Musicians as parents: The Ericksons and Wizards Are Real return after maternity leave

The Ericksons
The Ericksons

Here's one: What's squirmy and pink, weighs about eight and a half pounds, and can stop even the most steamrollin' awesome band on a rockin' roll? For Wizards Are Real -- the only band in town so awesome they don't need words -- it was baby Colin, born on Record Store Day (April 21) to bandmates Melanie Bergstrom and Brian O'Neil. For the Ericksons it was baby Enzo, born July 1 to Bethany Valentini and her husband Tommy.

Gimme Noise decided to check in on both acts and discuss the challenges of getting back to work and playing shows after bringing a new bandmate into the world.

"We're both doing really well," Wizards' Bergstrom reports. She's back to playing tenor and baritone sax with husband O'Neil, who play pedal steel for the group. Thursday, the cultish quartet will perform for the first time since their EP release in January.

"We're doing awesome," says Valentini about bringing her new baby into the world. "We did awesome. He's so good." Valentini founded the Ericksons with her sister Jenny Kochsiek and they've shared the lead ever since. That's right -- siblings sharing. Now we know it has happened at least once.

The soothsaying sisters had just hit their stride when they set down their guitars after a show in May. They'd started adding the new songs to their set and had established a regular rhythm section any singer-songwriter would envy. In bassist Eric Frame and drummer Dan Kapernick they'd found a sound capable of supporting their full, beautiful voices and intense performance style.

The Wizards were also rockin' new songs, although they had been playing the four tracks on their new 10" I'm Your Free Lieutenant, for months. When Bergstrom hung up her horn for the hiatus they were casting their incantations, or whatever it is wizards do, better than ever.

"I basically had to put down the sax after our EP release show in January," says Bergstrom. "I felt out of breath quite a bit and it was getting difficult to position the saxophone around my belly."

But yes, she adds, "It was really nice to get out of hauling gear for a while," she adds. "Brian did all the heavy lifting for me, and now I'm back to hauling all my stuff."

Valentini had a different experience, except that her bandmates also hauled gear for her. She was playing shows up til weeks before the due date. "It was all hilariously normal. A lot of times people would say they didn't even notice ... until after the show when I put the guitar down. 'Oh, you're eight and half months pregnant!'" 

And even into the last few weeks she was busy, as the Ericksons recorded their third album at April Base Studios, the Fall Creek, Wisconsin, facility founded by Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon and his brother. The band finished mixing the album and Valentini had a little time to catch her breath before baby Enzo was born.

Both women were eager to start practicing and performing again, and both have found great support from family, friends and bandmates. When it's time for the band to practice, Bergstrom and O'Neil have been leaving their little boy with friend and Wizards superfan Sierra Fern Milker, who will, sadly, have to miss their show on Thursday.

The Ericksons, too, will be missing their superfan when they return to the stage to headline a show at the Turf Club on August 12 -- Tommy Valentini, who seldom misses one of his wife's shows, will stay home with their little boy.

Valentini says she's played the guitar around four-week-old Enzo and he's been attentive. About the new songs he heard in utero, over and over, during the rehearsals and recordings, she says he's particularly interested. "When I play those tracks it seems like he knows them."

Meet Enzo Gordon Valentini
Meet Enzo Gordon Valentini

Bergstrom's played her sax for little Colin and "he doesn't cry," she says. "So I guess that's a good thing, but he has fallen asleep before so maybe it wasn't exciting enough."

Both new mamas say they haven't taken their little boys to band practice yet. "We'll need to get him some of those baby headphones to protect his hearing first," says Bergstrom.

"We've been wondering," she continues, "whether or not he'll think it's awesome his parents are in a band or if he'll be embarrassed of us and think we're total dorks. At the very least we hope that our playing music together will influence him so that music will be a part of his life in some way." 

For the Ericksons, balancing family and music is hardly a struggle. Both sisters say they hope to play as many shows as they can. It's connected to a conversation they had when they moved back to Minnesota after a tenure in New York. "When we were in Brooklyn we were just playing, playing, playing, figuring out our sound or whatever," explains Valentini. "And when we got back here Jenny and I were at the Bryant Lake Bowl and she said, 'I hope we don't lose our edge or that drive.'"

Jenny adds: "We were always scrapping around, meeting new people. That was something about it that I didn't feel after moving back - the edginess, grittiness of life. It felt too good here, too nice."

For the songwriter in Valentini the stability of marriage and motherhood isn't a limitation. "I think oftentimes good music comes out of struggle, but I also think that anyone who approaches life honestly finds there's a lot of figuring out and struggling."

"For Enzo, it's really important that I keep going as I do. Yeah, sometimes that path will have to be modified. You're doing your life, and you have your kids who get to watch you. That's amazing because not everybody does it that way."

The Ericksons have seen kids in their audience more often than Wizards Are Real, since they seldom turn down an opportunity to play before a new crowd at festivals like last weekend's Red Hot Arts Fair in Stevens Square Park, where the two performed without their band. Enzo was with them.

"We toured the west coast a couple times and I remember a coffee shop where we were playing "Monster". There was this boy, probably three or four, who was totally into the music. He made his dad stay and buy the album and everything. And there's this line in the song - 'There's a monster in your closet' - and I remember seeing him and thinking 'Oh, no! What are we saying?'

It could be kind of scary I guess."

Wizards Are Real
Wizards Are Real

Parenting isn't going to slow down Wizards Are Real, who promise at least a show month in the near future. Being kind of scary is their job. "So long as the music we make continues to lean towards the creepy side we should be okay. One the one hand you could say our music is kid-friendly since it's instrumental and we don't have any explicit lyrics, but on the other hand our music would be a pretty good soundtrack for a bad dream."

The two bands have never played on the same bill, but maybe they should. After all, even after the Ericksons sing about the monster in the closet, they offer something calm, even motherly, to ward off those band dreams: "Don't be scared, don't be alarmed."

Wizards Are Real will play a free show on the Cedar's outdoor patio Thursday. Doors are at 6 p.m, showtime at 7 p.m.

The Ericksons will perform at the Turf Club on Sunday, August 12 along with Caitlin Robertson and Very Small Animal. 21+ (you'll need a sitter for this one), no cover. Doors are at 8 p.m, music starting at 9 p.m.

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