There's something inherently mysterious about the Pines' dusky, timeless folk music--the way it sinks into the listener's bones like a deep winter chill, the way it only improves with time and age like a bottle of wine forgotten in the cellar for 50 years and then unearthed and uncorked. Even more mysterious is the process of watching the music emanate from the players' mouths and hands live, as Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt make for a rather unnassuming pair--a couple of Iowa farmboys who just so happen to have a knack for creating expansive, emotive, and brooding Americana. The duo have been part of the Minneapolis music scene for years now, and the fact that they don't seem to fit neatly into any of the similar-sounding local scenes--the traditional West Bank folkies, the hipsters-turned-old-timey revivalists, the bleeding-heart singer-songwriters--speaks to their ability to transcend trends and labels and press themselves into something unique and incomparable.
Their latest CD, Tremolo, released this weekend, finds Ramsey experimenting with vocal vibrato and falling in and out of time with the rest of the music, adding another dreamlike nuance to this band's already dense and foggy mystique. We sat down with Ramsey and Huckfelt recently to talk about their new album, their relationship with local label Red House records, and their position in the local music community.
Benson Ramsey: It's not meant too literally. The word refers to a musical effect, of wavering in and out, and I think that fits us. We had taken some time off and we were in and out of some different realities. I think time off is just as important as time on, and words said are just as important as words not said, and notes played on the guitar --notes you don't play are sometimes louder and more important than notes you do play. Half of the day you are asleep, and half the day you are awake, so there's a tremolo between dreams and your walking life, your waking life. I think that was the idea.
David Huckfelt: I think that applies to the record lyrically, too, the imagery in the record. This record has felt pretty dreamlike. I don't think there's too much about it that's very literal. You can't follow it the way you would a story-song or a pop song. It just kind of hits you and goes away and comes back. Mysterious.
Can you give me a rundown of how the new album came together?
Ramsey: The new record came about in the spring of '09. We conceived it in March and recorded it in May, after some time off. The whole goal with the record was to have it be fairly spontaneous and live in the studio, as a snapshot of that time period with our friends that we were playing with.
Huckfelt: Most of the songs were written in that short period of time, March and April, and then recorded in two days, a day and a half, and mixed in a day. Very quickly.
When you play live, how often is it just the two of you and how often is it a full band?
Ramsey: It's always different. Sometimes we go out with just bass, sometimes just drums, sometimes just keyboards. Nowadays we're bringing someone out with us more and more. We'll bring along somebody and try a different formation. And sometimes we just like to do the duo - it depends on circumstances. Sometimes it's nice just to have the duo and have that space.
Do you write songs together, or does one of you take the lead?
Huckfelt: We write songs together and separately, and we work on them together, but it's as close to a full collaboration that you can get. Sometimes we write from scratch. Sometimes one of us has a song that's almost finished, and we bring it to the table, and maybe it remains the same, maybe it gets taken through the process and changed up quite a bit. When we have people play with us, we don't tell anybody what to play or how to play. So it's kind of like they are writing their own parts, JT, James, and Alex.
How do you decide who sings?
Ramsey: It just sort of happens. There's no formula whatsoever, to any of it.
Huckfelt: It happens naturally from playing all our duo shows. I think a lot of our songs grow out of just playing. We've been playing together for quite a long time, so it's pretty easy for the process to start taking shape naturally.
When did you first play together?
Ramsey: We first started playing together in 2002, I believe. 2003. Tuscon, Arizona. That's where we started. We banged it out there for quite a while, and then came back here.
What has it been like working with Red House? When you're on the road, do you notice their presence in the music community?
Ramsey: We probably notice it more on the road than in the Cities. They are very well respected, and it gives us pride to work with them and it also makes us work hard to carry ourselves well. They keep us up to a certain standard, because they've been around a long time, and within that world, the so-called "folk world," they are very well respected, and they're independent, and they've built it off of hard work and quality. That's something we take a lot of pride in. We see it everywhere we go.
Huckfelt: We're on the East Coast a couple times a year, and someone might come out to hear you once because they're fans of Red House. But they probably won't come twice unless you play the best show you can. So that's always our goal, to serve ourselves well and serve our audience well, and the label. But Red House definitely helps to get people to pay attention to what you're doing.
Ramsey: The great thing about them is - this time in the music business, everything is sort of out of control. No one knows really where it's going, as far as the business part. What's really comforting about Red House is even though the CD, the record as an art form, no one knows where that's going - but they really believe in putting out a good record. That's what it's all about. That's really amazing.
To my ears, your sound changed drastically when you signed to Red House and released Sparrows in the Bell. Do you feel like something changed around that time?
Ramsey: We like to mix it up. That first record [The Pines], we did in Iowa with these Iowa musicians, longtime friends and family, and they're rock and roll guys, so I think the album came out a little more like that. We like to work with different musicians and have them bring their vibe to the table, and I think with the next record it was a different feel. I don't really know why that is. Maybe just the time of year or something. I remember it being very sunny the first time we recorded, and then with Sparrows in the Bell it was really dark and gloomy out. I don't think it's really a gloomy record, by any means, but that might have played a part in it.
Do you feel like the different seasons affect your productivity or creativity?
Huckfelt: Definitely. We had never really taken a break, an intentional break from performing and touring since we started. We don't go out for long trips, but we go out very frequently. This last year we decided that, in the wintertime, we would hold off on touring for a while. It's a great time to be productive, especially in Minnesota.
People talk a lot about the West Bank folk scene in Minneapolis, especially how prominent it was in the '60s. Do you feel like there's a tangible folk scene now, and are you a part of it?
Ramsey: I don't think people know what folk is. I don't know what folk is. I know what it was, and I think there are definitely people out there carrying on that idea. But these words get tossed around so much nowadays that - I don't feel part of anything. At all. If anything, I feel sort of isolated.
Huckfelt: Nostalgia is king. People freeze something in a timeframe and refer to it endlessly, when actually, musically, some things that are going on that no one would ever call folk have all kinds of elements of folk music - songcraft, melody. I don't think there's a scene or a movement; people always keep going back to their roots with American music, that's going to happen always.
Ramsey: We've done more shows with Solid Gold than we've done with folk bands. Mystery Palace. That's folk music too, I guess, if you break it down to the nitty gritty. It's all rock and roll, really, after a certain point.
Who are your other local favorites?
Ramsey: There's so many. We are definitely big fans of the West Bank folk guys, and then there's a lot of new bands - Solid Gold is great. Mystery Palace. Kill the Vultures. Roma di Luna. Spaghetti Western. Haley Bonar. James Buckley, Fat Kid Wednesdays.
Huckfelt: And Charlie Parr. That probably gets pegged as traditional folk.
Ramsey: A Whisper in the Noise. I like them. I've never met them or seen them live, but I like their record.
Huckfelt: Not a lot of folkies in there.
You work pretty closely with the Spaghetti Western musicians (who are opening for the Pines at their CD-release show this weekend). Have you thought about collaborating with them on a project?
Ramsey: Yeah, we've been talking about it for years. It's just a matter of time and space. We'd love to. We're very lucky to get to play with them.
Huckfelt: They're great guys.
The Cedar seems like the perfect place to have your CD-release.
Ramsey: It's a fantastic venue. We're really lucky, in the Twin Cities - those venues are pretty rare nowadays. And they bring in music from all over the world, to this small Midwestern city. We are totally excited to get to play there.
Huckfelt: Our live shows have evolved - we used to do a lot of bars. Over the last couple years or so, we've reached a point where places like the Cedar, places where people have a sense of appreciating the songs, it's felt better to do those kind of shows. We'll probably swing back and do - maybe next year we'll be playing more rock clubs.
Ramsey: [grinning and shaking head no]
Huckfelt: We really prefer the listening rooms.
THE PINES play a CD-release show with Spaghetti Western String Co. on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23 at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER.