The Spirit of St. Louis
St. Louis Park is the 10.8-square mile, 44,000-resident Minneapolis suburb responsible for Al Franken, Peggy Orenstein, and the Coen Brothers, but its most lasting and prolific legacy is its musicians. Various Prince, Sussman Lawrence, and Trip Shakespeare players all hail from St. Louis Park, and another, Iffy lead singer Kirk Johnson, has long held a theory about why all that creativity gushes straight outta SLP.
"Kirk has always said it's the creosote," says Kraig Johnson of his brother and longtime bandmate. He's sitting in a car with fellow songwriter David Poe, on the way back from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, where Johnson was returning from a trip to New York to help a friend fix up her place. "There's condominiums there now, but there used to be this big huge area in St. Louis Park where they had all these railroad ties. And they would be treated with creosote, which is this black tar thing. And supposedly, after it sat there for so long, it kind of got into the water system.
"That's Kirk's theory, and I'll stand by it. Creosote. That's why there's everybody from the Coen Brothers to...Marc Perlman. I'm sure there's a lot of people in between them, but I gotta put out my props to my peeps."
Another is Kraig Johnson, the 38-year-old singer/guitarist who has made his name with Run Westy Run, Iffy, the Jayhawks, and Golden Smog, and who took his official solo bow this year on the seven-song EP Kraig Jarret Johnson. The EP, recorded with the help of Poe, Ed Ackerson, and drummer Peter Anderson, is a gorgeous blend of rock, pop, and alt-country that soars on Johnson's almost-childlike, blues-kicking optimism. It feels as effortless and night-swimmingly organic as a place on the prairie where music flows through the kids like toxins.
"A lot of my older sister's friends that I ran around with were always playing music, [people] I took lessons from and who I still run into," says Johnson. "Jim Sheehy is a great guitar player, and he taught me how to play guitar. I got together and played with him a little bit recently. Peter Himmelman was hanging out with my brother Kyle, and a lot of his bandmates were from around there.
"I started my first band with a couple guys who, after jazz lab, we'd go across the street from the school and we'd rehearse in our drummer's house. It was the thing to do there. There was this guy who lived three blocks from me who was always starting heavy-metal bands and his little brother was always starting bands. There were a lot of people starting bands. It was crazy."
It was also a hotbed of sound, which explains Johnson's almost preternaturally charismatic stage presence. He's lanky, sexy, and good-looking, to be sure: More than a few Johnson admirers--both male and female--are drawn to that irresistible wild-child thing of bedworn hair and afterthought jeans. But his grin and way with a guitar come not from earnest practice, but from years spent dipped in his element. He was called "Whip" by his pals in high school, so his first band was called, natch, Whip 'N' the Dogs ("We sprayed it on a bedsheet and played a kegger," says Johnson, with mock rock reverence). That band was followed by the Portables, a short-lived local outfit fronted by Johnson in the early '80s.
Two decades and myriad records and tours later, Johnson is again fronting his own band, the Program, which consists of Johnson, Poe, Ackerson, Anderson, and fellow Minneapolis rock all-star Jim Boquist. But unlike many sidemen, Johnson hasn't burned with the need to be center stage.
"I'd do a song with Golden Smog or the Jayhawks or something, but it's not like [something was missing]," he says of his tenure away from the lead mic. "I have a gas singing and playing these things, but it wasn't like, 'I gotta be the frontman.' I was just like, 'I've got these songs, and I've got these great friends who wanna play 'em with me, so let's do it that way.' And it's turned out to be a really great thing for everybody, because it's just been about getting together and doing the music. And the shows aren't just me, because Jim and David do their songs."
Johnson's songs, as heard on the EP, go down easy like Sunday morning. The ebullient "Song for Everyone" ("This is a song you're gonna sing tonight/This is a song that had to be sung") and the lilting "Soul Parade" ("If you could only see/Realize how we intertwine/It would probably blow your motherfuckin' mind") are the sort of headphone jobs that get you hearing phantom noises of Great Significance, bending spoons with your mind, and going down waterfalls of me-tooisms, to the point where you're no longer listener or songwriter, but blood brothers or sisters joined by the same IV or umbilical cord or inner voice.
Other songs make it clear that Johnson is no indie-pop Pollyanna: "Right to Me" is a bittersweet ballad sheathed in loneliness and the sadness that comes with the break-up of a promising new love. "There's a sadness, a melancholia to it," he says. "I guess those are the kinds of things you write when it's just you and a guitar or piano. I get depressed when I'm not busy, so I make sure I stay self-motivated."
To that end, he's currently working on songs with Poe and Boquist. He and Ackerson performed at the Walker Art Center's closing party two weeks ago, and the Program is doing more gigs, including a tour of Spain, where the love affair with alt-country and Minneapolis rock goes on unabated. Then, waiting in the wings like an invitation to an endless party, there's Iffy, that force of nature that seems to reinvent itself every erotic time out. As the car ride comes to an end in front of his Whittier neighborhood home, Johnson considers his two latest incarnations, formed long ago by the powers of the creosote.
"Playing with Iffy is great energy with my brother [Kirk], just because I've played so long with him. And I get to do a lot of different guitar stuff, because I'm the only guitar player. And in [the Program], I can just lay back on some things. [They're] both the same rush," says Johnson.
"Did you say it sounds like Rush?" says Poe from the back seat.
"Yeah," says Johnson. "When I play with Iffy, it's like Rush, and when I play with the Program, it's like..."
"...Yes," says Poe.
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