The Adults Are Alright
A friend half-seriously counseled me to start lying about my age. "You could pass for 25," he assured me. "Give it a shot." Like I need one more depressing proposition to mull over as I teeter on the cusp of 30. "Nothing," I told him, "could possibly make me feel any older."
That's not entirely true. Visiting the Foxfire Coffee Lounge, for instance, makes me feel much older. As all good clubgoers know, there's really no such thing as an "all-ages" rock show. Eschew a liquor license and only the most determined adults and white-knuckled 12-steppers will scout the local talent. The Foxfire has attempted to sidestep this problem, in part, by allowing readmission, thus enabling legal imbibers (and resourceful minors) to slip out into downtown Minneapolis and fortify themselves with something stronger than a latte between sets. None of which seems to have pushed the median age of Foxfire habitués into the 20s.
Still, my presence in the brick-walled, high-ceilinged café doesn't feel obtrusive. There's an invisibility that comes with adulthood at the Foxfire. When these kids see you, they see right through you, just as Jane Wiedlin once sang before any of them were born. One night it occurs to me, while I glance around the crowded café unnoticed, that age has nothing to do with facial lines. It's a trick of the eyes: whether they look expectant, like they're still waiting for something to happen, or reminiscent, like they're recalling something that's already happened.
As I'm thinking this, Aaron Mader and Matt Scharenbroich of the Plastic Constellations pass by, recognize me, and interrupt my reverie with a "Hi." I'm relieved. Since last fall, the Constellations have provided the teenage rock scene its only real buzz story, making the boys potential Trashmen among their increasingly numerous underground peers. Now I feel like the cool young history teacher who shows up at pep rallies instead of the weird guy who is always parked across from the school.
A few minutes later I run into Constellations bassist Jordan Roske and tell him how I've been pondering maturity. He asks my age and I don't lie. "You're not too old," he assures me in a tone that leaves me underassured.
I first met with these flannel-flying, ramshackle Hopkins residents for breakfast a few weeks earlier at the Uptown Perkins. Guitarist Aaron Mader turned 17 years old that day, and he wanted the complimentary birthday muffin that only Perkins is good enough to provide. But I'd been hearing about the Constellations since last fall, from all quarters. They "sounded like Pavement," I was told, a rough verbal reduction of the Constellations' herky-jerky guitar mistunings, and a kind of scenester shorthand for any sort of indie rock that isn't pedal-to-the-floor punk or gently sculpted pop. In any case, the Constellations were already much beloved by just about anyone who'd seen them.
In interviews, the burden of playing band historian usually falls on co-guitarist Jeff Allen. "When we were in junior high," he says of himself and Mader, "we were really dumb kids and we had no friends, so we decided to play really bad pop songs together."
"Really, really bad pop songs," Mader corrects him, his mouth still full of muffin.
"Then, for some reason or another, we decided to stick with it. Then these other guys showed up," he motions over at Roske and Scharenbroich, "and then we became a really bad band."
After annoying friends at some local parties, the Constellations chose an opening berth for the tranquil pop band Low at the 7th Street Entry to make their Minneapolis debut last summer. By their own admission, they flubbed it valiantly. While patrons downed drinks at their tables, the Constellations banged their collective head on punk rock with unintelligible joy and headed back to Hopkins with few converts to their cause.
"Then the Foxfire opened up," says Mader. The four of them hung out at the new venue religiously, and Mader even wrote a letter of appreciation to Foxfire booker Tom Rosenthal. "In the fall, I brought Tom our seven-inch and asked if we could set up a record-label showcase." The putative label, Pretentious Records, featured the since disbanded band Intentional Mishap and current Constellations alter egos the Killer Bees. ("We dress up in bee suits and play punk rock," Allen explains. "Then we just start yelling at the audience. They usually hate us.")
None of the Constellations are clear about when their ineptitude subsided, but it must have been sometime before last fall, when they recorded their debut EP, We Got the Movement with the Selby Tigers' Dave Gardner producing. Though hardly axis-shifting, the EP is a composite of indie rock circa 1999 in the best sense of that phrase: The band's anthemic surge recalls Lifter Puller; their interlocking guitars suggest the Archers of Loaf; and their spirited yowls smack of emocore with only the good emos.
Unsurprisingly, they've caught flack from more stringently hardcore substrata of the Foxfire scene. "We opened up for the Dillinger Four," Scharenbroich recalls. "These dudes from Holy Angels High School were yelling, You suck! We were hoping they could take themselves a little less seriously."
"I was like, 'Don't you see we're trying to enlighten you? We've brought all different styles of people here together to hate us,'" Mader says. "They weren't having it. They were like, 'Less talk. More D4.'"
The recollection generates a brief discussion about what local band's fans might most threaten the Constellations' well-being. D4 fans might inflict more bodily harm, they decide. "Low fans might write angry poems about us," Roske offers.
My omelet distracts me for a careless moment, and the interview reels beyond my control. I look up and Roske is talking about how Fabio was injured in a New Jersey amusement park while filming an I Can't Believe It's Not Butter commercial. "You gotta be careful on roller coasters. And in New Jersey," he says. This spirals off into loose talk about Springsteen videos on VH1. "They had this footage of Max Weinberg before he was on Conan," someone says. Can you imagine?
Then Mader relates how a recent road trip to Duluth spawned a band mythology. "We came up with the concept of our next album, which is Let's War!, using war--and this is important--as a verb," he explains. "Basically we represent the Movement, and it's the Movement versus the Serpent." There's more to this enthusiastic scheme, apparently, but I just nod politely and calculate the tip.
Two weeks later, when the band takes the stage at the Foxfire, this idea resurfaces. Allen provides the background to the album's title cut for a bemused audience. "It's us--the Movement--versus the Serpent, or... [his fingers hook into air quotes] Society."
"If we play this song, the Serpent doesn't get us," Mader continues. "Then we'll play some rock songs after this," he promises.
Scharenbroich unleashes a Ringo-worthy splatter of crash and ride cymbals, and each Constellation takes his verse in turn on the heroic "Let's War!" Mader flutters his eyelids with Muppet-like animation. Allen simply explodes. Roske lodges himself staunchly center stage. Anyone listening who's not laughing too hard bounces with approbation. After a year of practice, this group has translated its klutzy in-joke into a kind of public celebration. And they're playing as tightly as I've heard them yet. (When I saw them in May, they were beset by technical difficulties, and Mader was forced to appease the crowd with Jar Jar Binks impressions while his bandmates replaced strings.)
Skeptics have opined that young bands like the Constellations merely serve to reassure aging punks afflicted by technophobia and bad ol' "Disco sucks," clubfoot resentment--rockers who hoped to pass a torch to someone, anyone. And to some extent, the Constellations are indeed a quartet of fresh faces for oldsters to project their expectations onto. They're not jaded, goes the usual compliment.
But what's more important, they're also not misfits. There's something reassuringly safe and suburban about these kids. With a poker face that suggests a latent smirk, Allen has the countenance of a smart-ass who gets you in trouble when you sit next to him in class. Roske looks like the kid who never learns not to sit next to him. And, as hinted with "Let's War!" and their discussion of "The Movement," titles like "We Will Be Smiling Forever," "Tonite We Might," and "We Beat You Devil," they also have a playful take on opposition politics. But it's a game, and the Foxfire, with its square ceiling supports and overstuffed couches, is like a basement rec room. Playing in an indie band is no longer a statement of subcultural defiance. It's something to do while awaiting adulthood, like playing soccer.
Before their Foxfire set is over, Mader thanks the bands before them--Dwindle and the Wicked Farleys--for "kicking ass." "Hey, the Wicked Farleys are from Boston," Allen observes. "I wonder if they knew JFK Jr." He stifles audience guffaws. "Hey, it's not cool to laugh. He was as close to royalty as we have." He'll chew on this morsel of tabloid detritus for the rest of the show. "Show some respect," he demands at some point. "He was the son of--somebody famous."
It's a breakthrough moment. Though still surrounded by girls young enough to be my nieces, now I feel a bond. I feel young. I feel included, dammit. After all, unlike our parents, no one born in the Seventies and beyond has any cultural or generational obligation to give a shit about any member of the Kennedy family. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
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