Paul Connolly: Portrait of a Homegrown directorWith 199 bands registered to play this year’s Homegrown, festival director Paul Connolly has more than his fair share of all-nighters ahead of him.
By: Matthew R. Perrine, Budgeteer News
With 199 bands registered to play this year’s Homegrown, festival director Paul Connolly has more than his fair share of all-nighters ahead of him.
So, before your sister’s boyfriend’s cousin’s roommate’s band gets cut (Duluth only has so many venues), get to know the man behind the madness.
Budgeteer: What do you think of the city’s music scene today?
Connolly: There are always good bands coming up. It seems lately I’ve been more personally into what’s going on with a lot of younger kids. I’ve been playing [as a member of Portrait of a Drowned Man] and going to a lot of shows with bands from high school … but there’s still a lot of great music going on everywhere.
You’re playing house parties?
Yeah, basement shows, stuff over at Harbor City School — I’m just generally interested in what those guys are doing.
Do they seem more into it than some of the jaded older folks?
Obviously they have a lot more energy, and they get into stuff and they buy more. They’ll buy your CDs and, generally, listen to them. Not that older people don’t, but they just seem more excited about it; for what I do, anyway, they seem more receptive to it.
They’re the ones that, when we play a bill with bands whose members are in their 30s like us, it’ll always be like a high school kid who will come out after the show and buy CDs and talk to us about post-rock bands. I’m just starting to get to be friends with those bands. I met a lot of them when [Mat Milinkovich and I] were doing ...And the Heroine Screams Help!
Are you going to bring that publication back?
You know, I’d like to, but there are just so many other projects. I mean, Homegrown’s eating up every spare moment of my life. [Laughs] So, I don’t really have time to do it, and Mat and his wife just had a kid — and Mat plays in like three bands.
It’s hard to find the time to crush it out, and we really don’t want to put out something [inferior] and kill ourselves at the same time. We kind of decided to let it be for now. We might bring it back someday when things are a little less crazy.
Do you feel like there are any genres that are underrepresented in the local scene?
There are genres that have a lot of bands that are really good but there isn’t that many of them. I always thought there were a lot of good hip-hop bands in Duluth, but there are really not a lot of them.
The same thing with metal bands: There’s a lot of good metal bands here, but not a lot of them. I don’t really feel like they’re underrepresented; they each have their fanbases and people come out and support them, and there are places around here for them to play.
Are there any other bands like Portrait around?
There’s definitely a lot of bands that I would consider instrumental post-rock, but not in Duluth. We invite a lot of bands from Minneapolis and a lot of touring bands [to play up here]. We get a lot of play on Radio K’s “nowlikephotographs,” which is an instrumental, kind of post-rock show down in the Twin Cities, and they’ve been really good at letting other people know about us. It’s a pretty big radio show for that genre, so we get a lot of touring bands getting in touch with us when they want to play in the area.
But, as far as in Duluth, I don’t really think there are a lot of … we kind of have a sound that lets us fit in with a lot of different bands. We feel pretty comfortable playing on a bill with three screamo high school bands, then turning around and playing a punk rock show at Thirsty Pagan. We’ve played shows with Crew Jones before.
I saw that one coming up with those guys and Equal Xchange.
Yeah, our guitar player, Jesse, plays in Equal Xchange too, so we’ve always kind of done stuff with them — done little shows on the road with Crew Jones and those guys. I think we’re all kind of eclectic enough that it always works out. It’s very rare that we play a show that’s all bands that are very similar and do what we are.
Maybe not right now, but when we first started, we played a lot of shows with If Thousands, I Am the Slow Dancing Umbrella and a lot of the more experimental bands that don’t really have emphasis on vocals. But, at the same time, we were playing with Fair-Weather Friend and Words to a Film Score and Farewell Tour, so it was a pretty supportive scene for us to get started in — but not necessarily people who could be lumped into the same genre as us.
Was it easy to find enough band members with similar tastes to start Portrait in the first place?
Well, we actually started out as kind of an indie band called the Vermont Connection. Portrait’s gone through quite a few changes over the years — mainly for drummers — but, when we first started, it was all the guys from Vermont Connection. And we had a singer, who ended up moving to Alaska. It was just for the summer, so we kept on playing together without him.
We were writing instrumental songs, and we had played instrumental tracks together in the Vermont Connection and I’d always been interested in instrumental music. So we just kind of went with that after he left and, when he came back, we worked him into our lineup. We had three guitar players and a drummer — that was kind of our standard lineup for a long time. Then our drummer moved, and we went through a few drummers before Mat Milinkovich started playing with us.
It was just kind of a natural progression when we went from the Vermont Connection to this and we started experimenting with rock sound. Then I played with I Am the Slow Dancing Umbrella for a few years, and that really opened my eyes to not being afraid to play experimental music and the beauty of playing short sets.
We always wanted to play a set that, even if somebody who’s at one of our shows completely hated what we were doing, we’d play for 20 minutes or something and be done. We never really wanted people sitting, “Oh, man, when are these guys going to be done?” [Laughs] We always kind of balanced that with people wanting more, and we’ve done pretty well with that and not tried to push it.
A lot of instrumental post-rock bands have really long songs and go through a lot of sweeping changes throughout the composition of the song; we’ve kind of taken that and condensed it into more like a pop or rock song, put it into three minutes or less. We rarely have a song that’s more than five minutes long. That’s kind of where the band took its path from.
That reminds me of the Godspeed You! Black Emperor album “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven,” which has four 20 minute-long “movements.”
Yeah, Godspeed You! Black Emperor was definitely something that we all listened to a lot. I took a lot of cues from those guys; I really liked the atmosphere they created. We didn’t really want to be as epic and long as they were, but we definitely liked the fact that they used other things beside vocals to get points across. They used bowing on guitars, creating a lot of different tones with a pretty standard rock-band setup.
Have you guys ever thought about working with a filmmaker, maybe score a silent film?
We’ve always wanted to work on stuff like that. We got invited by “nowlikephotographs” to play a thing down in Minneapolis at the Coffman [Memorial Union, on the University of Minnesota campus]. It was a collaboration of wordless film and multimedia artists down there, but we weren’t able to make the show. We’ve always kind of had a standing invitation to do it, and I’ve always been interested in doing it. … I’m a graphic designer myself, and I’ve always been interested in visuals and presenting our band in a visual way, too. I’ve always thought that would be kind of cool.
I went and saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor at First Avenue, and they had a really amazing video playing behind them as they played. It totally amplified and electrified everything they were doing and made it stand out way more than I’d imagined when I was listening to it. … It’s probably something we’ll do one of these days.
Did you grow up in Duluth?
No, I kind of lived in the suburbs, in the Blaine, Coon Rapids area, until I was about 15. Then I moved to southern Minnesota, down by Mankato, in a little town called Le Sueur.
What brought you here then?
I came up here to attend the design school at UMD. I moved up here in 1999; I loved it and never left. Been up here almost 10 years now.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing guitar when I was around 11. I just kind of played with my cousin. He wrote songs and got me into playing music. Then I played with some friends in my neighborhood. We were just kind of playing Nirvana songs and just learning how to play — we didn’t really have a band. When I moved to Le Sueur, there was like two drummers there, so those were the two bands. We never really formed anything too serious.
When I moved up here, I started working at Electric Fetus and started meeting a lot of people. I put together a band with Justin Kervina, who I worked with there, and I’ve been playing with him ever since. … That’s mainly how I got into it: working at the Fetus and meeting all those guys, and being kind of surrounded by the music scene 24 hours a day. It seemed like I would go to work in the morning, hang out with musicians, talk about music and listen to music, and, as soon as we were done working, we’d be playing shows or going to somebody else’s show or recording or going to practice.
So I spent about six years just kind of living the scene and doing that over and over again. I think that’s where I really got into it — not just playing, but doing album art and gig posters for bands as a designer, playing with bands from out of town and meeting them.
I also put together a music festival with some guys from Minneapolis called Eyes + Hands Festival. That was my first foray into doing music festivals. We did about three of those, in St. Cloud, Duluth and Minneapolis. We kind of took it on the road, but it was basically a combo, two days, half Minneapolis bands, half Duluth bands each night. … It was kind of fun, but we never really made any money — we kind of lost a lot of money.
When did you get involved with Homegrown?
I played the 2005 festival, which was the one everyone wasn’t very pleased with. There were a lot of people complaining about it and boycotting it, doing all kinds of stuff that hurt it more than helped it. That’s when they started a group of volunteers that would help run the festival, instead of having it as a for-profit festival. It’s more of a nonprofit thing now. [Then-director] Don Ness asked me to join it. I did, mostly working on graphic design and PR work, then I slowly just started taking on more of it. Then, when Don was elected mayor, he asked me if I’d like to take it over. So, last year was the first year I ran the festival as director, but I’ve been involved with it since 2005.
What are your main duties as director?
Pretty much everything. [Laughs] There are a lot of people who help out, but it’s really hard to find people who are willing to throw that much volunteer time into something like this. It’s hard to keep people, too, because they’re moving around all the time. There’s a lot of turnover, so I end up doing pretty much everything.
There’s people who help out, obviously, like Paul Lundgren, who’s been involved for a long time. [Transistor publisher] Adam Guggemos has done a lot over the years as well.
There’s new people who come in every year, but I think the three of us have been doing it the longest — and probably do the most work on it throughout the year: everything from contacting venues, building our Web site, booking bands, organizing where the bands are going to go, time-slotting them, designing the field guide, writing the field guide — everything you can imagine that goes into putting together a festival of its magnitude.
Is the worst part scheduling it?
You know, scheduling is difficult, but it’s something that’s pretty cut and dry. … It’s a long night; it takes hours to put all those bands in and making sure you’re not crossing over. Somebody who shares a drummer with that band, you can’t schedule them too close to that set. Logistically, it’s very difficult to do. There’s always something to work on.
Finally, do you have a favorite Homegrown memory?
One that always sticks out in my mind is one of the first times I ever saw the Dames. They played the 2003 Homegrown at Beaner’s, and Tony Bennett ate a Limp Bizkit poster. [Laughs] Then the Black Labels showed up in a limousine; Fred Tyson was wearing like a white, one-piece suit with a cape. Then, when the Black-eyed Snakes played, you couldn’t even move in there it was so packed.
The next year, the Vermont Connection played Homegrown for the first time. And that was really fun, the first time I actually got to play it. But, being involved in it so much over the years — I guess I only played it a few times before I started organizing it — that always changes how you view a festival, it becomes more work than it is fun. … It almost makes playing hard.
Like last year, I was sprinting around trying to make sure everyone had cash for change at the doors, and doing drops so no one’s sitting there with too much money — I was literally sprinting down Michigan Street trying to get to all the venues and help people out. Then, when people wouldn’t show up for their shift to take money at the door, I’d have to work there for awhile, text-messaging trying to look for a replacement. It’s totally crazy.
NEWS TO USE
Catch Paul Connolly live with Portrait of a Drowned Man at 8 p.m. Friday, March 27, at Beaner’s Central. The Alpha Centauri and Dave Mehling are also on the bill. Cost is $5. All ages. Visit www.poadm.com for more dates.