With its 1950s wood paneling, vintage furniture, frosted glass entryways and all-around “Mad Men”-meets-“Twin Peaks” vibe, the Cactus Blossoms’ rehearsal and warehouse space in St. Paul almost seems too perfect a time capsule for them and their retro urban twang.
Turns out these rooms used to be the executive offices for the mattress company King Koil.
“It feels like a lot of important business went down here,” Page Burkum said as he showed us around the facilities off Vandalia Street.
Much of the Cactus Blossoms’ plush and swooning new album, “Easy Way,” sounds like it came out of restless, emotional, sandman-ignoring songwriting sessions that could’ve used a good mattress.
Burkum and his brother/bandmate Jack Torrey have endured a few more sleepless nights since they became their own bosses, starting their own record label and making heavier demands on their backing band for this sophomore record.
“They don’t have deep pockets, but they’re nice guys,” Torrey quipped of the CEOs who are now in business in these old offices.
The siblings returned to their makeshift headquarters a few days ago during a rare-of-late week home. Since the March 1 release of “Easy Way” they have been on the road like mad men.
This spring, they played everywhere from a South by Southwest party at Willie Nelson’s ranch outside Austin to such famed venues as the Troubadour in Los Angeles, Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and Tractor Tavern in Seattle.
And now comes summer. The brothers and their band have a batch of fun, regional outdoor gigs coming up, including the season-opening show for the Music in the Zoo series Saturday in Apple Valley, the inaugural block party for Fargo’s new Har Mar Superstar-co-owned hot spot Harold’s on Main (June 14), and the Winnipeg Folk Festival (July 12). Then they head over to Europe for club and festival dates.
It was during a European tour two years ago when Burkum and Torrey found out their former label, St. Paul-based Red House Records, had been sold to a larger Nashville company. Red House helped build the buzz for the duo’s debut studio album, 2016’s “You’re Dreaming,” but soon the wheels started turning on their own operation.
“We were excited to even get an offer from Red House when we did and be on a real label,” Torrey recalled. “But a lot has changed about the business even just in that short time. Being on a label just didn’t make as much sense to us at this time.”
So they lined up a national distributor, a publicist and other know-how helpers and slapped the label name Walkie Talkie Records on their new album. So far, the DIY move seems to have worked just fine.
Rolling Stone, the New York Times and NPR gave the record high praise. Public and independent radio stations are spinning a few of the new songs, including the guitar-bending groover “Please Don’t Call Me Crazy” and another of their Everly Brothers-like ballads, “Got a Lotta Love,” which Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys had a hand in writing.
Of course, it helps that the Cactus Blossoms also made another charmer of an album. “Easy Way” keeps their elegant and seemingly effortless vocal harmonies front and center — check out the album’s somber title track and the closing number “Blue as the Ocean” for further proof of those Everlys comparisons — but adds velvety new layers of guitars and organ around them.
In contrast to the first album, most of these songs were written during lulls between touring and weren’t performed live a whole lot.
“We’d been playing the songs on ‘You’re Dreaming’ live for years, and the arrangements were already heavily shaped by that,” Torrey said while trying to explain the album’s often mellower, dreamier tone. “These songs, the arrangements were made up more in the studio.”
Another big factor this time around: Burkum and Torrey had a real, road-tested band to experiment with.
After frequent tours as a duo — including treks warming up for Kacey Musgraves, Nick Lowe and Lucius — they performed more often with an expanded lineup in 2017-18.
Foremost among those band members are guitarists Jacob Hanson and Tyler Burkum. The former is the ubiquitous local picker from Haley Bonar’s bands, the Pines and Halloween, Alaska. The latter has an impressive résumé as a Nashville sideman, having toured and recorded with everyone from adult-pop hitmakers Mat Kearney and Missy Higgins to the contemporary Christian group Audio Adrenaline to his own indie-rock buzz band Leagues.
If you didn’t already guess from the name, Tyler Burkum happens to be yet another Blossoms sibling. He watched admiringly as his kid brothers Page and Jack (who adopted Torrey as a stage surname years ago) built their music career over the past decade, but rarely performed with them until the making of their 2016 album.
“One of the reasons my wife and I moved back to Minneapolis was to be around family more,” said Tyler, who’s 39 and a father of three. “So when the opportunity arose to play with them, it made perfect sense.”
He downplays the sibling connection when it came to making music together, though: “I’ve approached it just like I did all my [Nashville] gigs, where I’m there primarily to serve the songs they created and not in any way act like a ‘big brother’ throwing my weight around,” Tyler said, pointing to the work he and Hanson did for the new record.
“It was really just a lot of trial and error, trying different things. They didn’t want to make the same record twice, so we were there to help them make the right step forward.”
Now that they’re touring together, the sibling factor has come more to the fore. Adding to the family connection, Jacob Hanson’s similarly omnipresent brother Jeremy is now playing drums, while bassist Phillip Hicks happens to be a cousin of the Burkums. (Non-blood-related Blossoms alumni Chris Hepola and Andy Carroll filled those respective roles on the album.)
“I don’t know if it’s a family thing or not, but it’s really easy and really a good time when we’re on the road,” Tyler said.
As for Page and Jack, they see the familial band as an extension of their goal to keep things in-house.
“Whatever the future holds for us, I feel like we’re learning a lot right now,” Page said.
“We’re learning things about the music business we never would’ve learned if we hadn’t gone independent. And we’re learning a lot about making music, too. We’ll see where it all brings us.”