Free Energy: A new dawn for Hockey Night
How the Twin Cities band survived a bad break-up to start anew
For its too-brief existence, Hockey Night was beloved in the Twin Cities music scene despite not quite being local: After moving away from his hometown of Red Wing, Minn., frontman Paul Sprangers spent the majority of his time living on the East Coast to attend New York University in the late ’90s. Still, his band’s sunny vibe and tight, harmonic dual guitar work (think Thin Lizzy for the file-sharing era) made Minnesota music fans eager to call Hockey Night their own. Hockey Night called it quits in 2007, but Sprangers and longtime Hockey Night six-string sparring-partner Scott Wells are now making a similar-sounding splash with Free Energy, a new band out of Philadelphia that has already drawn international attention thanks to the imprimatur of LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, who produced the group’s debut—due out this winter—for his heavyweight indie label, DFA Records. Before Free Energy visits Mad Planet tonight, Sprangers talked to Decider about Hockey Night's tumultuous end, the good side of a misinformed press, and the freedom of growing up in a small town.
Decider: Four years ago, you claimed that Hockey Night would become a hippie peace band, something along the lines of Phish but good. Do you still aspire to that goal with Free Energy?
Paul Sprangers: Back when I said that, it was more a glimmer of something I aspired to than something I actually knew how to do. But between the end of Hockey Night and the start of Free Energy, it’s been about three years. There was certainly a lot of introspection and hopefully some growth through that whole process. I think going through what I did informed the optimism that this new band is about. I still don’t know exactly what I meant when I said ideally we’d be a “hippie peace band,” but I think Scott and I are a little closer to having that vision figured out.
D: The end of Hockey Night wasn’t pretty—some band members left acrimoniously, and your label, Lookout Records, collapsed. Did you ever consider walking away from music completely?
PS: There’s always going to be tumultuous things happening when you try and make art for a living. Making music is all I’ve ever done and all I’m ever going to do, no matter who’s with me or who’s not. Even when things got pretty bad with the band breaking up and our label falling apart, there was never a time I stopped writing songs or thinking about what I wanted to create. I assume that some of the positivity in the new songs is a direct result of dealing with the darker shit we went through—just because you don’t want to go nuts. Hockey Night was breaking up long before there was ever any kind of official statement—it was a pretty bad situation for a while. Lookout went under, our manager left… There were a lot of what you could call “you should throw in the towel” signs. I’m glad I never considered doing that. Just because you end a relationship doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn from it and have another, and that’s the way I feel about musical partnerships. Ideally you learn from every experience and don’t hold on to the negative things and wonder, “What if?” You have to play the hand you’re dealt.
D: Are you nervous for people to hear the debut album that's scheduled for release this winter? It’s been four years since the last Hockey Night album.
PS: It’s been a long process, but I’m a patient guy. The whole birth of Free Energy has been about patience and letting things unfold naturally. That’s fine by me. We’re going to keep playing shows before the record comes out and the live band is really just starting to gel. At this point we’ve only played 10 shows or so.
D: Most people first heard about this project when British music tabloid NME touted it as James Murphy’s “new band.” It must have been a bit strange to have that level of attention before you even had a name for the band or played a show, particularly since Murphy isn’t actually in the band. Do press misconceptions of who you guys are bother you?
PS: I understand most people are going to write about our band because of James’ involvement, and that’s fine. That’s great. If people mention James in every article, I don’t give a shit because I think the music is strong enough that if they check it out, they’ll become a fan on its own merits. I mean, it’s obviously weird to read something that makes Free Energy sound like “James’ new band,” but that’s just how people approach things in the press, and I can’t control that.
D: For the sake of clarity, what is the extent of Murphy’s involvement with Free Energy?
PS: James produced the record. Scott and I demoed all the songs pretty thoroughly and wrote out extensive arrangements, but then James stepped in and worked with us and made them a million times better just through his vast knowledge of recording technique and equipment. He was able to translate our little blueprints into 3-D Technicolor. He really took the ball and ran with it.
D: You grew up in Red Wing, Minn., not exactly a rock 'n' roll cultural hotspot. How did your small-town upbringing shape your musical path?
PS: Being from Red Wing is a huge part of why I have the guts to try and pursue music full-time. I understand it seems like kind of a crazy and daunting path to choose. I was actually just back there for July 4th and thinking about how the place shaped me. When you grow up in a small town, you always feel like a part of this nebulous community that constitutes a sort of safe zone. You can try things and fail—and it’s okay. It’s a little easier to gain confidence because you’re operating in such a small pond. At the time I was growing up in Red Wing, we were still a bit isolated. I really only heard about new records through other friends in local bands. I borrowed Scott’s 4-track, and that’s how I started writing songs. There wasn’t anything at stake. I wasn’t doing it for any reason but the sake of experimenting. That’s a really healthy place to create from—just trying anything and seeing what you’re drawn to. If I had grown up in a city, I would have felt bombarded by professional musicians and been too intimidated to try my own thing.
D: Stuck worrying, ‘Is this cool?’
PS: Yeah, it’s really about that whole question, ‘Is this cool?’ [Laughs.] Everyone grapples with that, but as soon as you stop worrying about it and just be honest, you’re golden. The truth is that nobody wants to hear someone trying to be cool. They want to hear honesty because that’s rarer.