Like a lot of Gen-X kids who grew up in the Twin Cities, Christian Erickson stayed up late watching “Dr. Who” on Channel 2 every Friday night before he got old enough to be out doing cooler stuff.
“And then we got our first VCR,” Erickson remembered with Big Bang-level enthusiasm, “and I’d watch the episodes over and over.”
Thirty-plus years later, not a lot has changed, except for the VCR usage and the fact that Erickson now has something positive to show for his late nights with the BBC’s enduring sci-fi series.
He also has a teenage son instead of his parents telling him to go to bed already.
“He was super-dedicated to this thing,” recalled Christian’s impressed son Dom, 16. “I’d come home late, and he’d be working on it till like 2 a.m.”
The “thing” is a surprisingly cool record that should be as much a treat for "Who" nerds as it is for music geeks. It became a family affair and charitable effort on top of being the elder Erickson’s semi-obsessive pet project.
A veteran musician who led the bands Astronaut Wife and Blue Sky Blackout, Erickson has crafted an ambitious rock-opera-like record based entirely on “Dr. Who.” More specifically (much more specifically), it’s based solely on one particular episode, 1984’s “The Caves of Androzani,” long his favorite.
“It has this Shakespearean element to it that goes above and beyond all others,” Erickson said of the episode, well known in “Dr. Who” annals as the last to feature actor Peter Davison (“the fifth doctor”) as the regenerating, time-traveling title character.
“It’s epic and tragic enough for a musical interpretation like this.”
Released simply as “The Caves” under the band name the Sevateem — another “Who” reference — the futuristic, synthesizer-heavy but richly melodic album features an all-star cast of fellow Twin Cities rockers who share Erickson’s enthusiasm for either the show or sci-fi nerdery in general. Participants include Jeremy Messersmith, Mark Mallman, Ed Ackerson (BNLX), James Diers (Halloween, Alaska) and Jeremy Ylvisaker (Alpha Consumer).
Also featured is Erickson’s wife and former Astronaut Wife bandmate, Janey Winterbauer, well known locally as a singer with the Suburbs and the shuttered MPR show “Wits.”
Winterbauer is almost as big a “Dr. Who” fan as her husband — especially now that the ongoing, 55-year-old TV series has cast its first female lead character. She eagerly became Erickson’s main collaborator for “The Caves,” which they mostly recorded in the office/studio of their south Minneapolis home with some “Dr. Who” memorabilia on the walls along with “Star Wars,” comic-book and music collectibles.
“It was an immensely satisfying project for both of us,” said Winterbauer, who disputed any notion of this being a novelty record.
“Like a lot of the best art, it was personal and it made us feel young. It hearkened back to that feeling we had as kids watching the show, the sense of wonder we got from it.”
All the other musicians seemed similarly inspired.
“You could just tell how strong of a vision Christian had for this record,” said Mallman, who, like all the guest singers, was assigned a specific role from the TV episode. His is the rogue military leader Chellak.
Other roles on the album include Messersmith as the doctor, resulting in the dramatic, sky-kissing closing track “Is This Death?” and a few other standout moments. Also, former Astronaut Wife singer Angela Ducklisky sings the ethereally bobbing opening song “Anywhere in the Universe” as the doctor’s then-assistant, Peri Brown, a tune that first appeared on Astronaut Wife’s 2003 album “Flying Saucer” — proof of how long Erickson has wanted to make a “Dr. Who” concept album.
“It’s definitely a weird idea for a record,” Mallman added, “but in my mind that makes it all the cooler. It makes it more an outsider kind of record, which is very rock ’n’ roll.”
Going back in time
The results so far have proved just how serious a project “The Caves” really was.
“Dr. Who” fans from around the globe have been touting and tweeting about the album, including both a writer and an actress from the show’s past. Fan conventions have extended invitations for some kind of live performance. (None is planned, though; not yet, anyway.)
The record is already making good money for a great cause, too. Using a pay-what-you-will scheme for album downloads, “The Caves” has raised $1,500 in about a month for Doctors Without Borders, a charity chosen both for its doctoral name and for what Erickson saw as a kinship with the show’s lead character.
“He goes into all these dangerous situations and helps people,” Erickson explained.
For Erickson, the album marks something of a full-circle moment both musically and personally.
Musically, “The Caves” takes him back to one of his early musical inspirations. The “Dr. Who” theme music — remember the whirring “wooo-woo-oooh”? — was a landmark recording in electronic music when the show debuted in 1963, and its influence can be heard in the orchestra-like layers of synthesizers and blip-like beats on the album.
Armed with a love for pioneering synth/electronic bands such as New Order, Kraftwerk and later Massive Attack, Erickson started buying up synthesizers in his teens when other dudes were buying guitars. He was way ahead of the synth-rock revivalism of the 2010s with Astronaut Wife in the late-’90s and early-’00s.
“I was totally influenced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop,” Erickson admitted, singling out the sound-effects team that crafted the “Who” theme and other on-air electronic music. “And I wasn’t alone. That stuff is now being recognized as very influential and ahead of its time.”
Personally, “The Caves” also brings Erickson back to making albums after he spent the past decade and a half more focused on family and a nonmusical (read: well-paying) career.
The end of Astronaut Wife essentially coincided with the birth of Dom. Erickson went on to co-found a successful Minneapolis branding and marketing company, Zeus Jones, now with around 50 employees.
His experience with Zeus Jones is one reason he knew not to wade into the murky area of licensing from a heavily copyrighted TV show. He was careful not to use the name “Dr. Who” or any images from the show in the packaging and promotion of “The Caves,” and he hopes the show’s creative forces see it only as a compliment to their work.
However, he didn’t want to give away the album for free: “Even though I’m not really a professional musician anymore,” he said, “my wife and a lot of our friends are. So it’s important to me to assign some value to my art.”
That noble mantra is repeated so often in the Erickson-Winterbauer household, the couple’s younger son, Vinny, a middle-schooler, went ahead and paid $9 of his own money to download the album.
“I told him we would’ve hooked him up, but he’d already done it,” Erickson proudly noted.
Vinny raved about the album, and much to Erickson’s delight, so did a lot of his fellow “Who” lovers.
“Sci-fi fans can be so prickly, you hear them say things like, ‘You’re ruining my childhood,’ over something like this if they don’t like it,” he said. “But fortunately, the feedback and enthusiasm has been very positive.”
It’s no wonder, once you hear what Erickson himself says he got out of the project.
“For me, the hardest part was finding a way to make the story and themes emotionally relevant in the music,” he said. “That, to me, is what made this episode so unique among ‘Dr. Who’ episodes and sci-fi in general: the emotions of it.
“It was a creative challenge to me, and there was a lot to live up to in my mind,” he added.
Mission accomplished. Now go to bed, Dad.