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Kid Dakota rides again

Darren Jackson

Darren Jackson Brieanna Watters

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Music can provide a lifeline for listeners and artists alike.

The songs on Kid Dakota’s new album, Denervation, certainly helped Darren Jackson recover from a horrific bicycle accident he suffered in South Dakota in 2014, as well as the despair that followed.

“I was so depressed after the accident,” Jackson says. “I broke my pelvis, had a couple of surgeries, and I was totally bedridden for three months. I was in tons of pain. I had a lot of nerve damage, so it was like my body was on fire all the time. I would sleep two hours a night, I couldn’t eat anything, I was just massively depressed. I basically just wanted to die, and that’s not an exaggeration. It was the most traumatic experience I ever had in my life. It just shook me.”

When the feeling finally started to return to his leg and his body began to heal, Jackson was encouraged and reinvigorated. “That’s when I got really excited about everything. I got excited about life, I got excited about music,” he says. “It was really a wake-up call to embrace the possibilities I had.”

That new outlook on life gradually extended to songwriting, with Jackson using music as a form of therapy to help him out of his dark state of mind. The eight tracks on Denervation are raw, unguarded examinations of the intense physical and mental pain that Jackson experienced. But within that anguish, Jackson expresses hope and a determination to overcome his ailments.

In December 2014, Jackson was encouraged to bring his new tunes to Minnesota by his old friend John Kuker, who hooked him up with Birthday Suits drummer Matthew Kazama and offered recording time in Pachyderm Studios, which Kuker purchased in 2011. Shortly after their promising three-day tracking session in January 2015, though, Kuker died from a heart attack.

“It was the last record that John ever worked on, and he was one of my best friends,” Jackson says, holding back tears. “It feels like a piece of John is in there, and that was the last interaction that I ever had with him. John told me that it was the best thing he’s ever done, and he was really proud of it. But it was just really hard to come back to it without him being there.”

Jackson continued to tinker with the songs while he was in grad school at Virginia Tech, but wasn’t in the proper headspace to dive back into songs so emotionally charged with memories of his lost friend. Only after he got married and moved back to Minneapolis last summer was Jackson finally able to put the finishing touches on the album in his home studio in Northeast. To help flesh out the sound he was after, he enlisted some Minnesota music all-stars: Alan Sparhawk, Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Andrew Broder, Jeremy Messersmith, Dave Simonett, Todd Trainer, and Johnny and Molly Solomon.

“I found that when I bring other people in, it tends to not sound so monolithic. It sounds more diverse,” Jackson says. “I especially like to bring in people who are really confident with improvising. I like to capture them doing something unexpected. Whereas I’m really precise, and I go at it very methodically and build the song up, I like to have these other people come in and add some really unique, distinct ornamentation to it.”

There’s a thematic arc to the album, which starts at a definite low point—the thunderous, insistent title track—and gradually grows more optimistic, reflecting the healing process Jackson underwent while writing and recording. Lead single “The Convalescent” begins with the rhythm of a heartbeat that offsets the forsaken opening lyrics: “Now I know exactly how it feels to be left for dead/No hope, no future, convalescent in a bed.” On the track, Jackson compares his ordeal to that of Gregor Samsa, who mutates into a cockroach as his old world and familiar habits change forever in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. But by the time he reaches the dreamy haze of the final track, “Pills,” Jackson accepts the challenge of facing reality without pharmaceuticals, trusting that he can sleep through the night without fear of the nightmares of his past returning. 

“It is sort of a conceptual album. I mean, it’s not like The Wall or something, that rigidly conceptual,” Jackson jokes. “The albums that I tend to like the most have a theme that runs through them. So, I wanted this theme of injury and convalescence and recovery to be the arc that these songs follow. It does start at the lowest point. The first song is really brutal, and I wanted it to convey the force and impact of the injury.”

While much of Denervation was inspired by tragic events and troubled times, Jackson now views the record in a joyful way. “To me, in a sense, it’s a really happy album,” Jackson admits. “Because if you had told me a week after my accident that everything is going to be OK, you’re going to be all right, and you’re going to write this record about it, I would have been so insanely relieved. The fact that this album happened, and I’m as good as I need to be in terms of my health, I’m happy with that.”

Jackson has experienced firsthand how music can serve as a beacon during dark days. “It felt so good when I started healing to be playing music again. It was the most alive that I’ve ever felt in my whole life,” Jackson says. “Music was the only thing that I could hold onto that seemed positive in my life. Everything else seemed uncertain and menacing, and music was something that I had control of. It was something I could actually do. It was so important to me, so crucial. It still is.”

Kid Dakota Denervation release show
With: Alan Sparhawk
Where: Icehouse
When: 11 p.m. Sat. Feb. 10
Tickets: $10/$12; more info here

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.