Ben Ramsey and David Huckfelt both grew up in the middle of Iowa's folk-music scene, but they didn’t meet until they'd both moved to Tucson, Arizona as a way to find their own artistic path as The Pines. After moving back to the Midwest, the pair worked with some of the region’s most notable folk and country musicians (including Ben’s father, guitarist Bo Ramsey) and has released three albums of finely wrought folk music strongly evocative of their Midwestern milieu. The new Tremolo is a mature evolution beyond their previous efforts, with the duo supported by a combo of seasoned local musicians. The soft rusticity of country ballads like “Heart & Bones” shares space with the haunting ambiguity of “Pray Tell” and the bluesy, dissonant “Shine On Moon,” cementing the impression that the Pines have truly arrived on the Twin Cities roots scene. On the eve of the Pines’ release show for Tremolo at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday, The A.V. Club talked with Ramsey and Huckfelt about the new album, the allure of small Midwestern towns, and why it's important to be unknown (at first, anyway).
AVC: How important was Tucson to you as a formative experience? And why choose Tucson?
Ben Ramsey: Tucson was amazing, man. It was a lot of artists from all over the place. And it’s isolated. We were trying everything. Just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks, with full force. It was serious.
David Huckfelt: It was a great feeling to go to a town you’d never been to, and nobody knew who we were.
BR: [In Iowa] I was playing with Pieta Brown [daughter of folk musician Greg Brown]. We’d book a show and try everything in our power to get them to not mention our fathers. But we’d go and try out these new songs, and the room would be packed, and it just didn’t feel right. Pieta’s the one who steered me toward Tucson. … It’s great, because you can’t make any money. So everyone’s just doing it because they truly love it.
DH: Everybody pitches in and plays with each other, shares show and shares stages. Very loose. It wasn’t like you had a 25-minute opening slot; you could play music all night long.
BR: I haven’t really come across that here. Like, “My friend Rob just got out of prison. Can he play bass with you tonight?” “Yeah, man, I guess.” [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you decide to relocate to Minneapolis?
BR: We came back to what we knew, after we’d had some time away to learn the craft a little bit better. It was always the goal to make a record for Trailer Records, out of Iowa City. [The band is now sign to Minneapolis label Red House.] We missed the change of seasons.
DH: And just that feeling that times had changed, and there’s not that one place: You don’t go to New York anymore if you want to be a folkie, or L.A. if to be a rocker. To go someplace and be open to new experiences, Minneapolis was as good a place, or better, as any.
AVC: Do you think there’s a distinguishable difference between the music you made in Tucson and the music you make here?
BR: There has to be. Weather, and traffic, and landscape—all that stuff seeps into you.
DH: And the spaciousness of the Midwest. We do travel a lot, and some of the places we play are smaller towns. So we’re out on the back roads a lot in places that are wide-open. And farms, and places that are way past their heyday, which is sad to see, sometimes.
AVC: Your shows this fall take you to a lot of small towns, rather than rock clubs in bigger cities. Was that a deliberate choice?
BR: We like the space, and the people. They come out, and you can park wherever you want for free. We’re sort of weaning ourselves off the [Twin Cities]. We’ve already relocated.
DH: We have a place down in Iowa, a little town called Moonrise, were we wrote a lot of this new record. To write out of that place, and to play those small towns, those are some of the only places you can go that have strong senses of community anymore. The level of human contact is much higher than you find in a lot of cities, where people don’t get out of their cars and interact with one another. It doesn’t take hardly anything for people’s lives to be so full and so busy that they don’t have much freedom. When you go down to a place like Moonrise, you don’t know what’s going to come up out of your consciousness that would be stifled if you were in the city.
AVC: Tremolo is your most sophisticated album yet, both in terms of instrumentation and contributors. How did that progression evolve?
DH: The songs tell you what to do. It wasn’t a conscious decision so much as we could hear these songs being recorded in a certain way.
BR: We leave a lot of it open. We hear a certain instrument and then have our friends come in and play how they play.
DH: I think that’s why those jazz guys [drummer J.T. Bates and bassist James Buckley] like to play with us: we just let them do their thing. They just get to feel the music. There’s no conscious progression where each record’s going to be bigger, but just what’s exciting to us at the moment.