In My Room

Grounded for life: Ashtray Hearts
Diana Watters

Dan Richmond is a private guy. Sure, he'll sing his heart out about the one and only girl he's loved. In fact, he'll sing about any number of those "one and only girls" on his band's debut, Old Numbers (due out on Richmond's Free Election label next month). But ask the Ashtray Hearts' guitarist/vocalist to discuss the specific, real-life "she" who lurks in songs like "The One You're Closest To," and he's suddenly at a loss for words.

"I've been obsessed with different people at different times," he laughs. "I don't want to exclude any of them."

Sitting in his Minneapolis apartment, Richmond's bandmates watch as he provides flustered responses about his personal life. Beneath a wall of black-and-white portraits, guitarist/pianist Steve Yernberg plucks a few notes on his guitar, peering up to catch Richmond's uncomfortable expression. Bassist Ryan Scheife sits at the drum set, reflexively kicking the beat-up, sky-blue suitcase that currently serves as a bass drum.

"I hear all Dan's songs and I know that they're personal," Scheife says, "but I don't ask him about them." I wonder if I should take the hint.

I decide not to. "If you won't talk about the people in the songs," I say, "then tell me about the people in the pictures on your wall."

Richmond takes the bait. He points to a few photos of friends and band members, labeling each subject with a name and a distinguishing feature. Then he comes upon one of a young woman with dirty-blond hair. She's looking down, eyes half-closed. The sky is dark behind her. Tiny white lights glow in the distance.

"That's my friend Nuria," he says softly. A pregnant pause from the band members. "She lives in Spain." (The Ashtray Hearts' song, "Spain" contains the lyrics, "I spent the last three years hoping I would see her around/I guess the long wait is over...It's a long way to anywhere in Spain.")

Richmond continues to describe each photo. He comes upon one of a girl with dark-rimmed glasses, sitting in a white chair. She's smiling. Two torsos stand behind the chair, their heads and legs invisible to the viewer. "That's my friend Linda, who lives in New York," he says quickly, and moves immediately to the next photo. "And that one's an old guy in Ireland."

"He's giving you lots of hints now," warns Yernberg. I look back again at the photo of Linda. (In "New York" Richmond sings, "The year we put her in the ground/ Everyone was leaving town/Trading the good years for lonely trips to the bar.")

"Do we have a song called 'Old Guy in Ireland'?" Scheife jokes.

It's as if the apartment itself is a physical rendering of Richmond's memory. You wonder if the blue suitcase has ever carried his camera overseas, if the scratches on the hardwood floor are added every time the Ashtray Hearts move their equipment down from the apartment to set up for a gig at the Turf Club, if dozens of people have slept on his old couch. This space, which should feel so domestic and commonplace, becomes somehow poetic--in spite of, or perhaps because of, its ordinariness.

The Ashtray Hearts coined the genre "apartment music" to describe their alt-country sound: Old Numbers embellishes basic folk ballads with accordions, pianos, organs, and trumpets, while the lyrics make the most familiar bus stops, dive bars, and main streets seem hopelessly romantic.

Richmond has also recently completed a compilation called Apartment Music (Free Election). The album--whose cover art features photos he and Scheife took inside their own apartments--boasts intimate compositions by local artists, many of whom practice in their own living quarters or home studios rather than in more traditional spaces. The Owls' "City Girl" feels like a blank-verse nursery rhyme, with vocalists Maria May and Allison LaBonne harmonizing over a skeletal piano melody. Mike Brady's "Exploding Boat II" undulates with increasing intensity--a watery keyboard overture with acoustic accouterments becomes a Greek chorus of background vocals, while the lyrics insist, "I saw the whole thing unfolding." Kid Dakota's "Get Her Out of My Heart" may be the highlight of the compilation: With a Sisyphean circular guitar riff, Darren Jackson transforms a simple Beach Boys chorus into a plea for redemption.

Add the Ashtray Hearts' own lovely, lovelorn tracks "Necessary Planes" and "Still Shaking" into the mix, and Apartment Music brings together some of the best acts in the Twin Cities. And if any of these bands move away from here, it will only give Richmond fodder for future songs about long-distance relationships.

"You get to that stage in your twenties where you get comfortable, but then things change. People go in and out of your life pretty quickly," he says. "The thing is, I'm not a sad guy. But I am a romantic."

He looks at his bandmates. "I don't think any of us are players at all, though," he admits.

At that, accordion and piano player Brad Augustine looks disappointed. He shrugs at Richmond as if to say, Speak for yourself.

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