Local Current Blog

Minnesota musicians will mix politics with art at pair of star-studded ‘Vote No’ concerts

Minnesota musicians have a long tradition of merging politics and art. We’re the home state of Bob Dylan, after all, who unwittingly became one the most iconic political songwriters in modern music, and more recently we’ve become known as a breeding ground for socially conscious, independent hip-hop.

We’re also an exceedingly charitable community, with benefit concerts to help cover things like medical expenses, social programs, and educational facilities dotting the concert calendar every week.

This week, those two characteristics have been especially noticeable as dozens upon dozens of Minnesota musicians from different micro-communities and scenes have stepped forward to express their views on the upcoming election. With two amendments to the Minnesota constitution on the ballot this season, musicians are urging their fans to “Vote No” via political videos and concerts, including a two-night event at the Triple Rock Social Club this weekend that will host performances by Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, Har Mar Superstar, Charlie Parr, and Tripping Icarus, a band that features Vikings punter and prominent same-sex marriage activist Chris Kluwe.

As the election draws near, I called up several of the musicians involved in this weekend’s events to collect their thoughts on the amendments and ask them how they feel about intertwining their personal politics and public art.

The Amendments

One of the constitutional amendments being proposed this election season is regarding same-sex marriage, a hot-button issue that has drawn such intense scrutiny from public figures like Chris Kluwe that Minnesota’s stance on the issue has entered the national dialogue. Same-sex marriage is already prohibited in Minnesota, and the amendment would reinforce that law by adding a definition to the state constitution that legally defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Supporters of the amendment say that it will prevent judges and future legislatures from overturning the same-sex marriage law in Minnesota, while opponents argue that the amendment discriminates against gay couples and prevents them from receiving the same rights that are available to heterosexual couples.

Sean Tillmann, known on stage as clothes-shedding pop performer Har Mar Superstar, had an especially concise summary of why he opposes the marriage amendment: “I don’t know why two people in love getting married that have nothing to do with you — or maybe even if they do — I don’t know why that would affect your life. If you don’t want gay marriage to happen, then don’t gay marry somebody. It’s like someone telling you what food to eat. To me, it’s just ridiculous.”

Opposition to the same-sex marriage amendment was so rampant in the music community this year that it compelled Triple Rock Social Club owner and Dillinger Four frontman Erik Funk to organize this weekend’s “Minnesota Musicians Vote No” events, which he booked with help from the Modern Radio record label and local blog Cakein15.com. Funk says his wife (and Triple Rock’s co-owner) Gretchen planted the seed earlier this year. “She’s been volunteering for MN United for All Families, and at some point she said, you know, we do benefits all the time, what’s going to be going on for this issue?” 

Soon after, it became an all-hands-on-deck situation as more and more musicians and music industry professionals stepped forward to help. The event eventually snowballed to include messaging against both constitutional amendments, with proceeds going to activist groups Minnesotans United for All Families and TakeAction MN, and the lineup grew to involve artists as disparate as St. Paul rapper Carnage, deep blues heavyweight Charlie Parr, and rock luminary Dave Pirner.

“I really wanted to get people that just wouldn’t be on the same stage in a night. I thought that would be the most impactful thing,” says Funk. He hopes that hosting an event with such prominent and disparate guests will not only help to sway a few votes but raise awareness of what the amendments are about.

“Gretchen and I have several friends and neighbors who are same-sex couples, and it’s been hard for us to watch over these years, realizing they already live in a state that won’t allow them to get married, and then to see them sort of really ‘kick them when they’re down’ kind of amendment being opposed,” he says. “I think it’s just really hateful. And I think it’s misleading to the public, I think a lot of people think they’re voting on whether gay marriage should be legal or not. And that’s not even what’s being asked.”

Peter Mielech, who operates the Modern Radio label along with partner Tom Loftus, says he was surprised just how many musicians wanted to be a part of the event. In addition to tonight and tomorrow’s concerts, attendees will receive a digital download card with tracks from 25 Minnesota musicians who wanted to express their support of the cause.

“Our intention was to involve as many people as possible to really demonstrate that the music community as a whole is supportive of these causes,” Mielech says. “And I just think it’s important that fans of these bands understand that. Sometimes it’s difficult to know, how should you view art? And how much should we separate art from the artist? But I think this is a positive thing to note, that so many prominent artists within our community are supportive of these issues, defeating these amendments.”

The second amendment up for vote in Minnesota this election season is related to the process of voting itself. The amendment would require all voters to show a government-issued photo ID in order to receive a ballot, which supporters of the amendment say would prevent voter fraud. 

“The voter ID issue has been eclipsed a little bit, and doesn’t seem to have the sort of urgency,” admits Adam Levy of the Honeydogs, who will perform on Saturday night. “But from what I’ve been researching, the amendment is poorly written, and there’s a number of issues that could haunt us.”

Adam Levy of the Honeydogs; photo by Swensson/MPR

“If passed, the legislation of voter ID amendment will place barriers on seniors, student’s, veterans and also people living in rural areas,” notes R&B-pop artist Mayda, who performs tonight. “That is a huge population!”

And Drew Christopherson of Poliça puts it bluntly: “This amendment is very obviously an attempt to reduce the amount of people voting. Its completely transparent. Voter fraud is not an actual problem at all. I would in fact like to see voting made much easier.”

“With voter ID, I mean I was just down visiting my dad, he’s voted his entire life, he’s 82, he’s in a care facility — he can’t find his ID,” notes Erik Funk. “And for him, it’s a lot harder to be able to manage figuring someone to help him go get an ID. It’s crazy to me. He should be able to go to the place that he’s always gone, not have to worry about it — it’s just ridiculous. I think there’s a lot of really, really big unintended consequences to that. It seems really simple, and you’re like, ‘well, of course you need an ID for something as important as vote,’ but they don’t realize how easy it is for someone to make the decision to not vote. And especially more vulnerable populations like the elderly, that can swing elections. And there’s a reason why these votes are happening, it’s because people are trying to swing elections.”

What is the role of art in politics? Or politics in art?

With so many musicians from different backgrounds, genres, and generations uniting to express their opposition of these amendments, I had one main question to ask: What is the role of politics in a musician’s career? Is there a fear of alienating fans? And what, ultimately, can an artist’s political activity contribute to the larger discussion?

“I think being a part of the community you live in is pivotal to being an active member of your life,” says Gabriel Douglas of the 4onthefloor. “Artists can further the discussion. Can bring the discussion to people who might not have all the information or might not be up with the current issues, amendments, and rally cries. There’s SO MUCH information out there now, and to shed light on it is something that anybody from any walk of life can easily do now through social media, through a luncheon with a friend, and just through continuing the conversation; including musicians.”

Douglas felt so strongly about the same-sex marriage amendment in particular that he contributed a new solo song, “Play Nice,” to the compilation that will be distributed this weekend. “‘Play Nice’ is a song about common sense, and about treating others the way you want to be treated,” he notes. The song was originally written for his niece, but he found that the messages translated well to today’s political climate: “Some playground etiquette, if you will,” he says.

Drew Christopherson of Poliça; photo by Ben Clark

Drew Christopherson agrees that artists should be able to express their personal thoughts on politics. “I think it’s important for artists to feel like they can be themselves if they want to. Some people prefer to remove their personal views from their art, and that’s fine. But when you begin to think that speaking your mind is going to be a problem, then you’re heading into dark territory… I also feel like artists have an ability to influence people in a pretty powerful way. I know this because when I was young, I was incredibly influenced by bands. I gave up religion, learned about fascism, understood the extent at which corporations have control over our country, and many other fundamental aspects of the views I have as an adult. Pretty much all of my political subversion can be credited to bands and artists speaking out.”

“I am not afraid of judgment or losing fans,” adds Mayda. “At the end of the day I am just a citizen like the Joe who hates me or loves me. I might not like what he does either but that’s my problem, not his.”

One significant trend in recent years is that artists are taking to Twitter and Facebook to express their views, and in many cases that means engaging directly with fans and discussing complex issues in real time. Adam Levy says this method of communication has helped him to explain his beliefs. “I try not to be preachy,” he says. “I use social media to have debates instead of spout off. I’m more about encouraging conversation rather than telling people how it is.” 

Levy also adds that it’s important to do the necessary homework before going public with his views. “There are times when people in the arts getting political can be laughable, just because they don’t do a lot of research and they feel like being a musician gives them a platform. I think it’s really important that if you’re going to be public about issues, that you have knowledge of the issue so you’ve got a good understanding of both sides.”

While artists like Levy and Mayda and celebrities like Chris Kluwe have no qualms about going public with their opinions, others are a little more hesitant. Interestingly, the organizers of this weekend’s shows say they didn’t encounter a single musician who declined to participate because of ideological reasons (they say artists like Craig Finn were eager to perform but had to pass because of scheduling reasons), but some musicians are more forthright than others about what they believe.

“I just don’t like to open up the forum, most of the time, for political conversations,” says Sean Tillmann. “Quite frankly, it’s boring to me. And it’s just, like, a never-ending loop of the same things being said. So I always say I’m not going to get vocal, but then the month leading up to the election you start to get terrified when the public is getting swayed towards lies. I’m not an activist, but there are certain things that should just be allowed.”

Christy Hunt of Pink Mink; photo by Ben Clark

And Christy Hunt, who will perform with her band Pink Mink, says that it’s important to maintain a balance between getting political and putting on a good show for her fans. “We can make our political views heard through our art and conscious thoughts while addressing an audience, but it’s important to keep it fun and make it a party that brings the ’cause’ and the people together,” she says. “I went to the Ralph Nader Green Party Convention at the Target Center years back and remember leaving enlightened because it was so fun. I also remembered all the important issues that were addressed. “

“All and all, we all come from different places and have formed our own ideals and opinions of the world we live in,” she continues. “I can voice mine and listen to a good debate. And I hope my neighbor and myself who differ could come to terms with each others views rather than argue endlessly or distastefully. That sounds exhausting.”


MN Musicians Vote No, Night 1: Friday, October 26

Dillinger Four
Har Mar Superstar
Pink Mink
Magic Castles
Bombay Sweets
Blood, Sweat and Beards
DJ Channy and Drew (Poliça) and DJs Lady Heat

MN Musicians Vote No, Night 2: Saturday, October 27

Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum)
Flavor Crystals
Carnage The Executioner
Charlie Parr
Adam Levy (Honeydogs)
Tripping Icarus (featuring Vikings Chris Kluwe)
Puppies and Trains
Comedians Tommy Ryman & Maggie Faris
Emcee by Ian Rans (Drinking with Ian)

Lineups are not necessarily listed in order they will appear. Artists on the free “Vote No” compilation include Adam Levy, Birthday Suits, Blind Shake, Brute Heart, Chastity Brown, Cloud Cult, Dark Dark Dark, Doomtree, Free Energy, Gabriel Douglas (4 on the Floor), Gospel Gossip, In Defense, Jeremy Messersmith, Lazerbeak, Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles, Mayda, Mother of Fire, Night Moves, Pink Mink, SIMS, Sleeping in the Aviary, Soviettes, STNNNG, Tapes n’ Tapes and Tommy Stinson. More info at Triple Rock’s site.