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The recording process for STNNNG's new album, Empire Inward, was an indie kid's rock 'n' roll fantasy camp. This past April, the veteran Minneapolis art-rock quintet headed to Steve Albini's Electrical Audio in Chicago for three days.
"It was pretty much the standard feedback that we received from our other producers," says STNNNG singer Chris Besinger, sharing some relaxed Friday-night pints with guitarist Nathan Nelson at the cozy Tracks Bar in St. Paul. "What you're paying for is somebody who has got 30 years of experience working on all the records that you love, with this insane studio that there's no reason you should have access to."
Still, the band's work with Albini — the studio engineer credited with shaping Nirvana's In Utero, Pixies' Surfer Rosa, and other noise-harnessing classics — had more kinship than some arrangements. After STNNNG (pronounced "stunning") mastered the album at London's Abbey Road studios in November, they played the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in Camber Sands, curated by Shellac, Albini's band.
STNNNG on Saturday, February 23, at Turf Club and Big V's; 651.647.0486.
Albini didn't tinker too much with the band's combustible post-punk sound on Empire Inward, and that's how they wanted it. "In theory, making a record that sounds like what you sound like in the practice space should be the easiest thing in the world," Besinger says reflectively. "But it turns out that's actually incredibly difficult. In a way, it's easier to record an album with a bunch of bells and whistles."
In the boisterous lead-off track, "Ring and Roar," Besinger headily proclaims, "We are men of logic...we are men of art...we are men of science." He says these words serve as both a statement of intent from the band and a reflection of who they are as people. But that modern acuity is contradicted with the tempestuous roil of "Brain-Dumb" that follows. Nelson says the fiery track is definitely a "crotch first" song.
"Some of our songs are 'mind first,' and some of them are 'crotch first,'" Nelson clarifies with a laugh. "We're at our best when we combine the mind and the crotch together." Besinger quickly joins in by joking, "The best ideas always start below the waist and then work their way up."
A consistent self-awareness continues throughout Empire Inward, refuting the stereotype that hard-rock bands are drunk idiots who can't play. Nelson quickly points out: "We're drunk idiots who know how to play our instruments."
STNNNG burst onto the Twin Cities music scene 10 years ago, and were City Pages Picked to Click poll champs in 2005. Original drummer Jeremy Ward left in 2009, but the group seamlessly picked up Ben Ivascu to fill in behind the kit. "When Jeremy quit, it was either Ben or nobody else," says Nelson. "I think we would have just quit if Ben wouldn't have joined."
Ivascu's success as one of two timekeepers in Poliça has caused his schedule to fill up, but that hasn't affected STNNNG's focus on the new album.
Besinger, Nelson, Ivascu, guitarist Adam Burt, and bassist Jesse Kwakenat will celebrate a decade-long reign yielding three full-lengths prior to Empire Inward at the album's release show, held at Turf Club and Big V's on Saturday. The combined-venue, multi-band blowout was settled on after they scrapped plans for "STNNNG on Ice" at a neighborhood ice rink, renting a large party bus, or playing at Parade Stadium.
Empire Inward shows a band ready for the current moment — all 28 urgent minutes of it. "This record is the most representative of a live STNNNG show," says Nelson. "Because that's about how long we would play, and there's not a whole bunch of fancy, weird shit in it. It's just like how we are."