The Suburbs – Si Sauvage biography by Arthur Phillips
I am now going to tell you what I have been telling people relentlessly since I left Minneapolis for college in 1986: listen to The Suburbs. They’re the best band you’ve never heard of.
It was true in 1986. It’s still true. Still true that they are the best, and still true—to my decades-old frustration and fury—that you, non-Minnesotan, have still not heard of them.
So I could just say, put on Si Sauvage, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Si Sauvage, their fifth full studio album, and their first in a mere 27 years: ten songs of pop, rock, dance, funk, punk, and something indefinably unique, identifiably Suburbs no matter the superficial genre. You’ll hear it in the cruel wit of “Si Sauvage,” in the weirdly thrilling esoteric anthem “This Monkey,” in the current of melancholy flowing under the pop of “Turn the Radio On,” in the wail and broken moan of “What’s It Like out There?”
Since their first EP in 1978 (the vinyl of which was, of course, bright red), The Suburbs have toyed with genres and forms, have pureed their influences and smashed their own personalities together, and consistently produced music that could only conceivably be their own. What happens if you cross funk and cowboy laments? Punk and bar-room piano? Punk and Dada? Dance music and creepy monologues about summer camp? The Suburbs.
The Suburbs sound like the band that used to open, appropriately, for The Talking Heads, REM, and the B-52’s. But also for Blondie. And also, equally appropriately, for Iggy Pop, come to think of it. Because they also sound like a band whose members were introduced in 1977 by the Suicide Commandos’ Chris Osgood, at that time “literally the only punk in Minneapolis.”
And, here, again, is the problem I’ve been running into since 1986. I want you to hear it all, and all at once, not to conclude anything about them until you know how much there is of them. I want to get it just right for you, make sure I have read you correctly before I tell you where to start, your customized introduction to the best band you’ve never heard of. Are you the sort of person who’s going to fall first for the catchy pop-rock? Then listen to “Born Under a Good Sign.” Wait though, wait. Maybe it’s the humor that will get you. So listen to “Dumb Ass Kids,” or “Si Sauvage” and the guy trying to compliment her record collection. But wait, maybe it’s—
Look, honestly, this is what it’s like to be a Suburbs fan. You grow up in Minneapolis in the 70s or 80s, when Minneapolis is suddenly the center of the musical universe, before Seattle, before Athens, and this musical renaissance is your birthright. The sonic produce of the polite Twin Cities from, say, 1977 to 1986 is astonishing. My sister recalls that the entertainment at her prom was Prince. The kids playing down in the warehouse basement, charging you a buck for beer, might have been The Replacements or Husker Du, Soul Asylum, The Suicide Commandos, The Jayhawks, The Hipsterz, or The Suburbs.
If you’re from here, you know that The Suburbs are obviously on the list of “Most Influential Minnesota Musicians of All Time.” You know that singer-songwriter-keyboardist Chan Poling was in Rake Magazine’s top 10 Minnesota Rockers alongside Prince, Bob Dylan, and Paul Westerberg. Every Minneapolis new-born and old-age pensioner knows The Suburbs’ most famous tune, 1983’s “Love Is the Law,” an unforgettable dance-rock confection—catchy horns, popping guitar lines, a strain of sadness just below the bouncing surface, and Chan Poling’s unmistakable baritone croon. (And it was no surprise this year when the song became the anthem for Minnesota’s marriage equality campaign.) You know all this like you know it’s cold outside.
But then you leave Minneapolis, leave the nights at the legendary First Avenue or the Longhorn, leave the circles where everyone knows every Suburbs song, where growing up meant associating that music to the most important moments of your life, and you find, to your astonishment, that outside the Midwest, people seem not to have heard of them. “You mean The Replacements?” they say. “No. I don’t. Listen to this.” And you play them Love Is the Law (1983). You play them Credit in Heaven (1981). You play them In Combo, a punk-blues-rock album culminating in a love song to cows. You wait until they get it. And they always got it, but for different reasons: some for the punk, some for the dance, some for the jokes, some for Chan’s crooning, some for Beej’s screaming, some for the haunting piano lines, some for Bruce Allen’s fingerprint guitar sound, some for the lust and some for the heartbreaking, indescribable ballads.
And that is precisely why you have never heard of The Suburbs: you can’t describe them for the one thing they do well. They don’t have a single persona, they have a personality. Or, really, several personalities coming together to make music they couldn’t possibly make alone.
In 1986, after ten years, after records with Mercury and A&M and Minneapolis’s iconic Twin/Tone, after amassing fans like Springsteen and, yes, the Replacements, after, peculiarly enough, playing on a softball team with The Human League, after marriages and kids and loss, the Suburbs called it quits—immortals in Minnesota, evergreen throughout the Midwest, but known and loved elsewhere only by the super-hip (and us émigrés).
And then, after death claimed guitarist Bruce Allen far too young, three of the band’s surviving founders—Chan Poling, guitarist-singer Beej Chaney, and drummer Hugo Klaers—looked out the window and found that their rabid audience had never left. And now, 27 years later, they’re different, older, wiser men, and the music is great, again, for all the old reasons and several new ones.
For Si Sauvage, Poling, Chaney, and Klaers needed to fill the huge space left by the late Bruce Allen, and they turned to guitarist Steve Brantseg, a national figure since the late 70s, including gigs with Robyn Hitchcock, ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson, and the Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls. For bass, Steve Price, a founding member of Rex Daisy, takes over from the retired Michael Halliday. The Suburbs sound is rounded out by the husband-wife sax section Max Ray and Rochelle Becker, and trumpeter Steven Kung.
And, for those of us who were worried, that Suburbs sound—older, wiser, but still infectious—is upfront on Si Sauvage. “Born Under a Good Sign” and “Turn the Radio On” are undoubtedly by the same guys who made First Avenue shake to “Love Is the Law” and “Rattle My Bones.” But there’s something more there, too. Those decades didn’t pass without cost. A love song by a man in his 50s is a very different beast than one by the same man in his 20s, and “Turn the Radio On” sounds unmistakably like a pop love song to a woman who isn’t there anymore.
So now the burning question is: where will the Suburbs now find the ideal, eclectic, witty, tasteful, high-energy and high-intelligence (non-Minnesotan) listeners who want punk speed married to melodic romance, booze-addled nostalgic heartbreak, pop, rock, dance, thrashing noise and complex harmony, naked lust, and deadpan agricultural humor? That question stymied at least two big labels who thought the Suburbs would make them piles, but I’m hoping, and betting, that the 21st century can do better.
After Si Sauvage gets her hooks in you, you’re going to have a lot of listening ahead of you, 86 other songs in the catalogue by my iPod’s count, and you’re going to enjoy the parallels and the discoveries. If I know you, I’d recommend you first check out… or, no, start with…. or, better yet, you should try…
Arthur Phillips, author of Prague, The Tragedy of Arthur, and other novels, is a Suburbs fan.
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