In a south Minneapolis apartment filled with only the very best thrift-store scores (including a dazzling glass grape collection), its walls covered in the artwork of its dwellers, Howard W. Hamilton III and Laura Bennett are living and creating in sweet harmony.
They're the ultimate DIYers; their band Red Pens' CD was mastered, mixed, produced, and anything else you can think of by Hamilton. Their music is both salty and sweet, incorporating droning background loops and walls of abstract sound à la Sonic Youth/My Bloody Valentine, while remaining joyfully melodious à la the Jesus and Mary Chain. And Hamilton is a master of the bendy, distorted guitar string, and an ingenious looper, using cool effects such as a scratching record spinning in endless rotation to break into song. These tunes make you want to dance foot-to-foot, Peanuts-style. If Red Pens were a flavor, they would be butterscotch—sugary and slightly weird.
While Hamilton, a music-scene alum formerly of the Busy Signals, tends to business like a tugboat captain, Red Pens' drummer Bennett fuels the creative fires with her sunshiny optimism. A Beloit, Wisconsin, native, Bennett came to the Twin Cities after hearing about a magical place called First Avenue, and it is easy to imagine her arriving at the Greyhound station, crossing the street to the club, and forever being transformed.
Hamilton and Bennett recently sat down with City Pages to talk about their lives as artists and their new CD, Reasons.
City Pages: Laura, you started in your school band, right?
Laura Bennett: Yeah, in fifth grade. I liked the outfits because they looked like Sgt. Pepper.
CP: Do you think they ever got washed?
Bennett: No, they were totally wool. I didn't ask questions.
CP: You are both visual artists—does the music trigger the art, does the art trigger the music, or is it just two separate places in your brain?
Bennett: When I am playing music, I am always picturing things to paint.
Howard Hamilton: I definitely egg on her art. The music inspires her art—the better we do together, the more art she makes. And it all becomes a process of trying to impress each other. "I got this song, she is going to like this! I am going to make her a sandwich, she is going to like this!" This is all about us.
Bennett: Together, it is crazy how the cogs and sprockets fit.
Hamilton: And I am saving my art up for when I am old—when I look ridiculous playing guitar, then I'll be an artist.
CP: You have the artwork: Here's what it looks like. You have the music: Here's what it sounds like. And you have the words: Here's what it means to me. That's so cool.
Bennett: When I paint, [it expresses] what sounds look like to me. One of them inspires the other, so I will never be without inspiration.
CP: Then, with anything that you do in the arts, it is an act of faith—to hope that someone will relate to it.
Bennett: We want to see who reacts to it, naturally. But being able to do what you really, really love, that fills you up.
CP: Do you go see other bands play?
Bennett: Yes, but we won't even look at a schedule—it is just total unconditional love [of music]. We just look for bands that we want to play with or that would want to play with us.
CP: Your whole process is very organic.
Hamilton: I stopped making music [in a band] for a couple of years. I was making music for advertising, which wasn't satisfying. Then I met Laura. We met because a friend asked, "Have you ever seen Laura Bennett's art?" I checked it out and instantly thought, "I see something in this that I don't usually see."
Bennett: I heard his music and I said, sheepishly, "So are you playing right now...do you want to be in a band?"
Hamilton: It all came from that; it all came from her art. I wasn't planning on writing songs anymore, but her raw enthusiasm brought me back out. Before, I was making music to find someone to discover it—and now I feel we are more willing to earn it. There is a whole "little band that could" mentality for this band.
Bennett: Chugga-chugga-chugga [laughs]. We had five people the first show and then ten; it was a few new people each time, and one more repeat offender. And, for me, every show feels like I am having the biggest night of my life. I am not worried about getting a big head because I am too busy worrying about keeping my shoes on.
CP: [laughing] It is hard to keep your shoes on!
Hamilton: Everything we have done has literally led to the next thing. We see results that are tiny—like watering a plant. That is the way we want to do it.
CP: I love the plant metaphor, and Laura's enthusiasm is the super-power fertilizer.
Bennett: Yeah, I love the sweet torture of it. I feel, and I feel, and I feel. I know I have something really good here.
RED PENS play with Black Hollies and Awesome Snakes on SATURDAY, JUNE 13, at the TURF CLUB, 651.647.0486; and RED PENS play a CD-release show with the Vignettes, Sharp Teeth, and Total Babe on SATURDAY, JUNE 20, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775