Four years and one day ago in Austin, Texas, Dave Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey of the Pines were playing sincere, haunting, delicate tunes in the quiet Victorian Room of the opulent Driskill Hotel.
Five hundred feet outside the door, the party was loud and full of women, perilously navigating the cobblestone street in high heels, and frat boys. The revelers were drunk on alcohol and music, celebrating the final night of the South by Southwest conference/festival.
“That pretty much sums up our music,” says Ramsey, lead singer of the Twin Cities-via-Iowa folk-rockers. “The party’s over there, and we’re in here being introspective — which is funny, because we’re party animals.”
On a snowy afternoon this past January, Ramsey and his bandmates — his brother, Alex, and Huckfelt — sit around a table sipping beers at Merlins Rest for an interview with City Pages. They're there to eagerly discuss their forthcoming album, Above the Prairie, which was released last month and will be celebrated Friday at First Avenue.
The initial planning for the new record, the Pines' fourth, was a continual process, with pieces constantly thrown in a figurative bucket over years. However, when the opening track — the gently strummed "Aerial Ocean" — was introduced, the trio knew the sound for the new album had surfaced, and things accelerated from there.
“Our records usually take a while, but this one was written very fast. In a way, it’s like a storm; all of a sudden, this thing is coming, and it happens in a fit and fury," Benson says. "With this album, we tried to capture the songs in the moment — like many jazz musicians. We didn’t sit and rehearse and flesh them out, because we wanted to maintain the core.”
Adds Huckfelt: “There are theories that meditation grew out of hunting, when people would sit very still in the wilderness until nature took shape around them, and when the moment was right, then it was time. I feel like we’re somewhat like that. We have a stillness about us until we see an opportunity."
One of those captured moments came from Native American activist and author/poet John Trudell. Trudell turned to writing in 1979 after the deaths of his pregnant wife, three children, and mother-in-law, and found catharsis in poetry.
Huckfelt met the author nine years ago at Birchbark Books when Trudell gave a reading at the Minneapolis bookstore. They'd hoped to collaborate ever since. When the stars finally aligned, Trudell gave the band access to much of his work. The Pines asked the author to record a reading of one poem that stood out to them: “Time Dreams.”
“We wrote the music around his words. We rehearsed it in our space, and the first time we played it, it felt like it existed long ago,” Benson says.
“We knew then how much it meant to us to have him on this project," Alex adds. "We wanted to share it and have people connect. I remember it so clear with John in our practice space. It felt right.”
The closing track become even more bittersweet when Trudell died from cancer last year. The studio where the Pines recorded Above the Prairie — and where they recorded their first album — is also gone.
“We felt the bridge had collapsed behind us with much of this project,” Benson reveals. “It’s not just song after song; there are these little pieces that connect everything together. We’re fans of those types of records — you’ll either love it or hate it.”
Alex enumerates: “We put so much of what we do into the music. It’s a performance art, but it’s also a healing art for a lot of people. Someone once said, ‘The Pines was medicine.’”
Above the Prairie has a universal story, one that's rooted in the theme of cosmic fleetingness and keeping perspective about the blip-like nature of existence. "Sleepy Hollow" finds Benson pondering humanity and how we treat our planet as he dials into the void of the night sky.
“It’s this humongous, unspoken thing,” he explains. “You’re going about your day or job and marriages are exploding. Five miles above our head is outer space. Then we have this Earth we’re destroying. A lot of people get really scared by that humongous, starry sky. It’s terrifying, but it’s also not. That makes moments with people and your loved ones much more important. That’s not something you hear every day or dwell on. People do it quietly inside.”
The essence of the Pines stems more from a drive to, as Huckfelt describes, “conserve” rather than constantly churn out new albums.
“Our songs give you room and space to let you feel how you want to feel,” he says. “If the Pines is where the three of us overlap, why not expand it as much as we can to include the weirdest parts of who we are?”
The Pines Above the Prairie album-release show
With: Phil Cook and Stolyette.
Where: First Avenue, 701 First Ave. N., Minneapolis.
When: 8 p.m. Fri., March 18.
Tickets: $15; more info here.