Van Stee gets weird

Turn on the bright lights for Van Stee
Christian Erickson

For Charlie Van Stee, it took getting weird to get discovered. While his namesake psych-pop band's skewed sounds have won wide local acclaim and airplay on the Current and Seattle tastemaker KEXP before even releasing an album, 31-year-old Van Stee comes from more straightforward Twin Cities rock bands that never broke through. After the implosion of the Charlie Van Stee Trio, he took a break from public musical pursuits in 2010, and found a forward-thinking sound that reflected his own listening diet.

"The CVS trio had a very '90s rock thing happening," recalls Van Stee, who is seated alongside bandmates Josh Kaplan (drums) and Lance Conrad (guitar) for an early-evening bar stool interview. "But the stuff I had been listening to at home for years was artists like Air, the Beta Band, Beck, things that are really expansive sonically. Or really dark and atmospheric bands like Interpol. I just never had the opportunity to really explore that sort of sound in the trio. So when that band broke up I recorded all of these demos in my house because I finally felt like, 'Well, I can just put whatever I want on this because it's not like anyone else is going to hear it.'"

From those modest beginnings ultimately rose the album We Are, one of the more impressively produced and instantly impactful debuts by a Twin Cities band in recent memory. Running the gamut from drugged-out-but-danceable sonic experiments like the title track to instantly accessible and pristine indie-pop ("Color in the Paper Planes"), the quintet balances sweeping traditional songcraft with eccentric but effective detours.

"When we recorded 'Soul I'm Breaking,' the direction to Charlie was, 'sing this like you've got cotton balls in your mouth and are tripping on acid,'" recalls Conrad. "We just pushed him to get weirder and weirder with each take. We made him destroy the way he sang it originally, and that's what ended up making it work."

With longtime drummer Kaplan alongside ubiquitous Minnesota music scene ax-slinger Jake Hanson, Van Stee's tunes gradually spread their wings in the studio while membership in the band grew and evolved. Conrad was originally brought on as Hanson's co-producer before becoming a full-fledged band member, and bassist Andy Mark and keyboardist Shawn Connelly of the Minneapolis Dub Ensemble currently round out the group. An "anything goes" attitude prevailed.

"At the start of recording we didn't really know where it was headed," says Van Stee, already sounding wistfully reminiscent. "We didn't have a band name, we didn't know if we would ever play any shows, or who would be in the band if we did."

With no real expectations in place, the group took their time and experimented. Kaplan admits that the music he created with bandmate Van Stee as recently as 2010 still sounded and felt similar to stuff rom 1999, and it didn't reflect their personal tastes anymore. Bringing Hanson and Conrad into the fold forced more innovation, which was uncomfortable at times. "It felt like jumping into cold water that gradually got warm," Kaplan says.

"I'm almost scared having to go through all that again eventually to make a second record," Van Stee says near the close of the conversation. But his countenance betrays his words. The gleam in his eye and the smile on his face suggest even bolder records in the years to come.

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