"We Can't Be Stopped!"
When Robert Putnam wrote about the rise of American isolation in Bowling Alone, he probably didn't do his research at Park Tavern on dollar night. The crowd seems blissfully unaware that it's 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday. Pitchers are being drained as though no one has to get up in the morning. When not shuffling down the lanes, girls in low-rise jeans curl up in the laps of their slick-haired boyfriends. As the Plastic Constellations put on their bowling shoes, they notice the widespread PDA and reminisce about close contact of a different sort: the manpile.
"Imagine two bands in a one-bedroom apartment that's half the size of a one-bedroom apartment and every guy is sleeping on the floor on top of one another," says bassist Jordan Roske, recalling his band's living accommodations during the East Coast tour they shared with Iowa City friends the Vidablue in 2000.
"That should be this story's headline," jokes drummer Matt Scharenbroich. "Q: Possibly gay? A: Manpile."
Homoerotic kidding aside, Roske and Scharenbroich are preparing for another round of dirty dude snuggling in support of their second full-length, Mazatlan (2024 Records). Since the release of their 2000 debut, Let's War, the local band has spent much of their time preoccupied with school, traveling, and the marriage of guitarist/vocalist Jeff Allen (sorry, fellas, he's taken). Still, those four years make up only half the lifespan for the seemingly young band, who started performing as high school freshmen.
"[Guitarist] Aaron [Mader] and I were deluded as fuck and we thought to ourselves, Well, we'll probably be signed to Matador in three years," says Allen.
Matador never called back, so the band worked with local labels Pretentious Records, Modern Radio, and Blood of the Young. After two rowdy releases and a slew of shows in bars they were too young to be allowed inside otherwise, the four kids from Hopkins High became the hyperactive little brothers of the local music scene. Their unpredictable, meandering guitar lines prompted comparisons to Lifter Puller--which was really just the Twin Cities way of saying they sounded like Archers of Loaf. Their onstage energy went unmatched by so many groups who'd forgotten that being in a band is all about picking up girls.
Then came graduation. Moving out of their parents' homes meant not having a basement where they could practice. Eventually, the Plastic Constellations found a new space with their friend Stef (a.k.a. P.O.S. of local hip hop's Doomtree collective) and started recording with a 4-track and ProTools. Given its lo-fi sound, no labels wanted to touch the Mazatlan demo. But just as the band was about to give up, 2024 offered to pay for them to rerecord it at OuiBeTough Studios.
From its goofy a capella intro, the new album picks up right where the band left off four years ago. "We Came to Play" builds a wall of noise over which they hurl the first of an arsenal of pugnacious slogans that seem almost free-styled: "We can't be stopped!" "This is how it's gonna be!"
"There are a few songs where we're kind of rap-talking," says Allen. "The songs are more rhythm-based than they used to be. It's more about the groove than the melody."
As Twista, Lil' Jon, and Ludacris blare through Park Tavern's speakers over the sound of falling pins, the Plastic Constellations bob their heads. At a show only a few days earlier, Allen paused to change a guitar string, prompting the remaining members to crank out impromptu covers of P. Diddy's "Bad Boy for Life" and Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody." Mader actually seems more comfortable in the role of MC than lead singer: He's been busy making beats for the Doomtree collective under the name Laserbeak.
As their Aaliyah fandom might suggest, TPC don't fit the aggressive asshole stereotype of most mainstream rock/hip-hop hybrids. They're more like a Jackie Chan movie: all leg sweeps and sucker punchers--no one's actually getting hurt. Even "Oh No, Iowa," which builds to one of their trademark shout-along choruses, is more likely to inspire a fierce pickup basketball game than a beating. And on the album's title track, they sing about innocent things like beaches and bikinis.
"I think it's maybe the saddest song we've ever written because it's from the perspective of a guy who was left behind by his friends," says Allen of "Mazatlan."
As the only member of TPC who's not going to college, Mader laments that he doesn't have spring break.
"I was the dude who would watch MTV Spring Break and think, I want to do that," he says. "I want to judge swimsuit competitions."
He might get his chance: As Allen tells it, a recent night of drinking games with 2024 co-founder Todd Hanson led to them drafting a contract, which states that if the band sells 20,000 albums, the label will fly them down to Mexico to shoot a video.
"[Hanson] never signed it before going to bed," admits Roske.
"If we have to, we'll just write up a new one," says Allen.
"It doesn't have to be Mazatlan," adds Mader. "Just anywhere you can get your hair cornrowed."
It's a good thing their bowling game doesn't have such high stakes. Roske is having an off night and can't decide on a dominant bowling hand, and Scharenbroich is rolling with a finger he recently sliced open while chopping green peppers at the Band Box, where he works as a cook. Still, Mader and Allen provide unbiased cheerleading for everyone.
"It sounds cheesy," says Allen, "but I think the reason we're still a band now and probably will be for a while is that we're friends."
As if on cue for this inspirational moment, Journey's pleading vocals fill the air, drifting through the bowling alley's sound system. "I want people to get out of our record what they'd get out of Journey's Greatest Hits," Mader insists. "You get hopeful and you can see everything working out."
Hey, why not? Hope springs eternal when a sunny beach is only a drunken contract signature and few thousand CD sales away.
"Don't stop believing, homies," says Mader.
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