Local Current Blog

Amy Abts on surviving brain surgery, making demos for Joan Jett, and triumphantly returning to music

Amy Abts and the cover art for a new Extinct Gingers song, "Lost It Good"

When Amy Abts returns to Duluth this weekend to play Homegrown, it won’t just be a return to a city where she spent her formative music-making years and a festival she helped launch. It will be something of a victory lap for Abts—who has spent the past few years undergoing treatment for a rare brain condition in her hometown of Rochester—and a declaration that despite all she’s been through, she’s still ready and able to make new music.

Known for her work in the rock band the State Champs and as a solo artist, Abts will hit the stage on Saturday at Beaner’s with her new band Extinct Gingers. Ahead of her Homegrown appearance, I connected with Abts over the phone to find out more about her recent medical ordeal, her deep connections to the Duluth scene, her experience watching Low’s first show ever, and how her latest demo tape recently ended up in the hands of Joan Jett.

Andrea Swensson: I’m curious about your connection to Duluth, and how you became so integral to the city’s music scene. How did you first end up there?

Amy Abts: I ended up in Duluth going to UMD. I went to Perpich [Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley], and then right after that moved up to Duluth for college. The first two years I was up there I was pretty busy with school, but I think it was ‘95 or ‘96 when I was talking on the phone with my friend, Scott Lunt, who’s Starfire, and back in the day he started his own radio station, back when the piracy laws were a little more flexible. So he would put people on his radio show from his house, and he was like, “Do you want to come down to my house and play on the radio?” And I was like, “Sure!”

So that’s how I met Scott, and then he introduced me to Al and Mim from Low, and I had actually coincidentally been at their first show ever. But at the time I didn’t know it was their first show ever. They blew me away. And I just loved their music. So when Scott introduced me to them, I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m talking to these people.” I really had no plans to play music in front of anyone, and then just because I met these people some shows were set up and all of a sudden I was opening for Low in Duluth. I didn’t really have time to be nervous. I was so young that I just kind of did it, which I’m really happy about. Because if I was to go back and really think about it, I would be scared out my mind.

I started playing around in Duluth, and then Scott had a compilation for his radio station that he released, and I played those [release] shows. It was called Random Acts of Radio and it had Eyedea on there, and Low. And I also was doing a lot of comedy with Renegade Theater up in Duluth. So music and theater all coincided at the Norshor, which at the time was the place where all this stuff was happening, and it was really great to be part of the initial Norshor experience, before it became obvious that it was falling apart and someone with a lot of money needed to come in and save it. And the unofficial Homegrown started with Scott’s birthday party, and the next year it became Homegrown and there were eight acts, and I was the first one. And that was at the Norshor as well. I played the mezzanine, and I think I played kind of early, but people started filing in, and it was just a great experience.

When you were getting started, seeing Low for the first time and seeing Homegrown happen for the first time, did you get the sense that there was already a music community in Duluth, or were these events what really brought it together?

There were places that people played—there was a coffeeshop in Superior, there were more all-ages venues back then—but it also seemed like the community was ready to come together to support that kind of thing at that time. I think previously it had been a little fractured. In the ‘80s there was Bob Mould, the Replacements, Babes in Toyland, they all played in Duluth. But there wasn’t a group of local-to-Duluth acts that I was aware of. Anyway, the internet, too, was pretty young at that point, and of course that changed everything. Time goes by really fast, but looking back, it’s cool to look back and see Homegrown as its grown through the years. I also remember Don Ness before he was mayor, he would come to shows all the time. It’s just funny to think about the early times back then.

It seems like he still goes to shows, which is cool.

Yeah! It’s so wonderful to have local government support music and the arts. It’s so necessary. I’m so happy to see that happening with music in the Twin Cities. I wish there was more support for that here [in Rochester]. I’m trying to find the community down here. We’ve been going to open mics, just figuring out where there are places to play, what’s going on, but it seems kind of fractured right now.

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You grew up in Rochester, right?

I did. I moved to Golden Valley when I was 15 to go to Arts High.

And then you ended up back there?

Yep, in 1999 and 2000. I had just finished college and was trying to find work. And then after that I moved back to Duluth because I got a job. I went back and recorded at Sacred Heart, and was trying to form a band, and that’s when the Sweet Champs came together. I stayed in Duluth until 2010, when I came back to Rochester because I had the two brain surgeries.

When did you first know that something was wrong?

Let’s see. 2008 and 2009 I knew something wasn’t right. I saw doctors in Duluth, and that wasn’t working so I decided to come back to Mayo. I was first diagnosed with Trigeminal Neuralgia, which is rare, but it’s more common in people in their 60s and 70s. It’s a disorder of the cranial nerve—there are 12 or 13 cranial nerves, and they lead from the brain to different parts. The trigeminal nerve runs across your face, the occipital nerve goes from your neck up to the top of your head, and then there’s individual cranial nerves that go to your eye and your throat and your ear. So usually people are diagnosed with one neuralgia, like Trigeminal Neuralgia, but I was diagnosed with five. I had a disorder of the one that goes to my ear, the one that goes to my throat, it was just really overwhelming.

The first brain surgery was not that unusual; they had to put Teflon between one of the cranial nerves and some veins and arteries that were getting tangled. And whenever they would come into contact, it would cause this icepick pain. And when I was first diagnosed, of course I went online—big mistake!—and when I looked it up I saw that they call it “The Suicide Disease.” I’m like, who names a disease that? That’s the worst name for a disease ever. That’s just mean. So I was diagnosed with Trigeminal Neuralgia, they did the surgery, and then I was diagnosed with two more [brain diseases] after that surgery. Then they hooked me up with a younger neurosurgeon who agreed to do [a second] surgery, but the surgery was pretty radical and there was a 50/50 chance I was going to go deaf in my left ear. So I had to be ok with that. I had to be ok with waking up and knowing that I might not be able to hear out of my left ear. Which was tough. But the pain was such that I knew I couldn’t live with the pain. So if it’s between the pain and my hearing, I want to live without this debilitating pain.

The neurosurgeon who agreed to do the surgery had only performed it once; it had only been performed one other time in the history of the Mayo Clinic. So it was a little nerve-racking. But he is a good surgeon, and he was able to clip the nerve without affecting my hearing. So that was amazing, I was very grateful for that. I guess, when I was in it, I didn’t realize how sick I was. You don’t realize how sick you are until you get better.

What’s the status now? Are you still being treated?

Yeah. The experts in neuralgia are here at Mayo. I live with a certain amount of pain, and it’s better than it was, but unfortunately nerves grow back and this will continue to change my whole life. I’m hoping that it won’t get as bad as it was initially ever again. I’m not planning on having any more brain surgeries, but 10 years down the line I don’t know where I’m going to be. This disease doesn’t cause death, so there’s not a lot of research money. It’s not like breast cancer, where there’s a lot of fundraising and money that goes into it. A lot of it is a mystery. So it’s good that I’m close to Dr. Garza, because as things change I like to go see him. And I had a seizure in January, which is the first seizure I’ve had, so now there’s that going on. So it’s all ongoing, but I’m feeling a lot better than I did in 2010.

And you’re playing music again.

Yeah, and of course being able to play makes me happy, because when I was having the brain surgeries it was time for me to write and I just couldn’t. I think a lot of that had to do with medication and just not feeling well. I thought, am I ever going to be able to write again? Am I going to have the energy to play again? When the writing started happening, it started happening about a year ago in Seattle, stuff was seeping back into my brain. And it’s been like a faucet that’s been turned on now.

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As a creative person, what was that experience like, especially to have your hearing called into question?

It was scary. It was very scary. But at that point the things that mattered most to me were pretty basic needs. Am I well enough to keep down my lunch? Am I well enough to read a book? Am I well enough to walk around the block? When it gets to those basic things, at first my hearing and music was a little more in the background. As I’ve started to get better, then it kind of hit me what I had been going through. It was very traumatic. Also, when they take a saw and saw through your skull, it takes a long time to feel better after that. And I didn’t realize that at the time. So it took a couple years to actually process what happened. It was a great relief to wake up and know that my hearing was ok. They actually monitor that nerve, because there’s a huge artery that runs near the genicular nerve, which is the nerve that goes to your ear. They put a sensor in there [to monitor when] the neurosurgeon is getting really close to that, because the genicular nerve is so tiny. And I didn’t realize how tiny it was until I actually saw a diagram of it. Wow. How would you maneuver around that as a surgeon? I have no idea.

Do you remember what happened when you woke up?

Yeah, I was in the ICU. I think either my parents were there, or there was someone there who let me know. Because I was so drugged up. Before I could consciously know if I could hear, someone said yes, everything went well, you can hear. I just remember pain, pain, pain. But the Mayo Clinic is the best place to get it done. I’ve been very thankful. And also my parents live here, so that was a huge thing, that my family was really supportive, has always been supportive, and really stepped up to take care of me.

Tell me about the name Extinct Gingers.

Oh yeah! I said it as a joke. Matt and Adam, the guys I play with, are natural redheads, and I have brunette hair but it’s dyed red right now. Adam kept saying “Extinct Gingers, it’s in my head now and I can’t stop thinking about that as a bandname.” And I came up with some other ones; I kind of like the Ginger-Ails. But Adam didn’t want a band with “the” in front of the name. We all compromised. Extinct Gingers. I laugh every time I say it. I can’t believe we’re named this.

So you have five songs on your Bandcamp; are there more waiting in the wings?

Oh yeah. I think we’ve got at least 10 more in our set, and I would love to record all of them. We went into the studio because Adam knows Joan Jett’s girlfriend. Joan Jett asked him for a demo, and Adam called and said we have to go into the studio. So we did the initial five songs for Joan Jett, and we delivered it to her manager when she played Treasure Island. I haven’t heard back from her. Usually those things don’t pan out, but it’s hard for me to think that Joan Jett has listened to something we’ve made. It’s just really strange! So that’s why we did the recording.

Something that struck me about your songs is that, obviously your lyrics have been inspired by what you’ve been through, but your voice sounds so hopeful and sweet.

Oh yay!

And I was wondering if that was because of your experience.

Yeah, my voice always sounds like an 8-year-old girl’s voice.

Me too!

Yeah! You know exactly what that’s like. When someone calls you and they’re like, is your mom home? Um, no I’m old. But—I love Bjork. When she growls, when she can emote that way in her singing, that’s what I’ve always wanted to go for. When I was doing the rock stuff with State Champs I was able to experiment a little more vocally with different sounds. But when I do the quiet acoustic more tender things, I like to sing pretty, more than too angry. And the lyrics, yeah—when I sit down to write I don’t really have a goal of what I want the song to be about, so a lot of it is just stream-of-consciousness about what I’m going through. And I didn’t realize how dark or sad the lyrics were until my mom listened to it and said that it made her so sad. Usually when I write a song, too, I try to make it as extreme as possible, otherwise it doesn’t make that good of a song. I try to dramatize that emotion.

That makes sense. I think when you are trying to convey an emotion it can be hard not to sound like a cliche.

Right, exactly.

That was something that struck me about your lyrics, too; it’s obviously very specific to what you’ve been through, and very sincere.

Yes. I have a little voice in my head that will be like “Cliche! Cliche!” It’s this critical voice. And I’ve been told Amy, you need to be a little more easy on yourself. And I’m like no! I refuse to write cliches, I can’t do it!

Hear more of Amy Abts’ new project Extinct Gingers on Bandcamp.