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Acclaimed Howler celebrates debut album

Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith

Fresh from doing an interview with MPR's Chris Roberts, and on his way to doing phoners with "a ton of Japanese press," Jordan Gatesmith settled into a corner booth at Jack's Minneapolis this week to talk about his next-big-thing-or-else band Howler. It's a fitting locale, since Jack's (formerly Java Jack's) in South Minneapolis is where it all started for Howler, culminating in a record deal with Rough Trade Records, sold-out shows in Europe and America, a forthcoming tour of Japan, and a ridiculous amount of press that found Gatesmith on the cover of City Pages and New Musical Express the same week.

For sure, the 19-year-old is no wet-behind-the-ears diva, but a sharp thinker, a disciplined worker, and a voracious student of indie rock and beyond ("I just discovered the Stones. My favorite record is 'Aftermath.'") Gatesmith, sporting a light leather jacket and black shades and looking for all the world like Peter Perrett's mop-topped stepkid, sat down to talk with MinnPost about his hometown and Howler, which celebrates the release of its debut full-length CD "America Give Up" Saturday night at the Triple Rock Social Club.

MinnPost: Given all the press, it's almost like you guys are a band from New York or England. Let's talk Minneapolis today, and this neighborhood. Growing up, what resonated with you in terms of music?

Jordan Gatesmith: Mary Beth (Mueller, widow of Soul Asylum's Karl Mueller) was the person that pushed me in the right direction, I think. I used to tell my friends that the bass player from Soul Asylum lived next door to me, pretty much. When Karl died, I started hanging out with Mary Beth a little bit. I would walk her dogs, and mowed her lawn a couple times.

She would give me Soul Asylum records, and tell me which Replacements records I needed to hear. She gave me Karl's old Hüsker Dü T-shirts, and she sort of put me in that direction of, "Check out this Minneapolis rock scene." And at the same time, I was about 13, and my best friend from middle school was Wes Kloster. His little brother was best friends with Paul Westerberg's son Johnny, and Paul Westerberg would kind of drop by. I probably had my "Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash" T-shirt on and I'd just freak out and hide. I remember being 13 or 14 and just idolizing him and being freaked out that he was at my friend's house.

MP: What are your impressions about the current Minneapolis scene?

JG: The scene has changed a lot over the last 30 years. People think Minneapolis and they automatically think Replacements, Husker Du, but now it's an entirely different environment. For better and for worse, I think. Growing up, I had a lot of bands I looked up to. Mouthful of Bees was my favorite band. Tapes 'n' Tapes as well.

But I've also had this concept that Minneapolis is where dreams go to die. Which isn't necessarily true, but I remember thinking that if you make it big in Minneapolis, you don't make it big anywhere else. When I was 15, I wanted to be on [Minneapolis indie label] Afternoon Records so badly; I was obsessed with Afternoon Records. I just didn't see anything big coming from Minneapolis, ever. There were all these great bands, but nothing was really being picked up elsewhere or signed by a label outside of Minneapolis, so it freaked me out.

Plus, there's all these bands that people don't even touch, that are really important to me. Like right now, Teenage Moods is one of the best bands in Minneapolis, and I don't hear anyone talk about them. They're like Weezer's "Pinkerton" over and over again.

MP: What about this neighborhood and Jack's? What has that meant to your music?

JG: Jack's has been one of the most important parts for me, musically. [Owner] Jerry [Nelson], of course, has been a huge help. He basically said, "Use my basement whenever you want." So me and my friends would go down there whenever we wanted and played cover songs. I remember seeing Mouthful Of Bees down there, I remember the Hootenanny down there, and a lot of other artists, so it was really cool to have that a block away from my house. That was probably the most important part, musically, of this neighborhood — the basement of Java Jack's. Every interview I do it's like, "Tell me about this Java Jack's basement place."

MinnPost: You and the band hang out here a lot. [Howler drummer] Brent [Mayes] bartends here, and your mom and dad are regulars. What did your parents provide you with? It seems like a really good, free environment for an artist to grow up in.

JG: Yeah, they were really cool. There was a moment when I was 14 and I started playing guitar, and my dad was like, "You should be playing baseball." But it all turned around with [Gatesmith's first band] Total Babe, when I was 15. He was telling me to get a summer job, and Total Babe got a licensing deal with a German candy bar commercial and made a couple thousand dollars. I was like, "Dad, I'm doing music."

I think my mom keeps me open to possibilities. Nothing really surprises her, ever. If something happens, it happens for a reason. I think she's a hippie, and her spirituality has helped keep me grounded with all the weird stuff she does. She does Japanese healing called Reiki and she's very into meditation and going with the flow.

MP: And you attended Catholic schoolat Christ the King and DeLaSalle. How did that inform Howler?

JG: Catholic school makes really great atheists, and that's all. It may have made me a bit more anti-authoritarian, too.

MP: What did growing up here mean to you in terms of ambition? I mean, you had some pretty astute observations about it all when you were 15. What do you want to do that maybe hasn't been done in this town?

JG: I think the real ambition started at 17. Fifteen was all about going through the steps of being a Minneapolis band. By 17 I knew not to base your success on others. Look at the larger picture.

But now I think my trajectory is kind of classic Minneapolis, in a way: Break everyone's heart in the end (laughs). Put out a couple great records and kill it too early. At the same time, that's what I'm interested in: keeping it young. Yeah. I want to do four (Howler) records and call it quits.

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