Ahem are betting it all on their basement dreams

Téa McLawhorn

Téa McLawhorn

Once a week, Erik Anderson and Courtney Berndt meet Alyse Emanuel in her parents’ basement and plug in their instruments. Upstairs, Emanuel’s mother tends the stove as distorted guitar and sprightly chanting bleed up through the floor. After, they all eat ravioli together and snuggle the cat.

“It’s the most wholesome ritual,” Berndt says, beaming at her bandmates.

“We talk about proper vitamin D levels,” Anderson adds.

It’s a suitable conversation for a band who spends as much time underground as Ahem. It’s been four years since Anderson and Emanuel first met and started writing songs, and they’re still getting used to sunlight. Most of the music they’ve made, including 2016’s debut EP Just Wanna Be and 2018’s follow-up Chutes and Ladders, were written and recorded in the “windowless bunker” beneath Emanuel’s childhood home.

In their basement music studio, there’s a worn VHS of the Lemonheads, an influence you can hear in their music: Ahem are a pop band passed through a fuzz filter. Sunny and sweetly morose, they sound as though Len got caught in an existential downslide after recording “Steal My Sunshine.”

“Ahem is so playful, and that’s what being a kid is,” Emanuel says. “Being playful, skinning your knees. It’s a release. It’s very cathartic.”

Their story is quaint from the start. Ahem signed to Forged Artifacts after Anderson wrote an impassioned note to owner Matt Linden. They released two EPs, both recorded by fellow lo-fi believer Jordan Bleau (formerly of Frankie Teardrop, currently of Cheap Fantasy and Bathtub Cig). After their original bassist left, they connected with Berndt through punk nonprofit She Rock She Rock. All along, they’ve maintained their weekly dinners and buoyant attitude.

“Our path has just been trying again,” Berndt says. “Just reaching out to people. There’s so much imagination, so much ‘what if?’”

That spirit is reflected in the title of their debut LP, Try Again , out November 1. As the name suggests, this is a record of enormous effort. An attempt to rise.

The album is Ahem’s first to be professionally produced (recorded primarily at the Institute of Production & Recording) and the first they’ve pressed to vinyl. For practical reasons, Ahem don’t tour, but they’ve booked a show at the Minneapolis Eagles Club to celebrate the release, and they’ve hired independent PR rep Jamie Coletta of No Earbuds to carry it beyond the Twin Cities.

Try Again doubts itself on the opening track, “Sideways,” where Anderson sings about his constant struggle with anxiety, feeling like his life hasn’t tracked right. But you wouldn’t know it from the bouncy drums and jubilant upstrokes on the chorus. Shit, being sideways sounds like a blast when he and Berndt harmonize to sing, “Who needs to see straight anyway?”

“Ahem has always been about balancing the stress and the dark reality of adulthood,” Anderson says. “It’s about trying to find the space to remain imaginative and joyful while enduring the parts of life that are a struggle.”

For Anderson, Emanuel, and Berndt, Ahem is a retreat—a glossy piece of magic they stash away when the ramparts of daily life wail down on them. Songs like “Twenty” give the three license to return to acting like reckless kids. “Wishing Well” feels like it was dislodged from the part of the heart you only access when nostalgia is all that can save you.

After practice, Anderson returns to the woods of the St. Croix Valley and his wife and 8-year-old son. He wakes up and goes to his day job as a book editor, a career he says “stresses [him] to the hilt.” Emanuel heads off to her office at Mercury Mosaics, a handmade tile company where she does community outreach. Berndt drives to Eden Prairie High School, where she will teach until her maternity leave begins and she gives birth to her first child.

This dynamic is not unique to Ahem. Most working bands are forced to balance their dreams with what’s achievable. There is a ledger of work, family, social life, and band that must be constantly maintained. And music is most easily and most often compromised on. But Ahem, in their jubilant escapism, are the evidence as to why it must be preserved.

“I give so much of my energy to others, it’s good to feel the most authentic version of myself,” Berndt says. “When I can carve out these weekly rituals for practice, it’s how I maintain my identity.”

“It’s the tonic to our big burnout,” says Anderson. “Even though we work really hard, the emotion of it isn’t, ‘Fuck, here’s this other job.’ It’s not defined by someone else.”

This attitude is inherently at odds with the effort it takes to release and promote a record. You can’t operate on serendipity and nostalgia while employing a PR firm and trying to sell 12-inch records out of your car. Expectations invade. Anxiety rides with them. Suddenly you question why you made anything to begin with.

Try Again ’s bravest moment comes on album closer “Sunspots,” a spare tune written on a sunny afternoon by the river that contemplates the temporality of beauty. It’s the kind of conclusion you only come to as a songwriting father dumping your spare time into a band that exists as a way to avoid those responsibilities.

“Being a dad, all this shit gets mixed up when you think about losing or going away from the world,” Anderson says. “But it also felt really beautiful.”

These are the thoughts that sneak in when the mind strays. It can keep you from ever being satisfied if you let it. Anderson shivers when asked what his hopes are for Try Again, as if speaking them aloud would invite catastrophe.

“Should I be talking about all this dad stuff in a rock ’n’ roll interview?” he wonders, mid-thought. The uncertainty suddenly courses its way through his mind.

Emanuel steps in with the kind of clarity only a fellow subterranean could provide.

“I want to still love it years from now,” she says. “I want it to last.”

With: Busey, Doggy, and Split Fountain
Where: Eagles Club
When: 9 p.m. Sat. Nov. 2
Tickets: $7, 21+; more info here