Minnesota Musicians Perform the Art of Genre Bending

By Dessa Darling

When I first heard Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt,” my first thought was, Johnny Cash knows about Nine Inch Nails? (If you haven’t had the chance to hear the track I’m talking about, it’s worth a quick detour.) Though they were working Bayfront Blues Fest saxophoneand earning money in the same industry, I couldn’t conceive of a classic country icon existing on the same plane as NIN’s Trent Reznor, whose sexual lyrics and industrial production freaked me out in junior high. It seemed culturally impossible, like Gandolph drinking a Four Loko.

On tour, I’m often asked about the music scene in Minnesota. People joke and flatter, “Is it something in the tap water? The long winters?” I think it’s what’s not here that has shaped our sound and culture.

If you grow up in New York or LA, you might reasonably imagine the way to get a foothold in the music business is to be discovered by an industry rep. As a kid growing up in South Minneapolis, I remember singing at the grocery store, hoping that a man in a grey suit might discover me, a little diamond in the dry goods. It became clear, however, that agents weren’t hunting for new talent at Rainbow.

In fact, talent scouts didn’t seem to be hunting at the nightclubs here, either. People were building successful careers without the intervention of major labels. They were working in small groups to record and release their own work, running labels out of their basements, or their mother’s basements, or their cars. In the absence of an infrastructure, a robust DIY culture took hold.

Minnesota departed from industry standards because, well, because there was no industry. We just had to figure it out. No distribution deal? OK, borrow Mickey’s truck and drop the discs off yourself. I’ll learn how to write a press release; you learn how to use Microsoft Excel. People here trade favors, swap resources, and congeal into little collectives of complimentary skillsets.

As it happened, musicians often had something to gain by working together, even if their music sounded really different. The rap duo Atmosphere shared stages with punk outfit Dillinger 4. I grew up here, so I didn’t know how weird that was until I started touring. In most other cities, performers and listeners aren’t so casual about genre. A mixed bill can be a great way to empty a room.

RockBend folk music festivalBut here, Lizzo (the rapper who’s murdering crowds across the UK at the moment) might be seen singing backup for singer-songwriter Caroline Smith. The emcee and producer P.O.S is my label mate on Doomtree Records (yeah, I’m biased, get over it), but he’s also a screamer vocalist in the experimental noise project Building Better Bombs. In Minnesota, art regularly jumps its lane.

I spent a recent night on hotels.com, booking rooms for a run of recent shows (one of my duties, as per my collective’s particular division of labor). Not-so-incidentally, the roster for these shows perfectly represents the mixed interests of Minnesota musicians and listeners. In June, my rap crew opened for Trampled by Turtles in Duluth and Moorhead. Trampled by Turtles, for the uninitiated, is a killer bluegrass band.

To complete the bill, TBT booked Low—veterans of the minimal style sometimes called slowcore—and Haley Bonar, who’s most recent record “Last War” is distinctively indie rock.

And at these shows, I’m most of us stood side-stage—some of us in tight pants, some of some of us in weird hats—pulling beers from the same cooler, and watching one another play the music they’re good at playing.