No Direction from Home

Three serious lads and one smiling lady: Backstage with Maps of Norway
Greg Schaal

It's a chilly night on wrought-iron chairs. Under an unseasonable parasol, Maps of Norway and their pints of beer accumulate sheaths of frost. They sit with their hands in their laps, and their reflections are tolerant and economical. In the quietest of tones, the manner of their meeting is under discussion. While a few stories get bandied about, they're reluctant to reach agreement.

"We met on a bus stop," says guitarist Eric Hanson.

"I answered an ad," says vocalist Rebecca Leigh.

A lilt of derisive laughter rises from drummer Jeff Ball. "There was no ad," he says resolutely.

Shivering and eager to land on something print-worthy, bassist Matt Helgeson takes charge. "We all just met," he declares. "There is no good story."

Truth be told, Hanson and Ball have been furtive musical partners for over a decade, writing and recording each other's material in Hanson's personal studio. After Vespertine, a slowcore enterprise that expired in the late '90s, their performative appetites snoozed for a half-decade, until they met, in the inexplicable but inevitable way asteroids meet Arizona, Helgeson and Leigh.

Anyone who has followed the trajectory of the Twin Cities four-piece won't be stunned by these red herrings. Maps of Norway are not for the impatient or the easily flummoxed. Like the complex and highly textural mood pieces on their debut full-length, Sister Stations, their course through the Twin Cities music scene has been one of rudderless, fruitful exploration. Deftly echoing the spasticity of Talking Heads and the cavernous arias of Bauhaus, theirs is a singular echo from a thinned atmosphere, where the revelations and meanings are best uncovered upon appreciating how far they've scaled.

For some, self-defining on the fly can be a liability. But theirs is no identity crisis. Maps of Norway approach self-discovery with a mountaineer's derring-do.

"We still don't know what kind of band we want to be!" Leigh cries.

Helgeson nods. "The idea of it always changes," he says of the band's quest for identity.

Against Hanson's protean guitar work and the rhythmic exactness of Helgeson and Ball, Leigh's vocals lend a particularly unexpected signature to their sonic stamp. Her presence is elusive, dangerous prey, hiding at times within skeins of tape delay before bursting forth into unabashed operatics in a pleasant ambush of the ear. With such versatility, it's hard to believe that this is her first bona-fide band.

"I did my first solo when I was seven," she says. "I sang in a huge auditorium in front of a bunch of people. It was a song for church. Something about setting all the cactus free." She frowns. "Wait—I meant 'captives.'"

Her voice carries those childhood choral tones, and in her work with Maps of Norway they glower like quiet riptides beneath ripples of Bjork and Patty Smith and singers ever more adventurous. But, according to Leigh, it was male singers like Robert Smith who left their thumbprints on her throat.

"I liked the boys," she admits. "I like female vocalists now, but I think I felt I had to compete with them, that I wasn't good enough. When I sang along with a male vocalist, I didn't feel like I was competing."

It's been a journey of remarkably high yields. Sister Stations earned a number-one spot on Radio K, ranked on CMJ's airplay charts, and earned glowing and in-depth reviews from publications as diverse as Punk Planet and Big Takeover. And now, there's Die Off Songbird—their forthcoming sophomore release. An elemental reduction of their previous work, it's as ceaseless and pulmonary as a pulse. It's a leaner sound, their air yet more rarified. Beginning with an arctic, solitary instrumental, the album drives its way with handspikes through an airless, icy span. On standouts like "The Runout," Hanson's guitar work is a finer shear, Leigh's voice a more disciplined, haunting trill, and the songs are as dutiful as sled dogs, pulling the album and the listener along with every purposeful stride.

Of their pared-down approach, Helgeson says it's a matter of maturation. "When you first start out, you want to write a part, but you want people to really notice the part. For everybody, it's letting go of that rock-dude mentality."

"It just seemed natural," says Ball, "that the more we played with each other, the better we started listening to each other. The more you listen to each other, the less concerned you are about trying to carry the song on your own."

"We were a lot fussier about everybody's part," says Hanson. Precise to the minutest details, he seems to find the word "fussier" going bitter in his mouth. "More selective," he amends.

Leigh agrees. "It's everybody falling into their roles and becoming more comfortable with who they are and what they do." Another breeze sweeps the parking lot—bracing, portentous of the winter, the kind that empties the mind of all but the most fundamental concerns. "It was eclectic at the start," she says. "But things are focusing." 

MAPS OF NORWAY perform a CD-release show with Gospel Gossip, Unicorn Basement, and Strut & Shock on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 10, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486

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