The Lower 48's Ben Braden: We've changed from a folk band to a rock band

The Lower 48's Ben Braden: We've changed from a folk band to a rock band
Marshall Scheider

Back in 2009, a band on the cusp of adulthood packed up their belongings and left their home in Minneapolis to strike out for the fabled greener pastures of the Pacific Northwest, whistling a traveling tune as they waved goodbye. The Lower 48 of that era had charmed hearts in the Twin Cities with folksy homespun melodies and wistful songs of heartland love, but four years is a long time.

The band now calls Portland home, and has undergone a few member shifts, while still retaining the original singer-songwriter duo of Sarah Parson and Ben Braden. The change of scenery provided new and fertile ground for the band, who have grown away from the vulnerable strumming of their debut album, Where All Maps End, toward a brassy, classic pop sound. Rounded out by the crisp drumming and rich harmonies of Nick Sadler, the Lower 48 of today project a joyous new outlook reminiscent of the Love Language or the Decemberists circa The King Is Dead.

Gimme Noise called Ben at his home in Portland to chat about their new singles and the band's growth since they left the Midwest.

GN: How has the Lower 48 evolved since you left Minneapolis all those years ago? Are you roughly the same band?

BB: We've been gone from Minneapolis for a while, and there's sort of a disconnect, but we've really changed from a folk band to a rock band. We've become more of a '60s pop band, like old-school pop music. Back when it was still rock 'n' roll and had a bunch of integrity. The Stones have been really influential, heavily influenced by the Kinks and the Stones and the Beatles, kind of in the last year or so.

We had this moment about a year ago where we had another member and we decided to kick him out, for various reasons. We were really close with this person, and it was a really hard decision. When you're kicking someone out of something that takes up a lot of time in their lives, the time is gone and it's pretty tough. But we did it, and then, like immediately we underwent this ridiculous creative explosion, and it's still going. It just fit. The band now, me, Nick, and Sarah, this is it. This is how it's gonna be.

GN: You recently recorded a new song that we hadn't heard before called "Setting Sun" that has much more of a '60s vibe. Something like that?

BB: We're getting to know this new studio that we're going to be spending a lot of time in here. They're currently fixing their tape machine, and we want to record everything to tape, or as much as we can, but it's not done yet. We had this old demo of "Setting Sun" that we recorded back in March of last year, so we just did a bunch of overdubs on that old "Setting Sun" and finished it. That's why it was the first one. It was us learning the studio and learning the sounds, so it worked as a nice little intro. There's more to come that's better, more advanced and cooler!

GN: There's some new instrumental elements on it, like piano/organ and a Sgt. Pepper's horn section. Are you guys aiming to expand your sound in that direction?

BB: Yes, we got a lot more into horns and strings and "bigger" sounds. One thing I would say that isn't on that song that will be on more to come is a little more rock 'n' roll guitar. I think that is because of the member thing, all of a sudden there's no weak links. We just got into playing loud and a little faster, and we started writing songs that fit that a little more. We discovered that a trio is really different from playing in a quartet.

GN: Is that building toward a single or a whole new record?

BB: Yeah, we're gonna put out singles and I think that song is going to be a B-side to one of them. We write so many songs, and it's getting frustrating how long it takes to put out a record, so what we're gonna do for a while now is rapid-fire. Put a couple of songs out every month, and then when we have enough, we'll record some new ones and use some of the better singles and make a record with it. Bands in the '60s would just put out a record a year, if not more. That's what we want to do, I don't want to wait three years to put out a record, then there's all these phases in our band that won't get documented.

We play and write a lot, so every six months we sound really different. If you put out a record every four years you're only getting little bits of that. Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Peppers, I mean, that's the Beatles but it's a good example to give. If they hadn't put out Revolver, that phase would never have been documented and nobody would have known about it.

GN: Has the new rockin' approach created any "Dylan goes electric" type of blowback from your following?

BB: [Laughs] We've had some people that have been confused, but it's not very harshly different. It's still true to us, it's not like a jump into cold water exactly. We're gentle. In Portland, when people come to see us every month or two, they got it. There was a progression that was seen. But on tour it definitely gets worse. At a lot of shows, a lot of people yelled out "Miles from Minnesota," and it's like... "Sorry dudes!" I don't even know how to play that anymore. We still have some quieter, sing-y ones. We throw 'em some bones. "Traveling Tune" on our last record, we still play that one.

GN: You seem to have made a point to tour the Midwest a few times a year. Is it a homecoming situation for you, or has it become more businesslike?

BB: No, it's wonderful, I love it. We were back in September and I think we're gonna come back in May or June. It's wonderful to get back. I get to see my family, although I don't get to see them that much. We always do really well in Minneapolis, and it's fun to play to a nice crowd that knows us. We're definitely a Portland band now. I don't feel like Minneapolis is our home in any way. It's like seeing your old elementary school or something like that. It's weird, but really good at the same time. But I love Minneapolis, and I miss it a lot.

GN: Compared to Where All the Maps End, this one has a pretty joyous vibe, there's lots of laughter and goofiness in going on in the background. Were these sessions as much fun as they sound like?

BB: Hell yeah. So fun man, and the more fun it is, the more you play, and the more you play, the more fun it is. We've just been on this cycle of that, I think we practice five or six days a week. The last seven months have been like that. We're not a band that dusts off our amps to play a show. Obviously there are some down parts, but the sessions have been really fun, and I'm glad that came through.

GN: Would you say that the songwriting is coming from a more positive place in your lives than it was a year or two ago when you were writing WAME?

BB: Yeah, I think that's true, maybe not more positive, but more confident in my band. Those are very useful songs [on WAME] but they're more adolescent. There's definitely been some growth. To put this in perspective, when the songs on WAME came out a year ago, they were old. I wrote those songs when I was 18 and 19. Now we're 21 and 22, and that's a pretty big difference in people's lives. Your brain changes a lot. We're definitely a different band now.

GN: So where's this new band headed after this tour? Can you give us any teasers?

BB: We signed a contract, and we're going to be putting stuff out and touring. Things are looking up, I'll give you that much. I don't like to jinx stuff. But things are looking up, more than they ever have.

The Lower 48 will play in Minneapolis on Friday, March 15, at 7th St. Entry with City on the Make and Cjell Cruze. 18+, $8, 8pm

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