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"When I was younger, I used to like to get that kind of attention. You know: be the frontman, get onstage, be out schmoozing with everybody," Grant Cutler says as he makes some French press in his kitchen on a snowy Sunday afternoon. "And I do [still] like that a little bit, here and there, but it's much more satisfying to do this other kind of work. It's satisfying for me because I don't need to stroke my ego quite as much."
That transformation — in priorities, as well as vision — has been a gradual one for Cutler, and it may well be nearing its apotheosis. With the help of a state arts grant, he's preparing to put on "The End of the World," a multi-person, multimedia concert and art installation including projections by Matt Visionquest.
"It's really nice to finally make some really complicated music," he says. "I mean, it's not horribly technical or anything like that. [But] I want to do just weird art-project-y kind of music." He rubs his thumb along his beard. "This is the world that I should be trying to get into. I'm not going to be in rock 'n' roll bands forever."
Grant Cutler plays "The End of the World" with Anonymous Choir and Zoo Animal on Friday, December 21, at the Cedar Cultural Center; 612.338.2674
Cutler — dressed in a zip-up hoodie and unbuttoned henley, his hair long on top and buzzed on the sides — is polite, funny, and engaging in a one-on-one setting, but admits that he's shy in larger groups. That might help explain his tendency to be in so many two-person bands. Over the past several years, he's been involved in some of the Twin Cities' most popular, and experimental, bands — from beat-maker in electro-pop duo Lookbook to occasional sideman in Zoo Animal and mastermind of his own Gorgeous Lords.
This time, he's excelled with a group of people — including the likes of Jesse Schuster, Arlen Peiffer, and Jef Sundquist — that not only has a half-dozen regulars and part of a choir, but each of whom he's also never worked with before. "If it were just me performing this stuff," he says, "I would probably be so sick of it. But because I get to introduce all these new people, it's been a whole new set of things to learn."
Part of Cutler having several projects rather than focusing his energy in one place — a legacy of his work as a producer — has long meant managing others. "He's got such a great ear for working with others' ideas and making them sound lovely," says Aby Wolf, who fronts the band Wolflords with Cutler. "I've learned so much from him about how to let music be simple and spacious, and not to stress about it or even think about it so much — just to let it happen, and get out of its way."
For "The End," Cutler ditched the traditional band- and album-oriented creation process and spent almost 18 months from the initial proposal to the final product. The grant's funding allowed him to work full-time on the composition. "I work so much better like this," he says. "I wrote it over the entire summer, but really I tried a million things that I didn't really like. And then all the songs that we're going to end up playing I wrote in, like, one week."
Aptly debuting at the Cedar on 12/21/12, the piece is split into five sections that function like movements. It starts with a throbbing, repetitive bass line, moves into more ambient territory that's interjected with dissonant stretches, and finally builds into an incanted, harmonized release. The music could be a story of adventure, of self-discovery, or romance, but what's most important is its meditative, almost spiritual, quality — colored in vivid, if surreal, tones, or, as Cutler wryly puts it, just "new agey" ones.
Even if his frontman itch has subsided, Cutler still plans to turn this material into an album, which he'd like to release sometime next year.
"If you're a musician, or artist person, you have that idea and you're not going to be happy until you see it out in the world," he says, clasping his fingers together. "I still love songwriting. That's something I'll never be as good at as I would like to be. I could work on that for the rest of my life, too, and never be fully satisfied."