Now That's Cutting Edge!
It's unavoidable, when talking with the Swiss Army, not to bring up their friendship with Slug, the globe-trotting Atmosphere MC who helped them get a foothold in the Twin Cities scene. But over beers at the Red Dragon, I try not to mention their more famous Minneapolis comrade. It works for about 10 minutes.
"You know about Slug and Murs and that whole connection?" asks Kai Benson, the band's bassist and singer. "I guess we better talk about that."
We'd better, I admit, noting that Benson looks a little sad as he says it, despite the quick grin that comes so easily to his cherubic face. He takes a drink--a gesture that his bandmates confirm is not unfamiliar to him--and shrugs. Maybe he's sick of talking about his friend, who released the Swiss Army's new album Private Ambulance and has hooked up the local indie-rock quartet with an opening slot for And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead for the Swiss Army's second show ("It was scary as hell," says Benson, "because we only had six songs and we knew each other for, like, two weeks!") Or maybe he's just a little embarrassed to be so indebted to Slug. Judging from the defensive chatter that ensues, I'd say the band is just annoyed to have to share their spotlight with a guy who already carries more weight and boasts more noise than a Metrodome hot-dog barker.
"We've each been making music for as long as anyone else," says guitarist Josh Syx. "We've been doing it as long as Slug has."
"And this is what Slug's always wanted to do," adds Benson. "He doesn't want to rap his whole life. He doesn't want to be the Mick Jagger of hip hop. He wants to run a label and help bands."
Which is how the still-embryonic Women Records--an indie-rock label co-founded by the indie hip-hop team of Slug and Murs, the L.A. rapper from the Def Jux crew--was born. The foreseeable disconnect between four punks and their rap-happy label heads could theoretically make it hard for the Swiss Army to live up to their status as the first band on Women, but that just isn't the case. The two cultures run closer than ever before in the Twin Cities, maybe because there aren't enough people in Minnesota to allow major infighting. Punks, indie rockers, hip-hop heads--to borrow Slug's line, they all sing the same song, and half the time they're even the same people. All the guys in the Swiss Army claim a love of hip hop, and Benson goes by the DJ name Marshall Larada in the hip-hop collective Doomtree. And Slug is, after all, a pale and skinny dude from the Midwest who carries a hip-hop monkey around that people keep describing as "backpacker music," so nobody should be too surprised that he digs the Swiss Army's sweat-and-tears, Les Savy Fav-y rock.
Private Ambulance seems like a good investment for the new label. Its indie rock is as familiar as these beer bottles we're sipping at the Dragon, full of tried and true, Jawbox-inspired eighth-note overtures that rock you--more like a cradle than, say, a hurricane--into a head-nodding reverie. Despite the band's connection to hip hop, they're not tempted on Private Ambulance to venture into that territory, or worse, to try to squeeze out a credible hybrid of the two styles--an ill-conceived plot that hatched that whole crappy Sugar Ray/Orange County scene 10 years ago. "We're smart enough to know not to do that," says Syx, who cracks jokes about bands with "a DJ, a guy that plays saxophone, a guy playing bongos, and some dude who just sits there and smokes weed."
As it turns out, discussing the Swiss Army's hip-hop connection is far less interesting than listening to a listless Benson explain what his songs are about. Like "Tapwire": "It's about being a spy, and lying there, dying peacefully on your last day as a spy," he says after thinking about it for a while. "I wrote it, like, three years ago, and have been drinking every day since, so I don't really remember. But it's about a spy, and also I was obsessed with the concept of private ambulance companies. Like instead of dialing 911 you dial some seven-digit number and be like, 'Quick, my leg's broken, what's up.' But it's also cool because you've got the option. Ambulances are like an establishment--and I'm not saying Private Ambulance is, like, antiestablishment--but I just like little quirks in the system like that. Like, there's ambulance, right, but yo, a private ambulance, that works, too. Know what I'm saying?"
Before I can admit that I don't, the band's other singer/guitarist, Andrew Lund, explains, "Everything Kai writes has to have, like, three meanings."
"Okay, so it's about a spy and a private ambulance," I say. "That's two."
Kai smiles. "Oh, and Slug pointed out that it's also about being a hipster."
Ever the helpful friend.
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