We Built This City on Rock and Roll

...and other equally valuable varieties of popular music

For this year's Picked to Click issue, we came up with a bold experiment: get a bunch of musicians to meet in the loveseat department of Gabberts and have them talk about the merits and demerits of agricultural subsidies. Well, that was a disaster. Fortunately we had a backup plan: get some of this year's Picked to Click favorites to sit down together at Grumpy's on Washington and ask them to talk about music. Our round table was made up of Ian Rans, local rock tastemaker, impresario behind the defunct "Punk Rock Karaoke" night at Tubby's Bar and Grill, and host of the cable access rock-talk program Drinking with Ian ; P.O.S., born Stefon Leron Alexander, this year's breakout local rapper who recently inked a deal with the Rhymesayers label; Nick Ryan, guitarist with pop historians Thunder in the Valley; Wes Statler, singer-keyboardist for high school dance-rock hipsters Melodious Owl; and Brian Shuey, guitarist-singer for tuneful punk rockers Die Electric! The discussion was co-moderated by City Pages' Dylan Hicks, formerly a semi-professional musician who was picked to click in the early '90s.

 

THOUGHTS ON THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS--EXCEPT AT NIGHT

 

Ian Rans: What do you all think the strengths of the local scene are?

Wes Statler: Without question, I think it's the diversity of the scene. We just played a show with P.O.S. and [Mark] Mallman. Three pretty different acts, and yet they gel together really well and the people in the scene are into all that stuff. They're relatively open-minded.

P.O.S.: This is a side note, Wes, but there was an adult at the show we played together. I don't want to call you out, but somebody said something about how the aggressiveness of the bulge in your pants turned her on. She had to be at least three times your age. I just figured if I saw you again, I had to tell you that, because I overheard it and I loved it.

Wes: Yeah, Mallman made me uncomfortable. He came over to the merch booth, and he said, "You stuff your pants, right?" I said, "No." And he went, "Oh, my god!"

Dylan Hicks: What about racial diversity in the audience?

P.O.S.: I don't know, man. This is a question that gets asked all the time. Every time someone interviews me about hip hop, they ask, "How come black people don't come out to the shows?" I don't know. There's definitely a little bit of the salt-and-pepper thing at shows, but it's predominantly white. It's a little disappointing sometimes. When I was in [the hardcore band] Building Better Bombs, there were more black people that came to those shows just because there were black punks who wanted to see black punks.

 

YOU'VE ALL BEEN SUCH A
WONDERFUL CROWD TONIGHT.
I ONLY WISH WE HAD TIME TO THANK ALL FOUR OF YOU PERSONALLY.

 

P.O.S.: There's definitely a small army starting to form for [my extended crew] Doomtree: a group of six girls and maybe ten guys who come to every single show who know the words, make their own T-shirts, and buy something at every show--even though we've had the same five shirts and two CDs for the last six months.

Wes: We get a steady increase in the number of TRL e-mails we get, where it's all emoticons and abbreviations--like how many X's and O's can you put in this thing? These are the same girls that show up--we home-make all of our T-shirts--they show up in those shirts and they're singing along with the words, and they're like [assumes young feminine voice] "Can I take a picture with you?" The majority of our shows are 21-plus, though. As much as we were talking about diversity earlier, the kids that are really into screamo or hardcore stuff really don't dig our music. They're probably thinking, "Why are their pants so tight? Why does everything end on C?"

P.O.S.: I think those kids really like us.

Dylan: Has anybody here gotten a post-show compliment that was meant sincerely but felt like a backhanded compliment?

Brian Shuey: Oh, every night. The first show we played on this last tour was in Omaha. When we were done, I was wrapping my cords up and stuff, this real tall guy--with a Gap sweater, hoop earrings, and a black eye--he came up [and said], "Man, I just got to tell you, I fucking hate music...but I liked you guys." And then the dude handed me 20 dollars--he said, "Here man, take this." So I tried to give him a CD, and he said, "You're not listening to me, man! I fucking hate music!"

Nick Ryan: When we first started playing, people said we sounded like Elton John, and I like Elton John, but....

 

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE WASHINGTONS

 

Dylan: Have you guys all lost money doing this?

Brian: Hell yeah. I've been losing money for 15 years.

Wes: We blow all our money on candy. Everybody wants to interview us at a playground...[it's like] we're just little kids, we're saving up for a swing set for the studio.

Ian: Get that Big Wheel paid off.

Wes: For us it's a lot easier 'cause all three of us live at home. So the money we get is just spending money; we put it toward new synthesizers. It's not like I need to pay rent this month, which is really fortunate for us. Basically we just divide it four ways: Each of us gets money for our pockets, and the fourth portion just goes into a band fund. But making money has never really been what we're trying to do this for, since, like I said, we're not doing this to support ourselves. We're just doing it for the creative aspect--[assumes swinger-style voice] and for chicks, um-huh.

Brian: Hope that works out better for you.

P.O.S.: [We're] definitely losing money, definitely trying to run a small business, definitely succeeding marginally, and definitely broke.

Dylan: Does making music as a career seem like a reasonable objective for all of you?

Brian: Probably not to make a living. After a while, you sort of find a balance--where you're like, I can commit this much to music, and this much to paying my rent. If you can strike that balance, it's awesome. But it doesn't usually work out that well. We just went on tour for a little while, and even though the band broke even, it kind of cut into my personal finances. But you make that sacrifice.

P.O.S.: I'm just now entering the stage of my career...where I can't say career, I guess. I'm just entering the part where I can't keep a real job because I'm trying to tour so much. I'm not making any money on those tours, I'm still wondering about how I'm making money on records, but I'm not working.

Wes: I think music will always be part of my life, as Kodak as that sounds, but what it really comes down to is: I'm most likely going to be leaving town for school next year. So will Melodious Owl still be playing together at the end of the year? It just depends. At the beginning of June, we had been booed off stage so many times at Hopkins [High School], we were thinking we can call it quits. Then we got a gig with [New York buzz band] the Fever, and we started moving forward. So in the next three months we could be someplace really great or we could be someplace terrible.

Ian: Physically? Are you talking about relocating--the whole lot of you?

Wes: No, I mean accomplishing something. I always say--jokingly, but who knows?--three months from now we could be on the cover of Spin. It might not be likely, but it is possible. I'm a senior this year, and the other two guys are juniors. So next year, when I graduate from high school, it's kind of like, if we have a major deal or we're actually touring and making money doing this, then maybe I could take a year off from school, because I don't really need to go off to college. But if we're still playing shows in your basement on the weekends for fun, then I could give that up and go on and maybe start a band someplace else. Not that I want to see the band end, because I'm having so much fun right now.

P.O.S.: This is definitely all I've ever wanted to do with my life, aside from teach history, and you can teach history whenever.

Brian: But if you wait longer, there's more shit to know, dude.

Nick: You talked about moving. It's not like you have to move somewhere to make it, but you have to go to other cities. Just because you're somebody here doesn't mean anything.

P.O.S.: At the same time, there will always be someone like G.B. Leighton, somebody who makes his living playing in Minneapolis. That doesn't typically happen with anything that we do.

Dylan: What about record labels? My experience with indie labels was generally that they were just as exploitative as the major labels--they just had a lot less money.

Brian: You just get to meet them more often face to face. They know your name when they screw you.

P.O.S.: My experience with indie labels is very tiny. I've never sent out a demo, I've never tried to run that route. Everything that's happened I've just kind of stumbled upon. Coming up the way I did with music, you do it yourself, there's no reason to do it any other way. Then after a minute, if they see that you're willing to work, they hop on. So as far as where I am now, it's still pretty new, but I haven't had any bad experiences.

Brian: Well, here's to hoping you don't. And you may not.

 

LOOK, MA, I'M IN THE PAPER--
NO, NOT IN THE ESCORT SECTION!

 

Dylan: Let me just ask you a bit about local music and the press. When I was playing music, I found that there was a general practice of grading on a curve with respect to local music. National acts were held to a certain aesthetic standard because, hey, these are legitimate musicians, they may even be career musicians who actually make a living doing this, so whatever you want to say about them, say it. With local bands, the attitude was more like, most of these people are amateurs, they live right next door and I don't want to piss them off, plus we're trying to help them out to a certain extent. So the groups the critics don't like are ignored rather than panned, and the ones who do get coverage are perhaps treated a bit too gently. I benefited from that, and I understand that there's a place for some hometown boosterism, but at the same time it's patronizing. Obviously, you want your music to be evaluated in the same way that a bigger band would be evaluated.

Brian: I don't think that there's much evaluation at all. You pick up a paper and you read a review of a record, and it doesn't say shit about the music on the record. It's ridiculous. I'm like, what does this sound like? They'll talk about anything but the music on the record. I don't know if it's just people that don't know a great deal about music that are writing music reviews, but they'll get eight paragraphs in before they talk about the record, and they're talking about "Kierkegaard once said...."

Dylan: And do you perceive the double standard I'm describing?

Brian: Yeah, I think that's just local boosterism and it happens in a lot of cities.

Nick: If you're going to get an interview, you know you're going to get a good review. We did get a fair review once. It was a website, and I was glad to read it because the guy was fair about stuff we needed to work on. Like any new band, there are certain things that you don't necessarily know that you need to work on 'cause your friends will tell you, "Oh, that's great, man." But he did call us "punk-ska," which is about as far from the truth as you can get.

Ian: Does toothless press kind of lead to everybody getting along too well? Should there be more dicks involved, more active agitators? If there's no active critique, does that hold everybody back?

Brian: I think there's probably a lot of bands running around this town who don't realize that they're not that fucking awesome. 'Cause they haven't gone anywhere. When we went out with Hot Snakes...I'll be honest with you, we're not in their league. Those guys are insane ass-kickers. And, you know, we're not bad. But that shit pushes you. When you swim in this pond all the time, you don't really get it.

Wes: I think the Minneapolis music scene is really incestuous.

Ian: And no one wants to piss anybody off.

Wes: Exactly, because you see everyone every night when you go out to a show. We've always had a rule that we will never say anything bad about another band in town.

P.O.S.: I have found that there are so many bad bands in the city, but there's also a lot of really good music in this city, and since we only have, I don't know, four legitimate papers that actually do anything, nobody's gonna want to review the records that everybody knows suck. If you get written about, it's because someone likes you.

Ian: There's also this glass ceiling. There's a million bands going on right now, but since the Short Fuses don't live here right now, I'll take them: They got that 200 people and that was all they had, for five years, and they kept playing the Entry on a Friday or Saturday, and that was pretty much their job.

Wes: Well, that's how I feel about going to college. If in June we're still playing for the same size crowd at the same venue and getting the same kind of responses, it's like, how much longer can I do that?

P.O.S.: But man, that's June. That's under a year. The glass ceiling, I don't think that's true. If you're expanding what you're trying to do, whether you're trying to play out of state, if you're taking shows where you don't know if you're going to like the bands you'll be playing with, just mixing it up, you're going to find more than just the same 200 people.

 

CHANGING LIVES, ONE SOUND
ENGINEER AT A TIME

 

Ian: So Stef, how's this record deal [with Rhymesayers] going to change you? When you're doing your next album, you know damn well it's gonna reach a national audience. How does that change you as a writer?

P.O.S.: I guess before this happened, all the stuff I was writing was kind of shying away from the aggressive stuff, just because I did so much of that on my last record. And then I got this [deal], and now there's bigger options on the table and I know it's gonna reach more people, so the writing's getting more and more aggressive and it's getting louder. There's lots of screaming. So it will definitely be another hip-hop record, but I'm going to push it further and make sure I can figure out who really likes it.

Ian: Yeah, right now you don't have to worry about alienating that many people, so you might as well...

P.O.S.: ...just get rid of 'em before I get 'em.

Ian: So what's success? If you walked away from this in three, five, ten years, what would you be happy with?

Brian: People just still listening to us. I figured out a long time ago that I'm not gonna make money doing this--I mean, no fucking way. I'm not delusional. The only thing I'd like to have happen is for records that I make to maybe someday have some kind of effect on people the way records had on me, and that's it.

P.O.S.: Exactly. If I can get past another five years with people still walking up to me, like, "Yo, I like that one song a lot, it's really good." Or people just listening to it, and I have no idea who they are and they have no idea who I am, but they just have the record, and it's become part of their favorite few--favorite 20, favorite 50. That's cool.

Ian: Even if you're walking to some horrible job at SuperAmerica?

P.O.S.: I don't care. Seriously, if people are listening to a record, if people talk about this really great live show--This guy P.O.S. was dope live, but then he stopped rapping, and he sucked, and his last few records were terrible--that's enough for me. I have the shit that I remember, my favorite 50 records, my favorite live shows. I want to do that to somebody.

Brian: I think a lot of people who play music don't really recognize how lucky they are. I mean, not everybody gets to fucking go up there and get on the mic and do their thing. I think there's a lot of people who don't realize how exceptional that is. I feel lucky every time I get to get onstage.

P.O.S.: You play a show for a few people--four people who know your songs, or 200 people who don't know anything about you at all--either way, you're in a good place. I feel almost more comfortable doing that than just living day to day. I will tell you that I got a Friendster message from a girl who lives in a different state, who said that between my record and Brother Ali's record, she got through a really rough summer. That was pretty cool.

Nick: I had a guy come to one of our shows. He had had a really rough day, a rough month, and he said, This actually put me in a good mood, not even neutralized the bad day, but actually changed the mood.

P.O.S.: If you're making honest music and you find somebody who can relate to your honesty, even if it's a tiny chunk of the population that listens to your music, if they can really relate to it, it makes you want to keep doing it, whether or not you're making money at it or not.

Brian: Maybe we are artists after all.

P.O.S.: Maybe we are artists.

Nick: We're the greatest heroes that have ever lived.

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