Northern Climbs: Grand Marais at testsite
by Hills Snyder
Two sweet people that arrive late want to know what they missed, so Grand Marais, as casually as picking up a water glass off a table, play a song they didn’t play, John Dufilho’s Josephine Street, a tender song about San Antonio’s legendary music venue Taco Land. It is from a 2008 album by Dufilho’s band, I Love Math. It is significant that the not-part-of-the-show song carries the same intimate delight as does the actual thirty-six minute set. The after song is performed mid-conversation, with the singers and listeners still standing where they are. And it is well played, not to even mention the acute instrumental skills of the musicians.
And there is a glass of water on the table.
Also on the table, as if part of a work session: thermos filled with garlic infused green tea, thermos cup, coffee cup holding more green tea, pen, flask full of high quality scotch whiskey, writing pad, two capos and a red desk phone. The table itself is of the conference variety, at least in size — four feet wide by ten feet long. We sit around it as if for a corporate think tank or perhaps some sort of institutional self-help jam. Others gather around by standing in the twin French door entrances to this dining room become project space.
Meet Erik Sanden, Joe Reyes and odie, collectively Grand Marais, named for the Minnesota town that lies on the western edge of Lake Superior between Duluth and Thunder Bay. This locale is important to Erik for personal reasons — it’s where he spent time with his grandfather in a cabin worthy of La Monte Young.
And perhaps a region that seems remote in this moment at testsite in Austin, Texas, but if you were here, you heard the songs. There is nothing remote about them. They invite you in.
This band and testsite today navigated a renewed frame of reference for sharing music in an art space, a trajectory that these three musicians have been on for more than a decade. testsite nourishes experimentation and the writer-invites-artist format is unique, encouraging hybrid activity. Grand Marais was allowed the space (not just physical) to engage the audience with real intimacy and clarity, a genuinely rare opportunity for everyone involved.
I’ve known them for about ten years. First as Buttercup, from which Grand Marais is splintered. Both are ongoing, as is Demitasse, yet another side project. I’ve seen them perform in these configurations and others more times than I can count, but I could not have predicted what they revealed to us this afternoon. The presentation (yes, my tongue is in my cheek as I write that word) only mimes the feel of a boardroom. The ambience they create is anything but.
During the sixth song, Erik receives a phone call from the main character in the song. She’s concerned that mice might get into the wooden kitchen matches and set the house on fire. He picks up the red handset, answering with the words, “I’m in a meeting.” The phone call goes on, the singer hilariously describing a mouse gripping a wooden match with its teeth, the match perpendicular, such that the hot sulfur head might scratch down the inside of a wall and ignite, all this visually demonstrated with face and hands and done so with relish. The mouse story is appropriated from the Billy Collins poem The Country and works well to signal paranoia, even as the singer is reassuring; gently admonishing the caller, “don’t be afraid.”
A 2 X 2.5 foot pad of paper is mounted on an easel competing for space with odie’s 1973 Ampeg SVT bass amp. Each is over five feet tall and of similar width. The over-sized speaker cabinet imposes absurdly in the crowded room, but it is only partially a visual prop. The bass notes are huge and clear but not loud. Erik rips off pages of pre-written text at appropriate moments. Eventually, he will use the device to induce the audience to sing along — a wry slice of flip chart karaoke that is above all still just a bunch of people really singing together.
One of the opening pages is scrawled with black marker:
Guaranteed to be the only musicians at SXSW playing their set in a green tea-induced blackout.
The above phrase and others like it were provided by Dylan Kussman, a friend who Erik asked to “outsource his brilliance” in order to come up with some key phrases for the show.
A couple more:
Prepare yourselves — we are about to bring the fucking sad.
Last night was for banging your head. Tonight is for dabbing your eyes.
The band’s stated aim is to “write the definitive anthem for the clinically depressed.” Erik has also said he’d like to write “the saddest song in the world.” And there is a sadness being processed in these songs. It leaks into the music like slowly accruing loss leaks into a life. But even though the lyrics delineate a bleak landscape, the passion and humor of the delivery shine light onto that terrain. Still, it’s no cover-up — the same luminosity that beams from the music also increases the darkness that stirs in the shadows. The combination of tattered beauty and sardonic affirmation calls to mind an image from Guy Maddin’s 2003 film, The Saddest Music In The World — a crown encrusted with jewels made from 25,000 tears.
Their set begins with Cry, Sailor, Cry, a song seemingly about the hidden bliss of solitude, hinting that it’s easier to find on the road — an inversion of the usual road song theme of loneliness. odie stands stoic in front of the SVT, hands clasped in front of him suggesting some sort of ritual preparation. His dark clothing, tattered cowboy hat and long braided beard complete the image. His Fender Precision bass on a stand next him, he is perfectly still, without expression throughout the entire song, exuding a certain studied restraint. Erik’s voice and Joe’s perfectly understated guitar are the only instruments. The opening words are, “let’s start here now with a sweeping exaggeration,” framing the notion that this will be an orchestrated set of songs with a specific beginning, middle and end. The singer goes on to say he loves to lie, cause it’s not borin’ — dropping the G on boring. This is another, perhaps unconscious, decision very clearly executed every time I’ve heard them do it. I’m still wondering about it. The specificity of it intrigues, but that is the way with Grand Marais. They adhere to a minimalist sensibility, restricting even metal riffs with their acoustic Martin guitars. “In my head we are Metallica,” says Erik, in one of his many droll asides (and they are pretty much dressed in black). odie remains motionless until twenty seconds into the second number, Forsaken, a song with mournful lyrics in which a ripped medical drip bag is compared to a kite with a tear in it.
In Opening Band, a story of being the opener for a famous band and the auditorium full of their not-happy-to-see-you fans, Erik, Joe and odie sing in unison “nothing, nada, can save you from yourself.” Joe employs furious rasgueado chords that intervene between lyrics. The tension builds and is infused with a sense of desperation prior to the 25 seconds of silence that comes next, allowing the song to implode.
“Without you, all I’ve got is Morrissey on tape,” is a choice line from Morrissey For Company. “It’s not making me better,” is the closing refrain. Erik’s obsession with Morrissey manages to put that music in a new context — no one sings those songs better, not even Morrissey. Erik’s humorous acknowledgement of his own fascination is part of what makes it work. Humor is also central in another drinking song, Let It Drop, in which the singer cries in his beer, one tear at a time, each falling with extreme accuracy into the neck hole of the bottle. Kind of a Hank Williams’ sentiment tied perhaps to Slim Pickens’ descent astride an atomic bomb in Dr. Strangelove.
A couple more original songs and a cover of The Pixie’s Allison complete the set. Cue the late arrivers and the spontaneity of the musicians to play for them anyway. By the way, there is no better example of this group’s on the spot creativity than the video they made on the fly in Marfa last October. Intrigued by one of Judd’s revolving doors they simply found a passer by to point an i-phone and then proceeded to play a song to the camera.
As the gathering at testsite comes to a close, Erik is speaking to Virginia Rutledge, Artistic Director of the Texas Biennial. They are sitting in a couple of Favela chairs made by Fernando and Humberto Campana. Erik is emphasizing his appreciation of and affection for Kierkegaard. He speaks eloquently, with an awareness of detail. On the wall in the background, one of Jenny Holzer’s digital crawl pieces offers some wisdom:
when you expect fair play you create an infectious bubble of madness
odie’s western shirt hangs from a hanger hooked on the corner of the Holzer piece, a casual reminder of how comfortably this music has eased into this space made for art.
Seems about right.
Joe Reyes is a San Antonio-born guitarist/producer who has worked with celebrated artists from Flaco Jimenez, Freddy Fender (for whom he produced a Grammy Award-winning album) and Doug Sahm. He has performed and recorded in the U.S, Mexico and Europe. Reyes likes coffee and owns two fat cats.
Erik Sanden is a Texas-based musician and songwriter who has composed hundreds of original songs described by NPR as “jangly art rock for the left side of the brain.” He is currently trying to write the saddest song in the world.
odie is a multi-instrumentalist that has played in several critically acclaimed groups including Buttercup, Los Mescaleros and The Swindles. His unconventional musical stylings and baritone voice have won him praise as a “Texas musical treasure.”
Hills Snyder is an artist based in San Antonio. He is founder of Wolverton and on occasion writes about art and music.