by Jon Hunt
This Saturday marks the second annual “The Kidneys Are Alright,” a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation that was conceived by local music maestro Chris Strouth, who famously received a donated kidney in 2009 via Twitter. This year, it’s doubling as a reunion show featuring four defunct Minneapolis bands (Judgement of Paris, Deep Shag, Hovercraft and Shapeshifter) that had their heyday in the early ’90s. (Full disclosure: I am a member of Deep Shag.)
Spanning genres from shoegaze to power pop to noise pop to darkwave, these bands represent the cream of the crop of the non-grunge wing of the Minneapolis scene in the early ’90s. The show marks the first time in at least 15 years that these bands have played together.
All four groups tend to be underrated if not completely unknown now, in part because only one of them – Judgement of Paris – ever recorded a full-length LP in this configuration. All that remains of the others are a series of 45s and EPs, long relegated to the bargain bin at Cheapo.
But that doesn’t mean they weren’t influential. All four bands played a pivotal role in the development of the Minneapolis scene in the next 15 years, their sound echoing in the memories of younger players and their members going on to found other crucial bands. Most of them are still active in the scene today.
All four bands came of age during the era when it seemed like the world was their oyster. An explosion of U.K. import bands – shoegaze groups like Ride, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive and the 4AD bands like Dead Can Dance – were blowing everybody’s minds with noise-drenched guitar rock and moody, floaty pop. Bands of all stripes were getting signed by the majors, and groups that previously seemed like “college rock” fodder – your Dinosaur Jr.’s, your Pavements – were suddenly a big deal.
Locally, bands like the 27 Various and the Blue Up! had been playing ’60s-influenced psych and garage music for years, standing in stark opposition to the flannel rock the city was becoming known for. John Kass was the label man during this era, forming the first incarnation of Susstones (with the Various’ Ed Ackerson) and later Prospective Records (Twin/Tone’s psychedelic arm). Add in the easy availability of extremely potent marijuana (no lie!) and you have a fertile landscape for the formation of new bands.
Shapeshifter was formed in 1992 by two St. Paul high school friends (Terry Haanen and Tim Ritter) and a brother in law (Paul Horn). Originally conceived as an experimental instrumental group to play at a Halloween party, the group enlisted vocalist Jason Ducklinsky in ’93 and began writing a series of dark, noisy, psychedelic songs influenced highly by the shoegaze movement happening in the U.K. Always experimental, the group wedded Horn’s wash of guitar textures with Haanen’s throbbing, rock-steady beats and Ritter’s droning basslines, with Ducklinsky’s ethereal vocals floating on top in gossamer fashion.
Like all bands of the era, they came to people’s attention via cassette demo, and soon released the devastating “Plectrum” as a 45-rpm single. With Prospective co-runner Strouth as the band’s champion, the band soon became scene darlings on the strength of a series of psychedelic, hypnotic live performances. By 1995, however, the band had begun to fragment. Horn and Ducklinsky went on to the even-more-experimental Ousia. Ritter joined Passage with Judgement of Paris’ Christian Erickson. And Ritter, Ducklinsky and Haanen often performed as Big Daddy, Junior and the Spook, playing dark, floaty synth music at all-night raves.
Watch a complete Shapeshifter live show at Ground Zero in 1994 here.
Deep Shag were formed in 1993 by yours truly and Chris Hill, college pals who had abandoned the hippie rock they’d been playing in various bands in favor of a noisy, guitar-drenched breed of power pop. Enlisting like-minded singer Lisa Parker (an Alice Cooper and T. Rex fan who lent a rock sensibility to the group) and drummer Steve Frenkel, the group wrote a series of pop tunes influenced by groups like the Boo Radleys, the Verve and Redd Kross. Always less floaty and more structural then their peers in Shapeshifter and fellow ‘gazers Colfax Abbey, Deep Shag found a following on the strength of their self-released cassette demo.
The Shag released but one 45, “Always a Turn-On,” on Prospective, garnering a Radio K hit before splitting in 1994. Frenkel moved to Chicago and played in a series of bands before entering into politics. Hill and I formed Lunar 9 in the late ’90s with Shapeshifter vets Haanen, Ducklinsky and Ritter, scoring another Radio K hit with “Prozac Melody.” Myself and Ritter (and Judgement of Paris’ Erickson) currently play in Blue Sky Blackout, and Hill formed the seminal Mercurial Rage. Parker went on to join arguably the best lineup of Big Red Ball before dropping out of the music scene for a career in architecture (and motherhood).
Download Deep Shag’s “Love Will Make You Stupid – Live at the 7th St. Entry 1994″ HERE.
Hovercraft formed out of the ashes of singer/songwriter Jay Hurley’s power-pop band the Sedgwicks. Enlisting scene vets Rob Robello (who had played with Bob Stinson) and Steven Nelson, Hurley set his eyes on distortion-drenched pop music influenced by Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine. Hovercraft released an excellent EP, Been Brained, in 1994, and soon became a local live favorite on the strength of incendiary live shows and exquisite, highly-melodic songwriting.
They soon attracted the attention of the majors, signing with MCA/Fort Apache in ’95, with one hitch – Eddie Vedder’s wife wanted to use the name Hovercraft for a band she was forming. Minneapolis’ Hovercraft sold the name for the price of roughly one touring van and changed to Shatterproof, recruiting Deep Shag’s Hunt on guitar to fill in the sound. The group released one LP (“Slip It Under The Door”) and recorded another (eventually released as “Splinter Queen,” but unreleased at the time) before being dumped by their label and splitting up. Hurley, myself and Robello eventually went on to found Landing Gear. Hurley currently fronts the Seeks.
Download “Live at Level 3,” a newly-recorded live session featuring Hovercraft classics from back in the day HERE.
Judgement of Paris was formed in 1988 by Christian Erickson, Joel Hanson and Ian Dittbrenner. Years ahead of their time and influenced by brainy, experimental groups like Dead Can Dance and David Sylvian, the group were essentially the first “dream-pop” or “trance-pop” band in town, playing a style of semi-electronic music that eventually influenced just about everybody. The group were later joined by Brad Hanson and Joel Smith and a rotating series of guitar players including Richard Werbewenko and Chuck Zwicky.
They released two full-length LPs and a series of self-released cassette tapes before splitting in 1994. Both LPs were re-released in 2000 on Project Records and were rightly hailed as groundbreaking. Erickson went on to form Passage in the mid-’90s and the mighty Astronaut Wife in the late ’90s, both with Shapeshifter’s Ritter on bass. Erickson is currently the lead singer of Blue Sky Blackout and writes songs for the Sevateem, his band with his wife, former Nectar/Makeshift/Astronaut Wife vocalist Janey Winterbauer.
Watch a vintage Judgement of Paris video HERE.
Dean Vaccaro and Joseph Pettini, “The Kidneys Are Alright” event’s DJs, are themselves highly influential in the Minneapolis scene. Vaccaro was a DJ at downtown nightclub Graffitis in the late ’80s, and helped canonize the ’80s synth-pop scene that is now Minneapolis’ staple sound. He and Pettini (the drummer for shoegaze group Overblue and an occasional member of Big Red Ball) later went on to found Club Velvet at the Front, still the best lounge and exotica night in Twin Cities history. The two spin regularly at The King And I Thai and are members of Tambuca, a groundbreaking live music/DJ combo which just finished a tour of China.
“The Kidneys Are Alright 2: Has Been” takes place this Saturday, August 4th at Hell’s Kitchen in Minnepolis. Click HERE for a Facebook invite for more info.