The Rakes: Pass The Lies
Wednesday 04 September @ 11:04:56
by Tom Hallett
It’s closing time at St. Paul’s Turf Club, and local pop/rock outlaws The Rakes have just poured themselves offstage following a blistering run-through of tunes from their two self-released albums, 1999’s Wood And Wire, and this year’s Pass the Lies. As singer/songwriter/guitarist Aaron Pruitt, guitarist Steve Dupuis, and bassist Jon Sawyer greet well-wishers and top off their drinks, fresh-faced young drummer Brian Mondl leans back against the bar, wipes a sheen of sweat off of his round, smooth-shaved head and grins.
Earlier in the evening, during a rather well-lubricated interview at my office, Mondl had been fairly frothing at the mouth over his love of playing live. “It’s the best! Just to be goin’ at it, playing true music,” he’d raved. “You feel it, you love it, and when it’s done, you’re sweatin’ your balls off. Even if it’s just for five people, including the bartender and the doorman. Who cares?” His attitude is refreshing, if a bit naive, but show attendance is one thing The Rakes don’t have to be concerned about this night.
A healthy-sized group of band followers, club regulars, and curious Twin Cities music nuts populate the joint, including a former member of one of the band’s most important influences, although the baby-faced Mondl doesn’t recognize him. “Hey! Great show, man!” a stocky, forty-something guy with a certain aura about him compliments the drummer, then quickly moves away. His fellow Rakes, drinks refreshed, lean in from their spots at the bar, mouths agape. “Jesus, Brian! Do you know who that was?” Pruitt fairly hollers, with just a hint of Southern twang. “Um, no...” he replies, confusion dancing across his open, honest face. “That was %@!#$&ing GRANT HART from Hüsker Dü, man!” Mondl’s knees buckle a little, and he reaches shakily for his drink. “Wow! Cool! Grant Hart likes me!!” he enthuses. Talk about your rock and roll benedictions.
Hailing from such disparate areas of the country as South Carolina (Pruitt), Michigan (Sawyer) and Illinois (Mondl and Dupuis), The Rakes produce a sound that’s equal parts Southern-fried heartbreak, upper Midwestern punk steel, fly-over land-inspired rural rock angst, and modern urban rhythm. Lead singer Aaron Pruitt “grew up on FM, true FM, the old FM” in the early ’80s, but says that his Southern parents weaned him on a steady diet of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, and “some of the more glamorous golden hits of country.” When he was 14, a friend gave him a copy of The Replacements’ seminal album, Tim, and things were never the same. “That pretty much settled what I thought rock and roll should be,” he says with a wry grin. “That and Hüsker Dü.”
Despite his obvious love and knack for writing (and howling out) pop-perfect nuggets, the self-deprecating, hard-drinkin’ singer/axeman actually considered careers in classical music and chemical engineering before “doing what the %@!#$& I wanted to with my life.” Shocking his family and teachers, he shelved those plans, packed up, and ran off with his girlfriend (now his wife) to live in Minnesota, the home of his musical heroes.
The band came together like many local outfits do, each member drifting into town and gravitating towards the nucleus of a sound they could all identify with and expound upon. Dupuis, who’s known Pruitt the longest, grew up in Northbrook, Ill., where he took lessons at the Village School of Folk Music. “I ended up liking Wilco and Son Volt, though,” he laughs. After stints with several jam bands, the hyper-musical guitarist (he also plays and writes songs for local band The Bottlehouse—which now includes Pruitt on bass—and engineered Wood And Wire) had an experience similar to Pruitt’s. “I was about sixteen,” he recalls, “and I was riding around with a friend drinking some road sodas when I heard The Replacements.”
College led him to Minneapolis, where he ended up rooming with the same pal who’d turned him on to the ‘Mats. After a few years with the now-defunct band Tremorphlo, (pronounced tremor-flow) Dupuis and pal Karl Obermeyer formed The Bottlehouse. Pruitt caught them playing out a few times and was impressed, so when he began forming The Rakes, he decided to take a chance and ask Steve in on second guitar. “I think there really is a spot in this band for me,” says Dupuis, “I think the two guitars really lay down the foundation for everything.” “Two guitars is always the way to go,” confirms Pruitt. “You gotta have the trade-off, the play-against-play.”
Bassist Sawyer grew up around Saginaw, Mich., but says he never felt that he really fit in musically in the UP. “I took piano lessons in high school, actually it was organ lessons, but I hate saying organ,” he jokes. The oldest member of The Rakes at 34, he brings to the band both a decades-long love for punk rock and an age-wise, smart-ass attitude that honestly compliments the aw-shucks personas of his musical cohorts. “In high school, I played some sax in symphonic band, too...” he confides, sending Dupuis, Pruitt, and Mondl into paroxysms of beer-snorting laughter. “This is all unrevealed information, man!” Pruitt belts out. “We’ll have to reevaluate your status in this band!”
Sawyer glares stoically at Pruitt, then continues: “But yeah, I smoked a lot of reefer in high school, listened to the mainstream stuff. I was heavily influenced by The Who, but not by John Entwistle. It was Pete Townshend that did it for me.” He had his own musical epiphany when, in high school, his father threw a party and invited the young classic rocker. “He had a band that was playing cover songs by Gang Of Four, Dead Kennedys, early Red Hot Chili Peppers, XTC. He was basically having a mid-life crisis. When I heard those cover songs, I totally switched my musical focus.” After college, he spent a brief period in Detroit, but says he “suffered a musical breakdown” that led him to seek out a healthier rock ’n’ roll scene here in the Twin Cities.
After serving time on the front lines with local punk faves The Hostages, (“When I left the band, they posted, ‘Shot for collaborating with the enemy,”’on their Web site,” he chuckles) Sawyer pored over the local “bassist wanted” ads until he found The Rakes. “They were the best band I could find that played loud enough and hard enough that I thought I’d be satisfied, and I still am,” he says forcefully. “They had the two Gibsons, the two Marshalls, a really good sound. This is the longest I’ve ever stayed with a band, going on three years or so. I’m creatively satisfied, (he wrote one Rakes song, “Next Kick,” for Wood And Wire) and I get to write all my own bass parts. And frankly, the only reason I join bands is so I can go out and play live. That’s the only thing I give a %@!#$& about. So I’m kind of the outsider of the group, these guys are all talking about the message of the music, (laughs) and that’s all a bunch of pretentious bull%@!#$& to me.”
Chicago-born Mondl is more than candid about his early influences and reasons for joining The Rakes, as well. Raised on the North Side of Chicago, he attended infamous Lincoln Park High School, where he shared a classroom with the desperately poor African-American community of the nearby Cabrini Green housing complex. “I was called ‘honky’ quite often, and worse,” he recalls with a gleam in his eye, “but I love it, and I would never change it.” Those years toughened the well-built but height-challenged youngster, and gave him an insider’s perspective on the true core of American society. “I had many cool white boy nicknames,” he chortles, “like Whitey or Chuckie. They called me Chuckie because I looked all mean, I knew I had to put on a bad face or they’d %@!#$& with me forever.” That ability to play in character also went hand in hand with his acting ambitions, he says. “I studied theater, and had plans to become an actor. I didn’t come into drums until high school.”
Initially inspired by the pounding rhythms of his parents’ Phil Collins albums, his musical tastes expanded once he hit high school. “I got into Blind Melon, Blues Traveler, Nirvana, Soundgarden, all of those when I was around 15. But the band that really hit me was Pavement. I heard them and I about %@!#$&ing died! Then I heard Guided By Voices, and thought, ‘this is better than anything I’m listening to.’ I started playing drums then, I joined a jazz band, and a wind ensemble, and a school band where I played timpani. To me, you can hear that in the studio.” Though he still dabbles in acting, (he once played a penguin at Navy Pier in Chicago, and recently played the part of a gay Bhudda, which explains the shiny bald pate he’s currently sporting) music has become a full-time obsession for Mondl. “The energy is just too awesome to NOT do it!” he shouts.
Though the music itself is comprised of influences from three distinct regions of America, much of The Rakes’ lyrical content deals with Pruitt’s past and his struggle to balance his musical ambitions with real-life relationships; a fact he readily admits to during our interview. “There’s one summer in particular that keeps coming up in different songs, that summer really happened,” he says.
1999’s Wood And Wire, a seven-song teaser EP, rings sad and true like a classic post-summer break-up album, with tracks like “Look In The Mirror” (which respectfully nicks the middle guitar solo from The Kinks’ “Come Dancing”), “I’m Your Whore,” “Should’ve Been There,” and “You’re My Misery,” bringing together the best of Pruitt’s songwriting influences—a little Westerberg here, a little early Tom Petty there, a dash of Cheap Trick’s teen-pop anthem-ism thrown in just for good measure.
Recorded and engineered in Dupuis’ basement, the record is a step up from your average demo, but all of the band members agree that bringing in local studio wiz Mike Wisti for the new one was a good move. “A lot of those Wood And Wire songs were written before the band was together,” admits Pruitt, “but I knew that (for the first album) I wanted to deal with the rudimentary elements of rock and roll, which is basically relationships and frustration. For me, it’s about my own anxiety about how to approach music. That comes up often in my songs, like “Just A Game,” where I’m basically stating that to me, this is important, even though to 99 percent of the population it doesn’t mean a damn thing.” Normally soft-spoken and reticent, Pruitt’s eyes blaze and his voice raises a notch when discussing his songs. “This is who I am. I’m not gonna tailor it to portray this image for anybody. And if that makes certain people feel uncomfortable, I really don’t care.”
The lyrical heartbreak and musical statements of Wood And Wire continue on the band’s latest, from the driving, industrialized riffage of the title track (“..and when you pass the lies, I’ll take my share/Is it your turn now, to swallow them whole?”) to the radio-friendly jangle of “New Clown In Town” (“Everybody make way for the new clown in town...”) right on through to the guilt-ridden apology of “On My Shoulders,” where Pruitt figuratively gets down on his knees and begs his partner to understand his burning obsession with rock and roll and life on the stage: “I know I don’t have the words/To write home to your mind/Make you sure it’s true...Paul, he came close/Elvis, I don’t think he ever found that girl I love that Chilton sang about...” Pruitt grins shyly when I mention the song. “That was written completely, truly, and honestly for my wife.” He glances down at his half-empty beer and it seems as if he’s going to leave it at that; then, taking a deep breath, he lets go. “Finally, somebody really got to me. To quote Elvis Costello, I finally found the girl to turn me upside down and hang my feet up where my head should be, and she did it!”
Pass The Lies finds The Rakes obviously more comfortable in their individual roles in the band, as well as providing a solid vehicle for Pruitt’s ongoing lyrical soul-purging. “I think what’s important about the new one starts first of all with the title,” he insists. “It’s a cynical statement in one way, and a very complacent statement in another. It could be about gossip, passing the lies, or it could be about getting past the lies. That’s a very important thing, to get past the lies, to just let it go. Basically, it’s about being cognizant enough to know that we have to lie to each other in order not to destroy each other. And then there’s a toughness to it, another side, which is, come on, give it to me, lie to me, I don’t give a %@!#$&.”
Both the ups and the downs of rockin’ an’ rollin’ are portrayed on the cover of the new album, which features a yellow typewriter (the words “Pass The Lies” are highlighted on the keys as well as printed on an otherwise blank piece of paper sticking out of the machine) surrounded by full ashtrays, piles of empty Budweiser cans, crumpled cigarette packs, stained playing cards, crusty fast-food containers, and, most tellingly, a bottle of Tylenol. You might not like the message, but there’s no denying that The Rakes give it to you straight; this is who we are, this is what we do, this is what we play.
Inspired by their recent studio experience, the band’s enthusiasm about the new material is infectious. The songs are gritty, urgent, driving, and spotlight both the dark, enthralling side of rock and roll and the painfully human aspect of its practicioners.
Singer/guitarist Wisti, who’s captured his own little slice of that ground with popular local pop/rockers The Rank Strangers, was the perfect choice for producer. “We loved going into Albatross Studios with Mike,” nods Pruitt. “We’d done our homework, whittled the record down to 14 songs (12 of which officially made the record, though the hidden track, “Don’t Mean Nothin’,” is worth a listen, as it’s the first track Pruitt ever wrote for the band) and it was fun. He was great, he understood. He’s a rock dude, and he was also very good at contradicting us, which I think is very important, it makes you question yourself a little bit. We didn’t change any of the structures of the songs, but we did change the nature of a few. We used his amp, actually, that he uses live with The Strangers, with a tremolo effect on a couple of songs. The most important difference between this album and the first was that the new one was definitely a conscious effort. We’d been playing a good 60 percent of them live for six months before they were recorded. And it shows.”
Each Rake has his own reasons for loving the group they’re in and the songs they play, but all of them agree that playing live is the heart of this band. For Steve, it’s “the songs.” For Brian, it’s “when Aaron’s screaming and Jon’s wailing away, and Steve’s standing still like Entwistle. I get goosebumps!” For Jon, it’s “noise and Jagermeister,” and for Pruitt, it’s “four guys putting their hearts and bodies on the line—we treat ourselves pretty rough on a general basis—I can’t wait for the day that we talk about how we blew all our money on drugs. [Laughs] No, but hey, even if the money doesn’t come, money is money, %@!#$& it. I don’t care. It’s birth, school, work, death. The Rakes are a band of rock and rollers, four guys who definitely know what rock and roll is, are dedicated to a certain sound, and are willing to put in the time and effort to make it come out right.” I couldn’t agree more heartily. And if that’s the end result of sitting down at a table with The Rakes, I’ll have another helping. Pass the lies, please...
The Rakes play their CD release party for Pass The Lies at The Turf Club on Fri., Sept. 6, with John Freeman And The Action Alert and Gini Dodds. 9 p.m., $4. 21+.1601 University Ave, St. Paul. 651-647-0486.