Lookout for Evils
The word "hipster" entered the American lexicon in the '40s, via jazz. Around these parts, it was adopted by garage-rock pioneers the Hypstrz as both a rebirth of cool and a chip-on-the-shoulder calling card from some hipster-suspicious Nordeast kids. It is currently used to dismiss every poseur who uses music as a costume, and it reached its official nadir when a recent cover of Mpls.-St. Paul magazine promised a survey of Twin Cities "hipsters" but instead featured a bunch of yuppies talking about their favorite restaurants and shopping.
There are no hipsters of any kind at the Hexagon Bar's Sunday night country jam. But there is Rosie, a waitress/bartender who resembles a 60-something medicine ball. Rosie brings the boys in the Gleam a round of two-dollar Budweisers on the house and calls them "honey." She digs the Gleam, and she's comfortable in her own ample skin, so much so that when she asks for a T-shirt and the boys in the band ask what size, Rosie replies, "tent and awning."
Like Rosie, the Gleam feel at home at the Hex. It's more truck stop than club, and Sunday nights attract casualties of all ages from the country-music wars, many of whom sport tattoos they got in the service and cowboy hats and baseball caps they got from their jobs. This is a good place for the Gleam, who grew up playing once a year at the VFW in their stamping ground of Chisago County, the surrounding area of which they will tell you is the meth capital of the world and rife with Wiccans.
"We all went to Forest Lake High School and Wyoming Elementary, [which was] asbestos-filled. We're all supposed to be dead in 15 years," says singer/bassist Timmy Wreck, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to his second cousin Jim Boquist (Son Volt, Paul Westerberg & His Only Friends), whom he's never met. "We'd peel paint off the walls the size of softballs and fuckin' throw 'em at each other. They bulldozed it down a few years ago. It was bad news, man.
"It's boredom and witches and time warps and shit. I mean, really, there's some weird shit going on up there. We'd go runnin' through the woods when we were kids, and you'd find all these logs around with blood in the middle and suicide pacts and all this weird shit. I remember finding empty wallets, half-buried."
The three lean into their stories and pound their Buds, relishing the opportunity to talk about their hometown. The conversation, in fact, could be a coda to "Leave Yr City," off their debut Chisago County EP, which challenges the listener to get his/her ass out of the city and under the country stars, with the Gleam as tour guides.
"That elementary school was like a five-room schoolhouse, so you went to school with the same kids from second to sixth grade," says Johns, a burly, polite guy whose jacket sports a button championing one of his favorite local bands, the now-defunct Little Dirt. "It became a tight-knit group of kids. We went to school with six or seven guys who made these suicide pacts and listened to Judas Priest. They found them in their dad's van one morning. It actually made Oprah in '89."
"There was this place called the Satan House and this guy everyone called Blind Ed," says drummer Johnny Bon-Bonnie, a wide-eyed, fresh-faced rocker who matches his brother, Wreck, in both lankiness and unaffected cool.
"All these kids would go to this blind guy's house and take advantage of him and fuckin' spray paint his walls and smoke pot and crack," says Wreck. "He was the nicest guy in the world and they had no idea what was going on. Just a bunch of weirdo losers, man.
"You go from bar to bar up there, and you see these guys there and you leave before them and you get to the next bar and somehow he's there before you. It's spooky shit up there."
"It's good times," adds Johns.
Make no mistake, this is not an escape-from-Hicksville story. Chisago County was the name of the Gleam's debut for good reason: They're proud of where they come from, they're proud of the country music and work ethic their parents passed on to them, and they have only somewhat reluctantly made inroads into the Twin Cities music scene.
"My dad works construction, and I remember when I was 10 years old he had a job in Uptown," says Johns, who is 28. "He brought me down with him, and he said, 'Well, kid, this is the land of Oz,' or whatever. And I didn't know anything about artsy-freaky people, but I thought where we were from was scarier than that."
By their own admission, they use their outsider status as a cloak, for the music scene here is too big to have one set of insiders or rule-makers. During their recent trip to South by Southwest, Johns wrote a song called "Bleed or Go Home," inspired by his disgust with "all the leather jackets and all those crappy fuckin' Strokes-Pete Doherty hats—we felt like we were in Oliver Twist—and every band [sounding] so safe and boring and 'Hey, Epic Records, check us out.'"
Someone should. The trio's just-released sophomore record, Lookout for Evils, is a great leap forward from Chisago County in terms of songwriting if not spirit, which is baked into their DNA. A recently divorced father of two daughters, Johns sings with a cry in his voice on such tracks as "Morning Horses," "Got What'cha Wanted," and "Witches -N- Winos (Never Been Better)," adding a dark dimension and emotional weight to the band's slapdash sound.
"This one strips away more of the boozin' and the party, and you're left on the corner in the gutter after the bar," says Johns. Which slightly lowballs it, for Evils rips, careens, and croons like a post-alt-country mini-classic, leaving the distinct impression that the Gleam are in it for the long haul—as illustrated by the fact that Bon-Bonnie, their fifth drummer, is apparently sticking around.
"Our last drummer before him couldn't take it," says Wreck. "I threw a beer bottle at him and it ricocheted off the snare and hit him right between the eyes and the glasses, and that was it for him. He was done. He rode his bike into the darkness and that was the last we ever saw of him."
As the Hex's country jam eases into a slow-burn gin-and-tonic slumber, the boys go outside for a smoke. On the sidewalk, Johns says goodbye to the wife of a friend who is off to Nashville to pursue his own music dreams. He wishes her good luck, and she tells him to keep doing it, keep writing songs, because she believes in the Gleam. Just then, Rosie waddles out the door. From inside, the sound of someone murdering Kitty Wells or Patsy Cline hits the night.
"While she's dying in there, I'll be in here," says Rosie, heading to her car with a copy of the Gleam's new CD.
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