Let’s try, okay, to be objective for a moment. STNNNG, a Minneapolis art-punk quintet with its heart on its sleeve and a roar in its throat, is the best thing to come out of Minnesota since Todd Trainer. There; eat it up.
The band’s debut, Dignified Sissy, which is now in 10th anniversary territory, was blistering and brilliant stuff, a bombastic and invigorating statement of purpose. It demonstrated, with razor-cutting precision, that the band members didn’t embrace guitar squalor, brain-scratching lyrics, and off-kilter time signatures so much as they bounced around them. Wild stuff. Find it.
Every few years a gem has followed, cementing the excitement. 2013 brought us Empire Inward, the group’s first outing with indie iconoclast and engineering superstar Steve Albini working the board. They’ve never sounded so good.
Popdose recently got the chance to sit down with Chris Besinger, the band’s vocalist, to set straight the record. What follows is a black-box recording transcript of that conversation.
POPDOSE: Hi, Chris.
STNNNG: Hi, Justin.
POPDOSE: So, you just returned from touring Europe?
STNNNG: Yes. We did an eight-show run through France with one stop in Brussels.
POPDOSE: You also were over there recently to play the All Tomorrow’s Parties curated by Shellac, right?
STNNNG: Yes. December 2012 we played ATP and one show in London. That and our recent trip have been our only trips overseas.
POPDOSE: Didn’t realize it was that long ago. Jeez. So, how is crowd response to the material off Empire Inward?
STNNNG: Seems to be pretty good. This was our first long trip out since the album was released, but most of the crowds we played to seemed to be familiar with it. It’s always a little tough to know from the stage if people are digging the show because of what is happening in the moment or because they know the songs. I suppose it could be both.
POPDOSE: Do you mix up sets with “older” material or are you mostly playing songs off the new record?
STNNNG: We usually play a mix of material. While the recent shows have been heavy on Empire tunes we generally celebrate our entire catalog.
POPDOSE: Good to hear. Can’t wait for you guys to come down here to Pittsburgh. Anyway, wondering if we could talk about recording Empire Inward, as you guys sound like a pissed-off but incredibly well-oiled machine on it. What was it like working with Steve Albini?
STNNNG: Working with Steve was very easy; it wasn’t all that dissimilar to working with Neil Weir or Mike Lust on our other records. He was laid back but involved. He seemed very concerned that we got the sounds and performances that we wanted on to tape. We’re grown men who spend a lot time and effort working on our songs, so we don’t really need someone to coach us through the recording process. We need someone who knows what they are doing and can get results in a short amount time, which Steve is probably the best at in the world. We recorded and mixed the whole thing in three days and never felt rushed or under pressure. We feasted like Panamanian drug-lords and never left the compound. It was awesome.
POPDOSE: The man’s a legend for a reason. The sound on the new record — as in, the sound of the recording — is really some of the best I’ve heard from you guys. I like the kind of coming-unhinged-in-some-remote-cabin touches on Smoke of My Will but the new record sounds more finished. Am I reading into this too much?
STNNNG: No, I think we were more focused on Empire. We knew going in we’d only have a short window to get it done, we demo’d the whole thing ourselves and worked hard to get the material into shape. Smoke, the whole thing was more diffuse, there was an abortive attempt to make that record on our own and it ended up taking more time than planned.
POPDOSE: Think I remember nagging Tom at your label about what was taking you guys so long [Laughs] After Fake Fake, I needed my fix!
STNNNG: Ha, yeah well I certain bands/artists work at certain speeds, be it fast or slow, and you can’t really change that essentially aspect of your output. We just happen to work on the slower side.
POPDOSE: Wanted to talk about how the band’s sound is evolving. Dignified Sissy was total art-punk and very much reminded me of a cross between early Cheer-Accident and the Minutemen, short sonic bursts, odd time signatures, et cetera. But Empire Inward is a more straight-forward affair, though no less venomous. Attribute the progression to anything?
STNNNG: Possibly just getting a little older, probably the change in the line-up. I don’t think it was anything specific just a natural evolution. Sometimes when we play older tunes I’m amazed we wrote them.
POPDOSE: Want to talk about the change in line-up, for viewers who have been following the closed captioning?
POPDOSE: Have at it!
STNNNG: The big change came when Jesse joined on bass right after Sissy, that really shifted how we approached the music. With Nate freed from having to always fill the low end, we now had a two-guitar attack in a more traditional sense. And Ben is a different sort of drummer than Jeremy; Ben is more in the 70s rock mold and that’s sort of changed our approach as well.
POPDOSE: Good good. Let’s talk about your lyrics. For one, you seem to pay a lot of attention to them, in a good way. Do you have lyrics you load into songs or do you write to go along with the music?
STNNNG: It’s more of the latter. I have a lot of material I’ve written and am always writing but I can’t really complete something and then try and shoehorn the words to fit the music, that’s just not fair to the tunes. So the music always comes first and I write to fit the music. Once the music is about 75-80 percent finished is when I really start working on the lyrics and vocals.
POPDOSE: You have one of the most affecting and angry speak-sing deliveries out there, for what it’s worth. Regarding the lyrics, though, you’re a writer outside of STNNNG, aren’t you?
STNNNG: Thanks, I do write poetry and fiction and do some music writing on occasion, nothing big, just stuff I like to do for my own enjoyment basically.
POPDOSE: I heard you published or were talking about publishing a book, is that right?
STNNNG: Yes, in 2011 I published a small chapbook mostly of lyrics called The Usual Beast. I’m sort half-assed working on two other book ideas right now. One would be another chapbook probably of poems.
POPDOSE: Okay, fanboy question, does America need a new national anthem? And, if so, how do you transcribe your “We’re all fucking crazy” scream from Dignified Sissy?
STNNNG: Well, we do need a new national anthem because “The Star Spangled Banner” is a terrible song; it’s pro-war, it’s hard to sing and it’s a rip- off of another song. I wouldn’t choose our song though, my vote would be for “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie.
POPDOSE: Speaking of Guthrie, what do you think of King Buzzo from The Melvins invoking him on his first solo outing? Just curious.
STNNNG: If he did, I hadn’t noticed; I can’t say I follow the Melvins particularly closely
POPDOSE: What bands are you listening to these days? Any gems hidden in the rough? This is the time for shout-outs, if you feel the urge.
STNNNG: I like the new Sunn/Ulver record, I just got the Crime & the City Solution record from last year and been enjoying that. We toured France with a brilliant French called Shub who I’m sure no one knows about in America but they are truly great. I saw the Cairo Gang the other night and they blew my socks off.
POPDOSE: How vibrant is the Minneapolis scene these days? Do you guys feel like part of a community or is it just your run-of-the-mill music circle(s)?
STNNNG: It seems like there is a lot going on in town, but I can’t say I’m too plugged into it. There are always good bands I come across but I don’t really feel like STNNNG is a part of this or that scene. We are kind of our own thing. There’s obviously bands we feel a kinship with, but that kinship goes beyond geographic boundaries, the Blind Shake from Minneapolis, Child Bite from Detroit, Shub from Nimes, France, Wereworm from Milwaukee, Animal Lover from Minneapolis. I could go on, but there are plenty of bands who we feel a brotherhood with, just not all of them in the 612 or 651 area code.
POPDOSE: I appreciate the sister-city list. Or brother-city, as it were. Gives me leads. [Laughs] Would like to close by talking about the future. What’s next for you guys — more touring? Can’t imagine you’re already working on new material.
STNNNG: Our touring schedule for the near future is likely to be limited, Ben is plenty busy with his other bands and everyone is busy with families, etc. There are a couple new songs. There will be a new song coming out on compilation on Learning Curve records soon.
POPDOSE: Very cool. Anything to add? Plug away!
STNNNG: Ha, no, nothing else to plug. I really like the new Bottomless Pit record as well, I forgot to mention that.
POPDOSE: Very cool. Thanks again, Chris.