It's an idyllic day at the tail end of dandelion season. Over ginger ales and iced coffee in a south Minneapolis cafe, three-fourths of Strut and Shock reflect in passing upon the zodiac sign that unites them.
"Leos tend to like the center of attention," says bassist Beth Stouffer. "But that's not always the case, I don't think."
"They're full of themselves," says Christina Schmitt, "but loyal and caring."
Arzu Gokcen, drawing her ginger ale through a straw, shrugs. "We tend to have big heads of hair."
It's the wandering conversation native to close friends—Gokcen, Schmitt, and Stouffer interrupt one another with peals of laughter, deriving private pleasures from jokes they aren't quick to divulge. Like when the conversation turns to the creation myths that lay behind them, and Schmitt becomes wryly cryptic.
"That shall not be named," she says of her geographical origins. After some quick discussion, Stouffer and Gokcen get her to admit that she crashed on Earth from a distant planet, the last emissary of an unfathomable intergalactic species. With a little more prodding she gives up a few details on her shadowy past. "Period was my first band," she says. "It's an attitude, not a punctuation. Our two big hits were 'Killing People' and 'Darth Vader Is a Great Fuck.'" Another volley of laughter rises from the table.
As most things seem for the Minneapolis rock quartet, their coyness and astrological musings are all in good fun, ingredients of the perpetual party they've made out of their musical careers. And though they make light of their star-crossed fates, Gokcen gives a wink to the serendipity that marked Strut and Shock's inception. After an innocuous tip from Chooglin's Brian Vanderwerf that the two should collaborate, Gokcen and Schmitt met by happenstance at Grumpy's, where Gokcen operates the city's most venerated karaoke nights.
"I hadn't seen her in months," says Gokcen. "but she came up to sing a song and I told her on the mic, 'After you are done I need to speak with you.' I'm not a big believer in signs or fate, but that's a pretty cool coincidence."
Schmitt shrugs in passing sheepishness. "I can't resist an opportunity to showboat," she says.
Strut and Shock is a band greatly benefited by experience. After adding Stouffer and drummer Jack Kalyuzhny, with whom Gokcen had previously worked in Spider Fighter and Half Fiction, the lineup was set; and from Gokcen's Selby Tigers to Schmitt's Bleeding Hickeys to Kalyuzhny's the Deaf, they draw from a bank of shared knowledge and musical pedigree that is inviolate and unassailable.
Spending enough time in any music scene provides unique sightlines not afforded to more transient participants. In the deeper reaches of a musical career, it's sink or swim, and throughout the supernaturally healthy careers they've enjoyed in the often erosive tidewaters of rock life, the members of Strut and Shock manage the candor of adulthood and the abandon of youth with a finesse that grants them endless buoyancy.
"We're all so happy doing what we do," says Gokcen. "Some of my friends go on and think, 'I can't be in bands anymore,'" says Gokcen. "They grow up and want to have a family, get a house. Some of them adjust," she allows. "But some of them get that sadness. We're all happy with the decisions we've made."
On the topic of longevity, Schmitt affords yet deeper glimpses. "If you had told me when I started playing in a band that I'd still be doing it now," she says, "I wouldn't have believed you."
"It's kind of a sickness," offers Stouffer.
Schmitt locates a fitting analogy. "It's like in Interview with the Vampire," she says. "The vampire is like, 'Crap. I'm still a vampire and it's 500 years later.' That's what rock 'n' roll is kinda like." She reclines into the booth in a pose of happy resignation. "But if I don't play in a band I'm miserable. So I'm trapped."
It's the complexities of their storied relationships with rock 'n' roll, equally fraught with thrills and perils, that make their debut full-length, Damn You Devil, Let Me Go, such a dynamic and insightful offering. The album has a sprinter's physique—on it, all the members' combined experience is refined to lean muscle mass, and the songs, which rarely breach two minutes, are mad dashes that audibly seem to leave the band sore and exhilarated. Though some may pine for the signature scream on which Gokcen has become increasingly less reliant, its near absence on Damn You Devil reveals vocal nuances that might have gone unnoticed in her previous work. Gokcen's voice has developed a delicious, bratty sneer, at once remote and menacing, and beneath the whitewater of her rhythm guitar and Schmitt's panicked surf solos lie the kind of gritted-teeth, exuberant aggressions that make every worthwhile party such a harrowing pleasure.
And however complex the comforts are, Strut and Shock are quick to insist that fun and pleasure, pure and simple, are still the ores being mined.
"Friends, relationships, partying," says Gokcen. "This is a rock band. I'm not trying to say anything totally new. But any time your friends are having a good time, it's totally fun."
Schmitt puts it to an even finer point. "When you can look at the crowd and say, 'That lady is wasted and having a blast,'" she says, "that's when it's at its best."
STRUT AND SHOCK play a CD-release show with France Has the Bomb, the Chambermaids, and Black Audience on SATURDAY, JUNE 28, at the HEXAGON BAR; 612.722.3454
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