John Freeman, the fearless leader of The Magnolias, was recently interviewed for G’77 Magazine to promote our June 20th show in Madrid, Spain at the Gruta 77 Club. Read the interview on The Magnolias’ Site.
[update: the link is broken, so I’ve pasted the article below]
Power Pop Is Rock’n’Roll
They say that the time puts the record straight. If true, The Magnolias should savor today the recognition that was denied them in due course. Any lover of power pop outline a smile when he recalls a disc as “Off the Hook”. In 1992, and after eight years of experience, the band from Minnesota reached its summit with a personal album enviable. But honeys of success are only for a few and they do not iban a flavor. They said goodbye in 1997. Still, the battle is not over. John Freeman has brought together his old band and plans its first assault on Europe. Perhaps some classics in the shadows begin to see the light. Its three Spanish dates include Castellon pass through the June 19, Madrid (Gruta’77) on 20 and Granada on 21. (By Diego RJ)
The Magnolias were formed in late 1984, in Minneapolis, a city that already had big names in the rock’n’roll such as, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. One year after their first gig, the group rose in the ranks of local twin towns and with a recognized seal next to the groups cited above. Singer, guitarist and composer John Freeman was the main engine of the group and today is the only original member remaining in the band. From the outset they demonstrated their devotion and influence by groups like the Undertones, Buzzcocks, Kinks and the Real Kids, influences to which was adding a personal nature that would define the group. But what might be was not. The history of the band is marked since its inception until the last bolus offered in 1997 by a series of obstacles and glimpses of bad fortune that, despite the perseverance of Freeman, inevitably end up drowning. Changes continuous training, incompetent recordings, unexpected bankruptcies … even when the fate seemed to smile and called them to act before 1,200 people at the famous South by Southwest festival in Austin, meeting point for major labels in the country, they stopped their van pulled amid a storm six hours in the city . There came to the event and added another anecdote to the list. After their separation and since 1999 the group has acted sporadically. But recently, and after another unsuccessful projects, Freeman wanted to pick up the reins and edited “Better Late Than Never”, a collection of unreleased songs drawn from demos and discards study. The first rung of a new staircase, which continues with the first European tour in the history of the group.
INTERVIEW w/ John Freeman by Diego R.J.
If I am not wrong this next tour is the first time The Magnolias visit Spain. How do you front these shows?
Yeah, Our first ever tour of Europe. Though a mutual friend, the Magnolias hooked up with Kill City Booking in Lille France. Our agent there is Francois Boit. Juancho Lopez contacted me when he got word of our upcoming tour. He wanted to get us into Spain. So he, along with Francois got the ball rolling in Spain.
You have a new album (first in more than 10 years) that includes 13 unreleased demos and outtakes from the past. Which guidelines have you follow for doing it?
Well, putting together a compilation of tracks that were recorded over various years, members, studios and producers was a difficult task. We narrowed it down to the years from 1990 to 1996. We have recorded material that goes back as far as 1985, some of the earlier demos, quality and sonically just didn’t hold up as well as the later recordings. We wanted the strongest recordings and songs. I quess to put it simply, we wanted to include as many unreleased songs that was strong from first song though to the last. The two live songs, the rocker “Torture Yours” and slower, moodier “Where Do You Go?” were written shortly before the group originally broke up in 1997. We never had a chance to record them in the studio. I wanted them on because I think they are great songs.
Are you thinking about recording new songs for a next project? Have you got material enough in your inkpot?
I have enough songs to choose from that we could record a triple album. We would need financial backing to go into the studio. Money is a problem right now. Right right now we are doing all this for fun, and funny thing is that’s the reason we all got into music for in the first place, to have fun.
I have seen the European tour line up includes your old partner Tom Cook (Magnolias’ drummer from 1988 to 1993). Have you been in contact all this time? Would you say this is the best Magnolias line up for you?
These guys are truly my friends. Tom Cook is the igniter, a real go getter, and drums like a clock. Johnny O’Halloran has been the longest tenured player in the Magnolias, been with me since I uprooted him from Boston in 1992. He truly is the essence of rock’n’roll. A James Dean type of character. He also happens to be one of the best bass players on the planet. Eric Kassel, came into the band in 1995, at that time the band was on the verge of collapse. I’m pretty sure, that without him having joined the band, we wouldn’t even be talking about a tour at all. I’d say Eric is the smart one in the band. He takes care of all our graphics and has designed pretty much everything that has the Magnolias name on it. A real quick, ripping lead guitar player too. So yeah, a well rounded line up and great friends.
I suppose that all the changes the band has had all over the years must have been a big obstacle for your perfect continuity. Why do you think that you have forced so many times to change your partners?
Because I’m an asshole. No really, there were issues with drugs, commitment, you name it. I only ask that the others carry their share of the load. I’m not going to babysit anybody.
The band disbanded in 1997 but since 2000 you have been playing sporadically. Why do you think this is happening? What would you say that keeps the band’s spirit alive?
Well we don’t hate each other. We always feel that when we play that we could wipe any band off the stage. Nobody in this band wants to go out and flop on stage. I think it’s instilled in us all to be the best every night. As far as the spirit, we would not do it if nobody cared about us.
In these last years you have been working with other solo projects: The Pushbacks and Action Alert. What can you tell us about these bands? Any future plans for them? Are you working in any other musical projects besides Magnolias?
I put the Pushbacks together within weeks of the Magnolias breaking up in April of 1997. At that time, I really was worn down from anything and everything to do with the Magnolias, my spirit really smashed. I was drinking way too much too. The Pushbacks breathed some new life and energy into me. I started writing more and more. We released one CD in 1999 called “No Strings Attached”. The Pushbacks gigged around the upper midwest of America mostly, played a couple of SXSW’s festivals in Austin Texas. The band broke up in 2000 because I wanted to tour more than the rest. They had other things going on in their lives that made them unable to commit to the band. the Action Alert, Hmmm, started out in late 2000, all guys I knew, tight rocking band, it just never got it’s footing. Had drummer problems and we kinda faded out. Never really broke up, just faded away around 2003. No other projects right now, The Magnolias are my baby.
Your first Magnolias’ show was 23 years ago. What do you see when you look to those years with the eyes of today? How was Minneapolis in 1985 for a kids in love with power pop?
I was 21 then. I’m 44 now. Minneapolis in 1985 was really great. There were less places to play than there is now, but there were so many great bands around, alot of garage rock, alot that you probably never heard of. We signed with Twin Tone Records in early 1986. To be able to get signed by them, with the amount of great bands that were around was a blessing. It enabled us to be a real band, record, tour, and for me to get better as a songwriter. The crowds in Minneapolis has always loved us. We have a very loyal following even today. We are playing a show in Minneapolis a few days before we depart for the European tour.
Before forming the band, what records and artists were you listening and what shows did you see that marked the way you were going to choose?
Oh, even though I was only about 14, in 1977 and 1978 I would go to most every concert I could. I’d spend my paper route money every weekend down at the local record store, Oarfolkjokepus. The Jam, Clash, Sex Pistols, Generation X, Buzzcocks, Undertones, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers I just loved and still can’t get enough of. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers first two albums are fantastic. Cheap Trick. I’d buy all the records and hunt for the newest singles. Two of the best shows I ever saw were in the summer of 1978, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and another show that summer, Cheap Trick on the Heaven Tonight tour, simply blew me away.
Everywhere about The Magnolias someone said you were replacement, Huskur Du and Soul Asylum little brothers. Weren’t or aren’t you tired of this?
I saw in the local newspaper paper about a month ago that had a birthday list, It said Dave Pirner, Soul Asylum 44. I had already turned 44 in February, so he’s actually my little brother. We all came from the same scene, at the same time. I played in a band called the Outpatience in 1981-1983. We used to open for the Replacements alot. I think the fact that we never hit the big time like those bands is the reason we are sometimes called “little brothers” although we are very close in age. It doesn’t really bother me.
Talking about those Minneapolis bands: I think your sound was not so near to their. Your guitars were sharper and your melodies were stronger. In those new wave sounds I think you were more near to melodic punk rock than the others. What do you think?
I wasn’t a fan of Husker Du, so they were not an influence at all. I was on the Replacements side of the fence. Soul Asylum I loved live, but I didn’t listen to there records much. I was a big fan of the Buzzcocks and I think alot of people can pick up on that. But I also loved what Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers did. Kinda of a 70’s version of Chuck Berry. Great,great songs, but mostly rhythm and blues based. That’s what I was mostly trying to do when we first started out, mixing those two together. Though the years I developed my own style of writing, and when you here a Mags song, I think you’ll know it’s us.
I think that your first years (the mid and late eighties) were not a good time for power pop bands. The biggest names have had their time between 5 and 10 years ago but I suppose that after that radios and press, as always happens, lost interest in these sounds. Did you ever feel you were living five years behind of your time?
No, I never really considered us anything but a Rock’n’Roll band. It’s the media that puts on the tags. I felt perfectly at ease with what we were doing then just as I do now. I try to stay away from trends. If you can do that, your music becomes timeless. But I do love Power Pop, and if someone calls us that, I’m ok with it.
You toured all the USA. Which were the best moments in those years? Which bands you liked did you meet in your tours? How were your first visits to the East Coast?
Oh man, any day on the road was a good day for me, I absolutely lived for the road. We did better on the East Coast because it was closer and easier for us to tour. Alot of cities in a small area. Three bands that really stick out to me that I saw and met on the road were, The Voodoo Dolls from Boston, Titanic Love Affair from Champagne Illinois and the Wannabes from Austin Texas. The first time we played New York, we were so paranoid that our van was gonna get stolen, that every time we parked it on the street, we pulled out the coil wire from the engine, so it wouldn’t start if someone tried to steal it. We were wide eyed midwest kids who had never been to the big bad cities of the East Coast. But after awhile, we figured it all out. Still the coil wire idea, in hind site, was pretty smart.
After two good records as “Concrete pillbox” and, specially, “For rent”, in 1989 you left Twin Tone label after recording “Dime store dream”, an album that in your own words was not recorded in the best conditions. It seems your label didn’t want to bet for The Magnolias, did it?
No actually, they pretty much begged us to stay on. I think that they liked what they heard on the demos that we had recently recorded and were impressed with the songs that would be on the next album. The main American distributor, Rough Trade, had filed bankruptcy, and we felt it was time to move on because of that.
But after this record, the incident that impeded you playing Austin SXSW and Kyle Killorin and your old friend Tom Lischmann leaving the band, The Magnolias recorded the best album in its trajectory, the amazing “Off the hook”. How could you get it???
Going into the studio to record it, we knew that this was gonna our best yet. It was a great bunch of well developed songs. And we had worked them to the bone before going in. We just needed a good producer who cared. We went with Tom Herbers, a guy who co-produced “For Rent”and he also had worked on many demos that we had done over the years. He knew us and our sound very well. We took our time on it. We were all very pleased with the results, we felt we had made the perfect album.
How did things change after this record?
We embarked on some really lengthy tours, covering all of America. The first 6 weeks of the tour, we only had Sundays off. We toured everywhere we could, playing every city and college town you can name. We had a new Manager, a new Booking Agent, a new label in Alias Records. We thought this was gong to be the one that got us over the edge so to speak. But our bass player, Caleb Palmiter, left after the first half of the tour and we replaced our guitar player, Kent Militzer as well, bringing Tom Lischmann back. I drove out to Boston and recruited Johnny O’Halloran to play bass. After all the touring was over, we set about making a demo of our new songs. I’m guessing Alias must not have liked the songs, but they never told us why they dropped us.We promoted the album by touring ten times that of any other band on their roster. They told me they were not picking up the option on the contract by phone on Christmas eve 1992.
Same year, 1992, you recorded the “Hung up on” EP. Why did you stop recording till 1996?
No record label interest, nobody would touch us. EMI called once, when I called back I left a message, then I never heard from them again. Funny. We were like the plague or something.
“Street date Tuesday” (1996) was another fantastic record. Next year The Magnolias disbanded. It seems your trajectory was marked by a dark rock’n’roll curse.
Actually, It’s lucky the album ever got made at all. I was ready to hang it up, but my band talked me into giving it one more go. I said I would, but if the tour to support it did not go well, then I was going to leave. We never did do a proper tour for that album. We played our last show then in April of 1997, which marked our 12 anniversary of our first ever show. We had a good run, not everybody can be famous.
Thanks for your time John. I’m really waiting to see your band at Gruta’77, Madrid.
THANK YOU !!! SEE YOU SOON !!!