Gramma's Boyfriend: We just show up and barf all over
It's almost closing time at the Roller Garden in St. Louis Park. A disco ball overhead spins, flashing colors around the room, where banners with snowflakes and valentines on them hang from the high, arched ceiling. There's a big, green dinosaur standing in the far corner, and as the DJ switches through songs by Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, young girls and boys and their parents all flood out into the rink for one last go around.
Haley Bonar, sitting at a table littered with empty plates and pizza and wrapping paper, quickly laces up her roller skates. She looks at Jeremy Ylvisaker, who sits with his son on his lap, and gives a quick shrug before skating off to join the crowd. Each time Bonar comes past the table, arms outstretched, she waves and giggles.
After all, for the members of Gramma's Boyfriend, this is just your typical Sunday afternoon.
Not that they're simply hanging out here for the hell of it. They're here for Ylvisaker's daughter, Mijah's, ninth birthday party, and it just so happens to be the only time in the next two weeks that everyone's schedules are open at the same time. With commitments between the likes of Andrew Bird, Solid Gold, and Bonar's solo work, it's not something that happens very often with this band.
"It sort of doesn't need a lot of nurturing, though, which is the cool thing," says Ylsvisaker about Gramma's Boyfriend. He has a bright red scarf wrapped around his neck and a wool cap pulled down over his shoulder-length hair. "We just show up and barf all over it, and then we feel better," he says with a laugh.
Perhaps that's how it should be. The band started in an ill-defined fashion, and has always thrived on a healthy amount of unplanned, and unrehearsed, energy. It was back in late summer of 2010 that Gramma's Boyfriend started as an offshoot of the recording sessions for Bonar's Golder album. That "blob of energy," as Ylvisaker calls it, also overlapped with the incarnation of Guitar Party, which featured essentially the same members but with Micheal "Eyedea" Larsen and Mijah contributing vocals.
"It was such a strange year. A lot of weird stuff was happening," says guitarist Jake Hanson. The most obvious -- or at least the most public -- of those things was Larsen's death only weeks later, although it goes unmentioned now. "It seemed like it needed to happen for everybody as an outlet. It was a good way to spend energy that I'm otherwise not sure where it would go."
If Gramma's Boyfriend and Guitar Party have, over time, evolved into somewhat distinct projects, they feed off much of the same spirit -- of improvisation, of experimentation, and of the wide-eyed, precocious energy that Mijah brings to the latter band. "I think for me, playing with Mijah and certain musicians that unlock that kind of right-when-you're starting-to-learn something [energy]. That's what's exciting for me," says Hanson.
"Something just happens," adds Bonar, sitting down with the band now, her roller skates off, and a grey wool coat on. "And we're all, yeah, existing in this space that you kind of train yourself to forget about sometimes when you're trying to perfect something."
The band quickly built a buzz that fall and the following spring, recording the songs that would become The Human Eye in one afternoon, early in 2011. That record was in circulation for a while, mostly via burned CDs that the band sold at shows, although those consisted of several different mixes. Almost a whole other album's worth of material has already been recorded, but it's only this month that The Human Eye -- now with a revised track listing, and still less than 30 minutes long -- will get a proper physical release.
Two years on from their recording, those songs still sound fresh and inspired. From the spastic energy of songs like "Shuger Crash!" and "We R Ctrl" to the pretty, sparkling textures of "Color," these songs ricochet from bratty to absurdist to heartbroken without a moment's hesitation. A big part of that inspiration is down to Bonar's vocals, which have been described as "feral" on several occasions -- screams, grunts, and bellows that are unlike anything she's done before, and all the more expressive for their rawness and humor.
"It's definitely just another part of who we all are," Bonar says, almost dismissively. "It's not like we're trying to be wild. We're all weird and we all have sensitive and strange parts to us, and [this band] is kind of the format for us to let that out... It's like a living organism rather than 'a band that we have.'"
Not surprisingly, Bonar's vocals are often simple word assocation. On new track "Electric Heartbeat," for instance, she literally just lists off different things that could lead to heart attacks. "With 'I Have This Feeling,'" she adds, "I was peeing in the rehearsal space and walked out and the guys were playing and I was like 'I have this feeeeling!'" She mimics holding a mike, and laughs. "I don't know why. And then it was like, 'Hey, I like that...'"
Everyone in the band agrees that they'd love to focus more fully on Gramma's Boyfriend, to even take it on tour, but it's hard to predict whether anything resembling regularity might dull some of that crucial spontaneity. "We'd probably just write 60 more songs," jokes Bonar, optimistically. And she has a point: the band are known to play the same song twice in one show, just to try it a different way. Sometimes songs make it over into other projects, too; "The Eat," for example, also shows up in Alpha Consumer and Bonar's shows.
"There was actually a phase where everything got a little too sculpted, so it was like, 'How do we pull this back apart?'" recalls Ylvisaker. "Like everybody knows what's next. That's one approach, and you can attack it. But the miracles of everybody not knowing what's next? It's hard to build that in."
GRAMMA'S BOYFRIEND play a vinyl release show with Ginkgo on Saturday, March 9, at Icehouse. $10. 21+. 11 pm. 2526 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.276.6523.
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