Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ed Ackerson stays busy - very busy: Exclusive interview

"I'm done with damming the river, I'd rather float on it."

Ed Ackerson Group @ BLB - Feb. 2008

Polara @ Varsity Theater - May 2008

rock lobster with ed & wiggy
(photo by AA)

(photo by JJ Jurgens)

Last week 60>0 got a chance to sit down and chat with Ed Ackerson, the Minneapolis producer/musician/studio owner/cultural instigator who’s about to release his second solo album, Ackerson2, which also just happens to be the third full album of new material he’s released in the last 12 months. The last year also saw the release of his self-titled solo debut – coming well into his third decade as a professional musician – and the first full length album in 5 years by Polara, the Minneapolis noise-pop pioneers that most people know Ackerson from. As on the first solo album, Ed did everything on Ackerson2 – all the writing, singing, playing, engineering, producing, artwork. This ability to excel at seemingly anything that is put on the plate in front of him is an Ackerson trademark and is a big reason why he’s an in-demand producer and sought after collaborator. The dude is a consummate pro.

With a schedule that even a busy person would characterize as “hectic,” Ed found time to talk about the past, present and future, and provided some revealing insights into what keeps him going in these challenging times.

60>0: Three full albums of new material in 12 months? Is there something funny in the water over in Uptown or are you just running out of space on your hard drives?

Ed: Around here there's always been something funny in the water. Wouldn't have it any other way.

I've got a lot of ideas these days, and I don't see any point in warehousing them. I've been through the major label trip of running every song past the committee. I'm done with damming the river, I'd rather float on it.

Is this brand new material, old stuff or both?

A few of the songs were on the horizon when I was wrapping up the first solo record, but the energy of this bunch of tunes is a bit different. Some of the tunes are very recent. "St. Cate" for instance I wrote in an hour in August . There's directness to this group of songs; it's not a concept record but there are definite themes that tie the songs together. A lot of it is about me trying to get my head around where some of my friends have gotten to and where I've gotten to and the space between now and what we all thought now might be.

Do you have a destination in mind when you're writing and recording new material? Can you tell the difference between a "Polara track" and a "solo track?"

Absolutely there's a distinction. When I'm writing for Polara I'm writing for the band. I tend to leave a lot of possibilities for Jennifer and Peter to add their spin. On the solo records the songs tend to be pretty complete from the inception, it's more a process of me jamming with myself.

On the new album, as well as the solo album you released last November, you wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, sang all the vocals and produced everything. Hell, you even did the artwork. What special challenges, if any, do you face when you're doing the "one man band" thing?

There are no challenges whatsoever! Making records is my favorite thing in the world. I love rock, and I've gradually figured out how to do all aspects of making a record pretty damned well. Except of course selling them. But to me that's the last thing I'm worried about. Making the record and hearing it back in its final form is the best reward for me. What happens after that is a lot less interesting.

There was a 5 year gap between, Beekeeping, the Polara album released this Spring, and its predecessor, Jetpack Blues. Why such a long time? What were you doing in the interim?

Actually, we did put out the Green Shoes EP in 2005, and there was an album of material we did in that period that we intended to release. Unfortunately our label Susstones was hamstrung by our distributor going bankrupt, so we didn't have an effective way to put that record out. That was a setback, and by the time we came up with new solutions I had already written a new bunch of songs. Those songs were the ones on Beekeeping. In time we'll get around to releasing the interim Polara material. We had a similar situation at the end of our time on Interscope, there are about 25 completed tracks that never came out from the period right before Jetpack Blues, a lot of really cool stuff. We'll get it out at some point, and it will fill in a lot of blanks in the story. Polara has always been working on stuff.

Like your first solo album, Ackerson2 is dominated by acoustic guitars, acoustic percussion, seemingly simple arrangements and a near total absence of the signature, multilayered Polara "noise pop" wall of sound. How did this "less is more" strategy come about?

On the last two Polara records we really pushed the envelope of pop music vs. noise pretty far, the production and arrangements are very complex and dense. I love working on that kind of super detailed music. But there's also a part of me that enjoys sitting around with an acoustic guitar and singing a song. Everyone has different moods on different days. I love playing on the big stage in front of a ton of people, but I also love the simple communication of a singer playing a song without stacks of amps and a ton of effects. I love making huge noisy records, but I also enjoy the challenge of making interesting, psychedelic music in a more minimalist context.

Throughout your career you've always seemed like someone on the edge of a breakout commercially, and on the first couple records with Polara you were right on the edge of international acclaim. A lot of your peers from that period have stopped doing music actively. You've kept moving forward, and you show almost no bitterness about the way your career has developed. What motivates you to keep doing it, and doing so much of it?

I love rock. Full stop. I think and I feel, so I write and I play and I produce. Rock is how I communicate, how I make order of the chaos of my loves, dreams, crises and fears. I've never been into this to "make it", whatever that means to anyone. Music is how I interface with reality, and music culture is the culture I live in. I am very happy that I'm able to have a good lifestyle doing what I want to. I had a good lifestyle doing what I wanted long before I ever signed any record deal.

You've earned a reputation over the years as a formidable guitar player, but there's also some remarkable vocal work on these albums. Has your attitude towards singing changed over the years? Do you feel more confident as a singer these days?

I found my "voice" as a guitarist when I was a kid, so guitar was my main outlet for expression. I've gotten a lot better as a singer over the years, lost a lot of the fear I used to have. In my opinion music is just expression; you use whatever tool is the most effective at the time to get your feelings across to the people listening. The voice is probably the most direct conduit between your thoughts and a sound, and I've been learning how to use that most direct path to get my ideas out.

Many of the songs on the 3 albums seem autobiographical, if not downright introspective and involve themes that tilt towards the heavy side of the emotional spectrum. Is this a natural consequence of getting older or something else?

It's probably about the process of growing up, seeing the way people end up as opposed to their original visions. This new record has a certain lyrical theme of reappraisal. It's a weird thing to see how time and circumstance warp your relationships with friends and reality.

When you're not single-handedly creating solo albums or working long hours at Flowers Studio, what are you listening to these days in your limited spare time? What's been floating your boat and has any of this informed your creative process the last few years?

I'm a massive record collector, and I'm into honest, freaky music from anywhere at any time. I split my listening time between new indie artists and new archival finds from all over the place. There's so much to learn about music, even for someone who has 6,000 records in their library, It's always exciting, I'm always finding out that I need to know more about music!

What do you think of the current state of the "music business?" Do you think the CD is dying? Are there any alternative delivery systems you're contemplating? How will Susstones meet the challenges of these changing times?

I have little interest in the music industry. Still, Susstones is working on a couple of new ideas to get stuff out directly to the people. The promise of digital delivery has been clear for many years, but now the tech is finally catching up. We'll have a coupe of surprises in 2009 for everyone.

What's next? Is there an “Ackerson3” in the works? More new Polara? Anything languishing in the archives?

For the beginning of next year we have a Polara instrumental album in the works, after that another Polara rock album of all new material. I've been writing a lot of songs lately, and they'll certainly find their way out in one context or the other!


Ackerson2 comes out on November 18, followed by a CD release party at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis on November 28. Ed’s set will be a hybrid Polara/solo mash-up and the rest of the line-up includes The Mood Swings, Colonial Vipers Attack, Strange Lights and more.