While a few thousand bands are in Austin, Texas, this weekend trying to drum up attention at the annual South by Southwest Music Conference, at least one Twin Cities rock group with modest indie fame and a brand-new album stayed home.
That’s surprising, considering the big splash Howler made at the festival two years ago.
“There’s a lot less incentive now that we don’t have to break the law to get into shows,” joked Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith, who was only 20 years old when he hit SXSW fresh off the cover of England’s NME magazine in 2012.
Now 22 and sounding all the wiser and mellower — or at least he didn’t trash other local bands or make snide comments as he was known to do two years ago — Gatesmith said he and his bandmates are going to take it a little easier and choose their battles a little more carefully.
The rollout of their March 25 sophomore record, “World of Joy,” begins at home this week with a free in-store at the Electric Fetus on Wednesday and a release party Thursday at the Triple Rock.
“We’re not going to kill ourselves this time around,” Gatesmith pledged.
Signed to England’s influential Rough Trade Records when the band could barely fill the Hexagon Bar back home, Howler toured like madmen in the aftermath of their 2012 debut, “America Give Up,” including treks to England and Japan, where the band earned ample attention. By sharp contrast, 2013 found the punky quartet taking an extended break and playing few public gigs.
“We were on the road so much — for like a year and a half — so when we finally finished we just didn’t want to think about it again for a while,” Gatesmith said. “We took a few months off, and then when we started working on the record, we were excited about it again and worked pretty fast.”
In the interim, the band added a new drummer, Rory MacMurdo, a Minneapolis native and childhood friend of Gatesmith who had been living in New Zealand for nearly a decade. Along with guitarist Ian Nygaard and bassist Max Petrek, the rest of the band pitched in more on the songwriting for the second album, which Gatesmith welcomed.
“I’ve actually never really been comfortable in the ‘frontman’ role and work better when I’m collaborating with other people,” he said. “One of the reasons I wanted Rory in the band is because I knew he could help write good songs, as can the other guys.”
“World of Joy” sounds more like a team effort than the first album, which Gatesmith mostly wrote by himself while still living in his parents’ house. While still raw and scrappy enough to maintain the garage-band label — there’s no name-brand studio whiz at work here, just the band’s local manager, Chris Heidman, as producer — new songs such as the fuzz-toned first single “Don’t Wanna” and hard-blasting “Drip” are more fleshed out sonically and more provocative lyrically, and really just louder and heavier.
You can hear the influence of hometown heroes the Replacements in the new songs “In the Red” and “Yacht Boys,” the latter especially laden with Bob Stinson-style guitar work. What’s more, Howler’s first real ballad, “Here’s the Itch That Creeps Through My Skull,” sounds blueprinted from Rough Trade labelmates the Smiths, with whom Gatesmith shares a personal connection, having long dated Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr’s daughter, Sonny.
Denying theories that “Don’t Wanna” was written about Sonny, Gatesmith instead offered that many of the new songs are about “the experience at the Midwest dive bar, and youth culture around those places.” Most notably, the album starts with “Al’s Corral,” named after a blue-collar watering hole in South St. Paul.
“It’s this place with super-cheap drinks and an American flag on the wall with masking tape on it that reads, ‘Freedom is never free,’ ” he said, also remembering that Thin Lizzy was playing on the jukebox there. “The idea was to take the Thin Lizzy song ‘Jailbreak’ and rewrite it about Al’s Corral. That was probably the most fun song to write on the album.”
But they were all fun to make, it seems. Gatesmith said that amid the chaos of all the “America Give Up” touring and hype, the band jelled on a personal level, which made things easier and more enjoyable going into the follow-up.
“We learned so many things together — life lessons as much as things having to do with becoming a better band,” he said. “Probably just as important, we became better friends.”