Key players on the Amerindie underground of the ‘80s keep rolling with a terrific new Kickstarter-powered album. Chan Poling explains.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Minneapolis churned out a slew of staggeringly talented musicians and bands. From Prince and The Replacements to Husker Du and Soul Asylum, it’s a literal who’s-who of great American bands. Fueled on cheap beer and late nights, these Midwest kids were fairly agnostic to genres, allowing the scene to flourish and cross pollinate blending musical styles and tastes from punk and funk to soul and new wave. At ground zero of this musical movement stood The Suburbs.
A band with a knack for mixing classic rock drums with new wave keyboards, R&B horns and raucous guitar, the group’s self-titled EP was the first ever release on the iconic Twin/Tone label. For a decade, from 1977-1987, The Suburbs turned in half a dozen albums on Twin/Tone as well as the majors (Mercury/Polygram and A&M) before finally calling it a day.
They resurfaced to the surprise of many in 2013 with a new record, Si Sauvage, laying the groundwork for Hey Muse!, their latest full length and a clear signal that they are just as brilliant now as they were four decades prior.
Chan Poling, band co-founder, singer and keyboardist, was kind enough to speak with Blurt recently about why the band got back together, the affirmation of crowdfunding and having his song serve as a gay rights anthem.
BLURT: You guys have played together here and there for the past 10 years or so. What was behind the decision in 2013 to finally put out a new record?
CHAN POLING: Well, I’ll outline it for you. We broke up at the end of the ’80s after really working our asses off and getting to a certain stage with two major label deals, but finally it wore us down, as it does a lot of bands. We realized really quickly that we still enjoyed playing, so we started playing back together again around ’93. We kept it more fun; we’d play outdoor festivals and around our hometown and go to New York every once and a while, but we just played four or five shows a year to keep our chops up.
When we lost Bruce (Allen, guitarist, who died in 2009), we decided to do a memorial show and had to find a guy to do Bruce’s part, so we asked Steve Brantseg, who had been a friend from the old Twin/Tone days and he added in his own panache. At that point, our bass player Michael Halliday had developed arthritis so bad he couldn’t play anymore. We lost two players, so I asked Steve Price if he wanted to join. That was a great fit. Over the years, if people want to play, they play with us. But I was thinking how would we every get someone to replace Beej (Blaine John “Beej” Chaney, guitarist, who stepped away from the band in 2014)? He had a really unique style. We found Jeremy Ylvisaker, who played with Andrew Bird. He’s super talented and he came and joined us. He was an old fan of the band so he was thrilled and he’s just monstrous on guitar, so I was thrilled. The band is just fucking killing it.
You guys finally put out a new album four years ago. Was there less pressure putting out Hey Muse! as you had already had the comeback record out of the way?
Yeah, we were very pleasantly surprised to find that the fans were still there and the record was good. We were proud of it and the reaction was the clincher for us. The Kickstarter was the highest grossing Kickstarter in Minnesota. I write songs all the time and I finally realized that my Suburbs song folder was viable again. When I’m writing, for theater or movies or for the Suburbs, I usually know exactly who it’s meant for. “Hey Muse!” popped into my head when I was sleeping and I woke up and found a little electric keyboard and write down the lead line and verse chords in my pajamas. In fact, I’ve already got two songs for the new record.
You mention Kickstarter. Things have clearly changed a lot in the music world since The Suburbs were last signed to a label. What have you seen as some of the bigger changes since you last put out music with the band?
In the olden days, the model was that the labels had capital to invest in developing their artists. If we got a $300,000 advance from Polygram it wasn’t like they were giving us $300,000. We had to pay that back. The idea of controlling your own operating capital is always intriguing to me. Some bands thrive in that world (with labels). We thrived in that world for a few years and we were making alternative, very personal rock music. We don’t make music that competes with Katie Perry or Taylor Swift. We make music for our own esoteric survival and you need to find ways of funding that like any other business.
When we realized people actually wanted to be part of these crowd funding things, it was a relief. There’s a stigma that you’re asking for money because the labels don’t think you’re viable enough to give you money. The fact of the matter is, we’re making a product. It costs nearly $100 grand to make a good rock record with the studio time and the musicians and the manufacturing. Vinyl is expensive. It’s a large outlay of cash. When I found out we could control our own destiny by offering our record for sell before it’s made, let’s do it. It’s more empowering, it’s about community and it’s a closer tie to the fans.
Is there a case of schadenfreude seeing what the labels are going through now or were you guys always treated well by the record labels?
Now that you mention it, maybe it is a little bit of schadenfreude. But then again, I don’t wish ill will on anyone. It’s always the underdog against the big guy and I’m always for the underdog.
There’s a new book that just came out about the Minneapolis music scene on the ‘70s and ‘80s called Complicated Fun. The Suburbs and a bunch of other bands are covered in it. At the time, did you realize something unique was happening in the city music-wise? [Go HERE to read our review of the book. – Lit. Ed.]
I had no idea, we were just doing our thing. It was awesome for sure. I haven’t read the book, but I definitely lived it.
The song “Love is the Law” is a favorite among many fans of the band. It was also adopted by the Gay Marriage movement in Minneapolis. As a local guy, what was that feeling like that your song was tied to such a historic movement?
I was super proud of that and it was really personal for me because my son is gay and was discussing getting married to his partner of many years. We were wondering where that wedding was going to take place and when we found out that it was able to be done here and that they were using our song to celebrate that, it was really personal to me. I am very proud. The fact that that song can have two different lives is very cool.
You guys have some tour dates online for Minneapolis and a few other places in the Midwest. Any thoughts about touring in other parts of the country?
Oh, yeah. We definitely want to it’s just a matter of inching our way out there and to see what we can afford. The problem with The Suburbs is that we are a completely irresponsible, unwieldy commercial venture; we’ve got three horn players, a back-up singer, five guys, the crew. We just never grew up.
2015 Photo Credit: Jay Smiley / 2017 Live Photo Credit: Brian Grenz / Below, check out a live video of the band performing at this year’s Record Store Day