How do middle-aged, local pop-music legends rediscover their musical muse? By forming a minimalist, jazz-influenced trio and covering Britney Spears's song "Toxic," of course! Believe it or not, it's a formula that has been working for Twin Cities "super group" the New Standards. Formed in 2005 by John Munson (Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic), Chan Poling (founder of the Suburbs), and Steve Roehm (Billygoat and Electropolis), the New Standards stir together a stark mix of bass, piano, and vibraphone and wildly reinterpret the work of not only Ms. Spears, but other groups as varied as OutKast, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Clash.
In a recent interview with City Pages, Munson and Poling shared their thoughts on the quirky beauty of the New Standards, the staying power of the bands that brought them fame in the '80s and '90s, and what Obama might like to rock out to come January 20.
City Pages: The new album includes songs by the Postal Service, Britney Spears, the Replacements, and the Velvet Underground, among others. It's certainly a diverse collection. What made you choose the songs you did?
John Munson: Not to be too obvious, but we chose them because we love them. This album, called Rock and Roll, is about songs that fit our definition of those words. That was our organizing principle for the CD.
CP: How do musicians who cut their teeth playing alternative rock and new wave end up performing in suits and playing minimalist, jazz-flavored cover tunes?
Munson: Chan, haven't you always worn a suit? The suits feel good. You put it on and it's time to rock. Plus it's a nod to the idea of creating a new canon in the same way that some of our heroes like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Monk—all of whom also looked badass in formalwear, by the way—did.
Chan Poling: Stylistically, we wanted to see if we could rock in this new framework of something acoustic and minimal. And let's be clear here and say that this is not the usual book of tunes just anybody does...it's a very unique and surprising set list. We use the word "jazz" to describe it, and it is jazz, but not in the run-of-the-mill sense of that word. We bring our rock chops to what we're doing and audiences respond to it.
CP: No doubt many of the people who listen to your music were once—and may still be—rabid fans of the bands you cover. What has their reaction been to your renditions of their songs?
Munson: We heard that Paul Westerberg, the author of two of the songs we play, doesn't hate our version of "I Will Dare." That makes me feel positively triumphant!
Poling: Rabid fans of our bands seem to generally approve of what we do. Still, I hope Lou Reed doesn't rush the stage and strangle me!
CP: You're a band that covers songs by legendary alternative rock and punk bands, yet you put on an annual Christmas show of traditional songs. What's that all about?
Munson: The project that we set for ourselves when we started playing together was to play songs we love. That makes playing Christmas songs really logical for us. The melodies have survived, sometimes for hundreds of years, because they are great. But we augment our usually spare arrangements with strings, horns, and a choir. Plus, over the years it's been a fun opportunity to cajole old friends and co-conspirators like Dan and Matt Wilson, Mason Jennings, Brian Tighe, Adam Levy, and Mike Doughty into joining us for a tune or two while introducing some of our old fans to some of the new artists in town who most interest us, like Jeremy Messersmith, Haley Bonar, and Joanna James.
CP: It's been more than 20 years since the heyday of the Suburbs (and nearly as long for Trip Shakespeare). How do you think that music holds up today?
Munson: Of course it's a mixed bag, but overall I'm really proud of Trip Shakespeare. I think that Lulu, in particular, is pretty amazing, and I know that the band killed live. I've got the tapes to prove it!
Poling: "Holds up"?! Yeah, it holds up. I'm very proud of those records and that band. We here in the Twin Cities came out of an amazing music environment, which continues to thrive.
CP: Assuming you are betting fellows, what are the chances that the Suburbs, Semisonic, or Trip Shakespeare may once again grace a Twin Cities stage?
Munson: Well, Semisonic just played a big festival in St. Paul. I wouldn't think it unlikely at all for us to play again soon. Trip Shakespeare is another story. I'd say "never" if I was a betting man...which you have to be if you're in this racket!
Poling: In craps, I always bet on the "come," whatever that is.
CP: Finally, if you could play one song at Obama's inauguration, what would it be?
Munson: "The Times They Are a Changing"...or so we must hope.
Poling: "Love Is the Law."
THE NEW STANDARDS play their annual holiday show and CD-release party with loads of special guests on SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6, at THE FITZGERALD THEATER; 651.290.1220