By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
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By Jack Spencer
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By Emily Weiss
On a crisp autumn day, the lounge attached to Flowers Studio in Uptown Minneapolis is peopled by three convivial members of BNLX. They're gathered to discuss a surprising milestone for a three-year-old band — their full-length debut. Up until now, seven self-released, DIY EPs were the group's means of sharing turbulent, darkwave rock with the masses.
"We decided we weren't going to go the typical route," explains Ed Ackerson, who sings and plays guitar in BNLX, and owns the studio where we sit. "Instead of approaching each album like it's some gigantic opus that has to be fully formed like a perfect sculpture, let's just get back to something that's more like the punk-rock era where it's just like, 'Hey, we've got some ideas, here they are.' It allowed us to do more stuff that was less premeditated, and more fun."
Ackerson's been creating music for more than two decades in the Twin Cities, notably in '90s alt-rockers Polara. At his side is his wife, Ashley, who sings and plays bass, along with drummer David Jarnstrom, as well as their ever-present tour manager, Wiggy, an adorable Boston Terrier who also models on the self-titled album's cover.
BNLX Fest features Two Harbors, Blue Sky Blackout, and International Karate on Friday November, 16; Pink Mink, Me and My Arrow, and Wiping Out Thousands on Saturday, November 17, at Cause; 612.822.6000
Aside from their finding that a photo of a cute dog "will drive more incremental unit sales," Ed sees his pet as a symbol of the group's state of mind. "Wiggy helps convey the fact that we're not exclusively a glowering noise machine spitting anti-corporate propaganda messages and inscrutable crypto-Nordic mythology. A lot of what we've been doing is pretty light-hearted, but we've been delivering it with a very straight face until now."
BNLX was always meant to be a cryptically amusing musical project — they chose esoteric initials for the band members during their early days so that the songs would be judged on their own and not be connected to their past bands, while also issuing inscrutable, business-like quarterly reports instead of typical press releases — but there's no lack of traditional rigor when it comes to the actual recorded material. In fact, Ackerson's career as a studio engineer has landed him credits on albums for the Jayhawks, Motion City Soundtrack, Mark Mallman, and Golden Smog, among many others.
This new LP bristles with the aggressive urgency and inventive sonics of the band's earlier work on "Message From HR" and "Mixtape," while also including melodic, soaring tracks like "1929" and a reworked version of EP 7's "Meet Me on the Barricades." And a 19-second track called "Wiggy?" features some "freestyle rhymes" by you-know-who. Songs like "Vibrant," with its synth sheen and hook-y bass, will have you thinking you're listening to an undiscovered New Order session loaded with the Ackersons' anti-capitalist, quasi-revolutionary rhetoric.
"I like the sugar-coated pill aspect of writing a cultural critique or a political critique with a song that's easy to dance to and sticks in your head," Ed offers.
Even though Jarnstrom played drums on the band's initial recordings, he didn't join their live show until last year, which gives the songs an added bite in a live setting. "I remember when Ed asked me to do this stuff I was super excited because I really liked his previous stuff," says Jarnstrom. "But he wanted it to be such a different thing. I was looking forward to playing some really good melodic pop songs, and at first I wasn't sure if I got it. But this album is a happy medium between the concept of what BNLX began as and how we've grown as a band."
All three members of BNLX have been in quite a few different bands before, but this project has been distinct for its mobility. "Something I never got to do with [my old group] the Mood Swings was tour," says Ashley. "But when we were starting out, it was just the two of us and a dog in a van, and you would just load up and go. It opened up a lot of freedom for us to be able to try stuff that we couldn't do if it was too complex." (Incidentally, Wiggy's been with them on every tour date they've played so far except for a few they had to fly to.)
Next destination: a two-night residency at Cause this Friday and Saturday, dubbed BNLXFest, which celebrates not only the release of the new album, but the rich musical landscape of the Twin Cites as well.
"We're trying to make two fun nights that are kind of contrasting, musically, while keeping the ticket price low so it's a huge value," Ed says. "It's not a BNLX statement, it's more like a statement of 'Hey, look at all this cool stuff in our community.' And if we can put a flag above the event that says BNLXFest it will hopefully get more people to pay attention to all of these great bands in our city."