Katie Bolin picks up an incandescent 12-pound ball and pitches it down the lane. She watches, body locked, as it swerves toward the gutter, clipping only the leftmost pin before disappearing into the disco-lit pit.
An onscreen animation mocks her, but the singer for the DIY Minneapolis pop group Dennis shrugs it off and darts her fingertip toward the pile of chicken tenders on our table.
At bandmate Sarah Morrison’s insistence, Bolin stops. Morrison plops her purse on her lap, unzips it, and produces a packet of McDonald’s hot mustard. Bolin squeals with glee. The sauce, discontinued by Micky D’s in 2015, is only broken out for special occasions.
This is a special occasion.
Dennis are not only celebrating the completion of their sophomore LP, Alien Fantasy, but their triumph over pessimism. The band’s 2014 debut, Don’t Fall in Love, was a rebellious dismissal of all things romantic, sounding halfway between a 16-bit Passion Pit demo and a lost Britney Spears revenge album.
“There’s so much bullshit when you’re dating,” Bolin says. “Dating sucks. It’s really hard and weird to connect. That’s where that album came from.”
Four years later, Bolin is in the best relationship of her life. No near-gutterball can take away her glee. In fact, the Earth itself cannot contain Bolin’s emotions—the only way she could think to express how good she feels was via an intergalactic space odyssey.
“It’s a real snapshot of being really, super in love,” Bolin says of Alien Fantasy. “A lot of the songs that are like, ‘Holy shit, blissed out, I’m in love.’ I was really feeling that.”
Bolin’s interstellar journey begins on the title track. “Alien Fantasy” was the first song she wrote for the record, and the trappings of young, untested love are alive in its frantic pulses and video game sound effects, as Bolin wonders whether the way she feels even exists or if it’s a mirage projected by an extraterrestrial life form.
On “Another World,” Bolin probes the cosmos in search of an answer to that query, and on “Nu Galaxy” she arrives at her destination. Awash in waves of synth and whispered melodies, Bolin ceases her search, content to never fully understand the world she now inhabits.
It’s Morrison’s turn on the lane, and she lobs a pink ball down the planks with Daria-like detachment. Before it even reaches the pins, she’s back at the table pouring herself another Summit out of the pitcher.
Morrison was Bolin’s writing partner on Don’t Fall in Love. Both had given up on Tinder and clumsy happy-hour set-ups, absconding instead to Bolin’s bedroom, where they spun their disenchantment with men into cathartic jams. Helping Bolin channel her cosmic love into music has allowed Morrison to overcome her previous resistance to earworm pop.
“I’ve started to appreciate what a catchy hook can do,” Morrison says. “Listening to more to pop music, I realize it doesn’t all need to be surface-level fluff. It can say something.”
The Midwest has a strange relationship with pop music. As Bolin notes, much of the audience for Top 40 pop lives in the heartland, but artists in this region are geographically and often aesthetically far removed from the industry that produces that music. Dennis wants to be the homegrown option for pop fans.
At least Bolin does, though Morrison is increasingly on board with that mission. The bassist’s major contribution to Alien Fantasy is the love song “Spells.” It’s an entrancing turn for the usually dour Morrison, who admits she isn’t as lucky in love as Bolin. But she swallows her cynicism, singing through a wall of Auto-Tune to promise a bygone love that she’ll return to win them back.
“I’m just happy to be part of her vision,” Morrison says, glancing Bolin’s way. Bolin drags a chicken strip through the hot mustard and throws her compatriot a grateful smile.
It’s been a disappointing , sub-100 game for everyone except Nigel Carleton, the 25-year-old drummer that Bolin and Morrison adore and revere in equal measures. Carleton changes out of his bowling shoes and leads the party over to the air hockey tables. He picks up a felt-bottomed striker and challenges Bolin to a game before shyly admitting that he’s never played before.
Carleton’s been a part of Dennis for three years now, playing synth and sampler along with his electronic drum kit. Though younger than his bandmates (and a horrendous air hockey competitor—Bolin mollywhops him to the tune of 5-1), he’s been a grounding force for the ever-evolving band.
Carleton’s presence is felt most forcefully in the live show, but his fingerprints are all over Alien Fantasy. Bolin has also sweetened Carleton on pop music with her unflinching love of Britney Spears, Kesha, and Ace of Base.
“A song that has a basic verse-chorus-verse structure, that used to be really taboo,” Carleton says. “That’s what attracts me to playing in this band. We’re just like, ‘We’re gonna take this totally punk approach to what we have, we’re not gonna overproduce it, but it still has that infectious atmosphere.’”
Bolin has christened Dennis’ mishmash of a zero-consequence electropop sound and low-budget DIY ethos “ratpop”—and with a genre tag like that, it’s hard to be too earnest about anything. After all, this is a band that was invented in GarageBand, that got its start gigging at house shows with a repertoire of Madonna-influenced tunes.
And if Bolin is right and this world is indeed just some simulation devised by a higher intelligence, then it’s important not to dwell on the dark spots in the past. You need to enjoy it to survive. That’s why she chooses to surround herself with people who bowl like geeks and bring along the good mustard.
“We try to keep it fun,” Bolin says, jubilant in her air hockey ass-kicking. “Why the fuck else would we be doing this if it isn’t fun?”
When: 7 p.m Sun. June 24
Where: 7th St. Entry
Tickets: $10/$12; More info here