Are You There? embraces Minnesota
St. Louis Park native Peter Himmelman never turned his back on his birthplace. After a start in the '80s Twin Cities scene fronting Sussman Lawrence, he made off to California for a critically lauded but commercially overlooked career as a gravelly voiced and fiercely intelligent folk-pop songwriter. His career on the West Coast has since branched out into children's albums and television soundtrack work.
Himmelman's birthplace proved so influential in his latest recording endeavor that he dubbed the project Minnesota. A collaboration with writer/director David Hollander (creator of CBS's early-2000s drama The Guardian), Minnesota's debut album, Are You There?, was recorded in Minneapolis with a murderer's row of local scene veterans including drummer Noah Levy, guitarist Jake Hanson, bassist Jim Anton, and keyboardist Jeff Victor. Uncompromisingly gritty and confidently executed, the literary-minded album grasps the beauty of acoustic ballad "Moths," but also gets ugly on the rumbling folk-blues number "Deep Freeze," which spins dystopian visions of mobs "stringing up the niggers, the faggots, and the Jews."
Hollander and Himmelman talked with City Pages on the eve of the release of Are You There? regarding their creative partnership's formation, decamping to Minneapolis to record, and why Himmelman will always claim Minnesota as his own no matter how long he stays away.
City Pages: You guys both live in sunny Southern California, so why on earth did you think it would be a good idea to head to the Twin Cities in January 2011 to record the album?
David Hollander: Minnesota was central to the story of the record, which was really an odyssey starting at the headwaters of the Mississippi, traveling down it, and then returning there in the end. That idea of returning to roots was there from the start, and with Peter being from Minnesota it just made sense to actually record there. It just happened to be perfect synchronicity that it was so fucking cold during our stay. It was exactly the sort of circumstances we needed to make this album, so it felt like the universe was rewarding us for coming there.
Peter Himmelman: I had recently spent so much time scoring movies and television, which is very lonely work. It's a lot of time alone with my own ideas. They start to grow thin without some kind of community. There was really a burgeoning need within me to pursue a band-type record again. Having people around to pick you up when you're flagging is a great thing. The musicians themselves made the idea of recording in Minnesota really exciting. Is there a better drummer out there than Noah Levy? Is there a more unique and soulful bassist than Jimmy Anton? Jimmy linked me up with Jake Hanson when I told him I wanted a guitarist that can make it sound like he's not playing the guitar. Jake's style was perfect — loopy, weird, fantastic. The band was highly sensitive to where we needed darkness, where we needed light. They were great at following guidelines from David. We tracked the entire record in three days, so what you're hearing is really the spark of that initial meeting.
CP: It sounds like having David as a sounding board was essential to getting this project off the ground.
PH: David had a wellspring of ideas as soon as he heard the demos, many of which I had never even considered. So I asked him, "Would you like to come to Minnesota and help me make this record?" because I had already booked the studio time. And he asked me back, "Do you really want an opinionated person breathing down your neck?" At the time I wasn't sure if it would really work out. One of the promises I made to myself was that no matter how farfetched any of David's ideas sounded I wouldn't dismiss them. I would accept everything and pursue it to the fullest.
CP: It's somewhat surprising that your new project is so inspired by a state you haven't lived in for decades. What keeps Minnesota at the front of your mind after all these years?
PH: I'll always claim Minnesota as home. At this point I've been away longer than I ever lived there. It's strange how that piece of geography has become such a big part of my identity. I always feel a geographic nepotism when I meet somebody from Minnesota. There's an understanding that's hard to put into words. It has something to do with the harshness of the winters and the darkness of the late afternoons. Whenever I'm flying back home I look out over all the lakes and think, "You were lucky to be born in an incredibly strange and wonderful place."
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