How is it that American Pleasure Dome’s self-titled debut sounds like a veteran indie rock band ripping along in its prime, or a great long-lost find from the Velvets-Valet-Eels-Blur school of noisy songwriter-fueled art-rock? How is it that tunes like “Saint Grumpy” (a tribute to northeast Minneapolis’s most hallowed ground), “Time Wave” (the album’s opening rumination on memory loss and social media addiction), and “Minnesota Goodbye” (an ode to the Gopher state’s fabled drawn-out adieu) sound so timeless upon first listen?
Maybe it’s because APD singer/songwriter/guitarist Hans Schumacher spent years crafting the songs and the record, which gets its coming-out party Friday at Truckstop Gallery on Nicollet Island.
Schumacher, 53, talked about his as life as a new latecomer last week, sitting in the Truckstop studio he shares with his wife, fellow painter/fine artist Shannon MacEachern-Schumacher. The studio doubles as a workshop for the couple’s painting and visual art business, and a place of worship for the longtime practicing Buddhists.
City Pages: You’re a painter, Buddhist, and songwriter, and we could talk Buddhism and meditation all day, but this is about American Pleasure Dome’s beautiful debut record. This is the first thing we’ve heard from you, and it’s a really mature, sophisticated indie rock record. What is your story, where did you come from, and when did you start writing songs?
Hans Schumacher: I grew up in International Falls, went to St. Olaf College, started playing piano when I was about 6 years old. It was my own kind of conversation with myself, and I took piano lessons, but I was always more interested in making up little songs rather than learning the classical sonatinas and what have you. So from an early age I was kind of doing self-taught improvisational piano pieces, and late in high school I started playing bass in bands, and I was always writing songs, but I was actually really shy about sharing them.
So I’ve played around in a lot of different incarnations. For me, the vulnerability of first playing… I have this thing about stages: First there’s playing, then there’s playing other people’s songs, then there’s playing and singing your own songs. I played a lot of weddings and things, but to actually step forward and say, “I’m going to write these songs, I’m going to front a band”… I was always a little shy about it. But about five years ago, a friend suggested I front a band and American Pleasure Dome (current line-up: Schumacher, guitarist Lindsay Paine, bassist Brenda Shepherd, drummer Joel Arpin) has been playing around for four or five years now.
CP: How does it feel now, as a songwriter?
HS: I have 2,500 song sketches on my phone. I’ve got cassette tapes, MiniDisc, DAT player [files], all these generations of always coming up with little things.
A lot of the songs are about people in my life. “Bad Girlfriend” is basically about alcoholism and infidelity. “Dark Side” is about a dear friend of mine who killed himself; he was this brilliant, amazing attorney; creative, and out of this deep sadness he couldn’t shake, he drank himself to death. Actually, he killed himself before his liver failed.
It’s hard to actually, I think, invest in your own personal story, because all of the music I love seems so iconic. Songs always feel so bigger than life, and they’re about these amazingly eccentric groovy awesome towns and settings, when actually that was somebody just writing about, from the heart, from their own personal experiences. But our own experiences are so intrinsic to us, they don’t seem as noteworthy.
CP: But then you write a song like “Saint Grumpy,” which lionizes [former Grumpy’s bartender and current Palmer’s Bar owner] Tony [Zaccardi] and it is in fact a big deal. Personal, and therefore universal. It’s a magnificent little anthem to the corner bar.
HS: It is; that’s my love song to that bar. We went there for years, and growing up Up North, the bar feels like a northern town. We had this whole regular experience, and it was so good there, and it felt so like, part of my people. That song was one of those ones that just came out fully formed.
CP: The record is very timeless, but the songs and lyrics really do play to the here and now. Driving around listening to it amidst all the crap we’re living through, it’s a soundtrack for these times. I always appreciate that fine line a songwriter strikes between being influenced by the external and writing from the internal, which you do so well. As a listener, I like that it sounds like you’ve been living in and making sense of these times, with little ideas you toss out, like, “I’m on happy pills, just lower your expectations.” I mean, it’s one way to go: no feeling. Of course we can agree that anti-depressants are helpful to people, but there’s a difference between coping and deadening.
HS: A friend of mine’s wife forced him to go down that path, and “happy pills” was his terminology, grumbling about it. I needed to work through the dynamic of that, so that’s where that song came from. But a favorite line of mine is, “The day has not been fun/Life’s not for everyone.” I actually borrowed that from one of my dad’s friends, that’s one of his classic sayings.
But the end of that song, I love Pink Floyd, and I wanted to create this big sonicscape of once you’re on the happy pills, it’s like pink elephants and unicorns or some kind of [pharmaceutical bliss]… whatever that is where people just decide the only way they can make it through the day is to medicate. It kind of resolves as a lullaby.
Another song that was very intentional about these times is “Obey That Bling.” It fits in with the theme of American Pleasure Dome, which is, you know: reality TV, NASCAR, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the Kardashians, all of that business is just “Watch the shiny objects and don’t really understand your true self, or relationship.” We’re all getting so externalized in internet and media culture that we’re kind of losing our grounding in basic community and friendship. My friends’ 10-year-olds were having a sleepover in the backyard, and my buddy walks outside and all the kids are all sitting there looking at glowing screens, like children of the corn. They’re not even talking to each other. He called me up and said, “I am freaking out.”
CP: What does Buddhism say about that, about people as robots, or about how, as you say, the external being more guided and guiding than ever before?
HS: The Tibetan Buddhist view is that everything goes in cycles, and we’re in this sort of trough. We’re in a degenerative time. It’s not going to last forever, but it’s okay to acknowledge that it’s happening.
CP: I love how polished the record is, to use that word. It reminds me of Yo La Tengo, Eels, Velvets, Valet, all these guitar-poet bands I love. What do you listen to and what do you think has influenced the band’s sound?
HS: Some of my favorite songwriters are Paul Westerberg, Replacements; Jeff Tweedy, Wilco; Jayhawks… somewhere way in the background Zeppelin, and I was a closet Rush fan. It was like reading Tolkien, fantasy literature and musical exploration. In the hair-metal-gravel-pit-party world that I grew up in in northern Minnesota, I was taking a musical journey. But I did try to intentionally make an indie rock record. I feel like there’s less and less of that going on, and it’s a genre I love.
I love bands like Superchunk. I love Walt Mink. It’s not as fluid and super heavy, but those elements are all the things that I would want to steer towards. And then the alt-country thing on “Saint Grumpy,” and “Crazy Running Guy,” which is about my nephew, growing up on the lake, and he would do this thing where he would yell “crazy running guy!” and then run off the dock.
CP: Pretty amazing to have your debut record out at age 53, and to have it sound so original to you.
HS: It’s sort of a younger part of me that I don’t think is ever going to change. Buddha said, “The body ages, the mind doesn’t age.” So how we still feel internally is because consciousness is an evolving thing that isn’t getting old, unless you want to buy into that narrative. And so I’m so inspired now that older musicians are now becoming more accepted, like older painters.
I’m really excited now because I feel like I’ve finally cut through some obstacles to just saying, “I can put these ideas down in a way that I’m really satisfied with,” and then that really inspires me. I have a solo record in mind, and I have a bunch of songs for another APD record. It took a lot to put oneself out there. I was going for credible. If other people liked it that would be fine, but I just wanted to make a credible record, because I knew I had it in me.
It’s an honor to feel that other people enjoy it, and relate to it, and share the interest in what that sonic landscape is, because non-verbally, it’s some kind of a soundtrack to the last few years of my life.
American Pleasure Dome
With: Ian George + The Well, Mike Michael & the Orange Goodness
Where: Truckstop Gallery
When: 6 p.m. Fri. Aug. 30
Tickets: $10 suggested; more info here