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Like unchecked stress and major personal crises, hard living certainly speeds the aging process. For what he's been through, you'd expect Communist Daughter's Johnny Solomon to already look like a 60-year-old when City Pages spoke with him about his band's new EP, Lions and Lambs. But he doesn't look a day over the 31 years lamented in the disc's final track, "Don't Remember Me."
Today, his band is on the cusp of a breakthrough, the EP is already riding a good buzz, and he and bandmate Molly Moore are engaged. And he's sober. Life for Johnny Solomon is better than it's ever been before, but it wasn't so long ago that things were upside down and backward.
Solomon, a recovering addict, did a stint at a Hazelden treatment center last year, and it looms over everything the band has accomplished, including the heralded but only locally released disc Something Wicked This Way Comes. Two of its songs are on the new EP. While Communist Daughter is likely to be categorized by some as a "recovery band," Solomon sees it as a temporary condition.
"We have to go through this time. There's a lot of my life stuck there right now," he explains. "[Lions and Lambs] is a transition.... It gathers all the things that have happened over the past two years and puts them together in a box so we can move on."
And while they're planning to remain based in St. Paul, it's clear that the members of Communist Daughter are looking beyond the Twin Cities. "People don't understand that we're not successful. Bon Iver is successful; we're not there yet," say Solomon, slurping a Diet Dr. Pepper. "This is the only place I know where you can be a star without anybody outside of town knowing who you are."
Solomon says Communist Daughter's label, Grain Belt Records, has happily encouraged suggestions that the band will be the next big roots-rock band out of western Wisconsin. Such high ambitions and Solomon's sobriety have conspired to push Communist Daughter further to the fringe of the local scene — maybe an inevitable course for a band formed in the distant river town of Prescott, Wisconsin, by a Missouri farm boy running a restaurant.
"I put in my time with Friends Like These," he says. "We were as Minneapolis as a band could get...but I'm not out there slugging it around at the Hexagon anymore."
Friends Like These never reached the level of success Solomon's current band has enjoyed, although they were a local favorite in the early aughts. The band fell apart after Solomon tanked a gig because he was in jail. After 30 days, he walked free to find life had moved on and left him behind.
"I was 28 and I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm not a man,'" he recalls. "I can't pay my bills. I can't have kids because I couldn't even put them in clothes and send them to school. I'm a shitty hipster musician."
He moved downriver to Prescott, where he opened a restaurant called the Boxcar. But his problems followed. "I didn't go into it 100 percent certain it was what I wanted to do," says Solomon about his short career as a restaurateur. "I bit off more than I could chew, and it was changing me as a person.
That's when, he recalls, the writing process for his new band's first album, Soundtrack to the End, got serious. "I learned that I wasn't writing songs because I was a musician, I was writing songs because I write songs. And being a musician is a good thing for me because I can write songs for a living. It was eye-opening because I was actually doing what I should be doing."
The music he played wandered from Stones covers with friends like Jim and Dave Boquist to the songs he'd written while serving snails. What they came up with was understated and gritty, drawing on the Boquists' Son Volt years. The only temptation Solomon successfully fought in Prescott was his urge to play rock 'n' roll.
"I'm always fighting the desire to play loud and bang drums," says Solomon. "I will always want to be in a rock band."
Soundtrack to the End, was a success beyond expectations, but months later the Boxcar collapsed, leaving Solomon once again where he seemed destined. "I learned it's okay to fail at something. I'm not a bad person because I totally botched that. And I'm still learning to be okay with my failures and shortcomings."
Solomon won't say which direction the band is going with the new songs he's written. It's all part of a transition. He recalls the lesson learned from the collapse of the Boxcar. "I think the next record is about being okay with the past and being happy, about feeling like your life is what it's supposed to be."