The Small Cities inspired by rural Wisconsin

Josie St. Peter

Some of the most passionate teenage rock devotees—friends who form bands at 16 and are still making music together at 30—reside in out-of-the-way hamlets and sleepy fourth-ring suburbs. The small Wisconsin town of Amery has a population of only about 3,000, and is located 90 minutes from Minneapolis, but it proved to be the right place for Small Cities vocalist/drummer David Osborn and vocalist/guitarist Leif Bjornson to get started. There, they gravitated to indie-rock records and the open road as a way to kill time.

"There's something to be said for growing up together in a small town driving around listening to music," offers Bjornson. He's gathered with bandmates Osborn, bassist Jimmy Osterholt, and guitarist/keyboardist Wes Burdine for a late-evening pint on a recent Thursday night in St. Paul. "Dave was kind of my gateway to alternative music and the soundtrack of my formative years. We started playing shitty covers together in his basement fairly quickly."

"It's a heavy thing being from the same place," Osborn adds. "My friendship with Leif has been hugely important for 14 years now. I do think you bond in a different way when you're making music together in a place where there's not much else going on."

"There's a lot of space and you have to fill it somehow," Bjornson says. "Music was a good way to do that. I borrowed a four-track from my uncle in the ninth grade and that pretty much took care of the next four years."

Even though they've long since relocated to the Twin Cities, Osborn and Bjornson's upbringing looms as large over the Small Cities as their name implies. With Fire, their excellent 10-song debut full-length, provides a distinctive dissection of the ups and downs of growing up in the heartland. Within razor-sharp indie rock, which comes off a bit like Pedro the Lion's early material super-sized and sped up, Osborn and Bjornson take turns painting vivid vignettes of small-town life.

The result is a record that deals in both big-hearted nostalgia and hard-won lessons. "Wonder Years" is a pitch-perfect portrait of high school dating in the sticks ("I picked you up at your father's place/He smiled but he would never wave/The county roads and dubbed cassettes, and dry unfiltered cigarettes"). While "Abraham" chronicles the simultaneous joy and trauma of shaking off a Christian fundamentalist upbringing ("Interesting scenes of a child reading Bible stories/With father looking on, smiling at his youngest son/At Abraham raising knives and cities full of trembling wives/Made me think that just maybe a lightning bolt was meant for me").

Despite being the product of two different singers and lyricists, With Fire feels remarkably cohesive. As it turns out, the band members favor a highly symbiotic songwriting approach by necessity.

"I play the drums and that's pretty much it," explains Osborn. "I don't play much guitar or piano, so I'm super lucky that Leif and I have built up such a history and comfort level working together. A lot of times I'll just have a few notes of a melody that I like, and some ideas for it that I can't fully voice because I just don't have the musical vocabulary. Amazingly, I can usually just sing a few notes and Leif will be pretty well on it, and able to help turn that initial idea into an actual song."

On With Fire the band's sound is as massive as its lyrical content is intimate, with the quartet teaming up with Peter Wolf Crier's Brian Moen in the studio on the sort of big and bold album that comes around on the local scene only every so often. The album rewards repeated listens, with sumptuous overdubbed piano figures and gossamer guitar textures whose beauty deepens with each additional spin. The finely polished final product didn't come without its share of labor pains.

"Nothing is easy in this band," admits Bjornson, a comment that immediately has his bandmates in stitches. "Everyone has a very strong opinion and wants to make their voice heard. Every melody or little part on the record has probably been argued over dozens of times. I actually enjoy that."

"Jesus, we had fights over hand claps," claims Burdine mid-giggle. "We fought so much over the record because we wanted to love every second of it. And we do. So ultimately that's a great feeling."

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