Despite the democratic powers of the Internet, sometimes it can be very difficult for bands outside the Brooklyn-dominated indie blogosphere to build the kind of buzz they deserve. In the Midwest, positive reviews of Minneapolis's Red Pens -- particularly the band's compelling live show -- have been overflowing. Both Miles Raymer and Jessica Hopper of the Chicago Reader have lavished the band with praise. Raymer had the Red Pens open for his band, Mannequin Men, and Hopper, a Minneapolis music veteran, declared that the Red Pens were "the best Minneapolis band in a decade." That would reflect the end-of-year poll of Minneapolis' best new bands in City Pages, the town's alt-weekly, which the Red Pens won by one of the most lopsided totals in recent memory.[more:]
This is significant praise considering the Twin Cities' rich music history. Bands like Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and the Jayhawks helped launch what had previously been hardcore punk into the larger musical tapestry that would eventually produce, among other things, the grunge explosion of the 1990s. Fellow Minneapolis native Craig Finn, after achieving local success with his band Lifter Puller, moved to Brooklyn to form the Hold Steady, which promptly exploded on the national stage. Finn was in attendance as the Red Pens performed at Piano's in a blizzard-stricken New York in February.
Still, things have changed. Says the band's frontman, Howard Hamilton III, "If you're good in Minneapolis, which a lot of bands really are, and don't treat music as a hobby, it's easy to get to where we currently are, but it's difficult to break out nationally. And in a place like Chicago, where there are 10 times as many bands, it's much harder to get that kind of attention."
Hamilton and his girlfriend, Laura F. Bennett, comprise the Red Pens; he plays guitar, she plays drums. The band presents a searing, powerful brand of guitar rock that's both challenging and still ultimately endearing. Hamilton listed among the band's influences Guided by Voices, the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo, and he said the band aims to "elaborate on the sounds that bands like Jesus & Mary Chain ultimately abandoned."
"My Bloody Valentine holds on to the vibrato arm on their guitar, and yet they take it to this sleepy level," he said. "In my head I was always like, 'Why don't they just take it to a more extreme level? Why doesn't anybody do that?'"
Like Sonic Youth and early Pavement, Hamilton frequently experiments with guitar tuning, and expressed similar frustration at his heroes' tendency to abandon those sounds. The dynamic between ambition, passion, experimentation, and authenticity are all in play on songs like "Stay Small," "Hung Out," "Blue Lighters," and "Don't Be Sane," all off the band's debut album, Reasons.
The band is still primarily a self-managed econo act. Hamilton personally deals with the band's booking and publicity, though start-up local label Grain Belt Records has released the album on every major digital venue as well as on CD and vinyl. Red Pens have been playing mostly local sets since their first national tour and will play a number of local summer festivals. Hamilton joked that that as starving artists, they haven’t even purchased a proper touring vehicle yet.
But the band has still struggled to gain national attention and plans on releasing an EP in August. Considering the praise in Minneapolis and Chicago, it's unclear if the local favorites can stay in their hometown that much longer, and a move may be on the horizon.
"Minneapolis is a slow-building town" Hamilton said. "We get played on the radio a lot here, and the hipsters are just getting around to seeing us, as well as normal people who go to shows once in awhile and pick a band they like. They're really passionate about radio here. They have a tendency to play favorites and beat them into the ground. You'll hear them promote a show every 30 minutes and then you go to the show and 10 people are there."
The band members don't have many current commitments in Minneapolis outside of music. Hamilton DJs at a coffee shop and manages Bennett's art career. They rent a large, cheap basement apartment, but that's increasingly in jeopardy as "Minneapolis starts to get condo-ed out."
"We have every intention of breaking out of here and getting national exposure," Hamilton said. He and Bennett have talked about a move to a bigger city to "start over" in the near future. If so, they may not be staying nationally anonymous that much longer.