‘What.’ The story behind the early ’90s St. Paul music TV series, now on YouTube

Chris Strouth knew the drill: rattle off some hipster jargon, make some odd jokes and shine a light on the coolest local bands that nobody else was paying attention to.

It was all part of his gig on What., a St. Paul Neighborhood Network (then called Cable Access St. Paul) show from 1993-1995. It was also rebroadcast on Twin Cities Public Television and cable access channels throughout the Midwest. In over 30 episodes, the show features live performances and interviews with underground local bands — with plenty of campy humor for good measure.

The show was the brainchild of Strouth and SPNN producer Steve Brunsberg, who had met at Rifle Sport, an alternative art gallery in downtown Minneapolis at the time. Both tired of all the media buzz around ’80s greats, they set out to focus on digging into local talent in what was then the present moment.

“Part of What. does is document a lot of things that didn’t really get a chance,” Strouth said in a recent interview. “Some of these bands, you’re gonna have no clue who they are. But at the time, they were the coolest thing.”

Aside from the spirit of underground art, Strouth and Brunsberg prided themselves on production values. Unlike many cable access TV shows, theirs used three or four cameras and had quality sound. The two channeled all the Soul Train and American Bandstand episodes they’d watched as kids and tried to create a place for lesser-known bands to perform live on video — without trying to mirror the music videos on MTV.

“It’s the only time you’ll get like really great footage of bands like Polara, or a nonstylized way of seeing the Cows,” Strouth said.

Strouth said he’d scout out bands who were playing the 7th St Entry, or maybe artists who got airplay on stations like Rev 105 (the now-extinct rock and local music station).

“We picked bands that were working. But really, it was kind of what we liked,” Strouth said. “My whole deal is, I just literally love music as long as it’s real. As long as it’s telling me some truth. It doesn’t even have to be my truth, it’s got to be some kind of honesty or sincerity.”

Each of the episodes is a hidden gem in its own right, but some standout musical guests include Arm (who Strouth says are “one of those bands that people flip out about now because they couldn’t hear them then”) and Vibrochamps, who were one of the few local bands to get national attention at the time, remembered Strouth. Cult favorites the Cows blast away on one episode, and a fantastically odd Christmas special features Bean Girl, who sings a charming song about winning  someone over with a doughnut truck.

Every now and then, some sort of gimmick appears. Sometimes, Strouth would have his comedian roommate come on as a foil character (like playing the capitalist symbol “The Man”). They’d serve waffles during interviews. Godzilla or a UFO would crash the show.

“That was the joy of the show: we could kind of do anything,” Strouth remembered.

Between performances, Strouth would meet bands for an interview at the diner of “Roadside Inn” — an elaborate set piece Brunsberg built.

“A lot of times, especially with weirder bands, I’d ask like, off the wall nonsense, a lot of stuff that’d make bands that wanted to be really serious look human,” Strouth said.

The show ended in 1995. Strouth went on to found the groups Future Perfect Sound System and Paris 1919, and Brunsberg works at SPNN as an operations and productions manager. What. mostly vanished from existence until Brunsberg started remastering the episodes and uploading them to YouTube. Last week, he made the links public and the videos started circulating on social media.

We captured a snapshot of something from that time and it’s in a goofy TV show,” Brunsberg said. “Right from the start I thought it would be a nice archive, time capsule.”