Photo by Scott “Starfire” Lunt
My teenage self always thought musicians that had side projects were the coooooooolest. I still do, because I still feel like a teenager.
In this blog I’m going to talk a little bit about some famous and/or regionally known local bands and their side projects (as well as my own!) and how these projects give participating musicians voice to the other, perhaps more wild, sides of their personalities.
First, I admit that I do feel strange about describing certain bands as “side projects,” as they may be some musicians’ main course. My music has been a side project for a number of musicians and I think it still is for some of the players that I collaborate with since I’ve been the sole songwriter up to this point. In fact, being the recipient of musicians relating to my music as a side thing pained me from time to time, and in this town that I reside it is more often than not that every musician is in at least 2 projects or sits in with even more than that. Once my drummer had three gigs in one night – not uncommon! If the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival is any testament to the unusual abundance of local music in a city of this size, it makes sense that many members overlap in projects. Homegrown sports 150+ local bands (within a 100 mile radius) in a city of only 90,000.
I want to start my list with a famous (in some circles) indie band that resides here named Low. Low is on Sub Pop Records and just celebrated 20 years as a band. It is a trio consisting of Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington. I think their music is insanely beautiful.
The prolific Alan Sparhawk has formed a number of side projects as well as dipped his toe in producing and recording (he just produced the newest Trampled By Turtles album … and if I may toot my own horn, he recorded half of my 2003 album East to the Sea). He formed a duo with violinist Gaeylnn Lea called The Murder of Crows – dreamy, looping overdubs of violin and voice and hazy atmospheric ambient noise. Another one of Alan’s projects is The Black Eyed Snakes – a dark, crazy train railroad blues kind of band that makes people take their clothes off (or it did at Homegrown Fest many years ago). They also graciously performed at my wedding reception – the bartender said it was the best wedding Lutsen Resort ever saw 😉 Alan also formed a band called Retribution Gospel Choir, which is one of my FAVORITE bands. This is arena rock, fist pumping, run on the treadmill, heart pounding in your chest kind of rock (as well as some explorations into dub). Since my musical tastes have evolved to be more aggressive, RGC is my JAM. (They are playing at the Red Herring Lounge in Duluth on Wednesday, 7/15 by the way and Low on 7/16). I believe that Retribution Gospel Choir is really big in Spain as well.
The drummer for Retribution Gospel Choir is Eric Pollard. Another musical jack of all trades. Also known as Actual Wolf, you will find him toting his awesomely hipster merchandise (cherry red custom sunglasses, cassette tapes and a hoodie with a hot pink wolf on the front) from town to town solo or with a gorgeously smooth band like I just heard last weekend at Bayfront Festival Park … Is Actual Wolf his main project because he writes all the songs and Retribution Gospel Choir his side project (I’m sure they all collaborate in songwriting) or what? Hard to say …
Down along the line, Eric Pollard / Actual Wolf produced my husband Kyle MacLean’s EP for his band Rebels (formerly American Rebels) – another stadium rock, fist pumping, feel good, blood red stained truth kind of band. If I had my way with the universe, I think Retribution Gospel Choir should have the Rebels open for them on tour, in Spain simply so that I can come along (J/K – I think it would be a great fit). Besides my hubby (sings + plays guitar), within American Rebels there is Heather Millis (bass), Scott Millis (drums) and Bob Olson (guitar).
Bob also plays guitar in The Black Eyed Snakes. Scott and Heather collaborate with Dave Frankenfeld in his project called Batteries. Batteries is hard for me to describe, I only know that I like it and it’s complicated, with quick hooks and unexpected twists. Dave used to play drums with me (but now I’ve co-opted Kyle, Scott and Heather to be my band – would that make me their side project???). Greg Cougar Conley and Bryon Gaynor also rock in Batteries and I’ve proudly shared some tunes with both of those dudes as well (sang on Greg’s band Both’s album back in 2001-ish and worked with Bryon in a cover band for Scott and Heather Millis’ wedding. Incestuous music scene!!!!). GAH, sorry I keep bringing it back to me & who I know! But it’s who I’m honored to know 🙂
Transitioning from Batteries, I want to talk about Charlie Parr. Charlie Parr’s sound seems like it comes from the 1800’s gold rush era of mountain folk/blues/bluegrass. His words are rambly and deep, and I stand by Charlie as a good man with a huge heart. His solo work takes him all over the world.
His “side project” is called Devil’s Flying Machine. Dave Frankenfeld plays drums and Christian McShane plays guitar and all sorts of other stuff. This is an outlet of frenzy – long jams, lots of words, kind of Black Eyed Snakes energy but whirling around that folk heart.
I realize as I write all of this that barely any females have been represented. I want to shout out to Haley Bonar who is an old friend of mine from college at University of MN, Duluth (she quit to pursue her music and rightly so!) … I got ahold of her demo CASSETTE in 2000 or 2001 when she was considering moving to Duluth and I was a barista at a cafe she was looking to perform at. Haley’s solo career has taken her to great heights and her music still breaks my heart – something about her voice, her phrasing, her control, her imagery, DAMN HALEY YOU’RE SO GOOD!
Her “side project” is called Gramma’s Boyfriend. Just watch the video – sheer good WACKINESS. Listen to her solo stuff and Gramma’s Boyfriend side to side and you’ll see that she gives voice to a different part of her personality, and lets it all go, lipstick on her teeth, unitards and all.
Finally, I’m in a side project called The Electric Witch. It is a synth pop, electronica project started by Zac Bentz, Steph Bentz, Marcus Matthews and Eric Anderson. Zac is a master of electronic music – his “main course” would be a solo project called Dirty Knobs. I jumped into The Electric Witch when Marcus moved to Los Angeles and they needed a vocalist. If you could call it that – I sing through a vocoder, disguising my voice like a ROBOT.
I wear a mask or paint my face, tight, shiny metallic clothes, weird ravey dance moves like I’m back in high school at those all night parties in warehouses (sorry mom!). For me, this outlet is ridiculously fun. For one, I don’t have to schlep gear (I will help if asked, however), it isn’t insanely heart-on-sleeve personal, and we can make people DANCE. [Come see us in Minneapolis opening for Freezepop on Saturday, July 18th 2015 at the Nether Bar in Mill City Nights].
It is magical to connect the web of musicians in this town, the more that I sit here and think about it. The creative output is fucking insane. The overlapping stories could drive so deep, keeping you up at night with a whirling mind to think about all the connections, drama, mishaps and love. Get to know your local musicians, their side projects and their stories. Buy their music, go to their shows. Don’t be afraid to express your appreciation. We are here to entertain, and bring you into all of your wild, deep emotional sides. There is something for everyone.