Strange But True
The first time I saw Mike Wisti he looked like a Flannery O'Connor character--tense, righteous, and wracked by some huge, gnawing energy whose source he would be hard-pressed to name. Trapped on the tiny Uptown Bar stage with his Rank Strangers bandmates he seemed unsure where to look, what exactly to do, where to strike first. His pants were cuffed halfway up his calves. Migrants from Michigan, they'd been in town for barely a few months by then.
Slim Dunlap saw them about the same time. "They were opening for us," says the veteran of countless local bands, "and one of the fellas in my band came downstairs and said, 'That guy up there is like some kind of preacher.' I went up and had a look and, well, Mike's a kind of scary guy on a stage, you know? Sometimes I get this weird feeling that he's possessed. He's got that almost Pentecostal fervor. I remember thinking to myself, man, that looks like a guy who'd be tough to be around."
No kidding. He looked like a guy determined to take every single idea he ever had over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and I'm a sucker for guys like that. For a while there I didn't think I'd see another one. I was driving home one night some years ago, the Rolling Stones in the tape deck, when I had what I consider my first old-guy moment: I found myself feeling suddenly foolish about the absolute pose--the preposterous artifice--that is rock & roll. None of it was much more than "Bye Bye Birdie," it occurred to me, and for a long time I couldn't shake the thought. There followed a couple of years in which I didn't see a single band that felt believable to me.
Then one night Billy Dankert--one of my oldest friends, and at the time the drummer in a band with my brother--dragged me out to see the Rank Strangers. They threw off sparks, and seemed to take palpable joy in agitating each other and the crowd. Wisti was a tremendous rock singer with an obvious psychic investment in his songs, which were well constructed, lyrically dense, and full of hooks. But that's what I made of it after the fact; at the time what got me was the band's utter conviction and almost virtuosic weirdness--the breathless way they threw themselves into the music, the way they fumbled like schoolboys for rock & roll "charisma" between songs.
When I went downstairs to meet Wisti afterward I offered the usual good show. He glowered at me like an old football coach. "Yeah, well, we've still got some things to figure out," he muttered, and promptly turned away. I've spent plenty of time around him since then, and he seems to grow more conflicted and inscrutable all the time. He wants to pull back. He doesn't want to give an inch.
"Sure, I'm ambitious," he says. "I've been waiting my whole life to be bought and sold. Success is a threat that doesn't necessarily bother me. Maybe that's the naiveté of the chronically unsuccessful. Who knows? I do know that I don't ever want to look back and feel like I spent 98 percent of my time networking and schmoozing, so what am I gonna do?"
Don't ask him. A couple of years ago the band was playing a party at the local Crackpot label's rehearsal space when Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy showed up. A few minutes after his arrival the band broke into a perfectly straight, absolutely competent version of "Runaway Train." It wasn't at all clear whether the song was intended as a tribute or a tweak, but I don't think I've ever been in a more uncomfortable room. Murphy left shortly.
Since then the Rank Strangers have been scouted by a couple of major labels themselves; to date nothing has come of it. It's hard to tell whether Wisti is ambivalent about success or simply too absorbed in a running dialogue with himself to give it much thought. The one time I tried to tell him how much I liked the band, and why--I remember saying that I still believed rock & roll could be redemptive--he cut me off. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he said, that old shit. I live in an Old Testament world myself. I'm a hair shirt wearer. It still just comes down to us versus them.
That streak of righteous vengeance was apparent enough in some of the Strangers' early Minneapolis gigs, but mostly the band's early sets consisted largely of jagged, meandering epics that bore witness to Wisti's taste for early Springsteen. Since guitarist Jacques Wait rejoined the band, they have settled into an impressively concise distillation of styles that's unique for its seeming lack of any contemporary influences. Alongside Wisti's penchant for Dylan, Springsteen, and the Carter Family, Wait juxtaposes a whole trunkload of pirated retro riffs and grooves. They sound like they've never forgotten a record that any of them have heard; they sound like a band, too.
"They're indescribably derivative," says Frank Randall of the Sycamores, a band that's recorded in Wisti's home studio. "Their songs are always built around a hook or a groove, and Jacques is a sometime-student, sometime-thief. You'll hear all these odd flares of old songs. More and more these days rock is like a recycling facility, and they have a real savvy for mixing those ingredients in interesting ways."
"The Rank Strangers, to me they're a real band," says Dunlap. "They'll go out there and play hard for anyone. If you catch 'em on the right night they'll blow you away. They're one of those bands who might have the best show of their lives playing to six people in Ames, Iowa."
The genesis of the Rank Strangers was like that of 10,000 other bands. Wisti and drummer Doug Durbin met in junior high back in Mason, Michigan. "The band was conceived in 1984 in Mrs. Snyder's physics class," Wisti says. "We just wanted to form a band to play Clash covers."
Wisti and Durbin moved on to Michigan State after high school, gigging around East Lansing and eventually hooking up with Wait.
"East Lansing was a college town without much of a music scene," Wait remembers. "You automatically just knew everybody who was doing anything interesting. Those guys were calling themselves 11:55, and I'd seen them at a bunch of basement parties and thought they were fun and sort of intriguing. At the time they had a revolving cast of guitar players and I met Mike at a party and eventually worked my way into the band."
That was 1987, and the group kicked around for a few years, eventually getting bored and changing their name from gig to gig. 11:55 became Big Gulp became Power Wagon became John Brown. In 1990 the band start thinking about getting out of Michigan.
"There were all these possible places," Wisti says, "and we didn't really know anything about any of them. Minneapolis was basically just a random choice. I do remember that when we started thinking about coming here my mom ordered me a subscription to City Pages so I'd sort of know where it was I was going. The first issue that came had Trip Shakespeare on the cover."
"Still," Doug Durbin says, "we moved here not knowing a single person."
"And we still don't know anyone," Wisti adds.
Wait stayed behind a year in Michigan, finishing school and tying up some other loose ends. In the meantime things had started to move pretty quickly for the band--now the Rank Strangers--in Minneapolis.
Longtime Gear Daddies/Jayhawks soundman Paul Smith was at the board for an early Uptown show and liked what he heard. He got ahold of the band's four-track demo and passed it around to friends. Billy Dankert heard the tape and went to check out the band. "Mike was just so odd," he remembers. "He's one of those guys who just sticks out in any crowd. They were a really captivating band, one of those bands that just plays all-out all the time, and Mike's a truly inspired singer. There was a sense of spectacle, with all that energy and Mike's contrary personality, and his--I don't know--brutal fashion sense."
Those were strange days for a band with a pretty high standard of strange. What Wisti was singing about, often as not, was Jesus. Onstage, his edgy, wild-eyed, finger-pointing rants came off as eerily inspired and hugely entertaining--an odd latter-day variant of punk. Again and again he would search the crowd with a trembling, accusatory finger, shouting out, "Do you believe in Jesus?" Did he, for that matter? Crowds at the Entry or the Uptown or the 400 found it riveting and a little uncomfortable. The band behind Wisti gave no quarter and got none; it was always ferociously loud, and when things went bad onstage it was like witnessing the botched demolition of a large building. Wisti had, and has, an incomparably withering way with the insolent remark, and between songs he seemed helpless to resist jabs at his bandmates, the warm-up band, the crowd, the club. And then, without warning, the band might launch into a perfect, complete side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road, or 20 minutes of Tommy.
Unfortunately, when Dankert and Tom Herbers took the Rank Strangers into the studio to record their Crackpot debut in the fall of 1991, the production didn't manage to capture the clumsy, impassioned air of their live shows, and what was left was a batch of songs full of odd religious references and the usual country-rock touches. By the time the CD, Far Cry From Here, finally came out a year and a half later, Wait had rejoined the band from Michigan and the Strangers were no longer the same outfit. On top of the time lag, the disc caused some reviewers to brand them proponents of a most perplexing sort of born-again Christianity.
"When I joined the band a year ago," says bass player Davin Odegaard, "people would say to me, 'Is that that Christian band?' It's hilarious."
"Not to me," Wisti says. "I'm not comfortable saying I don't believe in God, but I guess from a career standpoint it was a mistake. When you're pursuing ambitions you go through phases; stuff that's going on in your life works its way into the songs. I still have that apocalypse obsession, but the whole thing was a little more insane in those days. I can't say I regret it, but those days were a tough way to be."
One of the bargain highlights of every Rank Strangers show are the moments between songs when Wait steps up to the microphone and blurts some inscrutable punchline from the Chance the Gardener school of wisdom.
"I didn't sign no motherfucking contract!" he shouted one night. A comment on the Contract With America? A dig at Mike or the club management? Another night it might be, "Who has a bigger head than God?" or "Any asshole can be an American!"
It aggravates the hell out of Mike, and often as not gets the chemistry boiling.
"All that tension is honest stuff," Wait says. "It's never put on. I just get annoyed with Mike's sternness sometimes; it gets a little heavier than it needs to be, and I'll say that stuff just to try to loosen him up. It doesn't ever work, but for some reason it gives me some sort of perverse satisfaction."
By every account Wisti and Wait are something more extreme than just an odd couple. Wisti is a guy given to epic songwriting and reams of lyrics. Wait is a classic three-minute pop man, a hook guy who likes the way a record sounds--"the look of a record," he calls it--more than what it says. Their stage chemistry is that of two guys who do nothing but baffle and annoy each other. That's fairly close to the truth.
Asked about his relationship with Wait, Wisti finally allows that "when he wants to be, he's a real sharp dresser. I guess the irritation of knowing that we have to collaborate is probably the key to our relationship. I mean, he's my partner in the band, his ideas generally run counter to mine, and we're both control freaks, so you get the idea.
"Jacques is an odd case, and he's also an amazing musician. My tendency is to just slop through it. Jacques is extremely critical and has great instincts. He brings a real technical obsessiveness to everything we do. I guess we're like Kirk and Spock. I'm probably as difficult as he is."
"Mike and Jacques tend to be excessive in different ways," drummer Doug Durbin says. "And what they do well is temper each other's excesses. Mike will bring in a song that's eight minutes long and Jacques will start chopping."
"I'm always like, 'There are four bars here, man, where are you gonna put all these extra words?'" Wait says. "Song economy is a paramount issue with me, which runs counter to Mike's instincts as a songwriter. I spend a lot of time trying to trim the fat. If you have any appreciation for some of the timeless pop music through the years then you've got to realize that there are some awfully substantial tunes that can cram a lot into under three minutes. Economy in itself is a skill."
"Economy is a challenge," Wisti says, and leaves it at that.
"Even people who've only seen the band a few times will notice the agitation thing between those guys," says Odegaard. "People are like, 'Were those two guys having a fight or something?' And, you know, no--it's like that every show.
"It took me quite a long time to get used to the weird chemistry of the band. These guys agitate over everything, and in a weird way the music focuses the agitation. This definitely isn't one of those bands people always talk about where everybody's great friends. I don't feel like I really know any of these guys."
Durbin has been in bands with Wisti since high school. They grew up together. He describes their relationship this way: "I guess we're friends in an odd sort of way. But do I know him? No. I can't say I really do. Personally, I don't think any of us knows any of the others at all. I'm an analyst at Dain Bosworth, and I get a sort of kick out of the fact that when I go my own way at night nobody in the band has any idea what the hell I do."
Larry Osterman is a Minneapolis entertainment lawyer who has worked with the Rank Strangers for several years. The band had come to him for some legal advice back in the Crackpot days. "I listened to that first record, and I heard something in it that made me believe the band had a lot of potential. When I met them it was obvious that they weren't just doing this to kill time, have fun, or meet girls. Mike and Jacques are both pretty intense, serious guys. In the period after they made that record they improved tenfold. The second recording they did--the one they made in the basement, Weeds--blew my mind. It was three steps beyond Far Cry From Here."
The band had purchased a one-inch eight-track machine from Tom Herbers and set up a studio in the basement of Wisti's house, alongside the washer and dryer. Mike and Jacques set about becoming studio rats with characteristic zeal, the studio allowing them the luxury to endlessly rework their own tunes while also taking on side projects for other bands.
"One of the things I love about the Rank Strangers is that they're so self-sufficient," says Slim Dunlap. "The music they're making is almost completely from outside interference. That eight-track recorder is a wonderful thing because of its limitations; what you can't do with it makes you a whole lot better. You've got to keep it simple, and there's a lot of real cool refining you can do with simple."
Frank Randall and the Sycamores just finished recording the follow-up to last year's Rag and Bone Shop debut, working exclusively in Wisti's basement studio.
"I had a really good working relationship with Mike," Randall says. "I really like the way that he'll put something under the microscope. He's a great scrutinizer, but he also embraces a good loose quality that really works. It's kind of like a high-wire act.
"Half the stuff out there now, they're trying to make it sound like it was recorded in a basement. It's a trendy sound. What you lack in fidelity you can make up in performance. You have such a luxury of takes. Some of the recordings Mike's done down there are awesome. He can do warm, roomy things like us, and huge rock records like the new Punchdrunk, and everything recorded down there has benefited from Mike's personal relationship with the musicians."
Osterman got the Rank Strangers some money from MCA on a speculative basis, and the band went down in the basement and put together another album's worth of material. Though Osterman intends to send the record around to some labels, the band has finished the artwork, mastered the tape, and is proceeding with plans to release the album themselves in the spring.
Mike Wisti is holding court over midnight beers at Sandy's in south Minnea-polis.
"I'm against athletes in general," Wisti says. "They're all date-rapists, and you can quote me on that. I mean, to me, 10 years later and it's still just like high school; the popular bands are like the sports teams, the in-crowd, like they have these cliques, and they decide what's cool. It says in the rock book of rules that they want wildness, they want erraticism, they want randomness, but when they really get it they ban you from the club. What they want is a performance. You know, one of the greatest rock moments ever was Van Morrison's appearance in The Last Waltz. Here's this totally drunk, 5-foot-tall fat guy wearing, like, this oxford shirt, just out of his mind with energy. He's completely awkward, foolish, stumbling around; the thing about it is not that he's a drunken fool, but that he honestly doesn't give a shit what he looks like or what anyone thinks of him. Or Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live, that fantastic agitation and discomfort. That stuff, that's what rock music's all about. If you can't believe that the person up there's conviction is beyond question, then it isn't working."
Tuesday night is bowling night for Wisti. In the four years he has kept his unofficial bowling league together, 50-some bowlers have participated at one time or another. Each Wednesday morning Wisti sits down to his computer and carefully updates the 23 categories of statistical information he keeps for each bowler, including a Power Rating Index whose complex mathematical formula is of his own creation and is used to crown the much-coveted Bowler of the Week. By Friday all participating bowlers receive two sheets of complete statistics in the mail.
"Sure," Wisti says, "I'm an obsessive. I think things should be duly recorded. The more chronicling I can do the better I feel. I mean, the past just keeps building, out of control, and every day you lose so much. Of course, I'm even a failed obsessive; I keep falling three or four days behind."
Wisti sends out announcements for every show the band plays, plain white postcards usually imprinted with some surreal text that might be the fragment of an overheard conversation, or the solitary ravings of a man too long deprived of his meds.
Let me be brief. I thought we had an understanding. Dear reader, I thought we were developing a relationship. One-sided, albeit; I spoke and you listened, but you said you were used to and comfortable in a submissive relationship. Now you go and... Let us speak no more of it. I forgive the weak and punish the vain. (aside) Could you loosen that a little, please? So where were we? Oh yes, your infidelity. Stop thinking so much. How we will ever reach the nougat, the creamy center, if we can't get past the... Oh, what do you care. Why don't you listen?! I'm begging you. Let me sleep.
There are over 300 people on the Rank Strangers' mailing list. It's safe to say that a fair number of those people have never been to a Rank Strangers show. It's even said that there are people on the mailing list who can't stand the band but can't wait to get their postcards in the mail.
"I talk to people all the time who want to get on that mailing list but have absolutely no other interest in the band," says Mark Downey of Nerve Center Management. "They just want those cards."
"I get a kick out of that mailing list," says Dunlap, "although I've gotta say, I've spent some days puzzling over them cards and trying to figure out what they mean. My wife is like, 'Who's that weird friend who keeps sending those postcards?'"
Back at Sandy's, Mike Wisti is saying, "When you see Dog Day Afternoon and Pacino's going nuts, you know, that to me is rock & roll. Movies to me are like songs, and great songs are like movies. My personal favorite is 'Asbury Park.' It's got just a great, huge cinematic feel. It's not a very good song, but it's got such purity and innocence; it's like the sound of a guy who's just turned the valve on. Or 'Thunder Road,' that's a movie. 'Screen door slams, Mary's dress waves,' that's like a script direction, it's so clean.
"You know," he says later, "as I get older, and having somehow avoided being handed the brass ring, I don't believe in trends. I just keep doing what I do, hoping it's gonna come around to me, and if it doesn't, that's unfortunate, because there's nothing else I really want to do."
"I went out to play softball with Mike and some other guys one time," Billy Dankert remembers. "Mike's glove was laced with a guitar string. I just thought that was so perfect."
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