Interview: First Love Project organizers

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Andrea Swensson interviews the organizers of the First Love Project, a benefit album series for First Avenue. (MPR Video)

Andrea Swensson, host of The Local Show, interviews three organizers of the First Love Project, a music compilation in support of Minneapolis music venue First Avenue. Andrea speaks with project originator Mary Beth Mueller, musician and talent organizer Lori Barbero, and graphic designer and branding specialist Sarah McNerney.

Watch the entire conversation in the video player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

ANDREA SWENSSON: Hey, Andrea Swensson here, host of the Local Show. And I'm connected now to three of the organizers behind the new compilation, First Love: a benefit for First Avenue, that features a ton of great artists who have performed on that stage over the years, including some live tracks captured at the venue. So I thought we'd start if we could just go around and have each of you introduce yourselves. And if you could say a little bit about your role in this project, Mary Beth, do you want to start?

MARY BETH MUELLER: Oh, I suppose. Hi, I'm Mary Beth. And I had a great idea one morning that we could pull off an album and raise money for First Avenue after I'd seen a similar project that they did in North Carolina. And I called Sarah and I called Lori. And that's what we do.

And that's what what happens.

That's what happens, right.

LORI BARBERO: We had a little meeting in her backyard,

MUELLER: But we did have a meeting or a lunch, right? We had to come up with a name and an idea. But I thought what they did in North Carolina was really smart and really clever. And I couldn't believe we hadn't thought about it here yet. I mean, I was a little annoyed with myself, quite frankly. It seems so ... it's such a simple solution. And you know, like everybody else, I got really tired of seeing that Save Our Stages petition, and feeling quite honestly a little, not helpless, but impotent to even move the needle. So it was just easier to do something as opposed to being pissed off all the time. Yeah.

SARAH McNERNEY: I'm Sarah McNerney. And I'm a designer and a creative director and I worked on the identity when I got a call from Mary Beth and she wanted to enlist my my talents, I guess.

BARBERO: I'm Lori Barbero. And when Marybeth was trying to find someone who could find the bands to do it, of course, my number is on that wall. I think that asking people to do it, of course, there's some that are really impossible to get ahold of now. Because you know, and the way that you have to do everything is a little bit more difficult. But everyone wants to help First Avenue, because it's the greatest place on the planet. It's the best venue. And you know, I've been to a lot I've been to every single one of them. But of the thousands and thousands I've been to, it is numero uno, it's my aorta.

SWENSSON: Tell me more about this process of reaching out to artists, because there's so many artists who have played at First Avenue over the years, how did you choose who to reach out to? And what was the response like when you would ask them?

BARBERO: You know, there were some that didn't get back to me because I went through their management, you know, and so it probably gets lost in the shuffle. A few, you know, we're super just on it like that, you know, I mean, like Ian [McKaye] from Fugazi and Minor Threat. I brought Minor Threat to Minneapolis in 1982 I believe it was. So Ian and I have been friends for 39 years. And we still keep in touch. So that was a that was a great call. And he's like, Oh, yeah, so they released, you know, a recording from Fugazi at First Avenue, which is actually, that was one of the greatest ... I've seen a lot of them, but that was wonderful. You know, and then Thurston [Moore], Sonic Youth, I just thought of like my tribe first. So this next round I got, I got a few more up my sleeve.

MUELLER: But like Lori said, I mean, there was no coming up with a list. I mean, you are asking people to give you a song for free. And that's how all these people make a living, and they're all not working right now. So you really have to start with who you know. And then once we had like, when people saw that Fugazi was on board, they were like, "Oh, hell yes." Right? And so Lori worked her list, I worked my list. And you know, like I called Patterson Hood. We're really close. He's in the Drive-By Truckers. He was the first person I called. I'm like, "I've sent emails, now will you text these guys and tell them to please respond?" So you know, he helped me light a fire under people. It's tender to ask people for their work without a financial compensation. Or to ask people like, "I've got this great idea. Will you give me your work and I promise I will not make you look stupid, because we'll call someone like Sarah McNerney, and do really good branding and build out a website and make it look good." Right? So now that it's done, people may be wanting to participate. And like I said, like, it's hard to know, like, did they get the email? Or are they just not wanting to respond? Most people just say yes, right away, of course. And we got that first one done under two months, because we wanted to have it out before Christmas. It's interesting project because you know, I even would like go to people's Instagram pages. Send them messages that way, especially now there's a lot of bands we don't know. Generationally. I don't have a clue. Do I go to see Baby Shel in the Entry? Well, yes, I do. But do I know him? No, I most certainly do not. Right? So you know, that was a hard one; that's going to be on this one, hopefully. I still need that track as well. But you know what I mean? Like, you feel like, well, I reached out to you, there's a whole lot of people that we don't know. So you start with who you know, and then you build it out. And I met, like, the dude from Doomtree, Lazerbeak, like I didn't know him before, but I knew Dessa. So, you know, I can call Lori and she can get her tribe. And Dessa's people came on board, and then you keep building it out, because we just, you know, it's whoever we can get ahold of, really.

SWENSSON: Well, I want to hear more about developing the visual aesthetic and the presentation of it, because that's an important part of it. So Sarah, tell me a little bit about developing that.

McNERNEY: When Mary Beth reached out to me, I actually went over to her backyard, and Lori was sitting there. And those guys were kind of concepting names and everything. And I just started doodling. And I just said, "What about 'First Love'?" Not like naming that is rocket science by any means. But Lori and Mary Beth said, "Oh, we love that." And then I love what Lori said next, because it was like she just didn't miss a beat. And she goes, "Yeah, get your heart on." And I'm like, "Oh, yeah, I love that. That's a great thing." So that's how it just kind of organically began from a conceptual standpoint. And then, of course, you know, always in these endeavors with branding and getting URLs, we added the name "Project," you know, because we couldn't get "First Love" [alone]. And then I added that to the logo, so that we just were really sticky and consistent with the name of it. And that I think "Project" was a nice addition, actually. And as far as designing the identity, you know, I look at First Avenue, and I look at the stars on the wall. And there's something really real and simple. And it's not a finicky logo. It's just something that's simple and in your face, and straightforward. And it's the icon of a heart, I really wanted to match the simplicity of the icons of the stars. I mean, First Avenue doesn't try that hard with their brand. And I kind of wanted that identity to kind of have that same vibe.

SWENSSON: It just gets at the core of like what the project is all about, too, which is just being in love with this space that has brought so many people together and given so many artists a chance to shine. I'm curious to know more about, you know, the response that you've gotten so far. So the first volume is out. You're working on additional releases. What have you been hearing from people about this?

MUELLER: Ah, I don't know. It's, I mean, I think it's sold well. That first push, it was exciting to see that we raised money. That was the goal. I don't know that anyone's mentioned if they like the way the songs went together. And that's kind of a fun project, right? So I ran into Tom Herbers at the grocery store, actually, and asked him if he would help put them together. And, you know, he knows a lot of the bands as well. So, you know, when people are like, "What the hell are we giving this lady our track for?", then I could say, well, Tom is going to normalize and master everything and then put it you know, in order to book the tracklist. And then people are again, much more comfortable. He and PD Larson got together on that one and helped with that. But yeah, I don't know. Have you heard people talk about it, Lori? Because I mean, I don't go out.

BARBERO: I haven't talked to anybody. Right?

MUELLER: Yeah, I know. There's like 1,400 people that liked it, because they bought it. But outside of that, I mean, I don't know.

BARBERO: I did get, you know, messages from my friends that participated that said they're like, honored. So it's really nice thing too, you know; they're giving and then they're, they're also thinking because they're because First Avenue is just such a beautiful space that no one can say no to anything that has to do with them. They could the next people that I'm reaching out to and stuff, it's going to be, you know, just all different. I like all of the different, you know, music and all that. But yeah, I think I was at the grocery store the first time, before I ran into you, but she calls me and she's like, "Oh, my God," she goes, "how did I never ask if Babes in Toyland could do it?" And I I never even thought of it.

MUELLER: We forgot Babes in Toyland on 1.0.

McNERNEY: Lori, you could, you could make up for that. And maybe do some cool, like, I don't know, drumbeat for some of the social media.

MUELLER: There. There you go.

BARBERO: We have unreleased tracks, which I never knew we had. Someone I know in Australia, said that, "You sent me this stuff back in the '90s." And they and he had it all and because I was talking to him about it. And he released a couple records for us over there. And he sent it to me. I think it took him one night, he downloaded all the songs, but there's four songs that have never even been released. So I'm kind of excited because I've never listened to us before. So it's gonna be, it's gonna be really weird to listen to us, the songs that have never been released. I'll be like, "What is this?" Because he told me the names of the four that were never released. I'm like, "I wonder what that sounds like?"

MUELLER: To Lori's point, you have to find a band that that actually owns their own publishing, or can get a release very quickly and it gets complicated. So who you can get a song from is really, they can't, they don't really have the luxury of saying, "Sure you can take this song." Everyone had to get releases. I had to get releases from Neil Young's people to have that Jeff Tweedy song. So you know, you have to register that ISRC code. And there's just a lot more to it. So if people wanted to participate, like Lori had to go hunt down songs that she did, she could own, because catalogs get sold. You know, you don't have control of your music. So anyway, it gets a little complicated.

SWENSSON: Well, I was wondering, you know, Lori, you had mentioned Fugazi is one of your favorite tracks. Could you tell me some of your other favorites on this first volume?

BARBERO: It was fun. Thurston was really excited to do something. He's over in England now. And Har Mar [Superstar]. And, you know, there's the next ones that are gonna come on, it's great, that are coming up, it's gonna be pretty, pretty tasty, also.

SWENSSON: So what's the plan? When is the next installment going to come out?

MUELLER: Wouldn't that be wonderful if there were an actual plan? I look at the list of people that said, yes, they will be on it, but have so far not sent me their tracks. I know, that's my job today. You know, when we get them, we get them. You know, it's that's just what it is. And you know, there's really can't be much around it. Since we're our, you know, we have to ask people for favors. And that's why we wanted to keep the price low, and have it be a subscription. It gives us enough music until they open the doors again, that gives you something fun to listen to every month. But it's not expensive. It's $25. Every time you, you know, so I think it'll be ready by the end of the month for sure. The guy that's helping me, that did the website for me, just got a new job finally. So you know, he'll have to put it up over the weekends, you know, so there's considerations like that. I mean, I don't put up the website into Bandcamp and do the mixing and all of that; there's a lot of people that are working on this. So. But I get the songs and keep the files and all the assets and whatnot. So. And then that's what I have to work out this week: get it all finished. Hopefully! Because it looks fun. Curtiss A sent songs, I got those this morning from Gini, and Gini also sent us one, Gini Dodds sent a song, and they did a video that's fantastic. I can't wait to use that. That was lovely to see that. And Chrissie Dunlap sent me an email this morning as well and said, "Please don't think I forgot; we're having this song mastered." Right? So. So you know what I mean? Like people might have somebody recorded that needs to get mastered or whatever. So it's a process. And then there's the people I don't know very well, so Nur-D said he's in but I have gotten the track yet; thank you, Andrea, for hooking me up with him. And then Gully Boys, too, I don't have the track back. And then, you know, people that you just they're trying to hunt down, that you don't know. Which is a lot of people that are just not my age group. So you know, anyone younger than I am? I'm not really, I don't really know that many people, quite honestly. So I have to hunt them down. People typically don't say no.

SWENSSON: Everyone loves First Avenue.

MUELLER: They do.

BARBERO: Yes, we do.

MUELLER: So you know, it's just a matter of finding them and getting a hold of them.

SWENSSON: Well, I had a fun question. I wanted to ask you guys just since we're talking about First Ave, and you know, I've been sitting in my room 10 months now fantasizing about being at a live show again, and going through all these memories of being in First Avenue and all these so many highlights on my reel when I think back. What are some standout moments for you in that building where you felt like, "This place is so special, I'm having an experience I couldn't be having anywhere else"?

McNERNEY: Lori and Marybeth probably have a lot more than I do. But mine will be quick and short. I have a daughter, and I remember being her chaperone for Grouplove with her and two of her girlfriends from high school and I went up to the back, you know, up on that second floor and watched and was their chaperone and drank, you know, water because I was driving. And that was pretty special, you know, to have been there before having children, my daughter, and then taking her there when she was actually underage. And since I was a parent, I could go and I took her and chaperones concert. So that was kind of a special thing. Generation.

SWENSSON: My parents did that for me when I was in high school.

MUELLER: Your parents brought you to First Avenue?

SWENSSON: Yeah. I went and saw Mason Jennings and I was in the front row and they were up in the balcony.

MUELLER: Oh my god. I don't know. I've got a ton of memories of that club.

BARBERO: Me too. I mean, you know, but I mean, I think of, I mean, you know, when I just think of all of the thousands and thousands of shows because, I mean, I used to work at a punk rock club in downtown Minneapolis. It was on Fifth Street right off of Hennepin, called the Longhorn. So I'd go between the Longhorn and Sam's in the Longhorn and Sam's and then you know, [Sam's] turned to First Avenue and all that. So I mean, basically I think was about four years ago, I went to one of the First Avenue parties that they have every year, and I was sitting there. And that day, there's like 10 people. So I'd get invited to everything. They're like, "What years did you work there?" I'm like, "I never worked there. I was just there." And so they just invited me all the time, because everyone just assumed that I worked there because I was there seven days a week. And no one knew I never worked there! They invited me to the summer picnics. And then I was just like, "Oh, I'm just part of the family, it's really great," but then they asked me when I worked there worked there and I'm like, "I never worked there." So I have thousands and thousands of tickets, flyers. I mean, unfortunately, I gave away a lot of flyers, which is one of my regrets in my life. But, you know, for me, I think it's being participating actually in it besides being a, you know, a patron. The first time we got to play the Mainroom was after we toured with Sonic Youth. That was the greatest. And it was, I just remember just thinking, "This is like being in you know, at like Madison Square Garden to me." I mean, you know, because I graduated from high school in New York, and I used to go there and see Queen and David Bowie and stuff. But to me, it was like walking at the, you know, Madison Square Garden, is it just like, [sings]"Ooohhhh." So and you know, I've cried there so many times, tears of joy, because it's just such a huge, I don't know where I'd be without First Avenue in my life, I wouldn't be the person I am today, that's for sure. I don't have the greatest or the most favorite, because there are just thousands. But I think it really honestly was when we went from the Seventh Street Entry, not playing s not getting paid to play, you know, because they had to pay the headlining act. And we were fine with that, you know? If you can't play to, and you know, money's really great, but if you can't play because you love playing, and you have the passion, and you just want to do it to perform. You know, that's one thing, you know, people are like, "Oh, I'm not getting paid enough." You know, it's like, yeah, you know, that does stink, especially if you're on tour or something. So we were, we were local. And it's like, I didn't mind playing for nothing, because I got to meet new, new bands that played in the Entry. You know, Dinosaur was one of the first shows we did in the Entry. And that was before they're even [Dinosaur] Jr., I think, I'm pretty sure. You know, and just, you just play you just play because you want to, you play because you -- it's the best feeling in the whole world, and people aren't doing it because they can't get the money or the right people to look at them. You know, it's just too bad because you're not in it for the right reasons. But when we got to play First Avenue, and moving into the big room, that put a new a new notch in my belt and it is really, really wonderful.

SWENSSON: Wow.

MUELLER: That's great, actually listening to Lori's memories, because you know, you just can't remember a single memory, right? But I do remember when Karl [Mueller of Soul Asylum] got to play on the Mainroom stage for the first time; that is the most thrilling thing in the world. And you really do think you're in Madison Square Garden. I mean, you couldn't have told us that was not the pinnacle. That was the top of the hill. We thought it was all done now, right? I mean, First Avenue, we're on the Mainroom stage. And you know, it's huge. But one of the funniest things I think ever at that club: We were at Gwar, which is entertaining, and I like, you know, blood and guts just as much as the next girl, but even I think it seemed particularly out there, right and so Karl had just come back from the bar, and I was like, "All right, mister, we are out of here. I've had enough." And he thought because he had bought a giant Foster's beer that I would have said, "OK, stay until we finish the beer," because that's usually the agreement, but I'm like, "Yeah, OK, nice trick. I don't think so." And he handed it to the guy next to him and was like, "Oh, my wife's making me go home." And years after Karl died, that guy came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hey, you know, I'm that guy that got Karl's beer when you were yelling at him at the Gwar show and made him go home early." And it was really sweet that he remembered to come and tell me that, because it was really fun. You know? I mean, it was cute. So yeah, that's fun. Right?

BARBERO: I think those memories are making my eyes well up.

MUELLER: I know. Right?

BARBERO: You know, just everything, everything has changed so much. Yeah, but yeah, just, you know, the live, the live-music thing and everything. It's weird how things just trigger stuff.

MUELLER: Well, you know, when they, like when Curtiss A did that show for the Lennon tribute and you could see when they did the like the beginning of it, and you could see inside of the club? That was weird. I thought, "God, that's right, I haven't been in there in forever." Like, I think that's the longest time I haven't been in that building since I was 20. So it was strange to see like, you know, walls and that you're so familiar with, you know? And you think, "Wow, that is weird." But yeah. COVID, right?

SWENSSON: Well, the first show just happened where they let in a very small group of people.

BARBERO: Oh, really?

SWENSSON: Yeah, Charlie Parr played last night, and they let in, it looked like maybe 20 people total all spaced out at little tables. That gave me so much hope.

BARBERO: Yeah. See? I'm just thinking I just went to it totally is my first love. And it's like, I broke up with my first boyfriend. It's making me cry. Like, you know, like, because I haven't been there for so long that it feels like a breakup!

MUELLER: Your boyfriend is not answering your phone calls.

SWENSSON: It's just a separation. We'll be back.

MUELLER: It's funny. Yeah, he's on tour, Lori, don't worry about it. He'll call you when he gets home.

SWENSSON: Well, thank you all so much for your work on this project. And for just carrying the torch for First Avenue while we all can't be together. It's so important. And I think it, I've noticed a response to this compilation because I feel like a lot of people just want somewhere to put their energy of wanting to do something and wanting to continue to be part of this and support it and make sure it is there when we all can gather again. So thank you for your work. It's really awesome.

BARBERO: Well, thank you.

MUELLER: Yeah. Thanks.

BARBERO: I love you ladies, and take care of yourselves.

McNERNEY: See you guys.

External Links

First Love Project - official site

First Love Project - Bandcamp

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