Life has a way of throwing curve balls when you least expect it. Sometimes it can take an unforeseen, unfortunate event to create the type of circumstances that bring old friends back together.
Last October, Todd Stenson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Costs from the ensuing medical bills have been crippling. A benefit show for Stenson was arranged for this Sunday at the Amsterdam bar in St. Paul, and Stenson's partner Heather requested that Twin Cities alt-rock act the Picadors perform. Thus, after 22 long years, the band found itself reuniting in honor and support of their old friends.
"We always thought we'd get back together and play, but there was finally a good reason," says drummer Noah Levy (Tift Merritt, The Honeydogs, Brian Setzer, the BoDeans, etc.). "We fell back into it so easily."
The Picadors originally formed in Minneapolis in the late '80s. "Heather was really instrumental in introducing us all to each other," says Noah. "She dated John Munson, who was our producer. I was in a band with her brother, and she introduced me to Chris."
The Picadors' ringleader Chris Lynch vividly recalls those early days. "We had a very magical experience together," he says. "I met Noah and Luca [Gunther] through John Munson, who was my roommate at the time. I was living with John and I was writing a lot of songs. They brought Jon Duncan and said oh, you've got to get this keyboardist in here. We also thought we needed a lead guitarist, so we asked Noah's brother."
Noah's brother is Adam Levy, who happened to be in another band at the time. According to Lynch, Adam was a bit "aloof" to the idea of joining the band. However, he was eventually roped into playing guitar with the Picadors. "He had this cover band he was playing in and we were like, 'Come on, man! Ditch those guys!'" says Noah. "He was playing with this horrible blues band. They were really bad."
According to Adam, at the time he was quite busy "whoring around" with several bands, honing his guitar skills and trying to earn some extra cash from playing music. "My brother talked me into checking out the Picadors and I loved the music. Chris is just a complete character," Adam says. "The guy was well-read, he told funny stories, he was absolutely cocksure of his music, and it brought together so many things I love as a little kid. Chris was kind of like the Pied Pieper -- wherever he went, we would follow him."
"I had complete faith in Chris's ability as a songwriter," Adam continues. "There was
this assuredness. You know when you meet somebody and something it going to happen and you're just certain that it is. I felt that."
Things picked up quickly. The band released their first album Praise & Blame in 1990, and Pretty Penny the following year. They performed regularly in local venues like the 400 Bar, Williams Pub, and the Uptown Bar. Noah remembers being so young that he was still in high school when the first album came out. "I was a kid; I was 17 when I joined the band. I was going to St. Paul Central. I was playing at night and going to school in the morning. In The Entry, I remember they used to check my drinks. They would go up to them and take sips of them."
They embarked on a couple of tours together. "It got pretty intense," says Adam. "We traveled and we made records, and for a couple of years I really felt like that band was my identity. Those guys were my best friends in the world. I sort of envisioned, maybe this is what I'll do for the rest of my life." Their unique brand of music set them apart from other local acts. "There weren't a lot of other bands charting the territory where we were at the time," Adam continues. "Part of it sat squarely in the era we were in and a lot of it was about kind of the archaeology of older music styles and trying to make something new from things that we loved from the past."
"The group of guys we were -- it was so different from the other rock bands around us, because everyone was very earnest and into literature and good films, so our conversations were so nice," says Lynch. "Driving across the country together...We were very democratic. I would bring a sketch of a song, and then we would all go to work on it, and would work so diligently. It was such a different time."[page]
Success comes with a cost, though. After a West Coast tour, The Picadors found themselves exhausted, and beginning to run out of steam. Lynch was struggling with a substance abuse problem, and Adam found himself branching off to work more on his own music. "The playbook at the time was, you get a manager, you tour, you get a label deal, and you're set, and it was a little daunting for us," he says. "As we were running out of steam I thought maybe I could start my own band, and so Noah and I went off and started something else. After a year or two, the Honeydogs were up and running."
"I was trying to think about it," Noah says. "Maybe 22 years does make you forget things. It was kind of nebulous. We'd all invested so much in it, but maybe it just felt like it was time. I don't remember. It's hard to describe. It was like a relationship that had grown apart. It was a fond farewell."
Years went by. 22 years, to be exact. Most of the band members continued playing music, either on solo ventures or in various ensembles dotting the Twin Cities' musical landscape. The Honeydogs are still active today. Lynch went on to become one half of the duo Eller Lynch as well as a member of the Shiny Lights. Noah toured with various acts and played drums for Brian Setzer. Duncan went on to play in Trailer Trash, Luca with Fauna and the Delilahs.
Then, Stenson fell ill, and Heather decided that she wanted the Picadors to perform at his benefit. "Heather has been a good friend to us individually and collectively for many, many years," Gunther says. "We are honored to be a part of the event at the Amsterdam. I don't think any of us hesitated when we heard that Heather wanted us to play on Sunday."
The reunion has been a meaningful experience for all involved. "Playing this music again after all this time, the music feels amazingly fresh to me," Adam says. "I can't listen to my guitar playing from back then; its really painful. I became an adult in that band!" They all fell easily back into playing with one another. "I'm already thinking that I wish we had time to play more," Lynch says.
While nothing is definite, the Picadors have expressed a desire to continue working together in the future.
"There wasn't any struggle in getting together," Adam says. "Muscle memory comes pretty quickly after you do the songs a couple times. I feel like we did something kind of interesting with our music. It feels sort of new playing it again."
Noah agrees. "Everybody has progressed so much. The songs are very complex, and I was just an excited kid. The songs are sitting a lot better now for everybody."
"I love those guys. I love all of my bandmates," Lynch says. "I've been through a lot of bands, and maybe it's our age or whatever, but it seemed like ever since then, nothing has compared to that real bond, and our musical bond."
The Picadors perform this Sunday at the Amsterdam with Dan Wilson, Chris Koza, John Munson and Matt Wilson, and Lucy Michelle. Proceeds will be donated to Heather and Todd. Doors at 4 PM, $35. Food brought in by Guest Chef Steven Brown (Tilia mpls)
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
53 things you might not know about Prince
Brother Ali: My fans are kicking the sh*t out of me over Trayvon Martin
Foo Fighters photo waiver one of the industry's severest: Here's why we didn't sign
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list