Out on a Limb

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

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ON A THURSDSAY night in late August, the following questions are on the minds of four people who have gathered to see a band called the Owls:

1. How can I find a way to define my hopes and dreams?

2. What is the best way to be politically active?

3. Should I buy the $4,000 recording system that I'm thinking about?

4. My friend Stephanie died one year ago. How can I best honor my friend Steph's life?

We know this is what's on their minds because audience members at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis have written down these and other questions on pieces of paper, along with their names, and placed them in a box to be drawn at random during a taping of The Radio8Ball Show. Hosted by Washington state musician Andras Jones, an actor in such trashy horror films as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the program airs in Seattle and Olympia, and features bands in cities across the country. Jones chose the Owls from Minneapolis because, as he says onstage, "I'm an insane fan."

The Owls look as if they've stepped out of a yellowing photo from the folk era, all ties and dresses, and into the spotlight for the first time. Their music could pass for an unplugged tribute to everything tender and lovely about the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, and the non-hangover parts of the White Album. Yet the three singers sound modern in their quiet lack of affectation. On piano, acoustic guitar, and bass, Maria May, Brian Tighe, and Allison LaBonne sing the show's theme song in high, delicate three-part harmony—"Radio8Ball, give us a shake"—but their voices fold into each other rather than lock. On nearly every song after that, they rotate instruments and lead vocals, as if to further de-emphasize virtuosity, giving drummer John Jerry a chance to put down his brushes and play bass.

Yet the hesitant spell cast by this quartet fits the laid-back vibe of the show. Radio8Ball invites lucky questioners onstage to read their pieces of paper and spin a giant wheel of zodiac signs. ("It's like $250 to ship that thing," says Tighe afterward. "Our goal was just to pay for the wheel [through ticket sales], which didn't happen.") Each sign corresponds to a different Owls song, which the band plays. Then the musicians, host, and audience participant interpret the music as an "answer" to the question.

"I like to think of this format as calisthenics for the part of our mind that recognizes synchronicity," says Jones, likening it to "musical Tarot cards."

Within a few go-rounds, however, it's clear that the sparsely attended show will be a kind of This Is Your Life episode for the Owls. Three of the first four audience members to the stage not only know the band but were key to the group's development, starting with "the Ledge," as singer-songwriter Jim Ruiz has dubbed himself. A longtime collaborator with Tighe's other band, the Hang Ups, Ruiz once recruited LaBonne to replace her sister on bass in the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group—just before a concert in Japan.

The life question from the Ledge, "How can I find a way to define my hopes and dreams?," echoes the title of the Owls' 2004 debut eight-song CD, Our Hopes and Dreams—a coincidence Ruiz says is inadvertent, uttering a very Minnesotan "Oh, jeez" when the title is pointed out to him. He spins the wheel, and it lands on Scorpio. The band plays the corresponding Owls tune, May's "Cinema," one of a couple dozen Owls songs that haven't been recorded. Quieter and more polished than LaBonne, May sounds a little like Aimee Mann with blood in her veins.

When the song ends, and the applause dies down, Jones asks the band for "contextual information" about the song.

"The movies?" offers May. She is tall, and movie-beautiful in her reddish curly hair, yet looks, right now, as if she might want to hide. "Violent movies, maybe? But also movies as an outlet."

"So maybe," says Jones, fleshing out May's idea, "[the answer is] finding some archetype in cinema that defines your hopes and dreams."

"Like Taxi Driver?" asks the Ledge. The audience laughs.

"I could see you going that way," says May.

"I think the Ledge needs to release an album," says Tighe.

By most local standards, the Owls are practically rock stars. Without any hint that their hopes and dreams might involve commercial success, they sold out their 2004 CD-release concert at the Turf Club, as well as four pressings (or 4,000 copies) of the debut, topping college radio charts around the country. Their song "Air" won a Minnesota Music Award and was the soundtrack for a Target commercial selling air filters.

"They're catchier than Feist," says Blender senior critic Jon Dolan, a friend of the musicians. And their circle is growing. Having opened for New Zealand greats the Bats at South by Southwest last year, the Owls celebrate their own comeback Thursday with a release show at the Cedar for a second nationally distributed CD, Daughters and Suns (on Magic Marker Records), their first full-length.

Yet as May's onstage patter suggests, the Owls can seem painfully shy. Tighe, boyish yet graying after nearly two decades in the Hang Ups, takes care not to overshadow his bandmates. Yet they disappear into the music anyway, May closing her eyes as she sings, Jerry smiling to himself, and thin LaBonne barely moving, the drama of her performance residing entirely in her wide, bright eyes.

There is, especially in LaBonne, an aspect of the mouse that roared. When she sings "Apocalypse," off the new album—in response to the Radio8Ball question "What is the best way to be politically active?"—her expression is dreamlike horror.

"There is no back door, just fall through the trap door, it's a beautiful trap door," she sings, sounding like Laetitia Sadier's meld of Moe Tucker and Nico, but at a higher, more brittle pitch.

The song, she explains afterward, to laughter from the audience, was inspired by an odd news item about a fish who told a fisherman that the end was nigh. Yet the reckoning of the lyric could as easily be about the act of performing: There's no back door onstage. You can only plunge in.

Ruiz later tells me that LaBonne never once sang while in the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group. It wasn't until years after the band's run that she played him one of her own songs.

"Hearing that voice really surprised me," he says offstage. "I don't know exactly where it comes from. I'm afraid it's going to make her famous."

 

THE STORY OF the Owls isn't exactly about people wanting to be famous. When the band debuted as a four-piece at a basement party in south Minneapolis six years ago, few among even that small crowd knew that the event represented something like a personal breakthrough for LaBonne, who had spent the day not talking to anyone—"shutting down," she says, "in order to cope with the reality of knowing I'd be onstage in front of an audience later."

LaBonne dated Tighe for seven years before she even sang him her songs. And they had known each other for longer than that, meeting at a south Minneapolis party in 1990.

"I don't know when you wrote them," says Tighe now, addressing LaBonne, "but all of a sudden you had these songs that I'd never heard before. You recorded two on your own, on four-track, and I was like, 'Wow.'"

Tighe and LaBonne, who are married now, rarely avert their mutual gaze as they sit for an interview in their kitchen, surrounded by paintings by Tighe's fellow Hang Ups Steve Ittner and Jeff Kearns. The couple lives in the guest house of a Minneapolis mansion where Tighe works as caretaker, and the window looks out on Lake Calhoun.

LaBonne, a Minneapolis native, says she started singing when she was 16, and remembers crooning "All I Have to Do Is Dream" by the Everly Brothers with her older sister Charlotte, who is now married to guitarist Mike Crabtree of the Carpetbaggers. Allison was already a fan of the Hang Ups when she met Tighe, and she says she found his talent intimidating.

By the early '90s, the Hang Ups had become a repository of hopes and dreams far beyond themselves. Formed in the summer of 1988 out of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design by Tighe, Kearns, and Ittner, the band made unabashedly pretty pop, with only swaths of dissonant guitar by fourth member and ax-genius-about-town John Crozier betraying punk roots.

"The whole Minneapolis thing in '89 or '90 was long hair, flannel, and Marshal amps," says Polara guitarist Ed Ackerson. "Then you have the Hang Ups with stuff that sounds like the Byrds, very '60s-influenced and harmony-based, with a lot of lyrical sentiment that's trying to be naive and sweet, as opposed to badass."

The five Hang Ups CDs, released between 1993 and 2003, are as lush as the Norway Maple-lined streets near downtown where the music was born—Stevens, Garfield, Harriet, Bryant, and Pleasant. To many from that time and place, the Hang Ups embodied the idea that the good life might be had amid part-time jobs, roommates, political protest, and do-it-yourself music. Yet caring about the band meant getting used to the idea that your secret would never get out. As the alt-rock boom passed, the group signed to one, then another label that folded, eventually running to a standstill on Pete Yorn's Trampoline. With four of their five discs out of print, the Hang Ups are on break, as members go forward in other bands: Elk, Deep Pool, and the Owls.

Part of the problem might be that this crowd was never particularly outgoing or ambitious to begin with. The quiet Crozier left the Hang Ups partly to avoid performing, and his guest work on the Owls' Daughters and Suns marks his first CD appearance in six years. Ittner, the Owls' original drummer, left both bands to pursue visual art, though his song "Black Hands of Time" also appears on the new album. Tighe might be the most patient man in local music (one of the kids he's taken care of as babysitter for 18 years remembers him getting mad only once). And Tighe as arranger or collaborator has helped coax the shyest of local musicians into their zone, however private.

"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.")

By now, the four Owls onstage have known each other for so long that to them, there's nothing strange about recording in the place where two of them go to bed. They might not even realize how deeply they've influenced one another. "I feel like we got lucky, that we share a certain sensibility," says LaBonne. But it hadn't occurred to her that the Hang Ups might have shaped that sensibility. In the end, as in all things, luck might have nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, the Owls have important questions to answer from the Bryant-Lake crowd, such as:

"Buy or sell?"

"Should I go to grad school or just work?"

"Will my back ever heal?"

"Should I pimp my MySpace page out, or focus my energy on starting a Facebook account?"

"And that's what's on all of our minds tonight," says Jones at the end of the show, having read all the questions, as the Owls riff on the chord changes to "Isaac Bashevis Singer."

"I want to thank all of you for coming out," he adds. "You can find more about Radio8Ball at radio8ball.com. You can find more about the Owls by living in Minneapolis."

THE OWLS perform a CD-release show with Elk on THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 8, at THE CEDAR; 612.338.2674



SAMPLE MP3 FILES:

VISIT OUR SLIDESHOW GALLERY with photos by Nick Vlcek.

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

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