Steve Sutherland, Jimmy Peterson, Zack Norton, and Josh Christenson collectively bring decades of music-making to a somber, vintage Americana sound that evokes abandoned small-town main streets and snowy railroad tracks that lead nowhere.
Sutherland and Peterson, both in their 50s, are longtime friends and collaborators. Drummer Sutherland comes from a rock band background while singer-songwriter-guitarist Peterson is best known for his work with alt-country group Bellwether. Though Peterson has also played in rock bands, when he started writing new songs five years ago, what emerged was reminiscent of Bellwether’s folksy, alt-country style. Peterson pestered Sutherland to join him in a new venture, which they named Trempealeau. The buddies began playing as a duo but later added Norton on bass and Christenson on steel guitar.
A still under-the-radar outfit at work on its full-length debut album, Trempealeau is a band you’d be wise to discover now before the rest of the world catches on. We spoke with Sutherland and Peterson ahead of the band’s show at the Aster Café on Saturday.
City Pages: Your band is named after a town in Wisconsin, right?
Jimmy Peterson: Yeah. Trempealeau is kind of interesting. It’s kind of an antiquated town. It looks like a town from the Civil War or something. Our music harkens back to antiquity, folky, simple. We kind of thought that was cool; number one that you name it after an actual town and number two that it’s not even a town, it’s just a couple buildings and a street.
CP: What experiences informed the band’s songs?
Steve Sutherland: Playing with me for 10 years has informed a lot of the lyrical content.
JP: [Laughs] Comedy. As you get older you start to—this sounds cheesy—there’s a lot of nostalgia. A different sort of sentiment than rock. These songs are maybe a little bit more personal. You get older, you get nostalgic. I think it’s unavoidable.
CP: What do you two wish you had known about music when you were younger? What would you tell your younger selves?
JP: [Laughs] That’s great. There’d be a long list there. If you’re making music, you’ve got to be making music for the right reasons. When you’re younger, you’ve kind of got the devil in your eye. When you’re older, it’s nice because you can relax and say what you want to say. You don’t necessarily care about what other people think when you get a little older. You kind of do it for yourself.
SS: Jimmy was coming from, previously, a more alt-country situation [with Bellwether] and kind of ramped up to music that was anything but gentle. I was sort of the inverse. I’ve always done more of the rock thing. Playing this music is not only an education, it’s just much more subtlety. I used to play with baseball bats for sticks and now I play exclusively with brushes. If I were to look back at my former self, I might be surprised at the fact that I’m holding these metal wires in my hands now.
CP: How’s the debut album coming along?
JP: It’s going good. It takes time.
SS: We’ve been recording with Tom Herbers, who’s recorded a lot of great music, locally and beyond. We’ve been working with him at a studio with a lot of history called Creation Audio on Nicollet. A lot of great history has come through the building. It goes back into the Jazz Messengers up through more modern times with the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum. It’s always fun to be back in there. It’s amazing that it still remains active.
CP: Do you find that space inspiring?
JP: Oh, yeah, It’s beautiful. It’s a great place.
SS: Jimmy and I have both recorded a lot of projects together and apart there. It’s a special place that just keeps tickin’.
CP: What is it like working with Tom?
SS: We love working with Tom. I think Tom is one of the best around at capturing sounds very accurately and has a wonderful talent of understanding the music. From a wonderful mic collection to a lot of history in town, he’s great. He and I had a recording studio back in the day called Third Ear Recording. I’ve known Tom for many years, as has Jimmy.
CP: Where are you in the recording process?
JP: We’ve probably got about seven songs that are close to being done. We’re going to make a record that’s shorter. We have a lot of material but the first one will probably be seven or eight songs. It’s going to be ready in a couple months.
CP: You seem pretty relaxed about the whole thing. Is that typical of how you approach music?
JP: It’s kind of music for music’s sake at this age. When you’re 20, you’re frantically playing insane music, trying to bash people over the head. Now we just sort of enjoy what we’re doing. That’s kind of nice.
CP: Does the debut album have a name?
JP: There’s a lot of songs that have titles that we’ve thought about. But no, I guess we haven’t named it yet.
SS: We have to enter that phase again. We have a hard time naming things. There’s a list of 1,000 names.
JP: We like to make lists. We make long lists.
SS: Anything we decide on is something that should have been thought about in about four seconds but it takes us a little longer than usual. We’re troubled in that way.
With: Ryan Holweger
Where: Aster Café
When: 9 p.m. Sat. Nov. 25
Tickets: $7; more info here