Local duo Red Pens' recent debut record, Reasons, is a labor of love in more than one sense of the word. For one thing, guitarist-vocalist Howard W. Hamilton III and drummer Laura F. Bennett are a couple outside of band practice as well, with wedding bells ringing in the near future. But Reasons' driving, insistent take on shoegaze-heavy indie-rock is also a testament to the band's determined passion for working on something until it just feels right. Hamilton's skill at DIY production served him well in previous bands like his early-2000s one-man electronica project Busy Signals, and he's brought it to bear again on Reasons, which he recorded, engineered, and mixed himself.
That dedication has paid off recently in a rising crescendo of interest in the local music scene, including a landslide win in this year's Picked To Click new-band poll in City Pages. ("Not that many people really come to our shows, so I don’t know how the people that voted even saw us," Hamilton says.) With luck, the Pens will soon draw a crowd as big and raucous as their own powerful sound, and they have plenty of shows coming up to attract it, including gigs with Shonen Knife at the Entry tonight and local punk trio Kill To Kill tomorrow at the Hexagon. Hamilton and Bennett sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss their music. (Also of note: Both Hamilton and Bennett are also visual artists; Bennett's recent paintings are on display through November at Café Maude, where Hamilton also DJs two nights a week.)
A.V. Club: As a high-volume indie-rock duo with a male guitarist and a female drummer, how do you feel about the inevitable White Stripes comparisons?
Howard Hamilton: When we took on the name Red Pens we were like, “Oh boy, that’s one thing we’re going to get.” There’s usually one drunk guy that’s out of place at our shows who will be like, “You guys are just like The White Stripes!” and I’m like, “Okay.”
Laura Bennett: And then he goes “Red Stripes!”
AVC: How do you think your experience in other bands has influenced this one?
HH: I made a lot of mistakes and I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned to this band. We’re trying to build this band up super-slow and earn what we get. Before, I’d try to skip steps and I’d be like, “Oh you don’t really even need to go on tour; you don’t really even need to have a band.”
AVC: How do you write songs together?
HH: I come up with an idea for a song and I get it to this certain stage—usually mumbling lyrics, and a few key lines. Then when we’re at practice I show it to Laura and I get a feel for how she’s going to play over it. Her drumming is a big part of how the song takes shape and if she doesn’t click with the song, then we usually just move on to something else and I don’t even finish that song. But I do all the finalizing of the guitar and vocals. I definitely came up with the sound of the record and achieved exactly what I was going for—which really never happens in my life, ever. [Laughs.] We didn’t sit around and go, “We’re starting to record the record in a month!” One day I was like, you know what, I think I’m going to set up mics before I move out of this place and we’re going to document this little room that the band formed in… And I just went into obsessive mode and worked on the vocals day and night.
LB: It sounds like how I feel when we’re playing, and it’s like burning, it’s fuzzy and loud and it’s dirty and warm and it’s also very colorful. I don’t actually, literally see colors when I hear the music, but metaphorically the sound has so much texture and color to me. I’m trying to paint with my drumming for his songs. [Laughs.]
AVC: What would you like to see change in the local music scene?
HH: I think that there’s low attendance at the shows in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I have no idea what is going on; I think that people don’t go out [as often].
LB: I just really want to see people get a little more passionate about a good band that's there to bleed for the scene because they love music so much. And I’d like to see a little more camaraderie [among bands].
AVC: Is there one local band that you play with a lot that you like?
HH: We’re totally in love with Gospel Gossip. I think we played with them a long time ago when we weren’t in love yet, and they blew me away.