Saint Small Dream Big. Bands You Should Know – At The Turf Club on 12/19



Rock and roll means well.  It just can’t help telling young boys lies.  Or apparently middle-aged guys, either.  So when four professional dads decide to once more scratch that itch, it makes for an interesting story.  Particularly, when those four have legit chops and aren’t just recent School of Rock For Dads grads.

Saint Small is not only cranking out some very gratifying music, they’re proof that if you love something, your time has never really passed.  This is basically a tale of some hockey dads who discovered through their kids that the guy down the street was a dyed in the wool rocker.  A kindred soul who’d wandered from the righteous path into a day job when families became a priority.  In other words, the career arc of so many talented musicians. 

So thank goodness for the discovery of some-like minded, bad influences in the neighborhood.  Four guys back to creating, rehearsing, collaborating, recording and in this case performing.  Saint Small will join Melismatics founders Ryan and Pony Smith at The Turf Club on December 19.  Tickets and details found HERE.

I met Saint Small drummer Jimmy “Sticks” Olson at First Avenue’s recent Low Cut Connie show.  When I proposed the idea of writing a feature on the band, he was quick to volunteer as spokesperson.  After all, if the piece was going to be introspective, truthful and entertaining it made sense to talk to the drummer.  Everybody already knows that vocalist/front men are notorious ego maniacs who believe they are the creative force behind every band.  How else to explain why Pete Townshend was always punching Roger Daltrey?

Bass players are critical to making a band sound good.  But on the evolutionary tree they share more traits with some of our ancient ancestors than modern drummers.  Sticks pointed out that they are always the beefiest guy in the band; looking bad-ass with that big ax and bigger amp.  But they usually don’t communicate much.  It only takes four strings to keep them occupied for hours on end.  Regular guitars sport six.  And any drum kit worth a damn has at least four cymbals before you even begin to count the shells. So how was that lack of expression and output going to contribute to a feature story?

As for guitar players, well they’re mostly interchangeable, aren’t they?  Just look at all those hired guns migrating from band to band to make a buck.  Name the guys who held down the fort for the likes of Alice Cooper, Billy Joel, or Slade!  Or more than three of the guys who occupied the slot for Mott The Hoople.  Hard to do.  (Mick Ralphs, Ariel Bender, Mick Ronson and Ta Da! Ray Major).  Olson cemented that notion when he quoted The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group from the song Mij Amsterdam: 

“And if you play the drums. 

You must go far.

Because everyone here

plays guitar!” 

Jimmy’s logic was beyond question.  Drummers maketh the band!  They are the offensive linemen of the rock and roll world.  They generally don’t get noticed unless they drive a Rolls Royce into a pool like Keith Moon.  Or go tearing down hotel hallways on a Harley like John Bonham.  But you can’t make it to the top without a top notch percussionist. When he asked me to identify one great band with a lousy drummer, I was stumped.  So I figured Olson was the guy I needed to sit down with if I wanted to understand the inner dynamics of a hard working band of dads.  It might just keep him from launching his minivan into the neighbor’s pool.  It also probably helped we didn’t ask permission from the other guys in the band.

Like Marty Debergi, the documentarian who gave us Spinal Tap, set out to do:  “I wanted to capture the sights, the sounds, the smells of a hard working rock band on the road. And I got that.  But I got more.  A lot more.”

Olson, like his band mates, played at a high level with respected bands in younger days.  In his case, it was Chicago’s The Mighty Blue Kings.  He’s no stranger to the Mainroom stage.  He shared a bill with the likes of the aforementioned Pete Townshend.  But after marriage, a growing family became his priority.  He found himself moving to St Paul in 2001 where a corporate job in a sea of cubicles soon began to chafe.  His son Ben turned out to be the unintentional catalyst to finding his way back into a gig.

“I’m probably the weirdest of Minnesota residents.” Olson explained.  “I don’t hunt, fish or skate.”  But young Ben began to skate at an early age in a neighbor’s backyard.  That led to organized hockey.  About 4 years ago his wife returned from practice and mentioned that “he’d really like Coach Jim.”  He ended up down the street at Coach Jim’s home for a Christmas party.  “When I got there, I noticed a turntable and a bunch of records in the living room.  Later, I went down in the basement and this guy had another turntable and tons of records which I started flipping through.  There was this signed Nirvana In Utero poster, along with stuff from bands like Big Star.  There were guitars and in another room, a drum kit.  I thought, I’ve got to talk to this guy.”

“I’ve always been a big listener of The Current. When I started talking to this guy, I immediately recognized his voice from the station.”  Coach Jim’s alter ego is Jim McGuinn from that station.  In addition to connecting through their sons (McGuinn’s young son Jameson is also a hockey player), the two bonded over their love of music and shared pasts.

Like Olson, McGuinn is a transplanted Chicagoan.  He, too, spent years working in a successful band.  One of his favorite stories involves opening for The Replacements.  His band really ripped it up that night.  Lit with testosterone, he walked off stage and promptly asked Paul Westerberg’s opinion of what he’d just witnessed.  What he got was a classic Westerberg snarl that can’t be reprinted here in our family friendly format.  But like Olson, his band had gotten close.

In another of those small town, Saint Paul worlds it was discovered that  bassist William Muller and guitar player Steve Burnett also lived in the neighborhood.  Both of those individuals had a shared history with a highly regarded Twin Cities band called Superhopper. A hard driving rock and punk outfit which was in existence for about a decade between 1997 and 2007.  “These guys are super connected and really well known and respected around town.” said Olson.  “Muller did some really great recording in the basement studio of his old house.  Around town it was either called Rock Star Breeding Grounds or The Roar Shack.”

Like Olson and McGuinn, Burnett’s son Mason was also a rink rat.  The dads would run into each other dropping off and picking up kids from practices and games. It’s probably fortunate that Muller’s progeny opted for football and baseball.  Otherwise, the band’s delightful moniker may well have been something lame and icy like The Blue Line Boys or Les Habitants.

Olson can’t recall exactly how the decision came about to gather in a basement to jam.  They had all the musicians they needed for a band, along with equipment.  It didn’t take long before those jam sessions became rehearsals.  Monday nights became the time they would all attempt to keep open.  At some point they became Saint Small.  The only questions were who would Saint Small be and what would they play?

In the normal world of rock and roll band formation, a bunch of young rockers join forces with some other young rockers.  Punks meet up with like minded punks.  Jazz nerds (Jimmy’s self description) would hook up with other jazz nerds.  Musically, each of these guys came from a different world.  What they had in common was neighborhood and age.  So they spent a lot of time during their early rehearsal nights listening to albums; honing in on an era and a sound which they all appreciated.  This is evident when you listen to the Easter Eggs and watch their first video Tongue Tied.  The boys flip through album covers like Bob Dylan flipping lyric cards in Positively 4th Street.  Those covers aren’t props.  They’re personal mile markers.

It’s been a year and a half since those first gatherings and the band has begun to find its groove.  They’ve been out and about doing some smaller gigs around the area.  It’s time to step onto the bigger stage of The Turf Club and they’re ready.  My sense from talking to two of the band members is that nobody takes anything for granted.  They’re working hard to play at a high level and loving every minute of it.

Perhaps the hardest thing about being in a band is…being in a band.  It’s not easy balancing families, priorities, work responsibilities and personalities.  It’s not like it is with bands signed to major labels.  Where a week or two gets blocked to head into the studio to record.  Things get done when possible and on the quick.  Consider this recent report from Olson.

So, at 8:54 am just now, Jim asks via the band text thread if I have maracas (he’s rightly hearing them on our Easybeats cover). Jim and I live 0.8 miles from one another. EXACTLY equidistant between us, is a fella named Jeff Brown. Jeff’s a drummer, and all-around fantastic individual. I’ve borrowed his maracas before, so I reach out. We arrange for Jeff to leave said maracas outside on a table around the side of his house. I grab the maracas (this is about ten minutes after Jim’s initial text request); chat with Jeff real quick (bonus!); drive the remaining 0.4 miles to Jim’s (we’re both out the door to our respective jobs); Jim meets me out front, and we run downstairs to record a blisteringly appropriate maraca track…the time elapsed from inception to recording was, like, 25 minutes!
THAT’s a Saint Small moment!

I asked Olson about managing the personalities in the band.  For instance, was there anybody in the band who was the reticent one, the one who was more risk averse than any of the others?  He laughed and admitted that would be plural. “But the one thing I’ll say is that every one of the guys is absolutely gung ho!  It isn’t that anybody does anything to hold the band back; it’s more about people having a standard they want met before it’s given to the public.”

I’m always interested in what musicians are listening to these days as well as the influences that shaped them.  When I asked Olson, he recommended a Massachusetts band called Hotelier.  Not surprisingly, it was unique rhythms that hooked him.  He’s a drummer after all.  The Velvet Underground was enjoying a resurgence in the household.  And as is often the case, trying to keep up with the younger generation had opened his ears to a lot of today’s Hip Hop.  It also provided the opportunity to dust off and share some of the earliest versions of the genre with his son.  Bands like Diggable Planets and Brand New Heavies found their way back to the platter.

Our conversation drifted to the proverbial desert island albums.  Coming from a jazz guy, I was delighted to discover that The Who would be the first packed in his trunk.  We agreed that made perfect sense.  At least 20% of the top 10 albums of all time came from that band.  (It’s easy to agree when you agree!).  He also mentioned Yo Lo Tengo, Neil Young and The Tragically Hip.  So rest assured, if ever you find yourself marooned with Jimmy, at least the tunes will be killer.

I asked him to speculate on how his band mates would answer that same question.  As well as who he thought were their biggest influences.  It took him a minute and he laughed before saying:  “To tell the truth, I still have some things to learn about my band mates.”  But he took a shot anyway.  “With Bill, I think he’d have to have Guided By Voices with him.  Jim would definitely be The Jam.  Steve?  Man, that one’s tougher.  I think he met his wife at a Testament concert.  So let’s go with Testament.”

As the guy sitting at the back, watching and listening, somebody like Jimmy is obviously the best guy to identify influences.  An astute drummer notices all the little quirks, riffs and poses that the other players unconsciously espouse.  So when he watches his buddies work, who does he see and hear?  That one was easy.  In some cases, the guy had already confessed to wearing out the grooves of a particular artist.  Or they admitted to carefully preserving that poster they’d carried since high school.

“Bill Muller is a huge Rush guy.  It’s strange seeing Geddy Lee images all over a dude’s house. He’s the only guy I know who whistles Rush songs.  Walks into rehearsals tweeting away songs like Tom Sawyer.”

“Burnett, I’d go Neil Young.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s his voice.  Maybe it’s the twang of the country stuff.  One thing you get to know about Steve is that he has a higher twang tolerance than most people.”

“And McGuinn?  That would definitely be Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull.  It’s not the musical style as much as all that one leg posing.  He genuinely looks like he might fall over at any minute.  Kind of that classic tension that comes from impending disaster which is the soul of rock and roll.”

Finally, I asked Olson about the level of support the band was receiving, both at home and when they performed.  He is thankful that all the spouses have been strong proponents of the project.  The women all understand their mate’s rock and roll affliction.  They don’t just tolerate the late nights, they encourage them.  Maybe it’s simply the elimination of competition for the TV remote.  Perhaps it frees up the house for a knitting party. Maybe it’s that they still genuinely dig the scene.  So far, they’ve been “pretty good” at showing up for Saint Small gigs. 

What?  Just pretty good?  Each of the spouses has not been at each and every show?  Aren’t they worried about the legions of groupies following the band around?  Apparently not.  All I can say is:  Ladies, if you can make it to a kid’s hockey game, you can make it to Dad’s rock show!

“It’s different nowadays.” says Jimmy.  “All our friends are in that age 40 to 50 range.  When we tell them we’ve got a gig coming up, they are excited.  Then they ask what time we’re going on stage.  If you tell them the truth, that you’ll be going on at 10 or 11pm, they get this look on their face and proclaim it will be a bit too late for them.  We gotta find a way to work on that.”

Well, all you 40 and 50 somethings who have yet to see your friends in Saint Small tear it up, be advised that they’re the opener at that Turf show on December 19.  In fact, you just might get to see them perform their new single The (Opening) Opening Band.  You’ll get home in time to get your beauty sleep.  Whereas Olson, McGuinn, Burnett and Muller will undoubtedly stay up well beyond you.  They’ll likely be closing that club down. 

So if you want to share in what it’s like to be part of a new rock and roll band, standing at the threshold of middle age, head into work the next day nursing a slight hangover.  You’ve done it before and for less good reason.  For those of us who still harbor rock and roll dreams, it will be worth every ibuprofen.