"Do you have any extra cuff links on you?" asks Chan Poling, sauntering from a dressing room. Neither of his partners in the New Standards jazz combo can help. Poling will have to improvise. He rummages through a cluttered backstage workbench at Zumbrota’s cozy State Theatre. Paintbrushes, light bulbs, screws. Ah, plastic zip ties: Instant cuff links. Poling is expert at improvising, whether wardrobe, piano passages or repartee with his bandmates. Well, sometimes he trips up on the banter. Like a few minutes later in front of an adoring crowd, when a concertgoer asks about tickets to the New Standards’ annual holiday concerts in Minneapolis. Poling guides the fans to a website: “Thesuburbsband.com.” Oops. That’s Poling’s other group.
One of the most admired music minds in the Twin Cities, Poling has composed for TV commercials, films, theater and, of course, the Suburbs, his arty, nervy new-wave band that launched in 1977. He’s the brainy artiste who married into the Mondale family. This year Poling has been so busy it’s hard to keep track: he bought an 1890s house in St. Paul, co-authored a new musical at the History Theatre, rebooted two previous musicals, wrote a book, recorded a “Glensheen” cast album, staged a movie-soundtracks concert at Orchestra Hall and rocked more shows with the Suburbs than he has in 30 years, not to mention the usual New Standards gigs.
At age 61, when some folks might think about slowing down, Poling is working in overdrive to bring joy to the world. When you lose a spouse way too young, urgency sets in. And, as his many collaborators will tell you, he just can’t stop the flow of creativity. “He has ideas for musicals like five times a week,” says Twin Cities playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who has teamed with Poling on three so far.
Poling is definitely artsy. But his persona “is this kind of Bing Crosby character,” Hatcher notes. “He is kind of a dandy. He wears plaids, always has a silk pocket handkerchief. Yet when he goes home, you know he’s jamming like a mad man.”
For 12 years, the New Standards’ popular Yule gigs have showcased an expanded band and unannounced guests — ranging from local faves like Dessa to cult figures like Nellie McKay. For Poling, these concerts are about trying to recapture the magical feelings of Christmas when you were a kid. “It’s kind of a little present we give ourselves,” he says of his trio with John Munson and Steve Roehm, who begin planning the extravaganza in midsummer. “Now, different cities are asking us to come and do it. Like Anchorage, Alaska, this year because they want that sense of community in their town. We feel like a community therapist.”
For his own holidays, Poling leans to the traditional — maybe a visit to “Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie and always an extended family Christmas Eve dinner at his home. “I’m definitely kind of a schmaltzy fellow when it comes to that,” he confesses.
That’s the thing about Poling: He defies expectations. His calling card screams cool rock star and his outfits read posh country club. He’s rocking at First Avenue one night and rehearsing a rib-tickling musical at the History Theatre the next afternoon. He’s plotting holiday shenanigans with the New Standards in the morning and picking up his granddaughters at the end of the day.
Underneath it all, Poling is really a hopeless romantic. He doesn’t write angry songs. He wants to move people emotionally.
“I like to put forth into the world ideas, products that make you think about the beauty and the power of love and memory and nature,” he says. “I’m not the artist out there trying to make you uncomfortable or to shock you or to break perceived barriers. I’m the guy who’s up there to make you feel something.”
More than nostalgia
It’s showtime for the Suburbs. Poling huddles with a crew member to learn the name of tonight’s birthday boy who hired the band. The Suburbs once played his high school prom, and now they’ll help him celebrate his big 5-0.
Red wine in hand, sunglasses on, one shirttail untucked under his black pinstriped suitcoat, Poling takes the stage. “Happy birthday, Brad,” he announces with a voice as detached as his droll Leonard Cohen-meets-David Bowie singing voice. “We’re Brad’s favorite band from the ’80s — the Suburbs.” He then launches into “Music for Boys,” a perfect gift for a giddy birthday boy. Nostalgia for sure, for some. But, in 2017, the ’Burbs released their second album in four years, “Hey Muse!” and they’re proud of it. Tonight, the veteran band’s playing plenty of the new songs. They make people dance. It’s happy music.
“Teach me to sing and make it hopeful,” Poling croons with no hint of frustration on the title track.
Probably no one here has heard this song before, but middle-aged people are on their feet because, as with the best of the ’Burbs, the rhythms are irresistible. Poling still wants to write music for guitars and grooves. “It’ll never go away from him,” insists Suburbs drummer Hugo Klaers.
Creative kid stuff
Chandler Hall Poling (pronounced POLE-ing) grew up in Wayzata, the middle of three children of a banker/investment fund manager and a homemaker. As a kid he played war with toy soldiers and devoured Mad magazine. Back then, Poling wanted to become an archaeologist, historian or architect. He loved making things, or at least making plans. “I remember when we were kids we were going to have a battle in the woods behind our house,” he recalls. “There was construction, with all kinds of ditches and tools that we shouldn’t have been messing with. So by the end of the day, I’d filled a notebook full of plans with how we were going to turn the ditches into forts. I made drawings and schematics.”
Poling channeled that creative drive in a new direction when, at age 8, he discovered a piano at a friend’s house. That led him on a lifelong path of artistic pursuits, realizing to never A) suppress the creativity, B) limit yourself to a certain field or C) take a day job.
Not only did Poling want to take piano lessons, he practiced. Diligently. Daily. No classical music for him. Pop tunes and then jazz, with private classes on theory and harmonics. At 15, he put together a jazz fusion band, and, in his senior year at the Blake School, his group, Squeeze Me Orange, performed a modern-music concert at Walker Art Center.
Intent on being a serious musician, Poling headed to California Institute of the Arts to study jazz piano. However, in sunny Los Angeles, Poling discovered Bowie and Roxy Music, then the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads. Smitten by these burgeoning new sounds, he beat it back to the Twin Cities to form the Suburbs with four other eager young men from Minneapolis’ western burbs.
Over the years, Poling has studied piano styles to the point where he can instinctively play everything from Floyd Cramer’s country-politan to Thelonious Monk’s avant-garde jazz — plus classical, show tunes, rock, pop and new age. He mostly plays by ear. It wasn’t just about the music. Poling’s super-fertile mind was captivated by storytelling. In print. Animation. And especially onstage.
At about age 10, he saw his first musical — “Mame,” on Broadway, starring Angela Lansbury. Poling loved “West Side Story,” and shows by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne. He travels to Broadway twice annually to see musicals and plays.
“What appeals to me is its mix of sentiment and intellect,” explains Poling. “I like that it’s super unabashedly romantic and funny, but it also has to be really cleverly wrought with smart stuff.”
Musicals are an ideal vehicle for Poling to move people emotionally, the ultimate mission of his art. However, when he was immersed in the punk-rock world, musicals weren’t cool. “It took me a while to open up my mind again,” he acknowledges. “That’s part of growing up, isn’t it?” Now he has a surprising ambition. He wants to compose a big-time musical. “Get me on Broadway and I’ll be happy,” says Minnesota’s Music Man, who doesn’t sound the least bit unhappy. “I’ll think I’ve achieved something.”
Poling and playwright Hatcher have been collaborating since a dramaturge set them up on a blind date in 2009 when Poling was having trouble staging a show that he’d crafted entirely on his own.
“Very few people I know have done everything — write the book, the music, the lyrics,” says Hatcher, recalling that Poling was instantly open to suggestions. “He said in that weird affectless tone that he has, ‘I’ll cut anything. I’ll throw everything out.’ ”
Three years ago, while returning from a New Standards gig in Lutsen, Minn., Poling spotted a house in a dilapidated cemetery. During the rest of the drive home — he loves to drive long distances when he’s working on an idea — he concocted a story in his mind.
He imagined the life of the guy who lived in the cemetery house. He called illustrator Lucy Michell, and over three years they created what he calls “an illustrated short story for grown-up children.” The 86-page “Jack and the Ghost” will be published next fall by the University of Minnesota Press.
Regardless of the medium, Poling thrives on artistic collaboration. “He doesn’t get hung up on his ideas,” says Suicide Commandos singer/guitarist Chris Osgood, who has known Poling for 57 years and taught a songwriting class with him for a decade at MacPhail. “I realized pretty early on that the best art is made from collaboration,” Poling opines. “If you’re open and have a strong enough ego, too, you get the best of all your collaborators’ worlds. You realize the sum is better than the one.”
Still, Poling is the boss. But not bossy. Confident. Indeed. Opinionated. Very. Blunt. He can be. “But he’s also very kind,” says Michell, who has worked on music projects with Poling as well as the book. “He gives compliments. He has this dadly sense about him.”
Playwright Hatcher attributes it to the fact that Poling is a gentle man and a gentleman. “I’ve never seen him resist or say flat out ‘No,’ ” says Hatcher, who paired with Poling on the smash hit “Glensheen” and the ludicrous 2018 romp “Lord Gordon Gordon” at the History Theatre in St. Paul. “It’s a gentleman’s thing. He wants to be in a place that gives him joy and gives joy to the audience.”
His collaborator in the 13-year-old New Standards admires the pianist’s work ethic. “He’s a hard worker and he likes to work with people who like to work hard,” says bassist/singer John Munson, Poling’s comic foil who often needles him onstage. But maybe what Munson likes most about the man with too many ideas is that “he’s a great finisher.” When Poling starts a project, he completes it.
Eleanor Mondale Poling never lived here. But her presence can be sensed throughout the widower’s new house in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood. Over a fireplace, there’s an Andy Warhol artist’s proof of Jimmy Carter — president when Eleanor’s dad, Walter Mondale, was VP. In Poling’s second floor office, there are photos of Eleanor. Next to his desk sits an urn with her ashes, adjacent to two of her horse-riding saddles.
“Dottie is my living connection to Eleanor,” Poling says, introducing his 7-year-old English Mastiff. Eleanor loved these massive dogs. When hers died, she and Chan got another one, a puppy. Eleanor succumbed to a brain tumor about six months later.
Poling remains deeply connected to the Mondales. He sees Walter Mondale regularly. “He likes to cook, and I like to eat,” Mondale says matter of factly. They spend a week or two each winter in Florida together. “He’s still my son-in-law,” Mondale proclaims without qualification. “We’re very close. I go to his concerts and plays. I’m not quite a groupie, but I think I’m pretty close to it.” Poling considers “Fritz,” as he calls him, a pal as much as anything. They bonded when he was dating Eleanor, who one night suggested that Poling go to dinner at the Mondales without her.
“He and I have a light, joshing relationship, but we’ve become super-close over the years. I really appreciate his company. We get together, have some wine and he’ll complain about politics,” points out Poling with a chuckle — a couple hours before he was going to pick up Mondale for dinner.
In Poling’s living room, a gift from art maven Joan Mondale, Eleanor’s late mother, sits in front of that portrait of Jimmy Carter on a fireplace mantel. It’s homemade hot sauce in a tiny bottle, the size for airplane booze, from renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1985, signed and secured under glass.
Poling collects art, including oil paintings of ships, and books, everything from Virgil’s “Aeneid” to Jack Nicklaus’ “Golf My Way.” But he doesn’t collect records, preferring to write rather than listen. That urge to create helped him work through the death of Eleanor. Several songs on 2013’s “Si Sauvage” — the Suburbs’ first album in 27 years — were about Eleanor, notably the local hit “Turn the Radio On.”
“He writes closer to the heart than people realize because of the aloofness of his lyrics,” the Suburbs’ Klaers observes.
Eleanor’s death in 2011 wasn’t the only darkness Poling experienced in the past decade. Two years earlier, Suburbs guitarist Bruce Allen, whose rhythm and artwork defined the band, died of organ failure after an unhealthy lifestyle. And, for the past five years, Beej Chaney, guitarist and co-lead singer, has been MIA from the ’Burbs because of mental illness.
Chaney, the once wild rocker, and Poling, the refined gentleman, got together in September when the Suburbs played at the Whiskey Au Go Go in Hollywood.
“He said he was sorry. I said, ‘I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself and you’re better,’ ” Poling remembers. “I’m glad his kids are taking care of him.”
Since Eleanor passed, Poling has become more aware of how precious time is. Hence, he just can’t seem to turn off the faucet of ideas in his head. Except when he’s playing golf. Or babysitting his twin toddler granddaughters. He and Eleanor didn’t have children together during their six-year marriage, but he has three grown children from an earlier marriage. He now lives with his significant other, with her two teenagers bunking on the third floor of the house.
Winging it with two bands
This is supposed to be a rehearsal because the Suburbs have four gigs in the coming days. But sorry, Poling can’t stop the music from coming. He’s got a melody and lyrics for a new song to work out with the band.
In a basement in a south Minneapolis rambler where the ’Burbs practice, Poling, sleeves rolled up, plays the melody on his electric piano and starts singing. “That’s the verse,” he explains. Then on the piano, he offers a suggested bass line for Steve Price. Next Poling beats out a rhythm with his open hands on his chest for drummer Klaers. The bandleader requests a “not quite reggae” rhythm from guitarists Steve Brantseg and Jeremy Ylvisaker. “It’s in the head,” Poling announces to no one in particular. “I just want to get it out.”
The band runs through the embryonic tune again, with the bandleader miming when the two saxophonists and trumpeter should join in. In less than an hour, the Suburbs have birthed a new Poling song, probably titled “Man Out of Time.” Says Klaers: “Chan is able to wake up with a thought in his head and by 9 in the evening, it’s a song.”
For Poling, the Suburbs are his legacy, his connection to what he considers meaningful songs. There is no question that he is in charge of the Suburbs. With the New Standards, Poling is leader No. 1, with Munson being maybe 1A. They have different tastes — the bassist leans to hip and cool songs, the pianist to sentimental and cheesy ones — but similar standards as well as a flair for fun.
Like when Orielle, a tiny terrier-and-chihuahua mix belonging to the promoter of the Zumbrota concert, runs onstage during the preshow soundcheck. Vamping on the piano for Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” Poling starts giggling. “Be sure to send the dog out while we’re playing tonight,” he urges the concert promoter. “With one of those Olivia Newton-John headbands on him.”
Munson smiles and Poling chuckles. They like to improvise — and laugh.