Powermad's Todd Haug on brewing Surly beer, Minnesota metal, and Dave Chappelle
The Twin Cities have long had a burgeoning independent metal scene, but few breakout stars. In the '80s, Powermad benefited from the major label rush to take advantage of aggressive trends and briefly joined the Metallicas and Slayers of the world. The group recorded a pair of records at Prince's Paisley Park Studio's in '89 for Warner Brother Records, got played on MTV, and even made a bizarre cameo in David Lynch's Wild At Heart. Eventually, they took the punch in the face the music industry all too often deals when grunge came along.
After the band took an indefinite break, guitarist Todd Haug eventually took a day job as head brewmaster at Surly Brewing Company. Since 2005, Haug and partner Omar Ansari's crew at Surly have revolutionized beer in Minnesota.
This weekend, Surly releases their hugely anticipated Darkness Imperial Stout, which has craft beer fans lining up and camping out like metalheads would for concert tickets back in the day. Appropriately, the brewery is hosting Darkness Day featuring a performance by Powermad. Gimme Noise spoke to Haug about these developments and the band's current status.
Hey Todd, thanks for talking to me for a minute.
Todd Haug: Definitely, I was just outside talking to our guy who's dropping off some oak for the smoke. That's for a beer we make every fall, comes out around the time of Thanksgiving.
Is it ever a situation where you might not have a beer finished for an event like this?
Absolutely. We never like to cut it too close. But as we've gotten bigger and the tanks are allocated for the regular beers it can get tight. Until we get the new place running it's going to be a struggle. The beers that people make a big deal about, like Darkness are a tiny, tiny part of our production. But that's what makes it special. This year I think we made 300 barrels of Darkness, more than we've ever made, but that's how much we'd make of Furious in just one week. It's important to us, we love doing but it's not the only thing we're about. It's like if you're a guitar player and you can do this one lick really well and that's it and that's all people talk about.
Oh, you got plenty of awesome licks at Surly!
So what is it about Darkness that people flip out about?
I been working in brewing since I was 21. We've had a hometown approach to it. A lot of people 8 years ago didn't know about brew pubs. There's so much great beer all over the world that isn't being represented in this area, tons of flavor. Let's make hyper-agressive, hyper-flavorful beer that people will not forget whether they like it or not. With Darkness specifically, there wasn't any huge Russian Imperial Stouts being made outside of brewpubs. It makes a statement when you make a beer that's that huge. You really aren't trying to sell as much beer as you can, you aren't really trying to cut costs because it's labor intensive. It's not necessarily easy to make. It's unique within the style.
We don't use any coffee in ours. There's a lot of hops. I think a big part of it is the attitude we bring with it, using different artists. The name was inspired from the Dave Chappelle skit, it was never an evil thing. I just wanted make the darkest, blackest beer that light couldn't go through. That was the goal. We started with the blackest color and now we've gotten metal into the fold, which we just love and which Omar has been tolerant about.
Haha! I suppose. So what's it been like getting Powermad back together? You've been on and off for a few years now right?
We did a festival in Germany this Summer. We played at Three Floyds Brewery this Spring. I am pretty sure we're the only metal band that's played two different Russian Imperial Stout releases.
You'd been apart for quite some time though. When did you actually split up?
Well we never officially disbanded. We sort of dissolved into doing other things back in '91 and we started getting requests in 2007 to do festivals in Europe. We never toured there back in the day which was a big mistake. Our label didn't really support us to do that back then. They really didn't know what to do with us. Warner Bros. at the time dropped like a 100 metal bands from their label because of grunge. But there's still a huge market over there. Everything always comes full circle. There's people that were like "I been waiting 20 years to see you guys!" Over there they love multi-genres of metal. It's not like "I only like death metal" or "I only like black metal," there's so many different styles of metal now and they're into all of it. It's kind of like beer, you can enjoy a well made craft lager or Darkness or anything and everything in between. It's all about the right thing at the right time.
What would be the corresponding butt rock or hair metal kind of beer?
Haha! In my head because of the era and the time it was this insipid lite beer you'd drink a 30 pack of and get wasted, like Busch Light or Coors.
What's fun for me is I still like to go to metal shows and how many guys that I've respected for years and top of their field are drinking well craft beer. The guys in Mastodon, it's cool to see them and their excited to talk to the brewers about beer with us. As we're getting older we want less quantity and more quality. It's cool to go to First Avenue now, a club I used to go to and played with Powermad when we opened for Anthrax in '87 and they have our beer there.
When we used to tour I was trying good beer from all over the country and once we stopped I started home brewing and got a job working at Summit. We were close to having a new record deal but our drummer quit and I broke my finger at work which is no good for a guitar player so we decided to kind of take an indefinite break. We talk about it now and none of us really knew what the fuck happened. I was 18 then and I really liked my job.
There was a really big metal scene here at that time and Powermad were really the most breakaway metal band. But why do think none of the bands from here got that big? You know, like Metallica kind of big?
I think Minnesota was known for all these other types of music, punk, blues, a lot of pop stuff, Prince of course, but there was never really acceptance of the metal stuff here. We were always wondering why City Pages didn't write about us. We were signed to a major label, we were in a David Lynch movie, all this stuff and local press didn't get it, care or didn't think it was important to write about. We were really just doing our own thing really. It was a really different world then, it wasn't as easy to get information out as it is now.
Sure, it was all very underground.
Metal in general didn't get the respect and it's still kind of that way today.
Well, that's always been metal's thing, to kind of have it's own force and not be very popular. It seemed at the time the metal scene worked the same way the punk scene was going. Powermad, Impaler, Coup De Grace attracted some of the punk underground too.
Totally, we'd do shows with Impaler and Blind Approach. It was certainly an awesome time but yeah it all kind of stayed underground.
So you have to be pretty excited things are going well with the band now. You have a new record coming out?
Yeah, we have a new drummer now. He's awesome, he's also in a band called Soilwork and recorded the new record with us. There's the big show on Saturday and we should have it out this Fall. As soon as it's done we'll do a big release show early next year. We released the one song, "Souls Descending" as a teaser this year and we're finishing up the rest. Since it's all self funded we have been making all the decisions and it doesn't feel like how when we put out Absolute Power for Warner Bros. We're really just doing this for ourselves now. It harkens back to what we've been all about. We're going to finish the record whether anyone wants to hear it or not.
Being older now and working everyday how you do, was any of the process of brewing applied to making this record?
The tenacity of any of us who work everyday and get into something that you really want to do. I think young musicians take that for granted. If you can make creative music and that's what you do it's pretty amazing and an opportunity most people don't get to have. I think now we cherish doing it more than ever. It's a huge as being a brew master and making music, their both huge creative outlets for me.
Powermad headling Darkness Day this Saturday, 10/27 with Wolvhammer, We Are Legion and God Came From Space at the Surly Brewery 4811 Dusharme Dr., Brooklyn Center, 55429. Music stars at 11am. Free and All Ages welcome.
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