Will the Real Chris Danforth Please Stand Up?

Riding motorcycles, chasing cowboys, and investigating lounge singers: In search of the most elusive music geek in town

I can't find Chris Danforth.

Standing inside the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar in downtown St. Paul, I'm searching for the elusive local musician, who was supposed to meet me here. But Danforth hasn't shown up, and I'm starting to suspect that he might have more sinister plans in store for me. When we were making arrangements for the interview, Danforth asked if I was afraid of motorcycles, and now, the only person I can see

is a biker guy with a long silver ponytail who is dressed in his "leathers." He's staring at me. He looks like Jimmy Buffett in a B-movie cameo.

"Are you Steve?" he asks, smirking.

"Yes," I say, following him outside. "Who are you?"

He says his name is Ralph Karsten.

He's Danforth's boss.

Karsten owns Atma-Sphere Music Systems, a basement space where Danforth and other St. Paul musicians build high-end, one-of-a-kind tube amps. They're the kind of toys that people who can hear the difference between a regular CD and one that's plated in 24-karat gold just need to have. The idea of Danforth meticulously constructing tube amps in some dude's basement completely makes sense if you've heard Danforth's debut Outside of Outer Space (Essay Records). It's a real sound-geek album, with melodies playing peek-a-boo with tweeting birds and airplane sound effects. "Traction" plays like a beautiful new-wave rave-up, the song suite "Today I Joined the Army" shapeshifts from an electric rouser to an acoustic pop song, and the pretty vocals on "The Translogic" twist through a Debussy-like sound collage. The whole thing plays like a Kierkegaard reading: You have to listen intensely, over and over again, in order to "get it."

Right now, though, my concentration is centered on Karsten, who tells me to hop on his bike. "I bet you haven't seen a bike like this," he boasts. "It's a vintage Italian Laverda."

I hop on and reluctantly latch on to the sides of his jacket so as to avoid hugging him. I envision flying over the front end of a sedan, but after only a couple of blocks, he drops me off in a cobblestone alley behind a big, brick Lowertown warehouse. There in front of the plywood door of a freight elevator stands a man in a full-on cowboy outfit: wrangler shirt, raw leather chaps, red handkerchief tied around his neck, and a costume-shop hat.

This isn't Danforth.

The cowboy, who is easily 25 years Danforth's senior, moves his mustache, and I wonder, Is that thing glued on?

"They call me Shakes," he says.

At this point, I start to get these uneasy hostage-to-a-high-school-drama-project vibes. My mind drifts to what Tony Wilson said about performance art in 24 Hour Party People: something like, "Theater is the last refuge of the untalented. It's what you do when you can't get a gig."

The whole experience is even stranger when I start to suspect that Shakes is, in fact, Danforth's dad. I don't know why I suspect this--maybe there's a family resemblance. Like Shakes, Danforth is a classic pencil-necked geek. Outfitted with the proverbial four-eyes, he's pale, unathletic, and skinny with mousy blond hair and a gigantic Adam's apple bisecting that pencil neck of his. Although there isn't much mention that he's pale, unathletic, and skinny in his music, he strongly alludes to these characteristics in many of his song titles: "Now Leaving the Skinny Men's Club" is a 2001-meets-harmonica odyssey, and "He's Never Played Football" is a fuzzed-out dirge that swallows a series of clear, plaintive la-la-las. Maybe all the dissonance and disconnectedness in his music is a product of Danforth's upbringing as a self-proclaimed "child of the suburbs." Instead of playing catch, or building airplane models together, I imagine Danforth and his dad working out ProTools samples on their new Mac.

Shakes takes me inside the freight elevator. We ride it up five floors to a doorman, who is wearing a suit and holding a clipboard. He asks for my name.

"Steve Marsh," I say.

Apparently, I'm on the list.

As the doorman lets me pass, I hear big, brooding Depeche Mode-style electronic music strains coming down the hall. I recognize it as the song that plays in The Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill is trying his woman suit on. When I walk through a door into a small, dark, strobe-lit room, a tall, shirtless guy with an Afro hands me a lit cigarette. Danforth is still nowhere to be seen.

I spot a man in sunglasses who is crouched in the corner singing Buffalo Bill's song, "Goodbye Horses," by Q. Lazzarus. This is Adam Marx of Arctic Universe, Danforth's fellow Atma-Sphere employee and another member of St. Paul's galactic-audiophile rock scene. Let the record reflect that his version of the Lazzarus song is faithful and haunting. The tall, shirtless Afro guy lets me watch for a while, and then he abruptly yanks my arm and whisks me down a flight of stairs to the Lab, the St. Paul heavy metal bar. A skinny man sits at the table by the jukebox. I stare at him. I'd recognize that Adam's apple anywhere. It's Chris Danforth.

"I wanted to fuck with you in the most friendly way," Danforth says when I arrive, offering to buy me a beer. "I've realized that you can't do this stuff if you're not in college."

I flash back to the last time I saw Danforth's band, the Chris Danforths, on stage at Big V's, with their awkward Devo hand-clapping and their failed attempts at "witty banter." (At one point their bass player, Neil Fasen, addressed the crowd: "It's Wednesday: Hump Day, everybody. Anybody single?") And suddenly, it doesn't matter so much that I've finally spotted Danforth here in this bar. I already know who he is. In some ways, he's the guy on the whooshing Laverda, or the guy who adjusts his possibly fake mustache, or the guy who sings the Q. Lazzarus song. In short, I realize that Chris Danforth is every geek in town. And that's when I know that I've finally found him.

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