The Current's 7 years of good luck: Dessa, Mary Lucia & more weigh in

The Current, located at 89.3 on the FM dial, is far from just another a radio station. Over the past seven years, it has transformed into somewhat of a Twin Cities institution, offering an alternative to the redundancy of commercial radio while also acting as a musical rite of passage for up-and-coming local outfits of all stripes. It's a central, cultural power within a city constantly brimming with talent, and its audience and influence extends beyond the confines of our bustling metropolis.
And now with a (sold out) two-night birthday soiree taking place at First Avenue this weekend, which features a stacked lineup of local heavyweights both new and old (Night Moves, Polica, Low and Suicide Commandos, just to name a few), the Current's significance has never seemed more pronounced. It was a long way to the top. As longtime DJ Mary Lucia remembers it, commercial radio was in a dismal state seven years ago. The playlists had become painfully predictable. Oh, and Nickleback was pretty popular, too.

"It was right around that time when music had gotten particularly horrid," Lucia says. "I was a little bit skittish to pour my heart and soul in [the station] in the beginning especially when we didn't really know where we were going exactly."

Even from the outset, the Current's rotation schedule was a far cry from the tried-and-true conventions of more established stations. It delivered indie's rising stars as well as local stalwarts like then-newcomer P.O.S. and slow-core trio Low.

For former Gimme Noise editor Andrea Swensson, it was all a much-needed breath of fresh air. While 93X and the now-defunct Drive 105 had served as her go-to's for years, she was drawn to the station immediately, recognizing the DJs' willingness to explore music in and outside the Twin Cities that would otherwise go unnoticed.

But it wasn't until a sold-out Mumford & Sons show in 2009 when Swensson, who now serves as a local music blogger for the station, realized just how influential and popular the station had become.

"Mumford & Sons played an in-studio here and then they played a show at the Varsity the same night. I remember them saying over and over again 'we cannot believe how many people are here listening to us,'" Swensson says. "And it was all because a certain selection of songs were being played heavily on the Current and it just seemed very obvious to me for the first time and why that was happening."

At a previous show at the West Bank's 400 Bar, the band played for a little more than a handful of people. But when they returned two years later, they found themselves greeted by a packed room at the Varsity Theater. The show had reportedly sold out in a matter of minutes. However, Mumford & Sons were just one of the many success stories. Acts like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Dawes, and Duluth natives Trampled by Turtles, were suddenly being touted as local favorites and as their audiences grew, so did the station's. Swensson had a name for it too -- she called it the "Current Effect."

It's certainly a phrase that gained some traction among some circles. Lucia is more hesitant to take too much credit, and insists there was no way to anticipate it any of it.

"There are a handful of bands that sell out shows in Minneapolis that probably don't sell out shows in their hometown. It's crazy almost," Lucia says. "But nobody in their right minds had any idea about that. If we did, I think our programming would be very scientific."

But despite its national clout, the station continues to make a concerted effort to support the Twin Cities' own thriving local scene. And that doesn't stop short at simply sprinkling a track or two periodically into their sets each day. In addition to the weekly two-hour Local Show, hosted by David Campbell, which airs every Sunday, the Current also offers a 24/7 local stream devoted entirely to Minnesota acts. The online channel, launched last spring, includes regular commentary from the DJs, and features well-known locals like Atmosphere, the Replacements, and the Honeydogs, as well as more under-the-radar acts like fuzzed-out retro rockers Sleeping in the Aviary and garage punksters the Blind Shake.

Perhaps the Current's greatest feat is its exhaustive coverage of the local scene. Along with daily rotations, Campbell's show and the online stream, the station's provided musicians of all stripes with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to promote their work, inviting guests to perform for in-studio sessions regularly every week. They're at tastemaker status and local artists, both old and young, tend to agree.

  Andrew Jansen, frontman for Crimes and Dial-Up, relocated to Minneapolis from Milwaukee a year after the Current launched. Crimes made their debut appearance on the station last October and immediately after being featured on the Local Show, Jansen noticed a minor increase in album sales. One night, after a show a local filmmaker who had heard the band that previous Sunday approached him about making a music video. Jansen doesn't have any doubts about the existence of a "Current Effect" both on a local and national level.

"I had moved from a city and Minneapolis and the Current had taught me like 'no, you can be a musician.'" Jansen says. "It's probably the best asset for bands to break out. " While it continues to be an ideal outlet for younger, up-and-coming musicians, local veterans who were toiling away well before the Current existed have benefited too. Rapper Zach Combs (better known as Big Zach) of More Than Lights and Kanser, is a seasoned veteran of the Minneapolis hip-hop scene and recalls a very different climate when he started up in the '90s.

"20 years ago if I wanted to get props I'd have to go downtown and start battling. But if I was coming up now, I'd be trying to get on the Local Show," Combs says. "It's not necessarily harder, but it's different."

Combs was a featured guest on Campbell's show last December, stopping in to promote his latest book Headspins, Headshots & History: Growing Up in Twin Cities Hip-Hop -- a first-person account of life in South Minneapolis and the humble beginnings of the Rhymesayers empire.

Combs praised Campbell for his interviewing technique and mentioned how The Electric Fetus had run out of copies of his book just two days after the interview aired.

"David Campbell's questions aren't generic, they're interesting. He wasn't pretending to know more than he did. He was witty, he was funny," Combs says. "We sold out the Cabooze the week after the interview aired and I sold 500 books between then and Christmas. We definitely attribute that to the Local Show and the Current."

And even Doomtree's Dessa, perhaps one of the scene's most beloved and ever-popular figures, doesn't forget what the station did for her career and Doomtree's during their formative years.

"I didn't really have a frame of reference for what the Current would be [when it first started]. I didn't know how big and how comprehensive a station it would be," she says. "Organic growth is hard to do without players like the Current. . . I know that I've attracted new listeners that would've taken me years of work to attract only on the strength of my live show. And I think that growing a fan base by only playing concerts is a perfect way to do it but it's just so necessarily slow."

While she admits she didn't anticipate it, Dessa emphasized how the station has, in some ways, been instrumental in propelling her career, lauding the format and the opportunity it provides for independent artists.

"There's a lot of music I hear on The Current that I like and don't like but the fact that people get an audition is exciting. The fact that you don't have to be exceptionally well capitalized to be heard by the public is an exciting thing," she says. "The Current does help make the music scene a meritocracy. You get some airplay, you get a chance. And if you suck, then go back to the drawing board, make another record, right?"

89.3 the Current's 7th Birthday featuring Tapes 'N Tapes, Dead Man Winter, Low, and Night Moves on Friday, January 27. Polica, the Suicide Commandos, Sims, and Haley Bonar on Saturday, January 28. Both shows are Sold Out, at First Avenue; 612.332.1775.

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