When they officially broke up in 1987, no one could have guessed that the Suburbs would be back together and making music almost three decades later. The band’s members have been through a lot in that time; founding guitarist Bruce C. Allen passed away in 2009, and just two years later frontman Chan Poling lost his wife, Eleanor Mondale, to cancer.
Through it all, the Suburbs have continued to return to their old stomping grounds, reuniting to play at least a show or two every year and gaining new and younger fans along the way. Between the big “Love is the Law” show in downtown St. Paul last month, their sold-out show at the Cabooze a few weeks later and their gig at the State Fair Grandstand on August 30, it’s gearing up to be an all-out Suburbs revival in the Twin Cities this summer.
And what better way to celebrate that revival than with a new Suburbs album? They’ve just revealed that Si Sauvage, the band’s first new release in 27 years, is due out on August 27.
Si Sauvage features founding members Poling, Hugo Klaers, and Blaine John “Beej” Chaney, plus new bandmates Steve Brantseg and Steve Price and special guest vocalists like Janey Winterbauer and Aby Wolf. It was mixed and is in the process of being mastered by Chuck Zwicky (who also worked on the latest Soul Asylum record), and the band plans to put it out on both CD and vinyl.
After sampling the new album at a listening party, I recently drove down to Chan Poling’s picturesque farmhouse in Prior Lake to talk about the new album and the band’s Kickstarter campaign, which just launched today.
Local Current: How did you decide to use Kickstarter to fund the new record?
Chan Poling: The Kickstarter helps offset the cost, because it’s just risky these days. It’s just kind of scary putting out your own thing. In the old days, when you had a record label, you just owed them that money. It alleviates the stress of going, well, the money’s in the bank, all we’ve gotta do is pay off the mixer and the manufacturer and all that stuff, and then when can just watch and see if people like the record, and maybe we’ll profit off of it. Which is almost an anomaly these days, isn’t it? Profit in music? What a notion.
What is the incentive for you to make a record, when it’s so risky?
The thing is, nothing’s really changed as far as fans and artists, right? Fans just go, hey! I want to hear new music. I love music and I love these bands. And musicians just make songs; that’s what they do. There’s no change to that. So we just keep on making stuff. The problem is the business model changed a little bit. But I like this new model—especially this crowdfunding fan support thing, because now, with the internet, you can reach thousands and thousands more people than you would. Kickstarter seems like the coolest thing right now. Fans can see you, they can support you, they can show you their love, and get the music of course.
I think it’s interesting that it lets you see exactly who your fans are, and how many of them you have.
That’s true, it’s super valuable. Facebook is that way too. It’s really interesting to see the Suburbs age group is definitely between 40 and 60. But we also have about 11 or 12 percent teenagers and twentysomethings. Not an insignificant little chunk. It reminds me of when I was that age and I’d listen to older blues guys or jazz guys, or go see Tony Bennett at the Guthrie.
It seems like the last few years have seen a revival of that style of music, too, with new wave influences.
Yeah. Sure. [laughs] It is kind of cool to turn the radio on and hear that coming back, definitely. Because you obviously love the stuff you love when you’re a teenager, growing up. I still do, I love that. Synths, I don’t mind synths—there was a time when synths were just anathema, you know.
I wanted to ask you about your new song, “Turn the Radio On.” There’s something nostalgic and almost bittersweet about it. What inspired that?
It’s definitely melancholy. It’s about dancing in the kitchen to the radio with Eleanor. And it’s just wistful, right? It definitely has kind of a nostalgic thing to it. And the storyline is melancholy, but it’s hopeful, too. It’s about happiness. It’s really one of the simplest songs. I write two different kinds of songs—well, I probably write 20 different kinds of songs—but one thing I keep doing is, ‘Can I just say something as simply as possible? And will it be sincere, and come across?’ There’s a kind of art to that, I think. So I kind of held it back for a while. Can I really just say, ‘Turn the radio on and we’ll dance around the kitchen’? Is it too corny, or too disingenuous?
What do you think is the difference between something that’s very simple and honest, and something cheesy?
I don’t know. I think there’s a point that we reached in our culture where irony, and ‘wink, wink,’ and ‘Nothing is sincere, because everybody knows everything’s a joke’—we reached this point where the culture got like that. And that was really funny: David Letterman, and everything was absurd and cynical, and that was really funny for a long time. And it still is. But then we got to a point where everyone started yearning for this post-ironic world that maybe we could move into. Because you know, there’s nothing greater than Bruce Springsteen singing a song about—
Driving with the windows down?
Yeah. You know it’s for real in his heart, so it feels good. But I think we hit this neat little interesting crux where Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were singing these very simple, folky kind of songs about Sunday Morning, and Pale Blue Eyes, and just experiences. And you went, oh, that’s really kind of cool. There’s a coolness to it. It was just a weird blending of the two. Do you sense it? Where all of a sudden sincerity was hip?
And even their happy songs sounded a little sad.
As long as you have that. [laughs] Like my friend Joey says, ‘Everything smart’s a little mean.’
I like that.
But, you know, we’re never going to be on country radio. The sincerity level is never going to get to the Hallmark card kind of level. People will always understand that we come from an edgier place. And maybe that’s why ‘Turn the Radio On’ works. It’s a nice blend.
When did you start working on these songs?
You know, some of them are years old, from my little suitcase. But some of them were just written right when we were recording them. So they’re all different. Beej—I don’t know how long Beej was working on his thing—but Beej brought ‘What’s It Like Out There?’ Do you remember that one?
Yes, that’s a very raw song, it drew me in.
Yeah, I love that one. He brought it, and said, well, I’ve been thinking about Bruce, and thinking about just being out there. He came to town and played it raw like that, and then I added the bridge and the little keyboard parts that go in and out and the background vocals, and helped him arrange it. That’s kind of our working relationship. And so that happened, basically, in a couple days. And then the engineer sent it down here, and I pulled it up in my living room and played the piano part here, and just bounced it to my desktop and emailed it to him. [laughs] I love that. Fun way to work.
What’s the breakdown of songs he wrote, versus songs you wrote?
That’s pretty much the breakdown. He wrote that song. But you know, it’s always been that way. Beej and Hugo wrote ‘Baby Heartbeat,’ and a handful of songs throughout the years. But he’s never written a ton; that’s just been my thing. But I love—Beej gives me something that I really need, you know. So we’re definitely a team, a collaborative team. I’m just more of the technical guy, I guess. He’s the animus.
In the song, ‘Where it Is,’ the vocals from Beej almost sound a little cartoonish, and creepy.
I know. You need that! That’s part of what we do, definitely. I realized—and when you hear this new record, there’s a cartoonishness, but we really enjoy it when we can get into that character, whatever that is. And again, the Suburbs are a blend of a lot of different influences, pop and dance and that kind of thing, whatever that voice is.
It’s almost vaudevillian.
Yeah, it’s funny and scary. Someone was telling me, ‘You know what’s great about the Suburbs? You guys are really funny.’ I thought, well, ok. That is true.
How long had you been apart when you started playing more shows together a few years ago?
Honestly, we probably played once a year or so, since forever. We kind of officially broke up and got off the wagon, so to speak, in ‘87, and we’d been really pushing hard for 10 years. But then in ‘93 we got back together and started playing together, and we pretty much, for the last 20 years, have been doing a show or two here and there every year. And then when Bruce passed away, we threw a benefit for him. We raised some money for some music scholarships in his name, it was a memorial kind of thing, and Beej came back for that and we really dug deep. We got Brantseg to play guitar, and Michael Halliday, our original bass player, declined to join us, he’s not feeling good, and he didn’t want to play anymore, so I asked Steve Price to play bass. And we had so much fun. We were at First Avenue, and we had the big rock star experience again, and we went, wait a minute, why aren’t we doing this?
And then when my wife died, I said, let’s just make another record. I’ve got a lot of ideas. I love the New Standards, and just absolutely enjoy doing that—we’re playing Pride, as a matter of fact, on the 30th. So that’s a big part of my life, too. I just want to be clear, I’m not quitting that. But we’ve just been having so much fun playing together. And I always just wanted to make another rock record. And now that I’ve done it, now I want to make another one. I’ve already gotten about three songs into it.
How did you end up recruiting Janey Winterbauer to sing vocals on the new record?
Janey has been singing with the New Standards Holiday Show for years, and now she’s in John’s other band, for the Wits show. And I just love her. She joins us all the time; she’ll be at Pride. I’m just a fan. And then Aby Wolf joined us about three Christmases ago. I’ve just met so many and worked with so many amazing people. The holiday show, just off the top of my head, we’ve had Craig Finn, Gary Louris, Dan Wilson, Matt Wilson, Haley Bonar, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Messersmith, Janey, Aby Wolf. Last year we had Mike Doughty. I’ve met so many great musicians through that process. And I’m just a huge fan of Aby and Janey’s. Matter of fact, I’m trying to think of a record we could produce for them, like we did for Lucy. That would be awesome.
What would you say are some of the themes that tie the new Suburbs record together?
The idea was to make a rock record. Because I do all sorts of different stuff. And certain songs go into a certain folder, for me. There is a certain style that I think really works with the Suburbs, with Hugo’s drumming and with the personalities of Beej and I. So there’s that. And that’s about all that ties it together. I never thought of any kind of theme. We recorded 12 songs and kept two aside, they didn’t fit, so there is some conscious organization of it. What do you think?
Well, in my notes I jotted down that some of the main themes were time, aging, loss, and recovery.
Wow! That makes sense, for guys in their 50s who are looking back over a long time period of being in a band, and losing things along the way. I guess it’s inevitable it comes out.
What is the title of the new Suburbs album a reference to, Si Sauvage?
Did you come through Savage on the way down here, the town? I’ve lived here for 10 years, and every time I drive through the town of Savage, I’d think Savage! I always wanted to make a record called savage. And then I was going around in the French dictionary, and it occurred to me that I needed to not just call it savage, but sauvage. And we were joking around, and we decided it had to be so savage. The proper translation is Si Sauvage. That’s it. That’s the whole story.