Shaking the Family Tree
The Blind Shake
Learning Curve Records
Thelonious Monk was said to play the notes between the keys, sticking his fingers into those unreachable spaces where microtones and otherworldy scales live. True as that may have been, it's also impossible (a paradox which, considering Monk's paranormal mystique, was exactly the point). For those non-magical musicians closer to Earth, then, a more practical way to scratch those hard-to-reach notes is required.
Jim Blaha, guitarist and singer for local noise-rock trio the Blind Shake, works his own brand of off-key mystique into his songs, but through a more direct approach; he just tunes his guitar strings to whichever bizarro half-notes he thinks the song needs. If the next song is in a different tuning, he has another guitar prepped and waiting nearby. That this strategy requires him to tote no fewer than four guitars onstage every time he plays a show is a necessary, if showy, consequence.
"People probably see me walk in with all these guitars and go, 'Who the fuck is this guy?'" he says.
"They don't realize they're the shittiest $100 guitars you can buy," laughs his brother Mike, the Blind Shake's other singer/guitarist.
The siblings are eating dinner with their drummer, Dave Roper, at Grumpy's in downtown Minneapolis. They look like slightly skewed mirror images of each other: Both have shaved heads, short noses, and square jaws. Jim, a former track athlete, is svelte and inward; Mike, a former football star, is thicker, more talkative. Jim plays a standard guitar, while Mike plays the less-common baritone version. "He's 15 months older," says Mike, citing the number like it's a distance he's been running his whole life. "And I'm 15 pounds heavier."
Grumpy's is a tailor-made setting for a band like the Blind Shake. When it opened in the late '90s, owner Tom Hazelmeyer secured funding through his other venture, Amphetamine Reptile Records. Now, sipping sodas beside the bar's front windows, sit three guys who picked up the torch dropped by that noise-rock label's old standard-bearers--Hammerhead, Calvin Krime, the Cows, the Freedom Fighters--and are running hard with it. And if the band didn't already feel at home in this den of hard-drinking Melvins fans, the hulking dude behind the bar is none other than Rainer Fronz, founder of Learning Curve Records, the label that signed them. ("He can dunk," says Mike of the former basketball player-turned-post-punk impresario. Jim laughs. "Yeah, that's why we signed with him. Because he dunks.")
It's Thursday, and the band is skipping their usual rehearsal to recuperate from a three-week tour promoting their debut, Rizzograph, a hard-and-fast little album released on Learning Curve in October. Rizzograph is a quick study of the sonic formula that turned AmRep into one of the most successful indie labels in Minneapolis history. Each short song turns on a single, dissonant riff, with verse, chorus, and (the occasional) bridge all within a minor step. Even the vocal lines are delivered as riffs, hanging loosely on the rhythmic foundation, adjusting its shade and texture but never its shape. This high-energy blueprint runs through the entire record, making up in consistency what it lacks in dimension. Packaged as 12 90-second songs, Rizzograph could just as easily be one incredible 19-minute song. But then, when would Jim switch guitars?
The crowds on this most recent tour were especially rapt by the band's fuzzy noise blanket. "It was definitely our most successful tour yet," says Jim, who can't agree with Mike about whether it was the group's third or fourth tour. One thing they can agree on: Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is their favorite place to play. "They have a great scene up there," says Jim. "Kids were shouting our name and even singing along with our songs."
"It's so fun to play those small towns," adds Mike. "And the bands there are getting so good. It's funny, because you play there, and you kind of watch the kids grow up. They're getting taller. Their bands are getting better. Their girlfriends are getting hotter."
"If you print that last one they'll probably kick my ass," he adds with a chuckle.
The Blind Shake know something about the small-town experience, having been born and raised in Lake City, an ironically riverside little town 80 miles southeast of the Twin Cities ("The birthplace of water-skiing," Mike brags). After a short stint in Bovey, Minnesota (Mike: "Home of the picture Grace!"), the stir-crazy brothers migrated to the Twin Cities. When Roper, a high school chum, ditched law school and followed them to Minneapolis, they formed the band, taking their name from Omar Abdel-Rahman (a.k.a. the Blind Sheik), who was jailed for masterminding the first World Trade Center bombing ("It was funnier before September 11," Mike admits).
After four years of figuring out the Blind Shake sound, listening to Vaz records, and establishing the roles in the band--no easy task with two sibling rivals on guitar and nobody interested in playing bass--the group is anxious to record their next album and begin their fourth (or fifth) tour. It's hard to tell whether all this creative energy exists because of the brothers' natural competitiveness or in spite of it.
"That's the great thing," says Roper. "No matter how much they argue, the band can't break up."
"Yeah," says Mike. "Because I know where he lives. I know where he'll be eating dinner on Thanksgiving."
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