Even if it's actually power pop.
Arch Stanton will perform on Wednesday, June 2 at the Turf Club; (651) 647-0486.