Out on a Limb

Before the Owls could take on the pop world, they had to face stage fright, shyness, and each other

"There's a certain insular, vaguely otherworldly tone to that whole group of people that's probably hard to crack if you don't know them," says Ackerson. "But I think there's a purity to it that's very commendable. They're not hucksters."

On bass, drums, or guitar, at least, LaBonne found this extended family of bands inviting enough. So did Maria May, who collaborated with Crozier, sang backup with the Hang Ups, and played with LaBonne in a pre-Owls band called Talk to Glenn. May was as surprised as Tighe to learn of LaBonne's hidden songs, but came to see this reticence as characteristic.

"Allison has an award-winning secret screenplay that she's never shown us—and it's about me," says May. "I asked her what would happen, theoretically, if it was made into a movie: Would she let me go see it? And she said, 'No, I would never tell you what the name of it is.' Apparently it's very good. I've talked to other people who've read it."

In retrospect, Tighe thinks it might not be coincidental that LaBonne's creative unveiling, their wedding, and the first Owls show followed so closely on the heels of each other, between late 2000 and early 2001. The couple honeymooned at a friend's ski condo during the off-season in Keystone, Colorado, where LaBonne wrote the lyrics for the Hang Ups' "Like It Used to Be." The two have gone back ever since for "vacation-slash-recording sessions," says Tighe.

"Brian and I got to go into this whole other world of our relationship after that point," says LaBonne. "I feel like the band has been very transformative, and it still feels like an experiment."

May found similar freedom in the Owls, though she was never anywhere near as guarded about her work. "For me, the band is almost like a dream space between personal and public space," she says. "It doesn't have the same rules as the world. There's no scarcity or competition."

Born in Chicago and raised in Hendersonville, Tennessee, May returned north and went to high school outside Chicago, soaking up punk and the acoustic scene in small-town Carpentersville. She was studying art in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1987 when she followed a friend to Milwaukee one week for spring break, and met Tighe and Kearns. Tighe, a native of Burlington, Wisconsin, had grown up in Brew City and brought Kearns home with him from MCAD. They wound up singing REM's "Driver 8" with May at a house party—at the time, she carried her 12-string everywhere—and going with her to see Hüsker Dü at the Eagles' Nest. May and Tighe corresponded, sending each other cassettes in the mail just as the Hang Ups were getting started, and they dated briefly. They've remained friends, and after many visits to Minneapolis, May decided to move here from Seattle in 1998 to raise her young daughter, Phoebe.

Before the four-piece made its basement debut, Tighe and LaBonne billed themselves as "the Owls" for an appearance at the 7th St. Entry, with May joining them onstage to sing backup on a couple of songs, her six-year-old clinging to her leg throughout the performance.

 

BACK AT THE Bryant-Lake Bowl, Hang Ups member Jeff Kearns asks the question: "Should I buy the $4,000 recording system I'm thinking about?"

Tighe interprets "Forever Changing" as a "no," though he admits, "I really want to be able to use that system."

Next up is Jen Jerry, sister of Owls drummer John Jerry. Her question is: "Should I go to law school?" The answer is the song "Spider's Silk," which elicits a spiel from Jones about lawyers and spiders as misunderstood heroes.

Jen was responsible for luring John here from their hometown of Green Bay in 1994 to attend the University of Minnesota. "We've always been really close," says John, "and honestly, I didn't think I'd do anything but live in the same city as her."

John joining the Owls in 2003 coincided with the group starting to take itself more seriously and realizing that others might, too. Since then, Jerry has balanced playing drums in the Owls and in the Ashtray Hearts, having double-booked only once, driving furiously between Duluth and Minneapolis to make two gigs. "They've been really good at sharing you," says May to Jerry. "I think they realize that we're dominant."

The drummer has been waiting for three perfectionists to finish a mostly homemade album in their spare time—LaBonne works as an office manager, May as a seamstress—having recorded his drum parts three years ago. Most vocals on the CD were cut in Tighe and LaBonne's bedroom, where a microphone still stands at the ready. "I think I've logged hundreds of hours there," says May. "I don't need to be in that room anymore, looking at that blind."

But the results are sublime, like three good albums whittled into a single great one. Radio8Ball's Jones likens the Owls to a "pop songwriting class" led by a "genius" (Tighe), and you can sense the guiding hand of a gifted arranger. Yet Tighe himself is writing better than ever under the influence of the Owls. His irresistible "Ooooo, darlin'/There's a lot to be done/And we've not begun" chorus on "All Those in Favor," a Mark Mallman-esque piano rocker, is the closest he's ever come to the righteous charm of the Beatles. His bandmates' strengths, meanwhile, seem very much their own—LaBonne's harsh melodic sense and May's insinuating one, LaBonne's storybook imagery and May's literary touch. (May pays tribute to author Isaac Bashevis Singer in the song of that title, and imagines the adult lives of Charles M. Schulz's characters in the incandescent "Peppermint Patty.")

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