By Rich Larson
On a lovely, slightly cool night in late June, I am standing in line outside of the Summit Brewery in St. Paul. The people around me, aside from my 24-year-old daughter, are all roughly my age or older, making them well old enough to remember the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. We are all waiting in line because the Summit Taproom is filled to capacity and they are only allowing a few people in at a time. The occasion is a celebration of Summit’s newest beer, The Suburbs’ New Wave Ale. In collaboration with the release of the seminal Twin Cities new wave band’s latest album, Hey Muse!, the brewery at the forefront of Minnesota’s craft beer revolution has worked with the band members to create a beer made from “Calypso and Michigan Copper hops, [with] moderate bitterness…inviting aromas and flavors of pear and fruit punch.”
As good as the beer sounds, we aren’t spending all this time in line because we really want to try it. We’re here because The Suburbs, the band members themselves, are in the beer hall. This is merely a “Meet & Greet” writ large. The band is not performing tonight, but is simply mingling with the crowd while the new album plays over the sound system of the Summit Beer Hall. Nevertheless, some 300 people have shown up because this is a chance to hobnob with one of the great bands of Minnesota lore.
Nearly 40 years ago, in 1978, a fledgling record label called Twin/Tone Records issued their very first release: The Suburbs debut EP. Over the next decade, both the label and the band would grow to become key pieces of the legendary 1980s Twin Cities music scene. Led by two of the great personalities in the history of Minnesota Music, Blaine John “Beej” Chaney and Chan Poling, The Suburbs injected dance beats and horn-drenched melodies into the garage/punk atmosphere of the day with songs like “Rattle My Bones,” “Cows,” “Life is Like,” and the immortal “Love is the Law.” They disbanded once in 1988, and then loosely came back together in the early 1990s. It took the 2009 death of founding member Bruce Allen to kick things back into a higher gear for the band. In 2013 they released a comeback album to great critical acclaim.
And now there is a new album, a revamped lineup, a summer tour, and a freshly tapped keg of beer named after them. The band has been part of the Twin Cities music scene for four decades, but the case can be made that they took a couple of those decades off. As important as the Suburbs are to the history of Twin Cities music, it would be okay to wonder if, in 2017, The Suburbs are still relevant.
However, if there was ever any doubt, this crowd easily settles the debate. The fans are adoring. The band is gracious, if a little surprised by the turnout. Let it be known that The Suburbs have returned, and they are as beloved today as they were in their early 1980s heyday.
About a week earlier, I’d found myself sitting at Nina’s Coffee Café in St. Paul with Chan Poling as he was trying to eat a turkey sandwich. An unassuming man whose grey hair still carries that stylized sense of cool, Poling is calm, thoughtful, and easy going. He comes off more professorial than rockstar-ish. I can’t quite imagine that this affable gentleman ‑ who is trying not to talk with food in his mouth ‑ was ever thought of as a rebellious punk.
I asked him in anticipation of the Summit event how it feels to have a beer named after his band.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said with a coy grin. “After all I’m a St. Paul guy, and Summit is the thing. It’s cool.” He then quickly pointed out that this beer was an extremely limited run.
“We’re going to have kegs at this party and at First Avenue (during the August 4, album release party for Hey Muse!) You can call your local liquor store and ask them to bring it in, but for now it’s just going to be there.”
This is Poling in microcosm. It was easy to tell that he does kind of get a kick out of this new barley-and-hops honor, but before he got too carried away and said something that might sound braggadocios, he offered a finely tongue-in-cheek response and then quickly diminished the honor.
If anyone would have a right to do some bragging, however, it would be Poling. His legacy was set long ago, but since the initial demise of The Suburbs, he has continued to write, create and perform. He has scored music for film, television and theater. In the 1990s he wrote the music for multiple Theatre de la Jeune Lune productions, including the award winning original production Children of Paradise, and he snagged an Emmy for his work on the PBS documentary Iron Range: A People’s History. More recently his collaboration with playwright Jeffry Hatcher, Glensheen, won an Ivey Award for overall excellence last fall. The musical, based on the notorious murders at the Duluth mansion, has enjoyed two separate sold out runs at the History Theatre in St. Paul, and just closed a third sold-out run on July 31.
He also has another band. In 2005 he came together with former Semisonic bassist John Munson and the multi-talented Steve
Roehm to form The New Standards, a trio that takes rock and pop songs and re-arranges them into jazz pieces. Their annual string of holiday shows has become an eagerly anticipated event in the Twin Cities, and greater Minnesota, every December.
As it turns out, his daughter just had twins, making Poling a grandfather for the first time. He wants everyone to know that he really likes the idea.
“It feels good,” he said when I asked him about becoming a grandpa. “I’m thrilled. I have no qualms with the aging thing. Listen, it all depends on how you feel in your mind. But it is surprising. You look in the mirror sometimes or see a picture and think ‘What the..?’”
As a young man, when they were first getting started, did he think The Suburbs would be releasing new music as he was turning 60?
“Oh sure. Yeah. It’s what I do. I write songs.
“Somebody said you can’t really call this (Hey Muse!) a Suburbs’ album without Beej, Bruce and Michael. I don’t know about that. I started this band when I was 18 years old. I can call it whatever the hell I want.”
With that said, Poling is the first to acknowledge the changes his band has gone through.
“The original five were me and Beej, Hugo (Klaers, on drums), Bruce (Allen on guitar), and Michael (Halliday, on bass). To me, that’s The Suburbs. We played for 10 years on the road together.”
The band had near immediate success on their home turf, but attention further out was elusive. “Rattle My Bones” and “Life is Like” were songs that found their way to Twin Cities radio, and the video for “Love is the Law” got a little airplay on MTV, but gaining traction outside Minnesota was tough.
“Early on, R.E.M. was opening for us, The Replacements were opening for us, and we were touring with those guys.”
In 1986, The Replacements played on Saturday Night Live. The following year R.E.M. landed on the cover of Rolling Stone. But there weren’t as many people outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul knocking on The Suburbs’ door. As their contemporaries started to find success, the band was confounded by their lack of national attention.
“God bless ‘em, R.E.M. was an awesome band, but we were going ‘Why (not us, too?)’ The simple fact of the matter is that frustration got to be too much, and we just said ‘Screw it.’”
So in 1988, The Suburbs called it quits. Chaney moved to Los Angeles, and Poling opened the new chapters of his life. Still, the call to play together was a strong one. Five years later the band reformed for a series of shows at First Avenue, and the success of those shows told them that they could still function in the Twin Cities as a main attraction.
“We figured, you know, we’re not going to chase the commercial dream anymore, and we’re just going to play when we want
whenever people want to hear us. So, we probably played four times a year at the state fair or some kind of outdoor fest. We’d show up at First Avenue every now and then.”
Then in 2009, Allen passed away, and something changed for the rest of the band. The founding of the Bruce C. Allen Scholarship Fund brought a new purpose. In honor of their late guitarist, The Suburbs were now helping under-privileged kids study music.
“We’ve given four scholarships, so far to young people studying music,” said Poling. “It doesn’t matter what school you’re going to, if you need financial assistance, we help. Every donation that goes there helps us do that.”
By 2012 things were ramping up again for The Suburbs. They were enjoying playing together again, and they were being challenged from within.
“One day Hugo said to me ‘I don’t want to just be this nostalgia act. If we’re going to keep writing new songs and getting creative, then I’m in. But it’s just boring for me to play ‘Cows’ over and over again.’
“Now, I’ll never get tired of playing ‘Rattle My Bones’ and ‘Cows,’ but I said ,‘Hell yeah, I have tons of songs.’” Which, he confides, may or may not have been a true statement.
“I really hadn’t been thinking about (new rock songs.) The New Standards is other people’s songs, and theater is a whole different set of muscles.
“But rock songs always just came to me. When I’m driving, or in the shower, or just lying in bed I’ll have an idea. You’re just
thinking and you hear this mood in your head and you think, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ That’s how The Suburbs has always been. Those songs have just come out of there.”
In 2013, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the band headed into the studio and recorded Si Sauvage. As their first album of new material in 27 years, it was a critical success, garnering rave reviews both locally and nation wide. The single “Turn the Radio On” was named the best song of 2013 in a Star Tribune music critics’ poll.
And then the band suffered another loss. Chaney stepped away from the band due to a litany of health concerns. As it turned out, while the core fans had been enjoying the Suburbs renaissance, Chaney had been taking less and less of an active role.
“I was trying to get Beej to just send me whatever he had,” said Poling. “He was still living in L.A., and I just said ‘Whatever you’ve got, just send it to me. Record it on your phone. Just two chords.’ That’s how we always worked anyway. I always wrote the songs, but if he had a riff or something we’d work with that. But he wasn’t contributing that much.
“He kept flying back to town, but he wasn’t well, and he wasn’t happy, and he’d really kind of forgotten how to play guitar. He was just struggling. I was worried about him.
“We talked, and I said, you have to take care of yourself, and he agreed. I said, ‘You can always come back.’ But he doesn’t seem to be that interested. Quite frankly we’ve both kind of moved on. He might do his own thing again sometime. But we tried, and it didn’t work.”
Poling said that Chaney’s kids have gotten him to take better care of himself and he is right now receiving the care he needs. But even with the loss of his longtime partner, Poling wanted to keep The Suburbs going.
“Beej and I were high school friends. He was the ‘Rock Guy,’ and I was always the ‘Composer Guy.’ So I thought we were the yin and yang that worked together. But when the yang stops working then you have to find another yang.
That Yang has arrived in the form of a newly restructured band. He and Klaers may be the last original members, but the new members bring quite a bit to the table.
“For the (Bruce Allen) memorial, we had to get a bass player and another guitar player,” he said. “The addition of guitar player, Steve Brantseg, was a no-brainer. He’d been in The Phones, and played with Curtiss A, and really is just one of the greatest rock guitar players around. And we’ve been friends for a long time. So when I asked him he said, ‘I’d be honored to. I know all the Bruce licks.’ And so he played all of Bruce’s parts, but he brought his own feel and vibe to it.
“And then the bass player – I asked Munson if he wanted to be the bass player for The Suburbs and he said ‘God, I’d love to,
but Semisonic is getting back together, and I have The Twilight Hours and, of course, The New Standards.’” So I asked him who he would recommend. Steve Roehm was in the room with us, and they both told me Steve Price (formerly of Rex Daisy). So I called him and we hit it off right away. He’s really good.”
Finding someone to fill the shoes of Beej Chaney was not something that was going to happen, but Poling did find a guitar player who could be creative like Chaney.
“I asked Jeremy Ylvisaker if he would join. I was trying to find someone who had that kind of sonic talent that’s just north of experimental and avant garde but was powerful in the rhythm and a little lead stuff too. Ylvisaker (the son of the recently departed John Ylvisaker who is widely regarded as one of the most popular composers of contemporary Lutheran music) has those chops. I don’t know if you’ve heard (Jeremy’s) work with Andrew Bird or Alpha Consumer, but he’s super talented.
“So now we’re Hugo, me, Jeremy, Steve Brantseg and Steve Price, and then we have Max Ray on saxophone, who has been with us since Credit in Heaven, and Rochelle Becker on baritone sax. Janey Winterbauer is singing with us. And then this amazing guy whom I’ve been playing with on different projects named Stephen Kung. He plays trumpet. He could play with the best of the best in New York. He also plays keyboards, so now I don’t have to hold that end down. I can get out and wander around a little bit. And it fills out the sound a little bit, too.
“We’re playing a lot. We’re playing Summerfest in Milwaukee. Then we go to Chicago, and then Madison and then Des Moines,
and then Kansas City. So we’ll be around the Midwest this summer and then we come back to Minneapolis and play First Avenue in August.”
Poling is hopeful that the new music on Hey Muse! will appeal to the fans of the old lineup and will find some new Suburbs fans as well.
“I think the sound has evolved since Si Sauvage. We put a pretty solid group together, and I’m getting spoiled with the musicianship we have in the band right now. It’s just different. We’ve taken it to a new professional level.
“But it really is about continuing my songwriting and what we always did – Hugo and I, and Bruce and Michael and Beej too. But if those guys can’t be with us they can’t be with us. It’s the same legacy to me.”
Back at the Summit Brewing party, I’m trying to fend off some disappointment. Despite arriving about 30 minutes after the doors opened, I clearly got here too late. Just as I’m finally let through the doors (it was an hour-long wait to get in), they announce that the third keg of The Suburbs’ New Wave Ale has kicked, and the brewery has no more to sell. I settle for a pint of Horizon Red IPA and start to mingle. Soon, I cross paths with Poling. We exchange niceties, and I tell him that I’ll have to wait for the First Avenue show in August to try the new brew.
“I don’t know where all these people came from,” he says. “But it’s really nice.
“I’d say this is a good sign.”
The Suburbs will headline the First Avenue Main room on Friday, August 4 at 7:30pm / $22.00 Advance / $25.00 Door / 18+. For ticket information CLICK HERE
To read our review of Hey Muse! CLICK HERE
Featured Image/Cover photo by Christopher Ludtke
This article was edited by Rachel Wohrlin