SCHOENBURG: The entire Minneapolis underground scene is doing cassettes now

Alex Leeds, Billy Schoenburg, Graham Barton, Dane Hoppe
Alex Leeds, Billy Schoenburg, Graham Barton, Dane Hoppe
Photo by Cori Miller

Nuance, delicacy, and poise are things that you expect to come with age or time, or both -- not necessarily from some former music students residing in Minneapolis. SCHOENBURG -- made up of Billy Schoenburg, Graham Barton, Dane Hoppe, and Alex Leeds -- describe themselves as pop-rock, but they are so much more than that. Tracing their roots to Sufjan Stevens and Paul Simon, they make music whose pop leans more to the side of indie-folk and creeps in with a light touch that sets them apart from their peers.

Before their release of Selfish Luvv on cassette and residency at the Nomad World Pub on Thursday, Gimme Noise caught up with Billy and Graham to talk about their love of cassettes and how a fight with a bum was the beginning of a musical friendship.

Gimme Noise: You guys seem to do a lot of EPs. Why do you think this works for you?

Billy Schoenburg: Because they're easier to put together than a full album. It gives us a chance to find our sound. On this new album, we've reformed the sound; this was the process of us doing that.

Graham Barton: We stripped it down -- the sound and songwriting. It's more palatable now. We started with three people, and it's weird, because we tried to emulate the live show with three people on the record.

BS: We have four in the band now, so we can do almost anything, because we wrote this album with the idea of being able to play the songs live. It was a big goal of this album to be able to play in noisy bars. We ditched the acoustic guitar for the most part, even though it shows up on the EP here and there. Live, it's just the two guitars, bass, and drums.

This new album sounds very Beatles-esque. Are you trying to get an opening slot for Paul McCartney when he comes to town?

BS: [laughs] Oh, my god. I would die if that happened. There would be nowhere else to go from there.

There's always room to grow as an artist.

BS: Sure, there is. On Selfish Luvv we kicked it into standard songwriting forms. Graham and I have been doing a lot of the writing together. It didn't start out that way; at the beginning, it was mainly me as the songwriter and Graham was the full-on producer.

GB: Usually it starts from nowhere. He'll have a riff or a melody.

BS: Sometimes Graham will fill in lyrics.

GB: Sometimes we'll sit on a song for a while, if we're not feeling it.

BS: There's some pieces that have never seen the light of day. We've got about 20 works in progress.

That sounds like every band out there. Does it feel weird to play in a band with your moniker? Graham, are you thinking, "This guy must be the most narcissistic jerk ever to name a band after himself?"

GB: [laughs] It was very narcissistic, but he did get us to try and change it at one point.

BS: We've made it to this point with this name, and the band decided to keep it.
How has the band evolved over the years? Do you feel more comfortable as musicians now?

BS: Over the course of the last five years, it's morphed from me being in my room with an acoustic guitar to being more live oriented. I just started playing electric guitar. I'm six years behind when it comes to music. I'm just now learning how to use pedals.

GB: You're like a one-man-band stomping on the pedals.

BS: [laughs] I like collaborating with Graham. Right now, he's writing the shit that I wish I was writing in senior year of high school. We went to McNally together, and we lived down the hall from each other.

GB: The first time I heard of Billy, it was from my friend John who lived next door to me. He was telling me about how Billy started a fight with a bum outside. [to Billy] Did you punch him?

BS: It never got to the point of physical altercation. Those bums outside of 7th Place...

How did you two eventually meet?

GB: I heard about that bum fight, and John and I went to the bar downstairs. When we were walking back down the hall, John said, "You gotta go to Billy's place." So we were outside his door knocking, and I heard the sweet sounds of Sufjan Stevens.

BS: Yeah, Sufjan was the beginning. My stuff was mildly influenced by him when I first started writing.

GB: I was stuck with him from then on. I connected with him through hanging out and through music. It was a drive thing. He wanted to get something down as much as I did. It fit.

The way we do stuff now, we just throw a project together and figure it out along the way. It works, and it's very exploratory.

So did that include finding new ways to release music?

BS: Yeah, for this album, we're gonna have cassettes.

Do you think releasing on cassettes is gimmicky?

GB: There's a school of thought that they're gimmicky, so you want to buy it, 'cause not a lot of people have cassette players. The tapes sound great, though.

BS: Initially, to be honest, cost was a factor. They're cheap to make, and the entire underground scene in Minneapolis is doing cassettes now. It's accessible, and once you listen to it, you love how they sound. They're the right amount of shitty.

Our first EP really shined through with the cassette because we did duplicate at home, and everything was lo-fi to begin with. They it came out as this incredibly warm, earthy, "tape-y" sound that worked well with all of the songs. You listen to the digital version versus the cassette, and they're totally different things. It's like listening to vinyl versus digital. There's character. Also, when you put in a cassette, you're not gonna jump to the second track. You're gonna listen to this singular cassette.

GB: That's how I grew up listening to stuff. I grew up listening to TLC on cassette. You don't just memorize the space between the songs.

Did TLC influence this EP?

GB: They sure did. It is crazy, it is sexy, and damn, is it cool.

SCHOENBURG will release their EP on Thursday, June 5, with Rupert Angeleyes and Moon-Watcher, followed by a residency each Thursday in the month of June at the Nomad World Pub.

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