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To the extent that anyone in Minneapolis would recognize lanky, 19-year-old Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith, it would be as the lead guitarist for precocious indie-poppers Total Babe, which up till a few short weeks ago had been his main project. Gatesmith began Howler just last year to combat boredom, and initially the band seemed like nothing more than one of his typical short-lived diversions between Total Babe commitments. "I was starting bands what seemed like every other week," he says. "We had a metal band for a while. We had one called Gay Animals, another called A-Cups, but none of them really lasted that long."
For whatever reason, Howler was the one project that Gatesmith couldn't let die. He describes the band's sound as "surfy," and to be sure, there's plenty of youthful, optimistic zeal in Howler's songs, but there's also a darkly romantic undercurrent reminiscent of early Strokes and Modern Lovers. In sharp contrast to Total Babe, where Gatesmith's guitar provided little more than window dressing, Howler is an unabashedly amped affair, stacked to the rafters with staccato riffs and solos.
Their recently released This One's Different EP is, true to its name, a weirdly wonderful snapshot of a band far too young and reckless to fully appreciate its own talent: five songs in 14 minutes, most of it sounding like a blotted accident. Save for radio-ready pogo-beat single "I Told You Once," Different plays like the best kind of dashed-off high school yearbook entry, full of in-jokes, asides, and random musings. When City Pages asks why they would title one of the EP's tracks "You Like White Women, I Like Cigarettes," longtime friends Gatesmith and keyboardist Max Petrek just casually shrug, as if it was hardly a choice at all. If you'd thought of it, you wouldn't name a song "You Like White Women, I Like Cigarettes"? They have a point.
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While Howler's music may have an effortless appeal, Gatesmith has had to work overtime to round out the band lineup. He now insists that though he may add a bassist, the rest of those presently involved are here to stay. In addition to Petrek, Howler includes guitarist Ian Nygaard and drummer Brent Mayes. Nygaard met Gatesmith through So-TM, the label Howler shares with Nygaard's other band, Nice Purse. For now anyway, Nygaard plans on pulling double duty. Meanwhile, Mayes and Gatesmith knew each other from DeLaSalle, where both attended high school, though Mayes, a downright ancient 23, graduated four years earlier. Asked how he feels about being the band's elder statesman, he deadpans: "My bones are brittle, and I'm on Boniva."
It turns out that Gatesmith locked in the Howler lineup none too soon. The very next day following our interview the nascent band's fortunes took a strange and exceedingly rare turn. Howler's EP wound up in the lap of Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records and a legendary talent scout who is credited with giving the Smiths and the Strokes their respective starts. Travis was so taken with it he gave Howler a verbal offer on the spot to release the EP on Rough Trade in the U.K. and Europe. Moreover, he immediately sent one of his London A&R reps to meet the band and catch a live performance here in Minneapolis.
The band played on Friday night, May 20, at the Hexagon, and even in the venue's notoriously shabby confines and with rainwater pouring in through the ceiling, Howler burned bright. In front of perhaps the largest crowd of their career to date (maybe three dozen) and Rough Trade A&R, Howler tore through their eight-song catalog, including all five EP tracks and three new ones just to confirm that the EP was no fluke. As on record, live the band may be a bit rough around the edges, but they play with an uncommon confidence. Most young bands hold back, scared of making mistakes. But the way Mayes throttles his kit and Nygaard fumbles with the guitar pedals suggests not only are they unafraid of screwing up, but that they're more than willing to wipe out in front of a crowd if that's what it takes to learn—even if they never really do.
Howard Hamilton III of Red Pens, who was also in attendance that night and has watched from the sidelines as the band has evolved, believes that while the timing of the overseas interest in Howler may have been unexpected, it is well deserved. "You'd have to be crazy not to see their potential," he says. "Jordan is incredibly talented—I just hope he's ready for this."
HOWLER play with Red Pens this FRIDAY, JUNE 24, at the TRIPLE ROCK SOCIAL CLUB; 612.333.7399