Before Craig Finn led the Hold Steady from Brooklyn to worldwide fame with appearances on arena stages and TV shows, he led Minneapolis-based quartet Lifter Puller on pretty much every stage in the Twin Cities—coffee shops, basements and house parties included. LFTRPLLR, as they were occasionally tattooed on fans’ hands, earned a rabid fan base and the adoration of critics, but never truly busted out of that Minnesota-band bubble.
Unfortunately for those of us who adored seeing the band play on a regular basis—and for the rest of the world—Lifter Puller were active from about 1994-2000, or in other words, right before the Internet started changing the way audiences find and fall in love with and make stars out of artists. So the band members went their separate ways, with Craig and bassist Tad Kubler moving to NYC to form the Hold Steady. The Hold Steady would carry on the tradition of chronicling life in various Twin Cities malls, suburbs and night clubs, but where Lifter Puller was brittle and jagged and quasi-post-punk, the Hold Steady were chunky, direct, and unabashedly embracing of classic rock.
The first Lifter Puller song I heard was “Sublet”, which appears on their 1997 self-titled LP, but somehow I got my hands on an earlier cassette (yep) version. I think it was dropped off at Radio K, where I was working at the time. The song starts with that signature Craig voice a cappella repeating the phrase “Guess it all started, in your apartment” a few times before the music kicks in. The music somehow manages to be bright and poppy and melancholic all at the same time, which pretty much sums up how I feel about the entire Lifter Puller canon: it all makes me want to dance, sing, and spin around with my arms out until I’m dizzy, and yet it’s tinged with despair and ennui and characters barely able to make it out of cigarette-strewn beds to grab another cold one from a mostly-empty fridge before returning to a drug-induced haze.
(I recently read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and if I could have scored a soundtrack to the book, Lifter Puller would have made multiple appearances.)
“Sublet” was an instant earworm; I listened to it repeatedly. First chance I got to see the band live after that, I did—and boy, once you saw Lifter Puller live, there was no going back. Craig Finn stood out front narrating the lives of the party kids, the downtrodden, and the heartbroken, while Steve Barone provided a much needed counterbalance with his oft-acrobatic guitar and keyboard playing: bright and angular, with elements of post-punk and power pop. The rhythm section of Tommy Roach on bass and Dan Monick on drums could keep songs JUST this side of disco and then veer them into a sinewy, sexy groove before crashing them back into straight up rock and roll again.
The Twin Cities music scene in the 90s was dominated by the phrase, “Did you see what happened at that Lifter Puller show? It was so crazy.” People also loved to quote Craig’s lyrics, whether they were fans of the songs or not—or were even aware they came from Lifter Puller songs—and a lot of those lyrics have stuck around and become become parts of speech or shorthand for life in the Twin Cities, or what people think life in the Twin Cities is like. A quick poll on social media showed a few phrases are still on the tips of tongues for a lot of people:
“We could always get some 3.2.”
“Lake Street is for lovers.”
“Okay, I guess we’ll pick it up right after the breakdown.”
“Then she disappears with the eye-patch guy.”
“I just need a little diet cola, or maybe just a little Lifter Puller.”
“The Twin Cities are double-teaming me.”
“So that’s when I said Let’s Get Incredible.”
“Take a look at what you got, compare it to what I got, then ask yourself: what do you think my girl wants?”
In a few short years the band lurched forward in maturity, from the catchy but thin sounds on their debut Lifter Puller to the far deeper and more complex structure of their final full-length release, Fiestas and Fiascos in 2000. Songs like “Space Humping $19.99” and “Candy’s Room” portray a nightlife that, frankly, most of us wouldn’t survive—but still want to participate in from the comfort of our headphones and speakers.
It was the song “Let’s Get Incredible” off of 1998’s EP The Entertainment and Arts that became kind of a mission statement for the band, and for a lot of the audience members too: from the opening guitar chords that sounded like they were coming at you from inside of a tin can to the NSFW lyrics that were dedicated to every disenfranchised segment of society imaginable—which you probably didn’t belong to, but dammit, if this song was a rallying cry for them, then it was rallying cry for all of us, and we were all going to wake up inside the 7th Street Entry and it was going to be incredible. Wherever Lifter Puller went, so went the party.
Here’s the thing with Lifter Puller: at every show, at every party they played, at every art opening they lent their time to, mayhem and the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen were just out of the corner of your eye. Beautiful chaos seemed to break out wherever they went; they didn’t cause it per se, but like a chemical reaction, the fact that those particular people were all in the same place at the same time just caused certain situations to occur. Those situations were weird, man. Wonderfully, wonderfully weird.
Case in point: singing a song about a particular segment of the gay community on a Jenny Jones episode entitled “Stripper Wars.” This wouldn’t happen to any other group of people that you could run into on a regular basis at Muddy Waters, but it was just another day in the life of Lifter Puller.
I’ve had this excerpt from a City Pages “Artist of the Year” tribute to Lifter Puller stuck in my head for 14 years, because it so perfectly summed up how I felt when the band called it quits and announced most of them were headed for different coasts:
“You weren’t supposed to break up! You’d just made the album I’ve played more than anything else released in the last year, the album I’ve pushed on every willing and not-so-willing ear I can bend even halfway in my direction since I got the thing, the album that more than anything except my family and Little Tijuana makes me regret having moved away from Minneapolis, and you up and quit? What the hell is wrong with you people?!” (Michaelango Matos)
But, break up they did. As mentioned, Craig and Tad went on to start the Hold Steady in—ironically—Brooklyn, along with a couple of other Minnesota expats, and launched a thousand arguments about what constitutes a “local” Minnesota band. Dan Monick has become a successful photographer working out of Los Angeles, shooting everyone from Kesha to Mindy Kaling to Adam Levine to Waka Flocka Flame. Steve Barone is still in Minneapolis producing digital content for high-profile ad agencies.
Lifter Puller never achieved the heights of fame that their contemporaries achieved—the bands they are most associated with are their friends Atmosphere and Dillinger 4—but they set the stage for what would become one of the most successful American indie bands working today, and for a few years, before everything in the world was Vined, tweeted, and YouTubed, they provided those indescribable, had-to-be-there moments that make music scenes into scenes.
Completists and those curious about Lifter Puller should seek out the compilation CD Soft Rock and spend a few hours immersed in the seedy underbelly and the neon glow of the Twin Cities circa the late ’90s, or check out one of the many fan-made videos on YouTube. Official videos won’t be found there, but maybe that’s for the best—perhaps Lifter Puller and the stars of their songs should always exist outside of the spotlight, on the fringes, much discussed but never quite fully captured.
Previous Artists of the Month:
January 2013: Andrea Swensson on Dan Wilson
February 2013: Barb Abney on Low
March 2013: David Campbell on 12 Rods
April 2013: Jon Schober on the Jayhawks
May 2013: Jon Schober on the Hopefuls
June 2013: Jon Schober on the Hang Ups
July 2013: Jon Schober on the Soviettes
August 2013: Jon Schober on the Suburbs
September 2013: Jon Schober on the Replacements
October 2013: Walt Dizzo on Charlie Parr
November 2013: Andrea Swensson on Information Society
December 2013: Andrea Swensson on Sounds of Blackness
January 2014: Jay Gabler on Lookbook
March 2014: Jim McGuinn on Jeremy Messersmith