The Suburbs' Chan Poling: We've been studying Amanda Palmer
Photo by Steve Cohen
Plenty of Twin Cities faithfuls never stopped loving the Suburbs' horn-inflected rock found on '80s hits like "Love Is the Law" and "Music for Boys." But the long absence of new material and the members' shifts to other projects meant that their shows in recent years served as a look back at what had been as opposed to a statement of the present. But this year, things started to take a different shape when the band fell into step with Minnesota's shifting views on gay marriage.
The Love Is the Law show in downtown St. Paul brought out thousands of fans, and served as a musical guidepost on a new era in our state. Also, frontman Chan Poling decided that the renewed excitement meant that 2013 would finally break a 27-year drought for a Suburbs album. And they're employing a modern approach to get the album to the masses: Kickstarter. Update: The band has surpassed its goal, and raised $73k for the project!
Poling proves sharp as a golf tee in person, and dons a stylish pair of argyle trousers to systematically crush Gimme Noise at the Walker Art Center's extravagant putting course with holes designed by local artists. As we discuss his strategy for new album Si Sauvage, he correctly observes that my embarrassing scores -- like a scene from Tin Cup -- put me past the point of recovery. Later, over some cold drinks at Birch Steak, we learn more about the band's freshly debuted single, "Turn the Radio On." Needless to say, the Suburbs as a band appear to have more than recovered their '80s stride.
How did you pick "Turn the Radio On" to be the single?
We went to the Current and played it for nine of them over there -- the DJs, the program directors, and such. The whole record. There were three songs that had six of the nine votes apiece. It could've been one of three songs. I just decided "Radio On." I could tell live. We played it live in Milwaukee and at the Cabooze. Two big crowds. You could just tell the reaction. It was like the applause meter. Some thorough research. Plus it's a good summer song.
What is your personal experience with radio?
First of all, you gotta realize that's how we got our music. The radio was a big deal. When the Suburbs first started out, you wanted to be on the radio. That's how you sold records and how you got known. I remember the first radio I had. Probably a transistor [holds up his hand to show how small it would've been]. Back then, KQRS was the FM station. That was the station that played records and deep cuts. You'd listen to [Traffic's] "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." It's a little more classic now. You could hear relatively underground and cool stuff on KQ back then. I never listened to top 40 pop radio.
I had an interesting high school life because my brother was four years older than me. He was really into music and his buddies were all artists. We were listening to Captain Beefheart. We listened to Miles and jazz and Zappa. We had a different kind of high school. The mainstream radio was Foreigner, Journey, and Toto when I was first hearing the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads.
It's pretty meta to choose radio for the subject of a song meant to go on the radio, no?
The meta reality of it didn't hit me because it came from singing words that take the form in your brain that the melody makes. Like Paul McCartney sings "Scrambled eggs..." and it turned into "Yesterday." I wasn't sure if "Radio On" was even a song. I was just singing it. Then I realized that it really resonated with me because there was a story there. Then I thought, this is so stupid. It's so simple. Can I really sing a song about turning the radio on and dancing? Once I could envision the actual scene, then I could sing about it and write about it.
And it recalls you dancing in the kitchen with your wife, Eleanor [who died in 2011], in Prior Lake.
And that Smokey Robinson was her favorite singer. That takes you out of the real world. That was her favorite thing to do. The "radio" in that instance is an iPod playlist that we made. Frankly, it's a metaphor. It's nostalgic and more conceptual than anything. It's such a bright and sunny horn line mixed with that minor chord.
Photo by Steve Cohen
Which Kickstarter campaigns inspired you to fund the album this way?
I just made a movie to push out this campaign, and made a joke saying we've been studying Amanda Palmer.
What made you decide to choose Kickstarter?
When I first thought about it, I'm hard-wired to go to a label. But that's like a dog falling out of the station wagon and going back to Kansas. I realized, "What do they do?" I tried to remember what they actually do. They pay for everything, which you owe them. Press and radio. They don't help with touring or anything like that. I thought, "I can do all that stuff if I have the money." I thought, let's raise the money and do it ourselves. Essentially, that was our only choice when you're a band with a fanbase in their 40s and 50s. We've gotta pick a new way to get out there. A lot of guys our age don't know enough about the technology available to them. Kickstarter might be the best way to market a record like ours. You reach the fans, you get the orders, and then you put it out.
How nerve-racking is it to have everything so public?
It's awful. I woke up at 5:30 this morning. Holiday's over, and back to work, and back to worrying about it. I've had a pretty respectable life the past few years. I don't like to be out in the public begging for money, you know? I have to get over my qualms about it. At the end of the day, you're going to get a new Suburbs record, and you're actually going to help make it happen. For the real fans, to have a cocktail party or go golfing, it's super fun. Musicians since the beginning have needed patrons. Even Beethoven and Mozart, not to put myself in that league. They'd have their princes and they'd have their kings.
The Suburbs are set to release Si Sauvage on August 27. Check out the project here. It surpassed its goal of $65k!
The Suburbs will perform with Trampled by Turtles, P.O.S, Mason Jennings, and the Chalice at MN Music-On-A Stick at the Minnesota State Fair on August 30. Tickets here.
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