by Rob van Alstyne
Darren Jackson has been to hell and back—and he’s been chronicling the turbulent trip in song ever since. Six short years ago Jackson was near the end of his rope, attempting to break a nasty drug habit and with little sense of where he was headed next. Channeling his inner demons into song after a stint in rehab, Jackson began gigging around town under the name Kid Dakota in the summer of 1999, playing creepy, minor-key songs that were often uncomfortably explicit in dealing with his heroin-addict past.
Download an mp3 of Kid Dakota’s song Winterkill.
It was uncompromising
music, at times flat-out ugly, the stark contrast between Jackson’s velvety
classic crooner voice and the crunchy sludge of his electric guitar-driven funereal
hymns keeping listeners on a tightrope.
listening to So Pretty, Kid Dakota’s debut album, is completely unnerving.
Jackson forces the listener into the role of creepy voyeur, ensnaring them ever
deeper into the web of drugs, deceit and desperation that make up the album’s
world. It’s a cold and lonely place, with only tiny bits of light shining
through—the bright guitar coda on “Summer Cold,” the hopeful
springtime acoustic ditty “Pairin’ Off.” By the time of So Pretty’s
creation, producer Alex Oana (a friend of Jackson’s since their days together
at St. Olaf College in Northfield during the early ’90s whom Jackson calls
“basically a member of the band”) had brought madman drummer Christopher
McGuire into the equation—the perfect complement to Jackson’s desolate
songscapes. With McGuire’s booming percussive presence providing the propulsive
force to make Jackson’s fighting-trim songs hit even harder, Kid Dakota
was now officially a band.
So Pretty was the kind of album that demanded notice. Those who took the
time to adjust to its chilling musical universe were never quite the same afterward.
The songs weren’t “catchy” in any traditional sense of the word,
but rather haunting. As time marched on, I eventually put So Pretty away
for a while—I could only spend so much time with Jackson’s gang of
depraved and hopeless characters.
The intervening years saw regular gigging and the expansion of the band’s
lineup, as fellow native South Dakotan Erik Appelwick and occasionally Low bassist
Zak Sally were added to the mix. Eventually things in Kid Dakota-land slowed down.
This spring Jackson re-emerged an artful new-wave-styled tunesmith and began co-leading
a power-pop band with Appelwick, called The Olympic Hopefuls, that quickly rose
to the top of the local music scene on the strength of their debut album for 2024
records, The Fuses Refuse to Burn. Little did most local music fans know,
but Jackson had already put the finishing touches on Kid Dakota album No. 2, The
West Is The Future, before the Hopefuls had even played their first Orange-Jumpsuit-wearing-gig.
Unveiling the new Kid Dakota album would have to wait until the fall, however,
when the nights get longer and bluer moods tend to dominate.
October The West Is The Future was finally released. A sophomore album
years in the making, it boasts an expanded sonic palette from So Pretty’s
brutal minimalism and features a number of Minnesota music luminaries guesting
(among them Fog’s Andrew Broder and Low). Jackson’s lyrical scope
is similarly widened. No longer recasting junky diary entries into song, Jackson
now focuses his caustic lyrical eye on larger issues. Topics covered include fanatical
westward expansion (“Pilgrim”) and Native American alcoholics trapped
on reservations (“Pine Ridge”). There’s a fuller sound at work
here, an elegant piano line provides the core of rehab memorial “10,000
Lakes,” but the songs still gain much of their magnetism from their ability
to manipulate open spaces.
The lengthy songs—three pass the seven minute mark—are punctuated
by the tense moments between Jackson’s distorted guitar strums and the powerhouse
fills of drummer Christopher McGuire, settling into uneasy gentle grooves before
exploding into bristling rock assaults. Most of The West Is The Future unfolds
at a leisurely pace, with Jackson expertly twirling the listener through a series
of macabre musical waltzes. In a rare moment of fiery indignation during “Ivan,”
Jackson inadvertently spits out the creative manifesto of his latest despondent
song diary: “For the innocent there’s no justice, for the innocent
there’s only pain.” It’s a defining point on the record, a display
of raw emotion and sincerity that reveals the all-encompassing empathy that drives
Jackson to continue his harrowing musical journey.
Jackson, 32, recently took time out to talk about the key players in Kid Dakota,
how his various musical side-projects inform one another and dealing with the
public perceptions surrounding his true-to-life hard-knock music amongst other
So I’m assuming you must be pretty excited about the return of Christopher
McGuire from Japan to play with the band full-time again. Compared to the drummers
in most bands, Chris seems like a really integral part of what you do.
Jackson: [McGuire] definitely brings a lot of passion to it. He’s
really committed to music and his energy is really important to what Kid Dakota
is. All the drum parts on the records have always been Christopher’s.
It’s good to have him back.
Pulse: I know you were finished with The West Is The Future for
almost a year before it actually ended up getting released this fall. How long
was the whole recording process and when did it happen?
Jackson: We actually started back in September of 2001 if you can believe
that. We recorded the basics once and after that is when I started playing with
Zak [Sally] some and then we started playing with Erik [Appelwick], and the
sonic quality of the songs changed. We realized pretty quickly that we were
going to have to go back and record again with them. So we decided to record
it all over again as a live band, basically just because we were so excited
with how it sounded. The bells and whistles came on later and were all overdubs.
The basic songs were done live, just all of us playing in a room together. There
was tons of down time from when we started to when it came out though. There
would be like nine months at a time where we weren’t working on it. Towards
the end it just got to be held up by Alex’s schedule because he moved
to Oakland and then to L.A., and that meant moving his whole studio set-up too.
Pulse: Yeah, it’s too bad all the studios from Minneapolis are
moving to California. Seedy Underbelly, Flyte Time. The next Kid Dakota album
could have been done with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis!
Jackson: I don’t know if those guys would really feel it (laughs).
Pulse: Speaking of producers though, from other times I’ve talked
with you it sounds like Alex plays a major role in Kid Dakota. During the interview
I did with you about the Olympic Hopefuls you said that the biggest difference
between the two projects was Alex’s involvement. What is it about Alex
as a producer that you feel he plays such a big role in the music you make?
Jackson: It’s kind of like Daniel Lanois is to U2. Not that we’re
like U2 or anything. [Alex is] just a really artistic person and he has a really
strong vision. If you’re going to work with Alex you can do it one out
of two ways. Either you can pay him just to be the engineer, and he’ll
get all the sounds just right, or you can pay him to be the producer and he’ll
bring his vision to the table as well. What the songs sound like when they’re
at a show, that’s pretty much where our part of the process ends. Alex
has a bunch of ideas that basically take it from there and make the records
what they are.
Pulse: It’s interesting to me that you mentioned the core sounds
on The West Is The Future were recorded live. I didn’t know that,
but I think it explains one of the things that appeals to me about the album.
There seems to be a balance struck between a really direct and visceral energy
and the layering that Alex and the overdubs brought to the record. Most albums
seem to go one way or the other, instantly exciting but with little left to
go back for, or really layered but lacking immediacy.
Jackson: That’s something we were really conscious of when making
the record. That’s one of the reasons why we sort of abandoned those initial
recording sessions. We started out doing it all piece-meal. If you’re
doing it piece by piece and you’re playing drums to a click track, then
suddenly you’re going to end up doing 10 drum takes and making sure everything
lines up nice. You end up listening to the thing like 50 times. When you record
things live they sound much more cohesive, everything bleeds into everything
else. As long as nobody screwed up during the live take then you’re making
decisions more based on what feels good and what has the best energy or the
coolest parts. It’s really good for people who spend way too much time
recording to force themselves to do some things live.
You’re involved with a whole slew of different music-related projects
currently. Obviously the Olympic Hopefuls take up a lot of time and energy,
but you’ve also been doing engineering work for the likes of Fitzgerald
and just finished recording the basics of the new Owls record. Do you find that
those experiences connect with what you do in Kid Dakota or is it a very different
Jackson: They all definitely inform one another. I think ultimately in
the end all the different musical projects just contribute towards making me
better at being a musician in general. Engineering makes me a better performer
when I’m in front of the mic because I just understand the mechanics of
it more. When I first worked with Alex I didn’t have a lot of knowledge
of why he used this mic or that compressor, it was all foreign to me. After
working with him it started to rub off. I’m building a studio in my home
right now, which is what I’ve been obsessing about the last few weeks.
Pulse: As a nerdy rock critic I tend to get really excited when local
bands get noticed in major national press. Jon Pareles of the New York Times
gave Kid Dakota a nice little write-up mention in his column about the College
Music Journal Festival in New York City this fall. Is that kind of press notice
something that gets you really excited? Or do you tend to stay a little more
detached from it since you’ve been in the game long enough to see your
name in magazines before?
Jackson: It’s still exciting, because it’s unexpected. Ever
since I’ve been playing music in Minneapolis I’ve never really expected
the things to happen that have happened. After enough unexpected things sort
of happen you realize that it’s just one little piece in a big puzzle.
It’s nothing to get too excited about. I think a couple of years earlier
I would have gotten a lot more excited about it, but it was still a really great
thing to have happen.
In our current Ipod age it seems like the concept of the album is increasingly
becoming a lost art. Not only does The West Is The Future hold together
as a set of songs meant to be taken in as a whole, the experience really deepens
over time with repeated listens. Most albums you could burn onto a CDR and not
really be missing out on much, but with this record it seems like a lot of care
went into the whole packaging. The set of paintings that William Schaff did
for each of the songs in the liner notes really take the whole experience to
another place if you want to take the time to go there.
Jackson: Once we had the batch of songs in their current form, we realized
that they kind of were thematically related. From the outset we thought we should
make a really sparse record that had sonic characteristics that kind of bound
it together and lyrical ideas that loosely bound it together. About halfway
through finishing the album, I thought of using William Schaff because he was
a really good friend of mine. Just thinking, “It would be great to have
one scratch board for every song.” He was totally on board with it. And
he listened to it over and over. I think one night he said he listened to “2001”
like 11 times in a row while he was making the scratch board for it. That obsessiveness
about the project is kind of what we brought to it as well. We really just wanted
to do something that we thought was totally great in every aspect. I think [the
record] cuts against the grain of what’s out there because it takes a
lot of patience and there’s a lot of really long songs. You probably might
not like it very much unless you really dig into it. I think a lot of people
aren’t going to get it and that’s fine.
Pulse: People really do seem to be getting the Olympic Hopefuls and
they’ve taken off locally really well. At the same time from things you’ve
said in the press it seems like Kid Dakota is still your primary musical concern.
Do you feel like Kid Dakota will always be the musical outlet closest to you
regardless of how other projects fare?
Jackson: That’s a tricky question to answer because at different
times I guess I feel more connected to different projects. It’s definitely
a lot easier to get up there and play an Olympic Hopefuls show because it’s
about having fun and feeling good. I’m glad I have that kind of outlet
for music. Kid Dakota is more about fears and frustrations and grief and sadness.
It’s humorous too, but it’s a dark humor. It’s more about
what’s disconcerting in my life, which I think inevitably is the stuff
you tend to feel closer to.
Talking about what inspires Kid Dakota songs brings me back to thinking about
the first record, So Pretty, which was very direct in addressing problems
you had in the past with drug addiction. Even though you’ve gained some
distance from that now in your life, it seems like a lot of press is still fixated
on that aspect of your background and music. I remember reading a press release
that I thought was pretty tasteless and sort of “Boy meets drugs. Boy
kicks drugs. Boy makes music about drugs.” Is it frustrating to have to
deal with that issue constantly in terms of public perceptions regarding your
Jackson: It’s interesting to see how predatory the press can be.
A lot of people sort of make light of [my problems with drugs in the past] and
it becomes something easy to write about and easy to focus on. It’s easy
to categorize as some kind of cliché. When it comes down to it, though,
it’s my life—so to me it’s not a cliché. I feel like
my writing on So Pretty is just like if somebody else was writing about being
alone or breaking up with somebody. These are emotional trials that every person
has to go through. The impetus for So Pretty and those songs all came
from being recently recovered. Those were really powerful times for me when
everything was right at the surface. Those experiences really resonated with
me and they still do, so it’s something that I still draw upon.
It seems like there’s a pretty circumspect mythology surrounding rock
‘n’ roll that condones self-destructive behavior for the sake of
art. There’s always sort of the argument of, “Well, I have to live
to extremes in order to be able to make music that goes to extremes.”
Do you think that idea is still out there among musicians or is that just something
fans seem to want to glorify?
Jackson: I think that stereotype is still out there and people really
adhere to it. It just gets passed down from generation to generation. There’s
always going to be people who think that they can write better music when they’re
messed up. I actually found that never to be the case. It was only after the
fact when I got away from it a little bit and could reflect on it that I ever
wrote anything. It’s obviously not necessary to being creative. I think
a lot of people get used to being creative by putting themselves through different
traumatic experiences and then they can’t figure out how to do it without
the trauma. It’s sort of that fear of, where do you find the magic to
make the music? Maybe that magic was in the drugs or alcohol. I think it causes
a lot of [musicians] to relapse. They don’t know how to do what they used
to do when they were in the mix. They think, “Well the music must be a
result of the drugs or the alcohol, that stuff didn’t just come from me.”
Even though The West Is The Future as an album is new to the public,
you’ve been done with the songs in some cases for years. Do you feel like
you’re already sort of on record number three in your head?
Jackson: I think I’ve been past The West Is The Future mode
for about a year now. There’s a bunch of songs that I have that are going
to be on the next record and Christopher [McGuire’s] coming back and we’re
going to start working on it in January. We hope to have another record out
in the fall. It’s going to be quite a bit different. I’m really
looking forward to working on it. ||
Kid Dakota performs as a duo on Sat., Dec. 18, at the Uptown Bar with
Spaghetti Western and Duplomacy. 9 p.m. $5. 21+. 3018 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.
For more information on Kid Dakota check out their official
website at KidDakota.com.
Download an mp3 of Kid Dakota’s song Winterkill.