Ahem examine themselves through younger eyes on ‘Chutes and Ladders’


Ahem Tessa Loeffler

Imagine the thrill of being a child, when everything is new.

The sky never looked more vast, animals never looked more miraculous, and trees never looked taller. Everything in these moments still seems pure.

The Minneapolis power-pop band Ahem expel this energy throughout their new EP, Chutes and Ladders, like on their song “Air Supply,” which takes you on an a tree-climbing adventure through childlike eyes. After imagining the kinds of wild dreams that feel attainable to our younger selves, co-vocalists Erik Anderson and Alyse Emanuel trade the phrase “the air up high,” back and forth, then sing “I don’t always say it but it’s good to be alive.”

This nostalgia extends to “Snow Day,” a song about venturing to a show in spite of inclement weather, or “The Lake,” a song relatable to anyone who’s spent a weekend at a cabin in their youth. Anderson says that his experiences with his seven-year-old son are inseparable from his songwriting, and the feeling of wonder at being a kid again is palpable. Musically, the band filters pop hooks through grungy punk, rejecting the tired notion that noise is only reserved for feeling sad.

A lot has happened with Ahem recently. They got an opportunity to professionally re-record the EP, and, after Sunday night's EP release show at the Entry, Courtney Berndt will take over as bassist from Sam Stahlmann. I met with the band at their practice space, a cozy, concrete bunker underneath Alyse’s childhood home near Lake Harriet, to reflect on the two years they spent working on Chutes and Ladders, and how our younger selves play out through music.

City Pages: What has changed in your lives since the release of the last EP?

Erik Anderson: I moved to the woods, northeast from here with my wife and son, in my own little wooden bunker out there in a way, while still working in the city. It’s been fun to balance my time in the city with creative time in the woods. I kind of wondered if I was still going to hear fuzzy guitar parts walking down the street in the city, or if I’d pick-up a banjo while walking in the woods. [laughs] Instead I still hear buzzy, distorted guitars even walking through the trees. It’s even more organic in a weird way. I’m looking forward to what new stuff comes out from that influence, it feels a little woolier and weirder instead of quiet and folky in my mind.

CP: A lot of the songs on the EP seem to be Minnesotan in a way, like “The Lake” and “Snow Day.” I was wondering how you might have seen the environment affect the album.

EA: I guess I’m always seeing internal metaphor in things like snowstorms, or lakes or long summers. I’m always internalizing those things as beautiful moments, hard moments, things to endure, things to resist, things to come into balance with. Using things like sun and snow feels very natural to me in the same way as imagining yourself as a bottle rocket.

CP: Why did you guys re-record everything?

EA: We recorded with Jordan [Bleau] both times.

Alyse Emanuel: The first time we recorded it in this room. We had some issues with Erik’s amp. We liked all the songs, but it didn’t sound how we wanted it to sound.

EA: We were working on it and this opportunity came up to use free studio time. We re-recorded everything and we went back to the start.

AE: We wanted to do more back-and-forth vocals, more than just harmonizing.

EA: I was pumped to get bass on the tape, because the first EP had no bass. From a writing perspective, it was great to play with Sam and record this.

CP: Why did you decide to title it Chutes and Ladders?

EA: Maybe in the same way we were doubling down on the sound, I feel like we were doubling down on our approach on how to balance the good and the bad, the things that make you angry and the things that make you grateful, the hard things that happen in life and the good things. The dualities we were working out of collectively with the first EP, we were exploring even further. We were toying with things that were playful.

AE: It’s about ups-and-downs, and brings out feelings of nostalgia and playfulness.

CP: On your last album, you used your a picture of your son as the album artwork. I was wondering how fatherhood had an influence on this record.

EA: It’s funny, I’ve been playing a lot of Chutes and Ladders with him the past two years. [laughs] A good part of my life now is like seeing him as a cypher for me. I see things in a different way again, like I see myself through him, even though he’s his own person. It’s not just children that that make people do that, but for me it is. We all have our versions of those trajectories, how you empathize pain, or how you rejoice in someone else’s joy. I see so much in my son, and that reflects in how I see other people. I try to honor that in punk songs that mean the world to us.

CP: I hear that a lot on "Air Supply,” where you sing about tree-climbing as a kid.

EA: In my mind, all that stuff about climbing trees, like in “Bottle Rocket” or “Honeybee,” are connected to me with this idea of being up so high, and people saying you shouldn’t dream that way, or you shouldn’t risk yourself in these kinds of endeavors we put ourselves out towards.

CP: One of the things I think is special about Ahem is how the band brings out the inner kid in you.

Sam Stahlmann: Erik and Alyse write most of the lyrics, and they’re not afraid to be optimistic, which shouldn’t be a thing, but it is. In the music community, if there are people going through some shit, they usually just live there, and they don’t work to get better to help themselves. I feel like with this group, it’s about hope and trying.

EB: My friend from Chicago came to one of our shows, and he said, “Is every band in Minneapolis that happy?” [laughs]

AE: I remember we were going to change that “freckle-mole” lyric because it sounded goofy, but it sounded so right.

CP: How has the bunker informed your songwriting and playing? It’s your practice space, and where you record a lot of your work.

AE: It just feels so safe. I remember trying to reach the mic while recording the first EP. Since Erik and I switch off, I put on some tall boots and stood on top of another carpet. [laughs]

EA: No one will hear you, so you can try any lyric, any vocal register that’s outside your natural register. It just kind of liberates you in the way where you can explore and let go.

With: Dennis
When: 7 p.m. Sun. June 24
Where: 7th St. Entry
Tickets: $10/$12; more info here