Standing Your Ground: Cecile Cloutier interviews Treehouse Records owner Mark Trehus


Interview by Cecile Cloutier

Mark Trehus has been working at the corner of 26th Street and Lyndale Avenue for nearly 25 years, first as manager of Oarfolkjokeopus, and later buying the store and changing the name to Treehouse in 2001. It’s been a hard decade for record stores, but Treehouse managed to stick around and even catch a bit of a sales wave with the recent vinyl revival.

Treehouse Records has always reflected Trehus’s strong political beliefs: For years, there was a “Say No to War with Iraq” sign posted in the store’s window, and in 2004, Trehus teamed up with the Dillinger Four for a cover of “Masters of War” with the proceeds going to Iraqi refugee relief. This year, the store’s seventh annual anniversary benefit is dedicated to Common Ground Relief, an organization rebuilding New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. The benefit show is this Friday, April 4, at the Turf Club.

City Pages: How did you get involved with Common Ground Relief?

Mark Trehus: Well, as you know New Orleans is near and dear to me. Ever since I set foot in that city I just, always, always, always felt a special connection and that I would someday want to live there. After [Hurricane Katrina], I was devastated and heartbroken. I have probably more friends in New Orleans than I do anywhere outside of the Twin Cities. Most of them haven’t been able to return due to various reasons, mostly financial.

CP: Now have you been back since Katrina?

MT: Yeah, I went back one time. It was for the Jazz and Heritage Festival last year.

CP: What was it like? I know you talked about your feelings after Katrina but what was it like to actually experience it?

MT: Alex Chilton drove me back there. The first couple of days I was there, it was “it looks like things are recovering”. Then he took me back [to the inner city] and I had this rotten, horrible, ugly feeling in my stomach. It must have been 15 minutes that I just …couldn’t… talk. One family, on the outside of their house they had spray-painted simply, “This was our home”. And there was nothing left but one wall, the foundation ... You do not get a sense looking at pictures of how vast the devastation is. It’s just mile after mile of utter devastation. Occasionally there will be somebody who’s braved it, who’s fixed up their home, who’s got a generator for their electricity and bottled water. It’s hard to believe it’s America. Two years on, the people who see [news items] on TV about the Superbowl or they’re watching Cops or something and seeing Bourbon Street, they think that New Orleans is back. It’s not.

CP: So why Common Ground Relief instead of another relief organization?

MT: I had heard of Common Ground and people going down there to volunteer. But until I saw [journalist Greg Palast’s film Big Easy to Big Empty] three months ago, I hadn’t really seen what the organization had done. When Alex had taken me to tour back there [last year], I had seen the Common Ground headquarters in the lower 9th Ward. It was the one place that was [still] standing in this [destroyed] area, but by no means in great shape. It’s this building that holds the volunteers and they’re sleeping 30 people to a room down there. So when I saw the video, I decided then and there that this was going to be my charity of choice until it ceases to be …

CP: Until they don’t need it any more.

MT: Which, sad to say, may never be. Or because they [Common Ground] burn out. God forbid: I hope they don’t. They are doing a wonderful grassroots job down there. They are building houses specifically for the poor people of New Orleans who can’t afford to move back. I think they definitely need more volunteers down there and they sure could use some more money. After seeing that film I decided I wanted to do something and I immediately wrote out a check for $1000. It’s not like I have a lot of extra money floating around, but compared to what these people have lost?

CP: This is the first year?

MT: This is it. I just started doing this because I want to think of Treehouse as more than just a record store, as a place where you’re making a political choice to shop there or work there, and in my case make some decisions in life based on politics and social conscience. As long as Treehouse is in business, every year there’s going to be a benefit for Common Ground.