by Erik Kalstrom
March 10, 2004
The following is a special feature for Youth Art Month--we'll have more of these as the month progresses. The interviewer, Erik Kalstrom, is a student at Harbor City International School in Duluth.
Erik Kalstrom interviews Christian McShane, a member of the band If Thousands as well as founder of Experimental Thursdays.
Erik Kalstrom: How did you get started in music?
Christian McShane: I started taking guitar lessons when I was 10 for the same reason every young guy wants to play guitar -- to meet girls. I took lessons for six years, then started teaching at 16. When I graduated high school, I kept on teaching and eventually went to college for music. I found it too strict and boring, so I ended up getting my degree in journalism and photography. I taught guitar and voice lessons for 13 years. I began performing music in bars and friends parties when I was 13 years old. From the first time I made a note, I was hooked. I've been in a zillion or so bands since then; everything from classical to punk to death metal. What it amounts to is I just have a love affair with sound. I figure it's probably why I was put here.
EK: When did you come to Duluth, and why did you stay?
CM: I'm originally from Madison, Wisconsin. I drove all the way up to Ashland in 1989 to see a concert with my girlfriend and fell in love with the Northland. A year later I moved to the Twin Ports, finished college, lived in Taiwan for 2 years, moved back to Duluth and have been here ever since.
EK: How did you start with If Thousands?
CM: I had a studio space in the West End of Duluth that was pretty expensive, so I put an ad in the paper asking for someone to share the space. Aaron Molina called and he soon started renting. It may sound hard to believe, but one day we just sat down and started making music on instruments we had no idea how to play. As soon as I listened to what we were doing, I realized it had been the sound I'd been looking for and working on for so many years. Before we knew it, we were cutting albums, getting signed to a label, going on tour and recording soundtracks. It was weird. Magical - like it was meant to be. A pretty neat rock and roll story.
EK: Where do you get ideas for songs?
CM: Everywhere. All of our songs have meanings, though since they're primarily instrumental, it's hard for our audience to figure them out most times. For example, the first track on "yellowstone" named "with all the saints" is about Aaron and I recording music in Sacred Heart Music Center looking up at the huge, beautiful stained-glass windows -- which are pictures of saints. On "Candice Recorder," our first recording, there's a song named "paint the night," which is about a female friend of mine who was murdered by her brother when I was in high school. Not all of our songs are deep or morose, though, "i can close my eyes for you," off "Candice Recorder" is about getting your first kiss. Our ideas come from everywhere and anywhere. We have no boundaries.
EK: How much does being a musician pay?
CM: Very little. It all depends on what you want to do musically. If you want to be in a bar band that plays golden oldies five nights a week, you can do pretty well. You can make a living off music that way. It will also slowly drive you insane - ever wonder why those guys look so bored? Doing your own music is much, much tougher but immensely rewarding. You learn the ropes, get a few scuffs and knocks to the head here and there, pick yourself up and hopefully learn from your mistakes. If you approach music from the mindset of, "I love to make music and I'm not in it for the money," you'll do just fine. Making music is one of the most rewarding things I do in my life, but I wouldn't suggest taking it on as a full-time career. If you go at it from the money side, you won't last. If you love what you do, keep focused on what you love and remain honest to yourself, I truly feel that you'll eventually become a success. That might sound corny, but it's true. It worked for me.
EK: Why is a local music scene important to Duluth and other towns?
CM: That's a very good question and I'll try to answer this as briefly as possible. I have no idea why, but Duluth is brimming over with musicians and artists who need a place to express themselves. I've never lived in any other area that has more art-minded people per capita than Duluth. It's been that way ever since I've lived here. In order to keep the unique artistic nature of a Duluth, a "scene" is vital to the artists themselves. Otherwise, they'll eventually move away and find better environments to support what they do. It's hard to live somewhere where you aren't encouraged or feel unwanted.
EK: What do you think will happen to Duluth music now that the Norshor and other venues are closed?
CM: I honestly don't know, but my fear is that it will become an artistic ghost town like it was in the early 1990s. People like myself and others who have been successful musically and artistically will do just fine, but I fear for the young up-and-comers. If there's no place to perform or hang your art, why stick around? My hope is that new venues will open and whatnot. Many people in this town crave originality, and that's what I'm banking on. Duluth's artists and musicians are pretty resourceful and crafty. They've had to be for the last 5-10 years. I have a great deal of hope.
EK: What band do you see as being the best in Duluth and why?
CM: I have many favorites, so I'll try to whittle my list down to what I feel are the best:
1. Low is my personal favorite. Not only do they make outstanding music, they're the smartest band I've ever witnessed. They're not afraid to take chances, they've always done exactly what they want to do, they've been around a long time and they're the most successful because of it. No other band in this town has done what they've accomplished so far and they keep accomplishing more and more as time goes on. They've always remained true to their music and have never put out a bad recording. Their future has always been wide open.
2. Haley Bonar because she's so damn talented and makes some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. Expect to see her VERY successful within the next five years or less.
3. Charlie Parr, because he's the most honest at what he does. A rare, pure musician.
4. Last but not least, Bratwurst, a little known punk/noise band because they do what they do and don't care what anyone thinks. They're ridiculous, loud and most times unlistenable. But those guys perform for the sheer love of performing and that's it. You gotta love that. The music world always needs its weirdos and rule breakers.
EK: What other towns have you seen that have vibrant local music?
CM: All of the bigger ones, unfortunately - New York (of course), Chicago, Minneapolis. But, even Seattle was a grease spot of a town before Nirvana was discovered. And they recorded their first album in Madison, WI! How's that? Hmmm.
EK: What do you think will be the future of Duluth’s music scene?
CM: Overall, I think it will survive. With comparatively old farts like myself and the rest of the great bunch of people I know in this town - we'll never give up. We're bound and determined to show why Duluth rocks. I'll let you in on a secret - we have quite a few irons in the fire, so to speak. The collective feeling is, "OK, that kinda sucks. Come on now, let's get moving again." We won't go away without a loud noise. Wish us luck.
EK: What do you think is the greatest barrier to development of Duluth’s music scene?
CM: Non-support of a wider local audience and a narrow mentality. Duluthians as a whole are pretty reserved and conservative compared to other cities in warmer states. Well, downright backwards and redneck sometimes. I'm not talking about the folks who already support local arts & music - I'm talking about the other 75,000 or so that don't. The arts are as integral and necessary to humans as food. I'm not kidding, I have the documentation to prove it. For the past 5 or so years, Duluth got a major kick in the pants arts-wise. The reason there was a scene in the first place is because more people in this area supported it. We just need to keep kicking.