Picked to Click 2009: Red Pens voted Twin Cities' best new band

Celebrating the 10 winners of this year's best-new-bands poll

Drumroll, Please...

It's not every year that the winner of our Picked to Click poll blows the rest of the competition out of the water, but every so often a band comes along that manages to win over the hearts of the entire music scene. This year, tallying the 109 ballots was downright fun (well, maybe not hammering-four-whiskey-Cokes-and-dancing-at-the-Hex fun, but as far as tabulating votes in a spreadsheet goes, it was a riot), as first-place winners Red Pens scored nearly twice as many points as the second-place contenders.

For the uninitiated, here's how the poll works: We asked every club booker, sound engineer, blogger, DJ, photographer, record-store clerk, music critic, or otherwise devoted slave to the scene to submit a list of top five favorite new local bands. Those who replied were counted, those who ignored us got deleted from our iPhones (kidding!). How they defined "new" was left up to them, but we asked that they give preference to bands that had broken onto the scene in one way or another during the previous 12 months. Each voter's No. 1 pick received five points, the No. 2 pick received four points, and so on. If a voter didn't rank his choices, each band was given three points.

2009 Winner, Red Pens
Nick Vlcek
2009 Winner, Red Pens

The band with the most points was declared the winner, and the bands with the top 10 scores are featured in this issue. Ladies and gentlemen, our Picked to Click 2009 winners and the points they received in this year's poll:

  1. Red Pens 84
  2. Zoo Animal 49
  3. Moonstone 48
  4. The Guystorm 44.5
  5. Leisure Birds 42
  6. Dante & the Lobster 38
  7. Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps 37
  8. Whitesand/Badlands 32
  9. Double Bird 30
  10. Teenage Moods 28

1. Red Pens

photo: Nick Vlcek

How Red Pens stole the collective heart of our music scene

by Andrea Swensson

It's not always imperative to know about the personal lives of a band's members, but for anyone who has seen the Red Pens play live it's probably not a big surprise to hear that Howard W. Hamilton III and Laura F. Bennett are in love. Which isn't to say that their music is the stuff of dopey balladeers—far from it, actually, as their fuzzy, poppy punk and shoegaze-infused songs are more likely to hit you over the head than to tug at your heartstrings—but their attentiveness to one another while they are playing and the natural call-and-response of their music suggest a connection that runs deeper than one would expect from a pair of platonic bandmates.

Seated at an old diner booth in their vibrantly painted basement apartment, Hamilton and Bennett are recounting the history of their relationship. "Ever since I found you," Bennett says to Hamilton, "and made these songs and the band, I knew. It was like, I'm going to love this no matter what happens."

"We met because of our art," Hamilton says (Bennett is a painter, while Hamilton draws and creates conceptual sculptures). "I saw [her art], and I was just like, 'Oh my god. I've got to meet this person.'"

"I got a MySpace from Howard!" Bennett adds, giggling. "Back when MySpace still wasn't made fun of that much."

"I was like, we should collaborate," Hamilton says. "And then we decided what we'd do is just get together and work on art at the same time."

"You would be sitting across from me, you'd be drawing, I'd be drawing. I had a secret motive," Bennett says. "Part of me was just like, I'm going to hang out with him, and eventually I'm going to be like, 'Do you want to be in a band?' Seriously. It was like collaborate, shmollaborate—I want to play music with you."

"I've been in a million bands," Hamilton says, "and one of the main reasons why I didn't want to do it anymore was, a lot of times, because of the drummer. They were always late, they had all this gear, it was always just a big hassle. And when I started playing with her, I could feel that we were speeding up and slowing down at the same time, and there was this connection—instantly—while we were playing. I was like, 'Okay, I guess maybe I'm going to start playing again.'"

The duo started practicing together and taking any and every gig they could. Even when the audiences were small, the two remained positive and fed off each other's energy.

"We played for a year before anyone saw us," Hamilton says. "We would play the worst shows. We'd have high hopes for them even though we knew they were bad, like maybe somebody will see us tonight..."

"We literally played for each other," Bennett says. "We would have so much fun, and then we'd go back and eat a pizza."

Eventually, though, people started catching on, and mostly by word of mouth Red Pens became one of the most talked-about new bands in town. Their intense live shows, their glowing enthusiasm for their music, and their larger-than-life sound are contagious. Bennett flails her arms as she drums, her mouth hanging partially open in steadfast concentration, while Hamilton plays the role of shy yet focused frontman, his glasses sometimes flying off mid-solo as he leans down over his guitar. Their sound is vast and harmonious, at least doubling the magnitude one would expect from two instruments, and Hamilton's songwriting contrasts tight and catchy pop melodies with a muddy wash of filth, feedback, and fuzz.

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