After two deaths, one divorce and 27 years, Minnesota’s beloved Suburbs have finally made a new album. They say it’s just the beginning.
Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson are reuniting as the Replacements. Soul Asylum is touring without co-founder Danny Murphy. And the Suburbs are releasing a new album.
Who would have predicted these 2013 headlines for three kingpins of the 1980s Twin Cities rock scene? But the last one is the biggest surprise.
“Never in a million years did I think we’d make another album,” said Suburbs singer/guitarist Beej Chaney.
“No, absolutely not,” said Suburbs drummer Hugo Klaers in a separate interview.
Well, there was one believer in the band, which broke up in 1987 and has intermittently reunited since 1992.
“I always call the New Standards my age-appropriate band,” said Suburbs singer/keyboardist Chan Poling, 55, referring to his lounge-pop trio. “But always in the back of my mind I knew I had another rock record in me. Who would I get to play? I thought I’d call some all-stars. Then the more I thought: What’s the best rock band that I know? I already have it.”
So, 27 years after the Suburbs made their last studio album, the quintet will release a new album, the fan-funded “Si Sauvage,” on Tuesday, then play the State Fair Grandstand next Friday.
This is not a vintage Suburbs album, on which nervy new wave collided with disco and jazz, and Poling and Chaney sang about cows, chemistry and cigarettes in backward.
“This is a mature album for us,” said Chaney. “Chan’s got his Bryan Ferry thing down pat” — a nod to the ever-stylish Roxy Music frontman who long has been a Poling inspiration.
“It’s a little more sophisticated, a little more grown up,” agreed Poling, looking suitably Lake Minnetonka suburban over lunch in his starched dress shirt and shorts with a nautical pattern. “You’re not going to just have the naive punk-rock sound that we had. ”
Fans may hear “Si Sauvage” and wonder: “Where’s Beej?”
Indeed, this is a Poling-dominated album, with Chaney — the crazed frontman who always was the life of a Suburbs party — taking lead vocals on only one song.
A couple of years ago, Chaney went through a traumatic divorce from a member of Minnesota’s wealthy Cargill family. As he explained in an hourlong phone call last week from Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1990, he switched from a rarefied lifestyle of flying to Europe to view an art exhibit to being a middle-class, bike-riding “hippie songwriter.”
That transition involved some trying times, often in public. Chaney seemed to be lost at reunion concerts in recent years.
“After giving depositions representing millions of dollars, I’d have to get on a plane the next morning, hardly digesting what just happened in court, and I had to play and I’d hardly rehearsed,” said Chaney, 56, who had to sell his historic Shangri-La studio in Malibu for an asking price of $3 million in 2011. “I’ll admit I was on medication for anxiety. So I was a little more careful. I wasn’t drinking. I was not a happy camper. I was an out-of-the-loop Suburb for a while.”
He spoke matter-of-factly, with sobering insight but obvious newfound enthusiasm.
“I had to relearn to be a Suburb again,” he continued. “The old Beej is getting stronger and stronger. And life is getting better and better. Being in the Suburbs has helped tremendously. The local response and support of the Suburbs has lifted my spirits 1,000 percent.”
Poling and Klaers, the other original Suburbs from 1977, agree that Chaney has improved.
“We talked for an hour yesterday,” Poling said two weeks ago. “He’s getting better and better every day.”
“We never know what we’re going to get,” Klaers said over lunch last week with the band’s new guitarist, Steve Brantseg, and bassist, Steve Price. “Hopefully this record will give him that boost he needs to focus on himself and what he has, and not what he lost.”
Reflections on loss
Chaney’s situation isn’t the only question surrounding the Suburbs and “Si Sauvage.”
How does the band function since the death in 2009 of its original guitarist, Bruce Allen, who defined both the band’s rhythm and its look? (He designed their iconic logo and album covers.)
And how is Poling coping with the death of his wife, Eleanor Mondale Poling, in 2011 from brain cancer?
Poling said he didn’t want to write a record about loss or regret. But a few songs clearly address Eleanor. First is the current single, the horn-accented “Turn the Radio On,” on which he sings: “Take my hand, turn the radio on/ Come on, my favorite song, baby/ Let’s dance, turn the radio on.”
“She didn’t like sad songs. She liked to dance,” Poling said. “When you’re a songwriter, you can get so deep into your own head, and you forget people like to dance and people like music for different reasons.”
“You’ve Got to Love Her,” a peppy Poling pop ditty, and the classic love ballad “I Like It Better When You Loved Me” also were inspired by Eleanor. Other songs are aimed at the ’Burbs themselves, such as “Dumb Ass Kids.”
“It’s about me talking to our younger selves,” Poling said. “We had more than one conversation about how lucky we are to be alive still after the way we used to live.”
As for the loss of Allen, Klaers said the band is now “tighter and we’re a little cleaner sounding. I think the old Suburbs were a little more sloppy and dirty. All the energy is there. Bruce had a unique way of playing guitar that nobody could ever duplicate. I think Bruce would be really happy if he heard this record.”
Brantseg, a longtime pal of Allen, said he tries “to capture the essence of Bruce, especially those specific licks that need to be there in the [old] songs. We had a lot of the same influences so there is some crossover between our styles. With the new stuff, it’s more of my own thing [but] I always think about, how would Bruce have approached this rhythmically.”
Chaney’s only song on the album — the slow, spooky ballad “What’s It Like Out There?” — was inspired by Allen’s death.
“Everyone wonders what are we going to do,” Chaney said. “Is there a big gate with Jesus standing there? Or is there going to be infinite outer space and we can fly? So it’s kind of a message to everybody: Are you OK?”
Love is still the law
“Si Sauvage” — French for “so wild” — was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, in which the band raised more than $73,000, including a private concert for $10,000 donors (there were two takers).
“I’m proud everyone still cares,” Chaney said. “Thank you for letting us take a break and get our [act] back together. Because it wasn’t easy. We do have it back together. I think we’re better than ever.”
Getting renewed exposure for their 1984 hit “Love Is the Law” during the same-sex marriage battle was a boost, too.
“I think the marriage amendment thing helped us more than we helped the marriage amendment,” said Klaers, who still sports his spiky hairdo but now wears glasses.
The band used some of the Kickstarter money to hire a New York publicist and cover expenses for travel to the Big Apple to play next month at the Mercury Lounge. There are a few other shows scheduled, too, including a two-nighter at St. Cloud’s Paramount Theatre (Oct. 25-26) and a festival on Wisconsin’s Madeline Island (Sept. 21).
The ’Burbs are even talking about another album.
“We plan on getting into the studio ASAP,” Brantseg said.
Poling has been sending demo recordings of new songs to his bandmates, said Price, who engineered “Si Sauvage” and replaced arthritis-afflicted original bassist Michael Halliday.
“This is Chan’s record,” Klaers said of “Si Sauvage.” “The next record we’ll get more time with Beej.”
Will Chaney move back to Minneapolis?
“If it gets to the point where it’s really turning into headquarters and we’re making enough money, I would consider renting a small place,” said Chaney, who lives in Venice Beach with two Basset hounds and is engaged to a California woman.
“If I don’t come back and be part of the Suburbs, it will be the Chan Poling Band. But I want to. The next record I want to write with Chan. Some stuff where you can really hear my voice. Some stuff with cool rock ’n’ roll bar chords and lyrics that are more edgy. We can make the rock record that everybody probably wants.”
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719