Chan Poling on Embracing the Minneapolis Sound and 40 Years of The Suburbs

Part of a series of As Told To conversations in honor of Mpls.St.Paul’s 50th anniversary, here is Chan Poling, in his own words.

I was going into my 50s, and it was like, you think you’re old, but then you realize that you’re in just the right pocket. And I remember my wife at the time, Eleanor, said, “Why aren’t you playing those songs from the ’80s? Why have you kind of buried all that?” And I thought, Well, I don’t know. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I’ve really got at least another couple albums in me before it’s all over.

But The Suburbs had splintered in irretrievable ways. Bruce had passed away, and Michael, the bass player, had arthritis, and he couldn’t play anymore physically. And Beej and I were at odds. But someone mentioned that we should get back together and play in honor of Bruce’s passing, and then, instantly, we realized how much fun it was and how much power that music had.

So, I thought the ’80s were done, then I realized the music that we were making when we were coming up—and that includes The Replacements, and Bob Mould, and Hüsker Dü, and Prince, and The Time, and everybody—is just an explosion of everything. And even though it can be dated in its elements, it’s timeless in a way. That’s just to say that you think that when your phase is over, it’s over, but that it’s never over.

Once I dove back into it and took the angst of the striving out of it, it was like, “Oh, well, this is great.” And I’m glad that a lot of my colleagues figured that out too. I’d gone into a dark tunnel of misunderstanding what music making was about. And maybe that’s just a natural phase that everybody goes through, because it did seem that Prince was making cooler, more vital music right before he passed away. And it does seem everyone came through the tunnel and popped out again in the 2010s with some great new music.

Maybe it’s just a biorhythm. I was surprised that there was an audience still there. I realized that they’re just like me—they maybe went underground for a while, but they never went away.

I want to talk about something that I think we could still use today. In the ’80s we had this thing called the Minnesota Music Awards—a local awards show every year where they would pick the album of the year and the song of the year and the band of the year and everything.

I remember at the Carlton Celebrity Room once, we were there because we were up for our award, and Prince was up for an award. And The Replacements wouldn’t show up, because they were too cool. I remember sharing a stage with Prince, which was a group of guys from north Minneapolis who we wouldn’t interact with otherwise. And watching The Phones, and there’d be blues bands and the bands from the Cabooze and Daisy Dillman and stuff like that. And everyone would be all together. I remember standing backstage with Prince and just thinking this is a unique opportunity and experience to have, and it was what Minneapolis was back then.

And I hate to say, “Oh, gosh, those were the good old days,” but I have to say, the Minnesota Music Awards was an interesting glue. It was a way to form a community.

Prince was a great force for bringing different aspects of the community together. Because that’s how I met Bobby Z., and then through Bobby Z. I met Tommy Barbarella and the Mambo’s Combo scene. And then Paisley Park is a great gathering place, too. That’s where I met Michael Stipe and even Dan Wilson and John Munson from Semisonic and stuff like that. They’re just a little bit younger than us, but we’ve been friends for a long time now. We now work with the new guys, too, like Dessa. And I remember running into Ant and Slug of Atmosphere in the studio. It’s ongoing—it never stops.

The venues that are firmly anchored here really make the city. And that’s the cool thing about Minneapolis in general—we’ve invested in a city that’s a hundred times bigger than us. We have these anchor institutions like the Guthrie and Mia and the Walker and First Avenue. That can’t be taken lightly, because if you don’t have those touchstone institutions, you’re just any other middle-size city in the Midwest.

If we let those languish, we’re screwed. We will be New York City, maybe, when we’re as old as New York City, if we just don’t blow it.

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