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Meet Woody McBride, architect of the Twin Cities' underground dance scene

Woody McBride spinning last week at First Avenue. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

Woody McBride spinning last week at First Avenue. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

During Christmas of 1980, when he was 13 years old, Woody McBride paid his first visit to Minneapolis.

Home was on the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota, where Woody’s parents — both educators, his father a visual artist and his mother a poet — had raised him religiously. But while some three-quarters of his home state’s residents attended church, the McBrides worshiped nature: sky, water, woods. By comparison, the family’s hotel room on Nicollet Avenue might as well have been Times Square.

Still, he wasn’t completely unworldly. Woody played basketball and idolized Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Larry Bird. He fell instantly for the Japanese food his parents introduced him to when they went out for dinner near the hotel. And he was properly humbled by the trip’s occasion — the family had gone to the Twin Cities to spend the holiday working at a local homeless shelter.

More than anything, though — basketball included — Woody McBride loved music. He’d attended a KISS concert in fourth grade, and became hooked on synth-pop as he approached puberty.

“Even in North Dakota, I’d heard Gary Numan and New Order and all the post-punk stuff,” he recalls today. “I was very intrigued by it.”

So his folks let him loose on the downtown record shops, whose selection overwhelmed him.

In 1996, Daft Punk made their U.S. debut in rural Wisconsin at Even Furthur. Courtesy of Kurt Eckes.

In 1996, Daft Punk made their U.S. debut in rural Wisconsin at Even Furthur. Courtesy of Kurt Eckes.

“I didn’t know what to buy,” he says. “I just bought on instinct and artwork.”

By the time McBride was in high school, he was an all-state player — six-foot-six and a deft ball handler who could play every position. During a tournament, he met an out-of-town player named Darrin Houston, who impressed him with both his “40-inch vertical” and his cassette mixtapes.

The tapes contained DJs playing house music, the homemade dance style then sweeping the Windy City, made by local kids with cheap synthesizers and drum machines — in particular, a bass synth that the Roland Corporation had stopped manufacturing in 1984, the TB-303.

In the hands of Chicago producers like DJ Pierre of the trio Phuture, this silver box — with a single-octave keyboard and five knobs for adjusting pitch — would turn into the house scene’s secret weapon: Program a simple line, then monkey with the knobs till it zapped around like it was transmitting from Mars. This 303 music was nicknamed acid, appropriate to both its sulfuric and psychedelic quality.

Instantly, Woody was hooked.

Over the next few years, he began to DJ, then create, both acid house and the harder techno style that had taken root in Detroit just as house was getting started in Chicago. By 1996, McBride was the Twin Cities’ top promoter of dance parties — raves — as well as a globetrotting DJ and one of the most famous acid producers in the world. The kid from Bismarck is now considered the architect of underground dance music in Minnesota, and his legendary Even Furthur festival will be resurrected August 19-22, 20 years after McBride debuted then-obscure French DJs Daft Punk at the same rural Wisconsin fest.

WOODY MCBRIDE moved to the Twin Cities in 1988 for school. After his parents dropped him off at the University of Minnesota campus, he recalls, “I sat on the steps and cried: ‘Oh my God, what have I got myself into?’”

His hoops career had been cut short by broken vertebrae in North Dakota, and he enrolled at the U of M with a double major of journalism and fine arts. He began writing for the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, and picked up work as a stringer for the Associated Press. It didn’t last long, though: As he told dance-music website Resident Advisor in 2011, “I woke up and realized that hassling people for information was just not in my blood.”

Music was a different story. McBride’s interest in school began to wane as his involvement with the local scene took hold. He quickly got a job at Northern Lights, a record shop on the corner of Seventh and Hennepin, and began flirting with the idea of rock promotion.

“I went to concerts at First Avenue,” he says. “The dance nights didn’t pull me in.”

The exception was Thursday nights in the 7th St. Entry, where Kevin Cole, the club’s longtime resident DJ, began throwing House Nation Under a Groove with DJ partner Thomas Spiegel the same year McBride arrived in town. Together they’d fill the Entry’s stage with bass cabinets and shut nearly all the lights off aside from an occasional flickering strobe.

“I’d be spinning at the Entry, and the turntables were right by the sound booth’s window,” Cole told City Pages in 1997. “And Woody is really tall, you know — so he was able to peek up over the edge of the turntables, and he’d stand there for hours watching and shouting encouragement.”

Cole and Spiegel began moving apart musically — Spiegel was a house purist who cared little for anything not soulful and R&B-rooted, while Cole was increasingly fascinated by the newer, harder, weirder techno coming from Europe and Detroit — and Kevin quickly took Woody under his wing.

“I became his first protégé,” McBride says. “I didn’t even know how to mix, but he just saw something in me.”

Cole’s new dance night, Depth Probe, began to occupy the First Avenue Mainroom on random midweek nights, and McBride wasn’t the only young DJ Cole was mentoring there. DJs E-Tones (Tony Larson), JT (John Tasch), Drone (Dave Jarosz), Miss Miss (Melissa Rasmussen), and Apollo (Dory Kahalé) were also spinning regularly, along with club residents Roy Freedom and Paul Spangrud.

Woody, David Prince, and Kurt Eckes at Furthur in April 1994. Courtesy of David Prince.

Woody, David Prince, and Kurt Eckes at Furthur in April 1994. Courtesy of David Prince.

“[Cole] brought me on because I played the most extreme music that I could find,” says McBride, who bobbled his first-ever Depth Probe set. “I picked up the [turntable] arm on the wrong record. The whole room went dead silent — from an assault to nothing. I swallowed, took one deep breath, and put the needle back down on the record.” He laughs. “That was my initiation.”

McBride’s mixing quickly improved, his ambition moving as fast as the music. Around this time he met Freddy Fresh, a St. Paul native with deep ties to the Bronx hip-hop scene.

“He was hip to electronic music early on,” McBride says. “I think he saw I was DJing at Depth Probe and invited me to come play this radio show.”

The two became fast friends, with Fresh showing McBride how to use MIDI to sync drum machines and synths together to make his own tracks, as well as offering tips on finding cheap equipment at pawnshops.

By 1991, records such as the Riot EP by Detroit’s Underground Resistance and “Dominator” by Belgium’s Human Resource — swarming, heavy, in-your-face — set the tone for the music McBride was beginning to make, as well as the regional scene he was beginning to spearhead.

THOUGH HOUSE AND TECHO music had been around since the mid-’80s, the parties for which they provided the soundtrack — raves — were beginning to happen mostly on the East and West Coasts at the beginning of the ’90s. In the upper Midwest, though, they were mostly a rumor. The party paradigm had taken root not in Chicago or Detroit, but in Great Britain, where it provided the soundtrack to a youth-culture uprising.

A key component — and one that remains a sticking point for many of the music’s inventors — was its combination with the drug MDMA, then known as ecstasy and today commonly referred to as molly. The substance helped translate the highly repetitive music into an experiential, body-first force.

Mid-1990s Twin Cities ravers. Courtesy of Steven Centrific.

Mid-1990s Twin Cities ravers. Courtesy of Steven Centrific.

While Cole and Spiegel had put on all-night House Nation events outside of First Avenue at theaters like the Southern and the Varsity, and Cole did the same with Depth Probe, these were not really raves.

“It was much more artsy than ravey,” says McBride, who attended and played several of them. “If [Minneapolis] had an Andy Warhol crowd, they would be it: more sophisticated... very diverse, gays, straights.”

Raves began bubbling up in Chicago by 1991, and a year later they’d hit the heartland. The first, Ravee, on May 15, 1992, which took place in a Madison, Wisconsin, barn — a locale that was both tongue-in-cheek (how Midwestern can you get?) and plainly logical (who’s going to complain about the noise except the cows?). McBride spun at Ravee as well as its August sequel, Alice in Raveeland. At that point, the vibe wasn’t party-till-you-pass-out so much as a gateway to a wider cultural awareness. “The initial ones had an info table set up — socialist organizations with literature,” recalls Nick Nice, the Madison DJ who promoted both parties.

While McBride’s musical specialty was dubbed acid, he’s long been a teetotaler, though that wasn’t always the case. In the early-’90s, he experimented briefly with LSD.

“It was short-lived, but real intense,” he says. “I didn’t take it to get high, per se. I was taking it to have a spiritual awakening. And I accomplished that, but I came away from that session and [it] said: ‘Our time together is done. If you visit me again, it will hurt.’ And I did go back one more time, and it hurt.”

He hasn’t touched it since.

Nevertheless, drugs were becoming inextricable from the scene. That Halloween, McBride helped put together a Milwaukee party along with Michael Vance, the lighting director of Madison’s Cardinal Bar; U of M undergrad Bobbie Reiss; and Milwaukee artist Robin Bott, who today handcrafts guitars.

A scene from one of the ’90s Furthur fests. Courtesy of Kurt Eckes.

A scene from one of the ’90s Furthur fests. Courtesy of Kurt Eckes.

“Many of us would converge upon Madison for the weekend,” Bott recalls. “At the Cardinal Bar, Nick was the house DJ. Woody would come down and spin. It was the fun epicenter of the culture in the Midwest.”

The idea behind Grave, as the party was called, was, in McBride’s words, to “do something really spectacular: ‘Let’s decorate. Let’s have some theatrics to it.’” Says Vance, “We went all out. The budget for that was just ridiculous.” Much of the money was spent on the system. “Milwaukee and Madison and Chicago had big shows, but they had four speakers,” McBride says. Inspired by House Nation’s “wall of bass,”

Woody utilized 24 speakers at a time — all the cabinets that local sound company Southern Thunder could rent at a time. “When I said I wanted 50 bass bins, then they started looking at me funny,” McBride says.

“I don’t think we got a warehouse until a month before the party,” Vance says. “We were really worried about it. The cops were going out to a lot of warehouse owners and telling them they would be liable if we were caught throwing parties in their warehouses.”

They found one anyway, using a trick common to the Los Angeles scene — by telling the owner they were “making a film” and that the warehouse was being used for “a wrap party — and we were filming the wrap party,” says Vance, who did, in fact, shoot some of the party. McBride, meanwhile, figured they were safe. “Boy, were we in for a surprise,” he cackles dryly.

Surprise doesn’t cover it. About two and a half hours after Grave opened its doors at 11 p.m., the Milwaukee police showed up in force. On the dance floor was Kurt Eckes, the cofounder of another Milwaukee rave crew, Drop Bass Network, who’d come to the event but had no part in throwing it — which didn’t stop the police from arresting him and his promoting partner, Patrick Spencer, along with McBride, Vance, Bott, and Reiss.

“Having been to parties in Chicago that got busted previous to that, you knew what was going on,” Eckes says. “But when they came in it was so heavy. There were a lot of them, with spotlights and guns.”

Woody McBride spinning at First Avenue in 2002. Photo by Mike Zerby.

Woody McBride spinning at First Avenue in 2002. Photo by Mike Zerby.

A few kids escaped, but nearly 1,000 others were zip-cuffed and issued tickets for... underage drinking. Only there was barely any alcohol on the premises — and there were lots of other substances, particularly MDMA, which the police overlooked completely. Within weeks, after a spate of bad local publicity, nearly all the charges were dropped, though the promoters, including McBride, still had to pay hefty fines.

McBride took this hard-won knowledge back home. In 1993, he began throwing a series of events under the name M.O.R.E. (Minneapolis Organization of Rave Enthusiasts), the first of many party-production monikers to come. He quickly developed a following, throwing the largest and best-executed events of their kind in the Twin Cities — parties that occurred in warehouses, places of worship, and outlet malls, and were almost never busted.

“We were setting up an unlicensed business,” McBride says. “There were a lot of things you had to negotiate around.”

Many of the early M.O.R.E. parties were thrown with the help of Drop Bass Network (DBN), which had become the region’s biggest party-throwing crew following the Grave bust. DBN was a two-man operation run by Kurt Eckes and his then-roommate Patrick Spencer.

“It’s that puffer-fish effect,” Spencer says. “You want people to think you’re this massive organization, like the KGB, 50 agents working for you. It was this whole Oz thing — just two guys behind the screen.”

What made Drop Bass unique was its rock-derived attitude, music, and audience, which differed greatly from the utopian pixie-hippie crowd that often populated raves on the West Coast, the site of America’s biggest rave scene. “The majority of the people who come to our raves come from the heavy metal and punk scenes,” Eckes told Request magazine in 1994.

“Kurt’s whole thing was to mock the candy ravers,” says journalist David J. Prince, a native Chicagoan who co-produced several parties with Eckes in the mid-’90s. “He was not into ecstasy. They liked dark, hard stuff. They were hardcore, do or die.”

Woody McBride last week at First Avenue. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

Woody McBride last week at First Avenue. Photo by Colin Michael Simmons.

The upper Midwest had a strong sense of scene rivalry with the coasts. “East Coast techno was OK: Frankie Bones, Adam X — those guys were cool but no one else was,” recalls Dory Kahalé — owner of 15 pseudonyms, he was primarily known as DJ Apollo in the mid-’90s — with a laugh.

Softer sounds, such as the breakbeat-driven sound prevalent on the West Coast, “were laughed at,” Kahalé says. There was a lot of what Kahalé refers to as “Midwest pride.” In 1991, he says, “probably 95 percent” of the records Kahalé was buying were European imports, adding, “By ’94, ’95, it was probably 60 percent domestic.”

Though McBride had more than his share of hometown pride, and was the first artist to record for Drop Bass’ self-named record label after dozens of releases on other imprints (an early title: “Bad Acid, No Such Thing”), DBN’s hardcore-or-else dogma didn’t always sit well.

“I was really feeling that ’60s peace-and-love counterculture,” he said in 2012, “but the Milwaukee-Chicago scene [was] starting to lean toward some darker themes that I wasn’t resonating with.”

Prince, the founder and editor of the tabloid-sized zine Reactor, met Eckes when he was reporting on Grave, and the two of them hit it off. Following a busy 1993 for both Kurt and Woody — each threw at least one party a month in his respective hometown — Eckes and Prince hatched the idea of a weekend-long outdoor campout event and brought McBride on board.

The first Furthur took place in April 1994 under less than ideal conditions. When they got to the campground — in tiny Hixton, Wisconsin, whose population was just over 300 — McBride recalls, “It felt like we were climbing a mountain. We unloaded the truck, and it was snowing.”

It hardly mattered. Futhur was the first attempt to bring together the entire U.S. scene, and although its size (around 1,500 people attended) is a drop in the bucket compared to a massive modern-day dance festival, it was still impressive. Better yet, it provided the most wide-ranging showcase to date not just of the Midwest scene, but the entire U.S. Additionally, McBride, who had begun regularly touring in Europe, brought in a number of German acts, including DJs Hoschi, Roland Casper, and Thomas Heckmann. The big draw, though, was Prince’s doing: megastar English DJ Aphex Twin, who spun on the final night.

Furthur was both a giant mess and a watershed. There were drugs, of course — in addition to powerful doses of San Francisco acid, a good amount of mescaline made it to Hixton for the weekend, and CO2 tanks abounded.

“The worst for me was actually the nitrous,” says native Minneapolitan Chris Sattinger, a.k.a. Timeblind. “I would be DJing and would hear the balloons being filled and then 20 minutes later the dance floor has literally been anaesthetized. An hour later the ravers are sleepy.”

Aphex Twin’s set became instant legend, partly because the music was so woolly, partly because Prince, high on acid, decided to strip to nothing and dance atop a speaker. McBride, a huge Aphex fan, missed most of it: “Unfortunately, the Woodman gets to drive to town to get more gas for the generator,” he says with a laugh. “I definitely took one for the team.”

Immediately thereafter, the Hixton police forced a shutdown after three straight days of noise complaints from the neighbors.

MCBRIDE SAT OUT THE SEQUEL, Even Furthur, which took place on Memorial Day weekend of 1995, but was back on board for the 1996 edition. This was the party that cemented the Furthurs in dance-music history, thanks to McBride inviting on board a couple of French kids who’d opened for him a year earlier in Paris. They called themselves Daft Punk, and they’d make their U.S. debut in a Wisconsin field at Even Furthur ’96.

The fest got them for a steal — around $700, plus flights and accommodations.

“Kurt always told me, ‘I don’t think any DJ is worth more than a thousand dollars,’” McBride remembers. “I always thought that was a good way to operate, keep things real.”

Their timing was superb. By the following January, not only would Daft Punk release its classic debut, Homework — featuring a shout out to DJ ESP, McBride’s alias — but a handful of other dance acts had begun crossing over to the alt-rock audience: the Prodigy with “Firestarter,” Underworld with “Born Slippy (NUXX),” and the Chemical Brothers with “Setting Sun.” Many predicted 1997 would be the year that “electronica” — the record biz’s term for everything they hadn’t been previously able to sell as house, techno, or rave — would become the next big thing.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but the music gained headway, with McBride along for the ride; in the Chemical Brothers’ case, literally so. After the duo blew the house down at First Avenue in 1997, McBride, a vocal fan, joined them on the road for a week as their opening DJ.

“That was quite an honor,” he says. “They wanted real local, regional support. Their songs were in movies back then; [I was] still playing strange, obscure techno. They gave me full license to do whatever I wanted.”

The period was a boom time for McBride, albeit on a smaller scale than for the Chems. His most popular record, 1996’s Basketball Heroes, sold some 13,000 copies in its first year — practically gold for an indie-label techno 12-inch of the time. It would later be licensed for more than 50 CD compilations and mixes. (Most of those copies, some 80 percent, were sold outside the U.S.)

“Heard on a big system with tons of bass, McBride’s Basketball Heroes is a terrifying record,” Peter Shapiro wrote in U.K. magazine The Wire: “Speaker-shredding bass poing capable of making your chest concave at 30 yards, relentless moonstomp drums, and a growling, grinding ultra-low-end 303 grate that turns into croaking strafes... like a plague of giant toads descending from the sky.”

But the semi-legal warehouse parties McBride had made his name with locally were no longer sustainable: The cops were beginning to crack down.

“’96 to ’99 was a painful crawl from when underground shows became prohibited and [it] turned into the club scene,” says McBride, who in this period began a new venture, dropping the M.O.R.E. moniker for Mile High Club, a new partnership with his old confrere JT (now calling himself Jack Trash) and Rich Best, a former First Avenue booker who’d joined local promoters Compass Entertainment and began going aggressively after the big-name DJs his old club largely ignored. Mile High began putting on DJ parties at arenas such as the St. Paul Civic Center.

“The shows that we did were in the middle ground of raving and clubbing,” McBride says. “We had insurance, security, a lot of traditional rock ’n’ roll tools and strategies to promote. A lot of it had to do with Rich Best. He had a lot of credibility, and the company he worked for was the top promotions company.”

Eventually, McBride’s continuous roadwork and the shifting tastes of the dance audience began to wear the partnership down.

“Electronic music was about to take off, especially in the trance and the name-brand electronic DJ world — which I wasn’t terribly knowledgeable in,” McBride says. “Rich and JT saw the sense in leaning towards that, that momentum that was coming on worldwide. They were doing more than their share. I was always touring and wasn’t always able to contribute what I had once. And there was getting to be a wider and wider gap in our musical tastes.”

He parted company from JT and Best in the early 2000s.

AROUND MID-2001, while touring South America, McBride became fascinated with the “punky house music” that his friend the Argentinian DJ Diego Rocha had begun to play.

“Diego turned me onto all this fresh sort of punk-disco, pre-DFA [Records], all this gnarly stuff out of Germany: Fischerspooner and DJ Hell,” McBride says. “I’d found a new sound that wasn’t house and techno, but it might have a life in clubland, and still had an edge.”

The name “electroclash” wouldn’t attach itself to this music until that September, after the New York festival of that name, but McBride was ready to present it to the Twin Cities. Now that he was free from Mile High, he approached First Avenue again. “Sunday Night Dance Party had not been in circulation for a few years,” he says, so he pitched a punk-electro revamp of the all-ages weekend DJ nights, complete with “a Sex Pistols album-cover graphic ripoff” and a new title: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s SNDP. It kicked off in the fall of 2001.

Roughly six months later, it fell back to earth.

“I was one of the first guys in the Twin Cities to bust out electroclash — and it was too early and no one liked it,” he says with a rueful laugh. “First Avenue hung in there with me as long as they could. Of course, it got popular about a year later.”

As dance music began switching from a vinyl medium to a digital one, McBride got lost in the shuffle, and he says his career suffered for it. It took several years for him to make the adjustment to digital DJing; unlike many, he never transitioned from playing vinyl to playing CDs, as was increasingly common throughout the 2000s.

“I went straight from vinyl to digital,” he says, referring to Ableton Live, a piece of laptop software that’s become a DJ-world standard. “I do play vinyl once in awhile, but most of the time I have such control playing Ableton Live [that] it’s hard not to play like that. It’s a really great playground for creativity.”

But there were other compensations. Like Kurt Eckes, who stopped throwing parties in 2003 to become a full-time farmer and put on trade shows for a local dairy cooperative, McBride began a new career as a general events producer — or, as he puts it, “I have an alter ego as a regular guy.”

As Genius of Fun Productions, McBride has built a comfortable niche as a producer for events ranging from a four-night-a-week summer concert series in his hometown of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, to Twin Cities-based Germanfest, Italianfest, and Oktoberfests, to concerts by tribute bands; one of the latter, an homage to Metallica named One, is playing First Avenue on August 19, the night before the actual Metallica plays the brand-new U.S. Bank Stadium.

McBride has built this sideline into a healthy chunk of his living; he’ll put on some 50 shows this summer alone. The work allows him to stay home with his growing family during the summer. He and his wife, Amanda, have two sons, Ocean and Azure, ages nine and seven, and in addition to home-schooling them he’s also been showing them the basics of the trade. He still hits the road regularly between autumn and spring, but as the 49-year-old DJ admits, “I’ve wanted not to tour so much.” He adds, “I do like to turn it out and be the king of the nighttime world — but it is nice to not have to stay up all night all the time.”

“My real life’s work,” he says, is “crafting my own destiny of self-employment in the creative fields, community building in an artists’-community river town, home-schooling our kids, and planting seeds of culture for the future.”

YET'S THERE'S NO mistaking that McBride’s heart is still in dance music. In 2010, he put on the first of his semi-annual First Avenue DJ blowouts, Bassgasm; there have been 10 so far, featuring old rave friends and youngbloods alike. The brand is on ice for the moment.

And then there’s Even Furthur. Not from 1994 or 1995 or 1996 — but 2016. A few months ago, Kurt Eckes called McBride out of the blue.

“Woody,” he said, “I just feel like the time is right. There’s molten lava under the surface of the Midwest scene, and it needs to come out. It’s the 20th anniversary of when you brought Daft Punk here for the first time. It changed thousands of people’s lives and helped the Midwest scene gel. It’s time to do it again.”

“Are you for real?” Woody asked. “All right, let’s do it.”

Announced in May, Even Furthur — co-promoted, once again, by David J. Prince along with Drop Bass and McBride — is scheduled from August 19 to 21 “somewhere in Wisconsin”; keeping with tradition, the exact location will not be announced until day of show.

“We wanted [it] to be authentic,” McBride says, “and I believe we’ve done that.”

A number of the event’s headliners have deep ties to the promoters, including Sunshine Jones of Dubtribe Sound System (who performed at the Chicago stop of the 1993 See the Light Tour headlined by Moby, which both Prince and Eckes helped put on); Wade Randolph Hampton (who played the first event in 1994); Lenny Dee (whose first Drop Bass performance took place in the summer of 1993); Frankie Bones (who played the first three); and frequent performer Miles Maeda (one of the Midwest’s great unsung house spinners), among many others. McBride, of course, will perform.

While a number of participating DJs seem like part of a post-Furthur generation (including New Yorker Tim Sweeney and L.A. scratch DJ Shortee), the emphasis is clearly on old favorites.

“There’s even an old-schoolers’ discount that has been very well received,” McBride says — meaning tickets are cheaper for anyone over 35. The younger generation is McBride’s real concern, at least at home.

“It’s so funny, man,” he says. “I’ll be working on music, and my kids have grown up watching Terminator movies, playing Pokemon and Minecraft. And I’ll be working on what I think is just a sick track, and I’ll be like, [enthusiastically] ‘What do you think, guys?’ And they’ll be like, [skeptically] ‘Yeah, I dunno, Dad - it’s really not rockin’.’”

He laughs. “I go, ‘What?! What do you want?’ I’ve got a really nice sound system in the studio. They take the iPod and they’ll go straight to Skrillex and turn that stuff up to 11. I gotta admit, man, it sounds crazy-awesome.”

“More growl!” Woody McBride’s sons tell him. “More growl!”

“All right,” he responds. “I’ll work on it.”