L-r: Rob Graber, Bill Graber, and Scott Macdonald of Arcwelder (via Facebook)
Music history is full of surprises. A couple of weeks ago, I was digging through the Minnesota Historical Society’s archive of First Avenue/7th St Entry shows. Along with well-known acts like the Replacements and the Jayhawks, one unfamiliar band name kept popping out at me: Arcwelder (née Tiltawhirl), who’ve played at least 29 shows at the Entry and more than a dozen in the Mainroom. In their 30 years as a band, they’ve opened for Minnesota legends Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland. And what’s more, they’re still active; Arcwelder will perform tonight (Oct. 14) at the Turf Club with New Age Healers, Jason Narducy, and Grand Tradition of Nothing. Ahead of the show, I interviewed members Rob Graber and Scott Macdonald.
Cecilia Johnson: I was thinking we could start out talking about the Entry. I feel like you guys should get an honorary title for playing there so many times. How do you feel about that room?
Rob Graber: It’s probably the place that we feel most comfortable playing. It’s where we started out playing. And we didn’t realize how well-run — how good it sounds and how well they take care of people there — until we started playing other places. You’re like, “Oh, the Entry is a pretty damn nice club.”
There was a time between ’89 and ’92 that we played the Entry probably twice a month. [laughs] I mean, we played with Rifle Sport once a month, practically. Theirs is the name that’s over the door, because they’ve played there the most.
How do you decide it’s time for another Arcwelder show now?
Scott Macdonald: Time passes. [laughs]
Graber: Used to be we would get called. That doesn’t happen so much anymore.
Macdonald: But it happens a little.
Graber: Yeah, like playing for Grant [Hart] in July. Lori Barbero called us.
Could you tell me about your experience at that show? Did you know he was sick, or no?
Macdonald: Lori clued us in before she asked us to play. I can’t say we were close friends — just acquaintances.
Graber: Lori asked us ’cause of musical styles, more than anything else. ‘Cause we were from that generation. We’d been around him a bunch of times over the years.
Opening for Nova Mob.
Graber: And we’d see him at First Ave occasionally. One time after a show at the Turf Club, he just came, and we watched the show. We sat there for, like, two hours after the show just talking.
Macdonald: We did three songs [for the tribute], but we started out with six of them, and by the end of three of these songs, I found out that I’d practically shredded my voice trying to sing Grant’s parts. [imitates hoarse voice] “We can’t do six songs! We have to pick three.”
I didn’t talk to Grant that night, but as an audience member, I can say this. [At the Hook] the dressing room’s upstairs, and there was no way Grant is going to make it upstairs in the condition he’s in. So it’s just him and his guitar walking through the crowd with everyone patting him on the back.
Graber: That’s pretty emotional.
Macdonald: It was really strong. It got you right in the heart.
I’ve been reading Cyn Collins’s book Complicated Fun. Is it weird to see people you know in books like that, or not really?
Macdonald: A little. It’s kind of exciting, because it’s all these stories that I hadn’t heard. To hear the [Suicide] Commandos talk about the crazy parties they’ve had, or the idea bulb hat. The [Mighty] Mofos chapter in that book was enlightening, too.
Do you find that people you shared bills with way back when have stuck around?
Graber: There seems to be a core of people who stick around. The people who come to our shows now are largely the same people who did in the ’90s. It’s a little more sedate; it clears out a little faster after the show. But it’s basically the same as always: loud, fast.
Macdonald: There’s still the same energy. Some of the initial inspiration was seeing the Replacements and Soul Asylum on stage, jumping all over the place, and I’d take Rob and Bill [Rob’s brother, the third member of the band] to go see those guys. I think that rubbed off on them.
Graber: I loved Soul Asylum back in the mid-to-late ’80s, when they would put on a show that would pin you to the back of the wall. It was the most intense, and I loved that. Then, their sound guy, Eric Pierson, started doing sound for us.
For someone new to your music, which album would you recommend people check out?
Graber: That’s hard for us to say. Most other people would say Pull. It was the first one that was popular outside of a small group of people. I mean, there are songs on other albums that I like as well or better, but for most people, that’s the center of the sound of the band.
Do you have a favorite city or experience from touring?
Macdonald: Well, Chicago was always great.
Graber: Yeah, I used to be super intimidated by Chicago, because of all the people there I wanted to play well in front of. I’d play, and then I’d go hide in the basement.
I would say playing in London and Barcelona were super cool things to be doing.
We actually played Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream record release party in Chicago. I can’t believe we were on that show. Their hometown, the record release for their big album, and we were the opening act. The middle opening act.
I’m curious about how you see local music in its current state, or how some of the musicians in contemporary bands would see Arcwelder.
Graber: I have no clue. I think this is a brain plasticity thing, but pick good music now, because it’s with you for the rest of your life. I have an affinity for that [heavier] sound from the late ’80s to the mid-to-late ’90s, because that was what I liked in that era. Now, it feels like popular music has lost all of its aggression, and I was really a fan of that cathartic, loud…
In radio pop, I definitely don’t.
Graber: But also, as I’m less connected to music on a daily basis, you start to only hear what’s promoted. I think if you go back to the time of all that music I liked, and you listened to what was popular, I wouldn’t necessarily like that either. So now, I’m like, “What happened to music?” Well, I stopped listening.
Macdonald: I’m not convinced that there aren’t bands out there I wouldn’t like. It’s more that, since I’m a 9-to-5-er, if I go out on a weekend, it gets harder and harder to recover that. I do go out every in a while, though. The last band I really got into was probably Soviettes.
Graber: You want to know something I don’t think anyone’s ever asked? About the bass tuning.
Graber: All four strings of the bass are tuned to the same note. They’re all Ds. We just keep tuning each string down. And within three minutes of tuning it like that, we played what ended up to be “Pint Of Blood,” our first single.
You know, it’s really hard to do walking bass parts. So for a lot of stuff, we strung it like a guitar and just strum it. It’s more rhythm-based, and it fills up the bottom.
That’s wild. Why Ds?
Graber: I think it’s because it’s because we started with Drop D [tuning]. That’s what you do on a guitar [to sound like] Nirvana, Foo Fighters. On a bass, it’s E down to a D; A down to a D; D stays the same; G down to a D. It changes the lowest note you can play, and it sounds great live.
Arcwelder play the Turf Club tonight, with doors at 7 p.m. New Age Healers, Jason Narducy, and Grand Tradition of Nothing open.