Local Current Blog

Music History Spotlight: The Phones

The Phones, photographed by Greg Helgeson for a 1982 City Pages cover story. They had just released their first album on Twin Tone records.

Before graduating high school, Jeff Cerise and Brad Mattson had already traveled the country with their cover band. So when the duo arrived at Moorhead State University and met some like-minded musicians at orientation, it didn’t take long for them to trade in their textbooks for a life on the road. With bassist James Riley and Rick Taves and Steve Brantseg on guitar, the Phones were born in 1979.

“We started writing music immediately and we just figured, if we’re gonna go for it, we’ve gotta go for it now,” Cerise said. 

Influenced by the likes of the Ramones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and the Clash, the group took their new wave sound across the East Coast and Midwest. In their heyday, they opened for acts including R.E.M., Joan Jett and Romeo Void.  However, the group stopped by the Twin Cities at least once a month, playing venues like the Longhorn, First Avenue and the Cabooze. The road warriors found a home base in Minneapolis, garnering local media attention and a shout-out from the New York Times.

“On stage the Phones have the focused energy of a karate chop — their brand of rock is hard, quick and clean. They kick ass with an obvious passion, but they also turn up on time and in tune. The Phones are sharp professionals in the best sense of the word, taking charge of business and performing with all the channeled anarchy that’s the true heart of rock ‘n’ roll,” Tony Glover wrote in a 1982 City Pages cover story.

After drawing crowds at Duffy’s, the band got a unique offer from the bar’s co-owners Dan and Leslie Johnson: if they promised to exclusively play their venue for a year, the Johnsons would pay for them to record at Sound 80.

Of course, the Phones accepted, and their first album “Changing Minds” was released by Twin Tone in 1982. Playing at Duffy’s helped them draw a crowd and open for big-name acts like Iggy Pop, Cerise said.

“Duffy’s meant a lot to us, we built a big following at that club,” Cerise said. “It also gave our crowd kind of a home base … It was just a win-win,” Cerise said.

Twin Tone also released their second album, “Blind Impulse,” in 1984. The band later put out an EP of live recordings on their own label, Pendulum Records (which also signed bands like Ipso Facto and the Clams). Around 1987, the bandmates switched instruments and played as Stickman until disbanding in 1989. Today, you might hear their music in advertisements, like in this Scottrade ad which aired during the World Cup.

Cerise said some of his best memories with the band come from the supportive local scene. When their mobile home burnt down on the way to Minneapolis from a show, local bands came to their rescue with a benefit concert to replace all their instruments.

“Everybody got a guitar out of the deal … and we were able to continue playing without too much of a hiccup. That was pretty cool,” Cerise said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Jackie Renzetti studies journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”

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The Phones in Twin Cities Nightbeat in 1984

The Phones performing “Modern Man” on the local TV show eXXtra in 1984

Jesse Johnson on the Phones’ influence on the Minneapolis Sound (starts discussing at 1:30 mark)