Twin Cities musicians on Christmas music at its best and worst

Twin Cities musicians on Christmas music at its best and worst
Photo by Erik Hess; Photoshop by City Pages

Each December, you can bet your bough of holly that if a retail space has a PA system, it will pause its cheaply licensed Muzak in favor of Christmas' more expensive, but consumer-enabling, catalogue. Radio stations will cease regular programming for weeks, often witnessing an increase in listenership. Most cuss at its ubiquity. Yet, few wholly denounce it; namely because it's more of a tradition than it is a genre. 

Since tradition tends to hinge on one's own perspective, Gimme Noise went the George Bailey route this holiday season by exploring the vexing Holiday songbook through some fresh lenses. A handful of Twin Cities' musicians -- Polica, Big Cats, Wiping Out Thousands (above), and the Chalice -- and took the time to discuss both the adored and abhorred holiday staples. The lack of absolute condemnation from any of our participants may be disappointing to some. But if there's anything this loose survey seems to suggest, it's that no one's too cool for Christmas.

Twin Cities musicians on Christmas music at its best and worst
Photo by Katie Roth

Spencer "Big Cats!" Wirth-Davis

City Pages: Any big plans for the holiday?

Big Cats!: Nothing too big. Most of my family's in town. So just hanging with them and hopefully making some music.

CP: Most people tend to have a love/hate relationship with the Christmas songbook. Where do you fall with it?

BC: I didn't grow up listening to a ton of it, and I've never worked in an environment where you're subjected to it all the time until you want to kill yourself. I imagine it's gotta be brutal when you hear the same fifteen songs all day, everyday for a month and a half. So I don't necessarily seek it out, but it doesn't really bother me.

CP: Are there any seasonal staples that you're appreciative of?

BC: It's funny. The only two Christmas records that I listened to as a kid. The first one is Manheim Steamroller's. To me, that is Christmas Music even though it's the most absurd stuff. It's not all what you would come to think of as Christmas music. That and the Charlie Brown Christmas record are that without fail would come out on cassette ever year.

CP: What songs can't you stand?

BC: Well, what bothers me is when they take the old standards. I heard a Vegas lounge-style version of "Sleigh Ride" on the radio the other day. It's like, maybe write some new songs and work. The same ten songs have been recorded in every style imaginable, so that gets old.

CP: I feel like some golden-age rappers initially brought a breath of fresh air to the Christmas catalogue with songs like Run DMC's "Christmas in Hollis." Hip hop artists really don't do novelty tracks like they used to. Why do you think that is?

BC: I think part of that is because even if it were out there, a lot of places wouldn't play it. So then what's the point? And I'm not sure how much demand there would be for it. I don't know what kind of overlap there his between hip-hop fans and people who really love Christmas music. Actually, the studio I work at, Waterbury Studios, just did two original Christmas songs. We released two Christmas songs last week, but it's not hip hop at all.

CP: I feel like your position as a hip-hop producer would lend itself to digesting holiday music differently than most people do. A lot of the instrumentation is so atypical from what you hear every other month out of the year. Are you ever surprised by what you hear every December, for better or for worse?

BC: Eric, my engineer at the studio, and I were driving somewhere the other day and threw on KOOL 108. And we were talking about how even the arrangements for some of those songs is  stuff that you would never hear anywhere else. For no good reason, there will be a full orchestra behind somebody. And I don't know if that stems from the fact that these songs have been recorded by so many different artists that, inevitably, you're going to get something weird. Or is it something inherent to the genre?

Twin Cities musicians on Christmas music at its best and worst
Photo by Erik Hess

Taylor Nelson and Alaine Dickman of Wiping Out Thousands

CP: Any big Holiday plans this year?

Taylor Nelson: Well, we're trying. We both have family in two different states. Plus, we work in retail.

CP: So you guys have to be well sick of this Christmas music stuff by now.

TN: We work at the Apple store, so luckily it's a mix right now. But the mall that the store's in is pretty awful about it. 

CP: It doesn't sound like you guys hate it as much as one would maybe expect then.

TN: We kind of sat and ended up talking about Christmas music in general, and we came to the consensus that almost everything that came after the Rat Pack Christmas music has been pretty bad.

CP: What would be some examples of the good for you guys?

Alaine Dickman: I really like Judy Garland's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Not even a guilty pleasure, really. It's just a great song. And any of the jazz with Ella or the Rat Pack. I've always listened to them growing up with my parents, so that's a little bit special.

TN: I found out that Vince Guaraldi, the guy who did the music for the Charlie Brown Christmas, had a jazz trio. And if you go to Pandora and put in the Vince Guaraldi Trio, that would be a good idea of what I appreciate. And I think if places like malls or stores played just instrumental Christmas jazz, that would be fine.

AD: I think people would be more friendly. If pop singers just didn't touch Christmas, the world would be okay.

CP: Are there any Christmas songs you guys particularly hate?

TN: "Hey Santa" by the Wilson Sisters from Wilson Phillips. That song is horrible. The video's really bad. And it plays in the mall. 

AD: And the lyrics are just terrible. Usually Christmas music rhymes, but all of the sudden they'll stop rhyming.

CP: I feel like five percent of Christmas music that you hear are original songs. So at this point, pretty much every angle has been tackled. Do you guys think we'll ever see a vanguard for the Holidays?

TN: Well, I remember when Trans-Siberian Orchestra got really popular. That was probably the last time anybody went, "Whoa." But they were the only ones who could do it, because otherwise it was just a ripoff of them. And that's funny, because everybody's ripping off everybody for Christmas music. So it would be cool, but I don't think it will ever happen. Christmas music is about stores selling stuff and mainstream artists recycling garbage. 

AD: I saw Trans-Siberian Orchestra in seventh grade, and it's still probably one of the best show's I've ever seen. I was in the center eighth row, and there were flames behind them that were hot. Like hot on my face. I don't know how they could deal with that on stage.
TN: Well, they're metal guys.

CP: Because Christmas music has gone in pretty much every direction, has there ever been a moment where you guys were inspired by something you heard in December?

TN: You know, it's kind of funny. You mentioned earlier that there'd be sounds and instruments you only hear this time of the year. And I actually think why I like someone like Vince Guaraldi so much is because it is only piano, bass and drums. And just from those three instruments you can feel that it's the holidays. That's what intrigues me is that it can convey the same message that Mariah Carey is trying to carry in her crazy alternate universe. 

CP: So if Wiping Out Thousands had to make a Christmas song, what would it be like? 

TN: Well there's an emphasis on "had to," because it would have to be forced. We'd have to drop the normal instrumentation we do and make it more stripped down. I'd feel weird doing a Christmas song with what we do. We'd probably actually just cover "Hey Santa" by the Wilson Sisters.

Twin Cities musicians on Christmas music at its best and worst
Photo by Erik Hess

Channy Leaneagh of Polica

CP: Have you been getting your fill of Christmas music yet?

Channy Leaneagh: Well I've listened to most of my Christmas records already. Mostly, I've been listening to a lot kids Christmas records, because my daughter really really loves Christmas music. There's been a lot of the Muppets' Christmas and the A Very Special Christmas' compilations, which I listened to a lot as a kid and still enjoy quite a bit. There's like five volumes, and its for the Special Olympics. It people like Run DMC and Bruce Springsteen and all these different people from the eighties. Madonna did her "Santa Baby" for it.

CP: Does your daughter have a favorite song at this point?

CL: Yeah, "Rocking around the Christmas Tree."

CP: So it sounds like you have a certain fondess for the Christmas songbook.

CL: Yeah. I don't really attach myself to even Christmas too heavily. I don't really care for the materialism, but I'm always desperate for some kind of joy this time of year since you can't really get outside. So even if it's a bit manufactured, it seems to kind of help the mood around my house.

CP: It seems like new additions to the collection of Christmas standards are really far and few between these days. Is there anyone you'd like to hear develop some new interpretations?

CL: She'd probably hate me saying this, but [Zoo Animal's] Holly Newsom could kill it on some of the darker songs from the old canon. It'd be awesome if Doomtree would put out a hip-hop Christmas record.

CP: If there is one thing about Christmas music that is harder to argue against is the breadth of iconic vocal performances. As a singer, are there any strong points of affection for you in that regard?

CL: I don't know. I do know that I've been trying to sing "O Holy Night" well since I was like nine whether it was in church or just on my own. My dad sings "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" every year on piano. So there's always been kind of been a point of singing them as much as listening to them.

CP: Are there any Christmas songs you hate?

CL: There's some songs like "Coventry Carol" - those really gothic downers. And then, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" was always kind of a dumb one to me. I'm also getting pretty tired of "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" right now.

Twin Cities musicians on Christmas music at its best and worst
Photo by Emily Utne

Lizzo, Sophia Eris and Claire De Lune of The Chalice
CP: So what Christmas songs are you guys particularly fond of?

Claire de Lune: I think there's kind of a surprising number of Christmas songs that are really well written pop songs when you break them down. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a lovely tune. I would say "All I Want for Christmas is You" by Mariah Carey is an obvious standout. That song is pretty awesome, Mariah was definitely on her A-game in that era.

Lizzo: "Mistle Toe Jam"by Luther Vandross, because it goes HARD. Shout out to Lazerbeak! Also, "Mama Kissing Santa Claus." It's too creepy.
CP: Do you think if Salt-n-Pepa would have made a christmas song, it would have been more popular than Mariah Carey's "All I want for Christmas is You"?

CL:Those are fighting words! Haha, but I don't really know if any contemporary Christmas song could top that one. Though if Salt-n-Pepa had made a Christmas song it undoubtedly would've been awesome. Salt-n-Pepa, if you're reading this: It's not too late!

CP: So as hip hop artists, any guess as to why there's such an absence of hip hop musicians putting out songs like "Christmas in Hollis" these days?

SE: I feel like Hip Hop blending with Christmas Chords can come off slightly corny. The masters could pull it off, but I just don't think that vibe is in the air right now. My brain doesn't wake up thinking "I should make a Christmas song today." I appreciate it, but wouldn't be drawn to create it at this time.

CP: Christmas music can be pretty atypical in regards to instrumentation used. Have you ever heard something in a Christmas song that's inspired you creatively?

SE: Christmas songs have some of our favorite chord progressions! "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas" kill it.


Twin Cities musicians on Christmas music at its best and worst
Photo by Erik Hess

Chris Bierden of Polica and Pony Trash and Heavy Deeds and Invisible Boy

CP: So where do you land on the Christmas music tradition?

CB: Even though there's plenty of Christmas music that I do hate, I feel like I would have a harder time talking about that than the stuff I do like. Because the stuff I do like, I like quite a bit. Maybe five years back, I had a Christmas party, and I tried to put together a two-CD set of old soul stuff and the kind of music I actually enjoy like the Beach Boys. So I ended up finding a bunch of Christmas music that I can completely tolerate, which was kind of fun.

CP: What would those songs be?

CB: One of the songs that just gets me every time of year is The Peanuts' "Christmas Time is Here." It never fails to make me warm and sentimental. Another one is "White Christmas" by The Drifters, made famous by the hit holiday classic, Home Alone. I was a big fan of that movie as a kid, and the vocals in that song are just awesome.

CP: As I've been talking to other artists, that Vince Guaraldi score keeps popping up. It's a great piece of music, but it also really seems like a lot of peoples' love of the holiday harkens back to how big of a deal Christmas is when you're a kid.

CB: Yeah. I should also note that the ultimate Christmas music for me will always be The Carpenters' christmas album. It's one that I listened to every single year with my parents, and we still do. I actually ended up loving The Carpenters in general later in life, much to my surprise. I was like, "Oh this is good, and this has been in the back of my subconscious for some time." I still like Karen Carpenter for sure.

CP: Are there any songs that sit less favorably with you?

CB: The Bruce Springsteen version of 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' is probably my most hated, and a large part of that comes from the fact that I really like Bruce Springsteen. The interminability of that song and the way it just keeps going and going is completely insane.

CP: Pony Trash has a show coming up on the 15th. Have you guys been working on any seasonal covers?

CB: Not Pony Trash. But on the 18th, Heavy Deeds has a residency where I'm going to be pulling double duty and do an Invisible Boy set at the end of the night, and this will be the perfect opportunity for me to do John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over.)" I'm hoping to do it because Sara and Molly from Heavy Deeds can sing the Yoko Ono part. I do love that song quite a bit too. It took me a while, but John Lennon just kind of gets me.

CP: I like how John Lennon made one of the best Christmas songs and Paul McCartney made one of the worst.

CB: I know. I still kind of enjoy the Paul one. It's one of those weird, guilty pleasures. I don't know why I enjoy it, but I still will enjoy it. But yeah, it's still pretty bad.

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