It’s not often that a band comes along that hits me square in the gut, but that’s what happened the first time I saw Southwire perform last year at the Duluth Homegrown Festival. Their sound was so distinct, and their emotions so unadulterated that I had no choice but to stand on my tip-toes at the back of the crowded room and hold my breath as it washed over me.
I’ve tried several times to explain Southwire’s unique sound to friends, and the best I’ve been able to come up with is a combination of gospel, folk, and hip-hop—but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The hip-hop elements are subtle and much softer than that genre tag suggests, delivered by longtime Crew Jones MC Ben Larson in a rambling, heated spoken-word style. And the folk and gospel come courtesy of singer Jerree Small’s hymn-like melodies and lilting piano. But there are also more unsettling elements, like a crypt-keeper’s organ part that jaunts its way through “Gone Astray” like a skeleton scuttling across a basement floor, and a few undefinable other sounds that swirl around just beneath the surface, creating a texture as thick as a frozen northern Minnesota lake in the wintertime.
To get to the bottom of Southwire’s scintillating sound, I rounded up Small, Larson and their bandmates Sean Elmquist (who produced the record and played in Crew Jones with Larson) and Matt Mobley while they were in the Twin Cities. They’ll be back in town tonight for an album-release show at Icehouse.
How did you find each other in the Duluth scene?
Jerree Small: I was going to a lot of Crew Jones shows and was a really big fan of what those guys were doing, and just kind of got to talking. I had thought about maybe doing a duet song with Ben, and I had talked to Sean about making some recordings of some of the folk stuff I was doing then, and it grew. And then we were just all playing music at my house at an after-party, and that was really sort of the moment.
Ben Larson: Sean and Jerree used to have this band, which was a proto-Southwire band, called Witchform. It actually existed for a while before Southwire.
Sean Elmquist: Southwire used to be a lot more of just the cute stuff. It was real nice, and the Witchform stuff was the creepier, darker stuff. So they kind of folded together.
Jerree Small: We were just doing it sporadically at first, too.
When did you decide to make a go of it and officially become a band?
Larson: I think last week was when we decided it. [laughs] The recording has been terribly important. Because a lot of these songs had been half-songs, and I’d sort of extemporaneously make up words on stage. Which works if you’re in a fake band that only plays six times a year. But that’s really where we became serious. Things became set in stone, songs were written. We were decent as a live band maybe two years ago, but it really took the process of making these songs and playing them into Sean’s magic recording box.
Small: The recording process definitely helped to sort of refine and distill what those songs have become.
Elmquist: And we got a bass player, which was just not even a year ago.
Matt Mobley: Our first show [as a full band] was Homegrown.
I want to go back to what you were saying about the sadness in your music. What is about Duluth that makes the music sound so sad?
Elmquist: Life in Duluth.
Small: You mention Duluth… [laughs]
Elmquist: The stuff we played originally, if I listen to it now, I can’t believe how hopeful and cheerful it was. So I don’t know, eventually it’s just—all the cliches are true. It’s a frozen wasteland.
Larson: There is some truth to what you’re saying.
Elmquist: We’re into that kind of music—not all the time, because that would be exhausting. But it’s part of life and music to have those sad, weird songs. Jerree’s always had that element to her music. And the Mobes is just kind of a sad sack, so he makes everyone sad.
Mobley: It’s true. I picked up the bass when I was just really sad one day.
Elmquist: He’s playing the world’s biggest violin.
Larson: As for the Duluth thing—it’s not exactly the most luxurious community in the world. It tries to be. It’s hard scrabble, you know? It’s full of pretty poor, uneducated people who drink a lot.
Elmquist: You have to drink a lot to live there.
Larson: There’s a lot of alcohol. And that water’s cold, all the time. But your question is important—there is a real reason why Bob Dylan comes from this place, or how someone like Charlie Parr ends up there. Charlie Parr in some weird way just can’t abide by—like he could never live in Portland. There isn’t like a Duluth sound really, and maybe someday there will be, but it’s just kind of a structural reality, it’s a sound of a structural reality that hasn’t really changed that much in a long time. It can be terribly propulsive for your artistic and aesthetic expression.
Elmquist: It’s also really small, so you’re held accountable for your musical decisions, and you can’t cover it up with too much pageantry. You’re held accountable for actual music that you play. Which is why there are an inordinate amount of bands that are good—because if you’re bad, you’ll just get eaten alive. There’s not that many shows. Sometimes that’s sort of annoying and oppressive, but it’s also a good thing to hold yourself to, as a musician.
Larson: The other thing is, we’re blessed with the Alan Sparhawks and Charlie Parrs of the world. In some ways, there’s a really good chance that if Al hadn’t stayed in Duluth, Sean and I wouldn’t have stuck it out. And Jerree is a good example of this, too—there’s real artists who are like, yeah, I’m just not moving to a metropolitan area. I’m just not doing it. And Sparhawk is a really good role model for us because he’s just not doing it, he never is. He’s a dad, he has a family, and this cute little house in a hard scrabble town, that’s who he is. And he doesn’t feel the need to be like, where do you need me to go, capitalism? I’ve got my resume! When do I move in?
Elmquist: His legitimacy and his success as an artist makes him a role model. So when you get sick of playing and you’re like why am I doing this with my life, then he’ll magically step in and be like, no, you’re doing a really good job, you can do this, you should do this. Charlie Parr’s the same way.
Larson: They’re like two halves of a musical Jesus.
Can you talk about the role of spirituality in your music? It certainly has a church-going vibe, but without being overtly Christian.
Small: I think it’s there. I think it’s sincere and a little bit cynical at the same time. For me, at least.
Larson: It’s sort of post-church. What we like about church is there’s old people there who know your name, and know when you’re f***ing up. Not that “Jesus is Lord.” But there is a place where old people know you and young people know you and we have a community of human beings. Everything I do in this band is like this naive grasping for a world like church. For me that’s a really important move, because it’s really popular to be a psuedo-academic thinker kid and be really into reading Christopher Hitchens books about how God is not great—but that’s one level of critique. That’s great that you want to make fun of people believing in something that doesn’t exist, but do not throw the institutional baby out with the bathwater.
Elmquist: It’s also about music as exaltation. When we first started playing, we hadn’t set out to make songs with references to God. It just sort of ends up being that we like gospel music, we like these kinds of music. When we tried to play together, it just sort of has this church basement feel to it. And then Jerree would suddenly have lyrics about God.
Matt, you’ve played in so many different groups in Duluth. What sets Southwire apart for you?
Mobley: Aside from the fact that these guys are some of the most talented people up there, I think it’s just really good. It’s a really cool collaboration of two different worlds, and it doesn’t have a banjo in it. [Everyone laughs] It’s not trying to be something. Southwire was like my favorite band in Duluth, and I can’t say that anymore now that I’m in the band, but I’ve always admired them.
Larson: We should probably talk about how the new Low record is a Southwire rip-off record. We should get that in there. [laughs] That’s my Sub Pop joke of the day.
Has the success of Low and the more recent attention paid to Trampled by Turtles changed the Duluth scene at all?
Elmquist: I think the Low thing is a huge part of why there is a scene in Duluth. Because it’s like, we could make it! Because there is a guy who did make it. So it’s like, this place is legit. The Trampled by Turtles thing is a more recent development, and that’s had sort of the same effect, but there’s also the influence of there being a bunch of f***ing banjo bands. That was not a thing. When we moved to Duluth it was way more of a rock ‘n’ roll town. And that TBT thing has really homogenized the scene.
Mobley: And it’s not all good because not everyone can do it.
Larson: We always joke about that SNL bit, “Fly High Duluth.” It’s a morning news show, and there’s a local band, but the band won’t stop playing, and that’s like the whole bit. Duluth has had a weird national meme or brand for a while, in a weird way.
Jerree and Ben, what has it been like coming from completely different backgrounds and collaborating so closely with one another?
Larson: It’s the greatest mom and dad band I could have ever hoped for, because Jerree Small can do everything. She’s like the greatest ringer on earth. She plays guitar and piano really well, and can just intuitively do it… That’s very helpful for my coarse, vaudeville ham approach.
Small: I guess just as far as switching styles or pushing into a new style, it’s terrifying at times for me. I’m singing parts that feel a lot more naked to me at times, it’s a lot more reaching, so I get nervous with those. But it feels really good to play in this style.
Southwire play a Minneapolis LP-release show at Icehouse tonight, Friday, March 29, with Erik Koskinen; and play a Duluth LP-release show at Sacred Heart on Saturday, March 30.