Ed Ackerson, who helped shape the sound and style of Minneapolis music for more than three decades, died of pancreatic cancer on Friday afternoon. He was 54 years old.
Ackerson played many roles in local music over the years. He fronted numerous bands, including Polara, the 27 Various, the Dig, and BNLX. He produced and recorded artists at Flowers, the studio he established in Uptown in 1999. He released albums on the record label he founded, Susstones. And he constantly promoted local shows and festivals.
"The way Ed handled a stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis was truly a reflection of his remarkable character,” Ed’s wife and BNLX bandmate Ashley Ackerson wrote on Facebook this weekend. “He didn't sit around and mope, he fought it as hard as he could with a positive attitude, he kept making music for himself and others, we traveled and continued to do the things we love to do until he had to say goodbye to us. He was peaceful and at home with his family and friends. He left this world smiling."
Born in Stillwater, Ackerson first made his name in Minneapolis in the ’80s with Mod-influenced groups like the 27 Various and the Dig. The synthier Polara attracted national attention in the ’90s, eventually landing on Interscope—at the worst possible time to sign with a major, as the alt-rock bust and corporate consolidation stranded midlevel bands with little support from their labels. But no matter what project he was working on, Ackerson pushed boundaries and challenged conventions. His music always sounded fresh and contemporary, echoing the past in unique, modern ways.
Ackerson was fiercely proud of the music he recorded and released, but very modest about his own work. I interviewed him many times over the years, and each time he would excitedly talk up new musical discoveries, young bands he was working with, and albums he was producing for artists he loved and respected. Ackerson would diligently answer questions about BNLX’s music, but he truly lit up when talking about his friends’ new records, new bands he’d seen live, and future collaborations he was helping to make happen. He was a real champion of new music, continually in tune with what was coming next.
Some of the biggest names in Twin Cities music passed through Flowers, including the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Motion City Soundtrack, and the Replacements. But Ackerson also generously shared his recording expertise with countless younger bands, introducing them to what a professional studio could do for their sound. He offered advice and expertise to musicians young and old, helping them navigate the music industry and capture the sounds they heard in their heads.
Ackerson was also a true gearhead. His knowledge of musical equipment was astounding, and he was proud to show off all the new guitars, amps, microphones, pedals, or percussion he brought in to Flowers. He knew precisely what equipment was needed to capture a specific sound, and could tell you why one option was better than another. Ed knew the history of the equipment as well, where and how things were made, what studio used which equipment for various bands and albums. There wasn't a sound that Ackerson couldn't chase down or a musical experiment that he couldn't make work. Visiting Ackerson at Flowers was like entering a scientist's lab or a painter’s atelier.
The last time I interviewed Ackerson was in 2018, as BNLX were making a comeback after taking a couple of years off following the birth of Ed and Ashley's daughter Annika. Ed was such a proud and doting father, and he totally embraced the responsibilities of parenthood and how it helped usher in a welcome new phase of his life.
"I never really experienced adulthood until about two years ago,” he said. “All these people that I knew who had kids and were doing that kind of adult stuff, I was always like, ‘These people are so lame. They aren’t touring or hanging out at the bar until 2 a.m. every night.’ But then all of a sudden, I fell subject to adulthood myself, and I was like, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ I have an enormous amount of empathy for people who are adults in a way that I never did before.”
A GoFundMe started by Ackerson’s Polara bandmate Daniel Boen quickly surpassed its $50,000 goal but is still accepting donations on behalf of the family.
The Twin Cities music scene will never be quite the same without Ed Ackerson in it. But the Twin Cities music scene will also never be the same because of Ed Ackerson. He pushed our local sound in inventive new directions, and helped influence and mentor countless bands, in and out of Minnesota, who continue to shape the sound of the future.
Above all, Ackerson was happy to be a part of this tight-knit local music community. "This is really just a neighborhood concern," he said of Flowers and the nearby clubs he played at. "A really loud one."
So let's turn the music up really loud in honor of Ed Ackerson. And let’s live as he did, with generosity, kindness, compassion, and creativity.