It's Thursday night at the Lion's Pause, a big, cubical concert hall on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, and Tiki Obmar, the most celebrated band of teenagers in all of Minnesota this year, are onstage. The ceiling, two floors up, is laced with lights, most of which are either dark or casting a dim blue glow on the boys in Tiki while they play their brand of semi-live jazz-tronica.
The song comes to a lull. A curious student pokes his head through the doorways, then retreats. Someone coughs.
Perched on a stool at the soundboard is 18-year-old freshman Ian Anderson ("My dad was a Jethro Tull fan," he explains), co-owner of Afternoon Records and guitarist and vocalist for the band Aneuretical. He's alternately tweaking knobs, pushing up his glasses, and scribbling in a notebook on his lap. He's transfixed, partly by the hypnotic waves billowing from the venue's immense speakers--though he's quick to point out that he doesn't usually listen to electronic music--and partly because he's working on an article about the band for St. Olaf's student newspaper, the Manitou Messenger.
"It's just convenient," Anderson says of the synergy he's devised between his gigs as the Pause's soundman and the newspaper's arts reporter. He shrugs, speaking as he often does with his shoulders, and jots down another note.
It's more than just convenient, of course. This double-booked efficiency is clever and opportunistic, yet also a demonstration of a deep and uncomplicated love of music. In other words, it's typical Ian Anderson.
In the seven months since Anderson first entertained notions of starting a record label, Afternoon Records has positioned itself as the leading local label to cater almost exclusively to teen bands and the dedicated all-age crowds they draw. It may also be the only such label.
"I want Afternoon to be a group of really solid, young indie-rock bands that have a lot of potential in creating something great down the road," he says. He calls it "investing young."
"Ian has really got it done," says Noah Paster, 18, drummer for Aneuretical, bassist for Nero, and primary booking agent for Afternoon Records. "When he first told me he was starting a label, I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.' But now I realize the potential it has. He's the most organized 18-year-old I've ever met."
True to that description, Anderson's schedule requires him to be hyperorganized. In addition to his jobs at the Pause and the Messenger, he hosts a weekly radio show called The Indie Rock Elitist on the student-run WSTO (a radio station with such limited range that Anderson can barely hear it in his dorm, which is across a parking lot from the transmitter), he volunteers with the campus's literary magazine, and he was elected senator of his dorm (he ran unopposed), for which he attends weekly meetings. He's taking five classes, with a double major in English and cello performance. (He wanted to study guitar but it's not offered at St. Olaf; he started listening to Yo Yo Ma and picked up the cello four weeks before classes began.) He attends editorial meetings at the newspaper, despite the fact that as a freshman he's not an editor. And since the college forbids its students to have cars, he regularly endures the two-hour bus ride into the Cities to see his favorite bands, like Built to Spill, Q & Not U, and Signal to Trust. He plays guitar and sings with Aneuretical. He sleeps an average of four hours a night. And as if the comparison weren't already inevitable, he even looks like Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore: nice sweater, framed "emo-rimmed glasses," and a mop of black hair that hangs awkwardly into his eyes. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, and, he admits with a heavy sigh, he doesn't have a girlfriend.
"Maybe that's why I stay so busy," he shrugs.
"When I was young and started a band," he says--as if 18 were no longer young--"I really wanted someone to help me, to tell me how to get a gig or how to make a promo packet, how to get your CD in stores. I figured it would be nice to help the [Afternoon Records] bands, and hopefully they'll grow and mature as writers to the point where they have found their voice. Hopefully this sort of 'coming of age' for these bands will result in an indie-rock movement consisting of kids that love music and want to be part of something."
He adds with a smile, "I basically want tons of awkward-looking indie kids wearing button-up cowboy shirts waiting in unnecessarily long lines to come to our shows."
As the clock rolls around to 11:00 p.m., it's time for the club to close, but Tiki Obmar's looped drums and back-fed guitars are still seething with frenzied noise. Anderson debates raising the house lights, then decides to let the band finish. They do minutes later to a smattering of applause. Anderson raises the lights to reveal four guys in the front row and an otherwise empty house.
"Nobody here knows who they are," Anderson says of the band. "But," he adds, recounting an adage he's fond of, "you know what they say: A gig's a gig."
He packs his notebook and slowly walks back to his dorm, reminding himself to reserve a spot on the bus tomorrow. He's heading into Minneapolis to give some promo packets to First Avenue. Along the way he'll work on that review of the Tiki Obmar concert, which, when it appears a week later in print, will make no mention of the crowd. Instead, it will read, "The band's experimental and creative instrumental sound conveyed emotions without any need for words. The show was great."
A few days earlier, Anderson could be found driving his mom's Saturn down I-394 to-ward St. Louis Park and Evening Studio, a recording space that Michael Sandstedt, Anderson's partner in Afternoon Records, built into his mom's basement.
The studio is empty when Anderson arrives. Sandstedt, who is 21 and a graduate of Musictech in St. Paul, is out delivering Jimmy John's sandwiches, which he does nearly every night until 3:00 a.m. in order to fund his studio and pay rent to his mom. The studio itself is impressive, with a big soundboard in one room, computers whizzing, chords tangled everywhere, and a closet that's been converted into a vocal booth. On the other side of the glass window in the wall is a big, soundproofed chamber where the bands set up. Anderson and Sandstedt are getting ready to record the first record by a band of Weezer disciples named Lookdown, a project that Anderson can't wait to finish because then all of Afternoon's bands will have records out on the label.
Each of the five bands on Afternoon Records have come out of suburban high schools and evolved through a fledgling teen music movement of chemical-free teen centers like the Garage in Burnsville, the Underground in St. Louis Park, and the Depot Coffeehouse in Hopkins. Thanks to the experience of playing those stages, and additional support from the now-closed Fireball Lounge and Eclipse Records, the Afternoon family is plump with indie cred. Two of them, Anderson's band Aneuretical and Lookdown, were nominated for the Minnesota Music Award "Best Teen Band" (they lost to Tiki Obmar). The hardcore politico-punk outfit the New Renaissance were finalists in last spring's Battle of the Underage Underground at First Avenue (they also lost to Tiki Obmar). Nero and a three-piece called Peace, Love, and the Common Cold complete the Afternoon Records roster.
"It's indie rock," Anderson says of the Afternoon sound, which he admits is still developing.
Afternoon Records started in Omaha while Anderson waited in a long line for a show. He and his friend Scott Johnson, who would later become the label's webmaster and all-around go-to guy, had driven down to see Cursive celebrate the release of The Ugly Organ with Desaparecidos. Omaha and Saddle Creek Records--whose artists Anderson has been listening to since he was 14, "trying to be Bright Eyes"--were getting big press then, and being inside the belly of such a volatile scene inspired the friends to start a label of their own. Anderson had been helping book shows at the Underground and playing in Aneuretical for a while, so he had a keen sense of what was missing from the scene.
"It's hard for young bands to get into good venues that aren't bars, and that's a big problem," he says. "Young bands have too short of an opportunity to prove themselves, especially at the time when they need the most support because they haven't quite figured everything out yet. They're close, but not quite."
Using Sandstedt's space and some $3,000 in startup money that Anderson had earned by investing in the stock market when he was 13--he bought Intel because he liked the jingle--Afternoon signed five bands, including his own, and started recording and booking shows. Sandstedt took care of the production, Paster helped with the booking, Johnson did the web page and PR, and on August 25 the label held its launch party at the Quest's Ascot Room to coincide with the first four Afternoon releases. It was a great success, says Anderson, with more than 200 people showing up.
Getting that kind of crowd to an all-age, all-local show is never easy. For most bands that age, getting any shows at all is a challenge.
"[The Fireball and Eclipse] were such havens for kids," Anderson says. "It was nice to be able to just hang out there on weekends. Now everyone just goes to Perkins."
The most popular all-age venues right now are suburban teen centers, like the Depot in Hopkins. A nonprofit run by area students and funded by grants from the State of Minnesota and other groups, the Depot opened in 1998 as a chemical-free zone for teens to mingle and sip coffee. Unlike all-age venues, the Depot allows only ages 14 to 18 into their shows, a policy known as "19-minus."
"Outside of places like the Depot, most kids are limited to playing concerts in their basement or garage," says Jonathan Kent, a Hopkins High School junior who chairs the Depot advisory board. "Part of the reason why so many bands come to us is because we not only let them play onstage in front of their fans and provide them with a sound system, but we do it for free. Playing at the Depot, bands feel like their music actually matters."
Inside Minneapolis, all-age opportunities are popping up, too. The Babylon Café and a new teen center called Twin Cities Underground, both on Lake Street, offer their stages to teen bands, MCs, and spoken-word artists. And on 26th and Stevens, the Fallout is gaining momentum. Source, a faith-based group that runs the Fallout, has renovated the storefront to accommodate live bands, art openings, community meals, and alternative Bible studies.
Afternoon Records has thrived in this alternative universe, yet Anderson is savvy enough to imagine what comes after it. "I've been playing bars since I was 16 years old," he says. "It's not as cool to play a bar as it is to play with all your friends there, because usually there's only a couple of people watching us. But that's what you have to do. I'll probably stop complaining about it once I'm 21."
The following Monday, October 6, Lookdown prepares to enter Evening Studios, but their plans are foiled when Matt Sandstedt, Michael's younger brother and bassist in Aneuretical, accidentally spills a glass of water on the studio's digital soundboard. With a heavy sigh, Michael remains optimistic.
"We'll probably be able to get a new one by next week," he says. "It was an expensive mistake, but we'll survive."
Meanwhile, Anderson and the rest of Aneuretical are making their way to the Red Sea Bar, where Paster has gotten them a slot opening for the Bloody Turncoats. The audience consists mostly of members of the other bands on the bill, but Anderson, Sandstedt, and Paster put on game faces--a professional stoicism betrayed only by their boyish smiles and overtly high school lyrics ("I just wanted you to like me"). Their set goes well, the thin crowd responding with appropriate claps and hollers.
Afterward, Anderson is disappointed but confident.
"It would have been nice for our friends to be here," he says. "But that's how bar shows go."
He packs his guitar, ready for the ride back to Northfield. "A gig's a gig," he says with a shrug.