by Jonathan Goolsby
DAYTON, OHIO – It’s an early evening at South Park Tavern. Next table over is some sort of family birthday party. Whoever the birthday girl is, she has an inordinately large number of grandparents – of the twenty or so attendees, the average age must be 64. And I’m here for . . . a rock show? Wait. A CD release! No way.
Yet that’s exactly what I’m here for. This is The Minor Leagues‘ night and I’m ready for the opener. North College Hill – the band’s long-awaited sixth album – is out and I can’t wait to hear them play it live.
Co-front Ben Walpole and his songwriting partner, guitarist Patrick Helmes, are the first to arrive. We pull up a booth and wait for the band’s free pizza pie. You would never picture the two of them in the same band; Walpole’s sandy shag cut and preppy outfit seem diametrically opposed to Helmes’ circa-1978 Iron Maiden basement show taper. Not the co-founder I expect for a bright poppy, mutli-faceted twee combo. I ask Helmes to stand and identify.
“Megadeth!” He’s enthusiastic about it, too. “Drive-By Truckers are my favorite band by far, and stuff in that same genre like Loose Arrow, Hold Steady. But I like metal. My closet love is death metal, like Dark Tranquility, In Flames, any of that stuff from the mid-Nineties is awesome. It’s completely irrelevant to what we do,” he laughs. “I don’t even think I’m capable of doing anything like that.”
“I grew up on Megadeth, Metallica, all that stuff, so somewhere down deep in my psyche of musical knowledge, that is the bass line. I’d be surprised if Ben’s even heard ‘Symphony of Destruction,’ to be honest.”
Walpole shakes his head. “I like melody.”
He traces his musical tree – it is tall and broad. Those melodic roots are prominent: Beatles, Spector pop and Motown, glam rock, punk, New Wave, Brit Pop.
“Anything along those lines – melody and a lyrical point of view, ” Walpole says. “I don’t really like bands who sing songs that aren’t about things. I like songs [with] storylines and characters. There are so many musicians who are really good at playing guitar, but the odds that they’re also really good at writing poetry are low. And so you get signed because you’re good at playing your instrument, but your lyrics will be terrible. I think it’s a lot easier to fake good lyrics by just making a simple couplet that has an idea in it, instead of trying to be like Leonard Cohen or some kind of poet.”
A nervous laugh: “No.”
“I really like Ray Davies of the Kinks.” I buy it – he has the skinny tie for it. ”Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian.”
A dual-front, female-male call-and-answer band, that Belle. And right on cue, we’re joined by Hilly Kenkel: ice-eyed, platinum blonde co-front: “There was a conflict with the band pizza that had to be sorted out.”
From Helmes: “I can’t imagine anyone’s hearing us and saying, ‘Man, they sound like Belle and Sebastian,’ when they see our live show.”
“We have certain songs that sound like certain bands,” says Walpole. “It’s either an advantage or a disadvantage over the years – we can sound like any number of bands from song to song. Hopefully we at this point sound like us. It adds up to a certain sound, but . . .” He trails off.
Kenkel picks up the thread. “I think there’s a common trend, too, that we get compared to a lot of bands that have male and female vocalists, like New Pornographers.”
“It’s always an honor if someone compares us to a band that is successful.” Walpole’s laugh seems self-deprecating. I call him on it. The Minor Leagues are successful. People go to see this band. Shoot, I came fifty miles north tonight. And with gas at $4.00 per, I’m making a serious financial commitment.
“Ben is pretty consistently self-deprecating, no matter what level of success he gets to,” Kenkel smiles and nudges him.
Walpole and Helmes share songwriting duties, but Walpole seems to take the lead as public relations officer.
“I would write the songs at home on my own, just with basic piano parts,” he says. “But I had a lot of half-finished ideas on [North College Hill], so I’d demo it and Patrick shaped half the songs on the album into what they are, changing some rhythms or maybe changing some arrangement ideas. We worked together to finish them, and then we’d bring it to the band, and everyone in the band would have input on the different parts.”
Does playing the songwriting that close to the vest cause any tension within the group at-large? I look directly at Kenkel.
“The only problems we ever seem to have are with scheduling,” she says. “There aren’t really problems with ideas too often. The creative force is mostly Ben and Patrick and we’re all OK with that. We get our little bits we can add, but there’s an understanding and that makes everything work pretty well.”
Meanwhile, bassist Jesse Rogers and second guitarist Luke McGlasson have arrived. Drummer Matt Retherford is on stage, opening the show with his other project, House of Feeble Minds; I’ll catch him by e-mail.
“Some of us don’t even like the Beatles.” Kenkel points back at him.
He laughs. “That’s bullshit, I never said that.”
“This guy’s like, ‘The Beatles aren’t that good.’”
Never argue with a vocalist. It’s a losing proposition. McGlasson’s a smart guy. I can tell.
“The relationships in the band are strong and that’s important, too.” Rogers dives in. “There was a period of about a year or so when we weren’t active. I was going nuts. There was no creativity in my life. I wasn’t doing anything outside of my work. It feels like we’re doing something long-lasting. We’ve got all these albums we can show to people and be like, ‘Hey, I’ve done this.’”
So who gets our Minor Leaguers out of bed and onto the field?
“Pop music has been my favorite form of expression since I was a little kid, so it just seems like that was always the way I was gonna do it,” says Walpole. ” Luke is a lot more into modern stuff. I’ve always been way more into the ’60s and classic stuff.”
“The Kinks. I think Patrick and Jesse are across the map. Hilly DJs hip-hop and dance music. “
“I do, but I don’t listen to that all the time in my spare time,” Kenkel giggles. “I lay in my room and listen to Pavement and stare at the ceiling. We really are all over the map.”
“I went to a dance party last night and they played Hot Chip,” McGlasson says, “and that reminded me of Hilly.”
“Yes! Hot Chip!” She lights up.
“I was like, that’s the only other person who ever plays Hot Chip.” I bite my bottom lip and fly under the radar. Guilty.
“Yeah, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem. Even when people criticize them for being too hipster-y or whatever, I defend them to the death.” Kenkel is emphatic.
“I hate them,” Walpole smiles.
“Their songs are too long.” McGlasson piles on.
“They’re not effing long!” Kenkel spoke truth a moment ago: she stands staunch.
“Rilo Kiley is probably my favorite band of all time,” McGlasson says. “The Killers. Oasis was the band when I was a kid.”
“My favorite band’s probably the Beach Boys,” adds Rogers. “I got into them and it was all over. I also like the Smithereens, and love Oasis, like Luke. Just pop stuff, heavy pop.
McGlasson: “Definitely Maybe.”
Rogers: “What’s the Story, Morning Glory?“
Begin band turmoil. It’s like I rang an iron bell. The conversation descends into a fratricidal melee. Truly Gallagher-esque.
Walpole calls the meeting to order. “I’m more of a Be Here Now guy.”
It’s sarcasm. Thankfully. I almost strangled him. McGlasson and I are sympatico.
I ask Walpole about the new album. It’s been a while since the last Minor Leagues offering. Why the delay in production?
“I have a real love-hate relationship with it. I’ll go through periods where I just can’t stand the thought of recording. It just never turns out the way I want it to,” he laughs. “Or I don’t have a sense of control. I don’t know why it’s sounding the way it is. So if things sound good, sometimes it feels like a happy accident, and if things sound bad we, you know, bang our heads against the wall for months.”
“We’re not technically audio engineers,” Helmes explains. “We just poke at it until it sounds good to us.”
“Which can be really fun, but it can be kind of exhausting,” says Walpole.
“This last one took us a year of mixing, off and on. We sat down and did a lot of arranging beforehand and then we took it to the rest of the band. But everyone wrote their parts from what we envisioned.” Helmes looks at his bandmate. “The album’s about where Ben grew up. That’s where the band formed. I spent some time there too. It’s just a small town that’s really fallen apart over the years.”
“It’s kind of a metaphor for our lives,” says Walpole, of the Cincinnati suburb / LP namesake. “I still love it, but it’s just not what it used to be. Even if it had gotten a lot nicer, it would still be sad to me personally because I just want it to be frozen exactly the way it was when I was a kid, so I could still feel like a kid.”
” It’s a very nostalgic album,” says Helmes.
North College Hill is certainly that. “City on a Hill” opens with noise pollution – jackhammers, cars and the like – punctuated by bright, driving guitar and a regular electro-drop crosswalk blip, like some wistful sonar scan back into the depths of the Eighties. The last track, “You Can’t Go Home,” ends on the same sound scape. In between? “1985 Forever.” I’m down the synaesthetic time hole, living in a two-story split-level with window AC units and a wrought-iron bannister. Walpole, Helmes and I lived this. And I confess to sharing, in my own time, the same sentiment Walpole has effortlessly committed to lyric:
Dust off the ghost maps / so we can trace back where this town went off the rails / read back the ghost maps / so we can figure out what the hell went wrong.
“I think it’s happening a lot of places in Cincinnati.” Walpole shakes his head. “I think it’s happening in a lot of places in the country, really. Infrastructure’s falling apart, things aren’t being replaced, things don’t look as nice as they did when we were kids.”
You can’t go home / there is no home / you have no home / you can’t go.
It’s a pressing, if common, post-Challenger lament. I wonder if such feelings are a pitfall for every generation? Or maybe America really is going to hell in a Hummer?
I’m a late-model Gen X-er. I share Walpole’s anxiety. At some point we pass from youth to not-youth. And it is scary. It’s metamodernistic. An epidemic.
It’s the same reason vinyl has made a resurgence even as demand for instant digital downloads explodes, why hipsters learn how to knit Nintendo controller covers and churn goat milk butter, then sell their wares on Etsy. It’s why rebuilding bridges, reducing household debt and reclaiming jobs seem so much more important (politicians, take note) this election year than do bearded Middle Eastern phantasms going boom in the night.
It’s why aviator sunglasses are so in this year. Talk to me, Goose. Speak comfort.
No one can afford a car / but that’s all right it’s not that far / I’ve walked every block, every inch / side streets, alleyways and more / fast food and convenience stores / gas station breakfasts on the bus stop bench.
“It’s kind of somber, maybe?” Walpole asks it. He’s really posing a question. I don’t think he’s anymore sure about his own work than anyone is about how to slow Western entropy. ”More somber than our other material, which tends to be more uptempo and kind of spastic, I think. This is a little bit more reflective. The whole lyrical idea is looking back on your childhood and trying to make sense of it and being kind of sad that you’re getting older and that your hometown is changing, so you’re disconnected spiritually and physically.”
Quarter-life crisis? The band laughs.
“Maybe a third-life crisis.” Walpole is sheepish. ” Actually that’s our next album.”
Which is already recorded, by the way,” interjects Kenkel.
“Yeah, we’re close to being able to release it.”
“We’re trying to break some records in releasing albums very quickly,” she smiles wryly.
“Well it took us six years to release the last three albums,” grins Walpole. “We’re gonna try to speed up the process.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville,” says Kenkel.
“Our friend works at a studio down there called the Butcher Shoppe,” Walpole explains. “It’s actually owned by –”
“John Prine and David Ferguson,” says McGlasson. John Prine. The John Prine. And David Ferguson. He engineered a few recordings for a guy you might have heard of: Johnny Cash?
Yeah. Those guys. Major.
“We’ve been working with him the last two albums,” says Walpole.
I ask him if it’s true that he once mistook John Prine for the janitor. (I have my sources.)
“No, I don’t know what that’s about.”
“He came in and he was just so unassuming.” Walpole pleads. “I thought he would carry himself with a little bit more of an ego. He was, like, asking to help clean up stuff for us.”
“And he apologized to Ben for interrupting him,” Kenkel says.
“He was talking about cleaning, so I just thought, well, there’s no way this is John Prine.”
“You don’t recognize him?” McGlasson needles.
“I hope John Prine doesn’t see this and hate us.” Walpole smiles.
“‘YOU’RE NEVER RECORDING HERE AGAIN!’” McGlasson points menacingly.
“What keeps us going is the response that we do get. We wouldn’t want to do this in a vacuum,” Walpole proffers. ” You want to make connections. You’re not making music just for yourself to listen to.” He smiles in that self-deprecating manner again.
“I don’t just want to be famous in Cincinnati. I want everyone in the world to be singing our songs, like ‘Hey Jude.’”
Kenkel bursts into laughter. Christ, she even snorts.
“I must have missed something there. I thought he said he wanted everyone to be singing our songs like ‘Hey, Dude.’”
“That’s our new goal!” Walpole shouts. Nostalgia and enthusiasm. I like it.
“Actually that would be quite a level of achievement, if we had a Nickelodeon show,” McGlasson agrees.
“I think that Cincinnati – and this region in general – people don’t realize how good it actually is here,” says Helmes. “A lot of other cities don’t have quite as good a music scene as we do here. Obviously, there’ve been quite a few successful bands from the area lately. It’s good to see.”
“It’s a very embracing attitude toward bands,” Kenkel agrees. “People really want the bands to succeed. It’s a pretty agonizing thing to perform stuff you write. You gotta be able to either brush stuff off or feel pretty good about yourself. Both I guess.” She laughs. “We’re also a little bit on the weird side, I think.”
“We’re a bunch of weird people hanging out together,” says McGlasson.
Kenkel: “I think that’s better than sounding like everyone else, It just means that people don’t know what to think about us right away.”
McGlasson: “People don’t look at us like, ‘Oh man, those guys are super-cool. I could never talk to them.’”
“It gives you a reason to wake up.” Kenkel asserts. “Going to work sucks. Eating sucks. Sleeping sucks.”
“I don’t want to do anything else,” says McGlasson.
“Beats farming.” Rogers. Leave it to the bassist to deadpan.
I don’t owe Matt Retherford anything. But as an ex-drummer, I confess a certain solidarity with the faceless guy behind the kick drum. And truth be told. he missed the interview in the line of duty. So, sure, I’ll give him a column inch.
In the intervening time, big Minor Leagues news. They’ll be playing Bunbury.
Follows our e-mail exchange:
JG: What do you think North College Hill is about? What does it say about where you are as a band and where you’re going?
MR: “To me, North College Hill is a reflection and transition. It’s kind of analyzing the nostalgia that a certain place or time in your life represents, whether it be a good or bad time, sticking it into your back pocket, and knowing it’s there, but walking on. The tune “Home” ends the album with the revelation that you can’t go home. But in a hopeful way.”
JG: Who personally influences you? How do your musical influences show up in your playing, and how do they integrate with / differ from your bandmates’ tastes?
MR: “I’m influenced personally by (a shortlist for how I play with TML): John Bonham [Led Zeppelin] and Bill Berry (from REM). And the great thing about TML is that between us, there are a lot of influences happening. As a drummer, I listen to the rest of the band’s groove. If Ben and Hilly are doing a kind of doo-woppy thing, I try to be cathedral big and simple. If Patrick and Luke are ripping shit up, I can open up and give them room. And when Jesse lays down the bassline from ‘Nuthin’ but a G Thang’, I know it’s time to break ‘em off somethin’ funky.
JG: Why do you do this? What motivates you?
MR: “Aside from the cold hard cash flowing endlessly into my bank account? (Ha.) There’s just something magical about the bout of jitters that comes with playing songs for people. You know, wondering if the crowd will like it, wondering if they’re having as much fun as I am. And if people feel good enough to dance, it’s hard to not feel like you’ve connected with them.”
JG: Anything coming up that you’re particularly excited about?
MR: “Baseball season. And I have to say I’m excited about Bunbury. To have something like that in Cincinnati to bring all sorts of different tastes together, and to even be a part of it, is exciting.”
JG: What kind of drumkit do you play? Why? Describe it.
MR: “I play a DW kit with a beautiful Broken Glass finish. First, it sounds amazing (when people other than myself play it). But it’s shiny. It’s pretty. When I got it, I had to answer this question: ‘Am I really a silvery, sparkly kind of guy?’ I try and answer that question every time I play it.”