Ahem: Life-affirming Twin Cities punks balancing joy, sadness, nostalgia

Fist-pumping Twin Cities punk trio Ahem

Fist-pumping Twin Cities punk trio Ahem Taylor Donskey

The best punk music is all about releasing primal energy and demanding to be heard, not so much elaborate guitar solos or drum fills. It’s a balancing act of dancing and rebelling, of saying the most with the least, stripping things down to their bare parts and wringing out all the emotion.

Minneapolis band Ahem make punk-rock music — a grungy strain of it that riffs on the genre’s capacity to sound both light and dark at once. Or, as singer/guitarist Erik Anderson puts it, “happy songs that are really sad, or sad-sounding songs that are kind of happy.”

The group, which played their first live show as a three-piece this past June, recognizes that ’90s-inspired fuzz-pop isn’t a revolutionary conceit, but they’re breathing new life into the formula with wistful lyrical nods to the past and surplus joy. 

“I’m always a pretty nostalgic dude, but in a good way,” Anderson says ahead of Ahem’s Friday release party for Just Wanna Be at 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis. “Not in an ‘I wish I was somewhere else’ way, but more like, ‘There’s a reason memories don’t leave you.’”

A childlike fascination with the ordinary informs the debut EP, from the thrill of exploding fireworks contrasted with the pains of growing older (“Bottle Rocket”), to musing on the need for protection (“Umbrella”) or a love that stings (“Honeybee”). It’s even apparent from the evocative cover art, which features Anderson’s five-year-old son shouting an ambiguous scream, one that looks either joyous or painful.

“I think growing up sucks,” Anderson jokes. “Growing up is such a gift, and so many good things come from it, but it can also attack parts of you that feel precious, that felt a little easier and under the sun when you weren’t battling heavy things.”

Ahem began last year as a duo, with shared vocals between Anderson and drummer/vocalist Alyse Emanuel. The project became an outlet to celebrate amid ever-changing circumstances, like Anderson’s shifted worldview upon the birth of his son and the death of Emanuel’s father.

“There is something in all of this that I don’t know how to describe, but it’s like a balance of opposites,” she says. “It affects everything.”

The EP tracks began as Anderson’s own folky experiments, and he says the challenge of reimaging them with Emanuel allowed for musical growth.

Those tracks would later be recorded as a wall of sound with producer/engineer Jordan Bleau, the force behind recently split garage-rock faves Frankie Teardrop.

“[Bleau] seems to balance roughness and melody really well, no matter how heavy a band is bringing it, [as long as] the heart of what they’re doing is still melodic and poppy,” Anderson says. “The dude loves pop music to death.”

Bassist Sam Stahlmann adds, “He doesn’t overproduce music, but he’s also not just letting it be live and raw. He has a really great balance of doing both, which is a very hard thing to accomplish.”

Ahem worked their songs out in the basement of Emanuel’s parents’ house, a windowless bunker they say freed them to get weird without fear of judgment. Ahem then sent an earnest email to Twin Cities record label Forged Artifacts. The label’s founder, Matt Linden, was struck by the group’s sincerity.

“When I make a decision [to sign] a band, it’s usually just really visceral,” says Linden, a confessed junkie for Clinton-era indie rock. “It’s usually just a snap reaction if something’s vibing to me. That was the case with Ahem — I wanted to know their story and how they got together, and why they started writing that music.”

It’s easy for music that lives mostly on the internet to get lost in a sea of DIY releases, which makes tiny labels like Forged Artifacts all the more necessary; they serve as curators for the Bandcamp generation.

“I love working with bands from their inception, and having a hand on their initial growth,” Linden says. “Not only did I love [Ahem’s] music, but it was the perfect opportunity to try and help them make a good first impression — both in the city and nationally — and hopefully to make a big splash.”

Although Stahlmann is not present on the EP, her addition caused the songs to shift and grow more intricately live. Chemistry was no issue, as she and Emanuel met about 10 years ago through their other rock band, Cadence & the Wolf.

“When Sam started playing,” Anderson says, “[the songs] really started sounding the way they always did even in our heads.”

“Bottle Rocket,” the EP’s anthemic, shout-and-response lead single, is an ideal thesis statement for the band. In it, Anderson and Emanuel lament the pains of growing older and the fear of becoming an “apparition with a CV / All serious and in a tizzy.” They instead choose to live like a dazzling firework, even if they’re still kids “whose dreams are pretty hazy.” The apparent message? It’s imperative to hold onto one’s innocence in the face of never-ending hardships.

“I’ve always been a fan of weird poetry, confessional poetry,” says Anderson, who has studied the art form. “My focus was on Scottish poetry, and the way that they love language is very unique and kind of obtuse in a way. They will often focus on very simple objects, and kind of play with it.”

Playfulness is perhaps the most vital element to Ahem’s approach. They don’t take things too seriously or question the goofiness that can sneak into their songwriting.

“It’s amazing how you can take something, and just try to write about it in a weird, honest, unfiltered kind of way,” Anderson says. “What started to come out along with this buoyant music was lyrical content that felt kind of goofy and off the cuff, but it very quickly connects itself to things you care about.”

The resulting Just Wanna Be compels listeners to see the world through the eyes of our younger selves. Consider the awe-struck, guitar-charged closer “Baby Bear,” a fuzzy promise that someday, after the darkness of hibernation, “the sun is gonna stun you.”

With: Ego Death, Wetter 
When: 10 p.m. Fri., Oct 14
Where: 331 Club
Tickets: Free; more info here