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You don't need to read a dissertation by Brian Eno to spot incidental music in its natural environment. Whether it's a Mervyn's sale ad drifting from the radio or some Muzak rendition of "Rocket Man" in the elevator, a song will spontaneously insinuate itself into your subconscious. In fact, a jaunt to fill up my car the other afternoon found me treated to the latest video from Dido, projected from a small television screen on the gas pump. This could just be mass-media marketing at work: It's a pretty sick world.
Still, I get the feeling that these incidental sounds are intended for some cosmic purpose. I drive away from Dido toward the Pachyderm recording studio in Cannon Falls with one eye on the storm clouds circling the landscape. I can't shake the impression that they're somehow conspiring with the palatial melodies fostered by local rock outfit the Great Depression, whom I'm traveling to meet. The band's second release, Heaven Is Becoming(Princess) slowly spills out of my car stereo. Strains of piano echo the early spring rain. But George Winston this ain't, I assure you.
I nearly miss the narrow driveway leading to Pachyderm, where proprietor Jim Nickel is the first to greet me. Soon, he will lead me to meet members of the Great Depression--two of whom work as house engineers here. First, like a character study of a young mogul, Nickel animatedly talks record sales. He recounts the nascence of the Pachyderm label during the late Nineties, a particularly prosperous period in Twin Cities rock. Over the years Pachyderm's famously secluded sleepover mansion and studio hosted well-known national acts like Nirvana and the Wedding Present as well as a slew of locals including the Waves and the Great Depression, then known as Blanket.
Nickel offers a quick tour of the house where he, his engineers, and their guests reside, pointing out bedrooms like a fraternity-house fellow. The place is a neutral study in modernist design set upon a steep hill. An extended indoor patio space overlooks the thick wooded brush. Along the path to the immense studio, babbling brooks carry in white noise. It's definitely conducive to concentrated artistic work, or just some Thoreau-inspired retreat.
Within the nearby studio, I'm introduced to Great Depression vocalist Todd Casper and guitarist Brent Sigmeth--equally soft-spoken guys, save for the shared giggles that punctuate their speech. The two mill about with a back-porch ease that evokes the rushing streams outside. They offer coffee and settle into an inviting leather couch. Casper casually puffs a cigarette and slips on a rough edit of the Great Depression's latest, not-yet-complete album Unconscious Pilot. (What label will release it has not yet been settled.)
"The Baltic Sea," a downbeat guitar shuffle, bristles beneath Casper's multi-tracked musings, the song's heartbeat rhythms echoed in his mates' hallowed harmonies. "Advents" is preceded by a similarly stark piano, the group scaling back their signature guitar distortion in favor of restrained melodies and accompaniment from Sliver's Laura Harley. It's clear to me that this is a record that is not content to score our conversation, but instead beckons the listener's attention.
Sadly, this music is rarely heard outside the comfort of Cannon Falls: The band members are currently scattered around the Midwest and have rarely performed live in their seven years as a group. Bassist Tom Cranley paints in Madison, while drummer Chadwick Nelson studies in the Twin Cities. As the band members travel almost continually--Casper, who has taught English in Prague, just returned from Denmark--they convene in spurts. Open studio time is sporadic, as both Sigmeth and Casper, the Pachyderm engineers, will attest. All of which partly dictates the group's patchwork style: They opt for extemporaneous composition while the tape rolls.
Due this fall, Unconscious Pilot sounds more fully realized than did its predecessor, Heaven. Yet the record, as Casper notes, is still "rough, just sketches. [We're] waiting for it to refine itself, waiting for the content to come out. We do have that luxury [at Pachyderm]; we're never pressed for time."
Understood. Just wandering among the artful groupings of instruments and equipment, I feel like I'm on vacation, isolated from urban cacophony. This is the kind of place that nurtures those not-so-secret rock-star fantasies. Suddenly I'm mildly depressed by my career choice to pick up a pen instead of a guitar.
When I finally devote my full attention to Unconscious Pilot, I'm startled by the chamber-pop horns of "The Sargasso Sea," a song that stands out from the general ebb and flow of guitar feedback. It's sprinkling again outside, providing the kind of rainy-day ambiance that seems to fit the best pop songs. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Maybe not.