By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The loan Doug Utter received from the good folks at Capitol One was causing him to bolt upright in bed with a bad case of sweaty self-hatred. "I'd wake up in the middle of the night," remembers the singer-songwriter, "thinking, 'I am such a loser. What have I done?'" What he had done was sign up for one of the umpteen-million loan offers he got in the mail--a big loan, intended to finance a recording project and taken out not long after he had spent a bundle going to law school. It's not terribly uncommon for musicians to go to law school after they've abandoned pop-star dreams. Taking on the pop-star dream after passing the bar, that's just bad planning.
In school, Utter entertained noble dreams of going into death-penalty defense. Then he realized that such a path required skills like organization and round-the-clock dedication. "Not my style," he jokes. Utter now works in a call center as a lawyer assisting other lawyers with various legal minutiae for "not much money." Off the job, he writes cleverly crafted tunes probably best kept away from the cubicle boombox. He has a song in which a gay guy lovingly lathers up a straight dude in the bathtub, and another about wanting to be someone's "meat thermometer."
Though Utter is a fan of heart-on-sleeve songsmiths such as Gillian Welch and Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous, in his own work he prefers left-of-center satire. "People writing about their feelings, it's totally cool," Utter says, sipping on peppermint tea from a cobalt blue Fiestaware cup in his northeast Minneapolis home. "But I don't know if my feelings are that interesting. Obviously I have feelings, and I'm happy to share them. But to just spill it seems kinda...fey."
Of course he means "fey" in only the most delicate sense, not the way some meathead with gut rot and zero knowledge of wrestling's homoeroticism would use it as a derogatory euphemism. After all, almost all of the 10 songs on Wish I Were Here, the debut from Utter's band Flock of Doug, are subversive ditties about political oppression and sexual preference. There's "Boyfriend, You're My American Flag Underwear," a roots-rock tune about wanting to serve in a ridiculous war alongside a gay American who is not only a pair of patriotic panties but also a copy of Tropic of Cancer and a shitty Datsun B210. In a sense, the song's subject is everything; just your average human looking to get a little health insurance. Is that too much to ask?
And there's the aforementioned gay-bathtub romp, "Brian's Other Song," where Utter croons like a less self-loathing Mark Eitzel: "The shower it mists so lightly/The water runs down your chest to the floor of the tub/Hey, Brian, I can see the silhouette of your half-chub." Female background singers coo "rub-a-dub" like angels christening the sudsy bath water and the straight boy's half-hard member from above. When Utter and his band (the members of which he met at open-mic nights around town) played the song opening for El Vez at First Avenue a few weeks ago, a fortysomething couple placed their hands in the backs of each other's faded and butt-stretched Levi's, bobbed their bespectacled heads from side to side, and bounced on the balls of their feet as if it were a song about unicorns jumping through clouds made of cotton candy.
"I love the fact that children sing it," Utter says with an air of excitement, recalling enthusiastic responses from some of his friends' children. "It's my great hope that some day Tom DeLay's grandchildren will say, 'Come on, Granddaddy. Play that song about two guys taking a bath together.' I doubt that's going to happen. But if it did, I would consider myself successful beyond my wildest dreams," he says.
Talk of the current administration and its homophobic agenda gets Utter riled up. He leaves his tea and still-steaming Thai noodles in search of the tape case for "Utopia and Terror in the Twentieth Century," a 24-part lecture about violence and dictatorships he picked up at the library. He listens to it on his way to and from his call-center job in Eagan.
"I almost have to trick myself into believing that America is not that far gone," he says, adjusting his big black wire-frame glasses that look more Euro-chic Walker Art Center than Utter's humble surroundings suggest. "There are these Michele Bachmann types who believe homosexuality is unnatural. It's insane. It's hate, and it's ugly."
Utter's exasperation with the Christian right and his fondness for burlesque leads him to an amusing schadenfreude fantasy about Sen. Rick Santorum. "Santorum said, and I'm paraphrasing here, 'It's a slippery slope, once there's man-on-man sex there's man-on-dog,'" Utter says. "So it would not surprise me, in fact it would please me, to read in the paper one day, 'Rick Santorum has sex with a dog.' I'd feel bad for the dog," he laughs. "I suppose it'd be okay if it were a dead dog."
As with the work of Randy Newman and other button-pushing satirists, Utter's songs are open to misinterpretation. In one of his mock-anthems, he repeats the words "Osama bin Laden" over a bar-rocky tune featuring a piano that sounds like it's tinkling right along with each wave of an American flag fluttering at half-mast. You expect a "yee-haw!" and shotgun fires of victory to come next. The song, it turns out, is called "Osama Bin Enron," and it depicts a battle between two religious extremists, Bush and bin Laden, the latter of whom Utter characterizes as a hopelessly unhappy guy who should get a dog and change his name to Steve.
For Utter, it seems, it all comes around to dogs and cats. On a dry-erase board in Utter's living room are the words "I love you like a pet" in blue marker. Utter's friend said it to him a few months back, and he loved the phrase so much he wanted to turn it into a song. "Maybe I'll call Rick Santorum and tell him about it," he says, smiling. He gazes at his cat, Flock of Cat, who's curled up on Utter's thrift-store chair across the room, and his face suddenly lights up. "Actually, maybe I'll just call it 'Santorum.' I'll dedicate it to him. What do you think?"