by Jay Gabler
May 22, 2014
On a rainy night last week, all five members of Votel squeezed into a cozy booth in the back of Clubhouse Jäger. Despite the fact that they'd just released a buzzworthy debut album, some of them hadn't seen each other for months. They greeted each other like the old friends they are, and then tried to remember how they all met.
"I think I knew each of you before you knew each other, right?" asked Maggie Morrison. The four guys sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the other side of the booth agreed, and among themselves they worked out the long history of musical collaborations that led up to Votel, the seven-song, 33-minute album they'd just released through Totally Gross National Product.
"It started in the Nick & Eddie days," said Mark McGee, referring to the period circa 2009-2011 when the Loring Park hotspot Nick & Eddie was a popular hangout for music insiders and the home of regular jam sessions involving everyone from P.O.S. to Har Mar Superstar. (Nick & Eddie closed in 2012; its former space at 1612 Harmon Place was subsequently occupied by a Cafe Maude restaurant that itself closed at the end of 2013. Read Andrea Swensson's 2012 essay for more on the Nick & Eddie scene.)
At the center of the Nick & Eddie scene were Marijuana Deathsquads, a then-new improvisational group featuring beatmaker Ryan Olson as well as drummer Drew Christopherson, who ultimately became a member of Votel. Marijuana Deathsquads had been playing a weekly residency at Nick & Eddie, and when that group took off for a month-long swing through California, "Ryan asked me to take Nick & Eddie," remembered McGee. (Read Erik Thompson's 2012 profile of Mark McGee for more on this busy musician.) McGee and the group that became Votel ended up holding the fort on Loring Park for six months.
Morrison's acclaimed group Lookbook had just broken up, and she was ready to jump into a new project. The vocalist joined McGee in the collection of musicians first known as H.U.N.X., until potential confusion with Hunx and His Punx inspired them to take the surname of drummer Freddie Votel, who played with them for a time.
Like Marijuana Deathsquads, H.U.N.X./Votel created dense, percussive soundscapes by layering live instruments and vocals over digital tracks in a mix that was manipulated on the fly by McGee and others. Ghostband's Jon Davis captured this video of the band at Nick & Eddie in the H.U.N.X. days (January 12, 2011) with a lineup that included all five core members—McGee, Morrison, Christopherson, Ben Clark, and Adam Marx—as well as Olson, Andy Fritz, MSG, and Spyder Baybie Raw Dog. In that six-month period, remembers Marx, "at least 20 different people" played with the group.
Over time, a regular repertoire started to emerge, and, Christopherson said, they realized "that's not improv any more." The group made its most public performances at CMJ in 2012—along with Poliça, another Christopherson group that went on to make a national name for itself—and in New York that same year. They had rough recordings at that time, but the album wouldn't take its final form until Christopherson gave the completed tracks to engineer B.J. Burton (Volcano Choir, Poliça, Megafaun) to begin mixing in spring 2013.
"It started as improv," said Marx, "and then there were beats [we'd consistently use]. It was an ongoing recording project, with everyone adding their own work. First it was just the songs being written, and then there was next-level stuff. More professionalism was added: the guitar tracks were made a little better, the bass tracks were professionally recorded, and everything was dumped into [recording software] Pro Tools."
"It was like math problems being solved," explained Morrison.
"We vetted it ourselves," said Christopherson. "We'd listen to a song and think, what can we do to change it?"
The group recorded every live show they performed, and they'd listen back to the performances to grab the bits they liked and turn them into songs. "'Stalking Heads' came from an Entry show," said Clark by way of example. "It was a bass line that I liked, and I found a verse and chorus that I liked and brought it to everybody."
Ultimately, said Morrison, the songs they kept were the ones that consistently came together when they played live. "If it doesn't feel right when we're playing it, that's the ultimate deciding factor."
Even when Votel had a finished album, explained Christopherson, it took them a year to figure out what to do with it. "We never intended to make an album in the first place. We came together purely because we enjoyed the musical chemistry; the music created itself. We weren't making this record for anybody but ourselves, and somewhere along the line we forgot to see if anybody else wanted to do anything with it." Ultimately, the record "felt complete" and they decided to put it out.
To accompany the album's stream on YouTube, Christopherson approached the Hennepin Overland Railway Historical Society and asked if Votel could use an existing video shot from the point of view of a model locomotive traveling through a large diorama. The video was almost exactly the right length: "I had to slow it down just the tiniest bit. It beats looking at the SoundCloud wave."
Votel stands alone as a piece of work, but it also serves as a musical souvenir—both for the band members and the fans who were there—of a special place and time. The Nick & Eddie gigs, said Marx, were "like a musical workout. Even if it was 20 below, we were just going to do it. It always felt really good to be able to collaborate with people I would never have imagined I'd be sharing a stage with."
"Those Nick & Eddie days," said McGee, "were one of the best musical environments I've ever been in."
"What I think is nice about this..." Marx paused. "...I'm going to go ahead and call it a band, is that there's never been any precedent to go out and really sell it or market it and turn it into a job. We can get together a year later and have fun with it. There wasn't a 'hiatus,' it wasn't 'breaking up,' it's just fun. That's how it started, and that's how it's starting again."
By "again," Marx was referring not just to the album release, but to Votel's upcoming May 28 gig at Icehouse, the Eat Street venue that now has a role in the local music scene akin to that Nick & Eddie formerly had: a comfortable spot for local musicians to hang out late at night, enjoy each other's company, and try new things.
The live performance is going to be "enhanced," said Christopherson, "now that we've made a record. We know the songs a lot better, so we'll be coming with these songs and then some flourishes on top."
"It's all been really organic," said Morrison. "We never had a conversation about 'What do we want to sound like?'"
"Or even," added Marx, "'What the hell are we doing?'"
"It's fun, it's emotional, it's a lot of weird stuff," said McGee. "You can hear the influences of all the other bands we've each been in. A lot of us are four or five bands deep."
"I call it a salad bowl," said Christopherson.
"We're all in open relationships with other musicians," explained Morrison. "There's no pressure; that's why we're so fun-loving about it. We're all doing our own things, and Votel is just moving along. It's just been the easiest relationship to have with anybody, whether as friends or musicians."
Marx: "It's a band without the arguments."
Morrison: "We're the exciting affair."
McGee: "It's like putting on masks and getting a little freaky in a hotel."
Morrison: "In a Votel!"
"Everyone's worked hard in other bands to pave the way for a situation like this," said Marx, "where we can do what we want and have fun with it. Everyone's worked very hard, but we're having a good time. We're not trying to pay our electric bills."