THE MAGNOLIAS
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THE MAGNOLIAS
29 YEARS OF COMPLICATED FUN

 

It's hard to believe it's been over a quarter century since The Magnolias' rock 'n' roll mission began. This period has seen music critics call them "Minneapolis' scruffy also-rans" and "little brothers" of more well-known Twin Cities groups The Replacements, Husker Du and Soul Asylum. Although The Magnolias were a few years younger than these bands, passage of time has revealed what fans knew since the Reagan years — at their best, The Magnolias were, and still are, second to none.

With a twin buzz-saw guitar attack, sturdy yet flexible rhythm section, John Freeman's inimitable caterwauling and top-notch songwriting, the band created a sound that was instantly identifiable, as well as enduring.

Acknowledgments were hastily made by the band to their heroes the Real Kids, The Kinks, The Undertones and Buzzcocks. After that, The Magnolias were off and running with their own youthful style in the winter of 1984. Their first gig came at the Uptown Bar in the Spring of 1985 and it took just a few months for the band to become one of the Twin Cities' most beloved power-pop outfits — no small feat on that burgeoning scene. Opening shows for bands such as The Dead Kennedys throughout the Upper Midwest quickly made The Magnolias a known entity in the region.

It didn't take long for The Magnolias to be scooped up by Minneapolis' homegrown Twin-Tone Records, which was already the stable of The Replacements, Soul Asylum and The Suburbs. The band signed with the label in the spring of 1986 and released its first album, "Concrete Pillbox," produced by Grant Hart of the Huskers, in September of that year.

The Magnolias engaged in intense touring and the band made its first swing to the East Coast following the release of "Concrete Pillbox." The foursome went about deafening what grew into cult followings in cities such as Madison, Milwaukee, Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati, where their name still brings smiles to the faces of aging punks.

By the late 1980s, The Magnolias had branched out country-wide in their travels. When they returned to Minneapolis in 1988, The Mags lowered the boom in the record stores with their Twin-Tone LP followup to "Concrete Pillbox," the more mature and thoroughly developed "For Rent." The title is a nod to The Beatles "For Sale." "For Rent" proved to be an early classic in the band's discography. The 12-song masterpiece showed the group's members had, in just two years, grown dramatically in terms of their confidence and musicianship. The album's production, as well, ranks among the best of the band's early run, with Freeman confirming his aptitude as a composer of economical, hooky, romantic, hard-pop songs.

Adding good-natured drummer Tom "Cookie" Cook to the lineup, The Magnolias went on to release the much-anticipated "Dime Store Dream" LP in 1989, again on Twin-Tone. But it would be the band's last for the label, at least in that illustrious era of Minneapolis pop, and would ultimately be a disappointment to the band and fans alike, due to its poor production. Freeman himself called "Dime Store Dream," which was recorded at Prince's Paisley Park Studio in suburban Minneapolis, "a botched and hurried affair by a very burned-out band and rather uninterested producer."

"It was just recorded in this big cornfield," Freeman recalled. "There was nothing out there ... I mean you couldn't even go down the street for a piece of pizza if you wanted to get away for a while. You could walk around the halls there, but that was it. And we were not in the best studio they had out there, we were in a small one. And I think maybe the instruments just weren't right ... I should have sacked the Strat I was using at the time."

Despite "Dime Store Dream" production values being a let-down, The Magnolias worked the road dilligently in support of the record, playing a US tour from January through March of 1990. On stage, the band always presented spirited renditions of the many great songs from the disc. Tunes such as "Asking the Time," "In My Nightmare" and the anti-heroin number, "Flowin' Thru," managed to catch the ears of MTV executives and the band's video for "Pardon Me" eventually aired several times on the network.

Just as The Magnolias seemed poised to break through to international notoriety, their record distributor, Rough Trade, went belly-up and tension between the band and Twin-Tone reached a peak.

The Magnolias were invited to perform at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Tex. in March of 1991, but nothing came of that opportunity in terms of major-label interest. According to Freeman, on the way to the festival, the band's van broke down in a hail storm six hours north of Austin, causing The Magnolias to miss their scheduled show at the citys premier, 1,200-person capacity Liberty Lunch. With that, the band entered an agreement with fledgling Los Angeles-based Alias Records.

By this time, co-founding band member and lead guitarist Tom Lischmann, as well as bassist Kyle Killorin, had had enough. Kent Militzer and Caleb Palmiter were brought in to replace each, respectively, and although the pair would help create one of the band's three strongest and most well-produced albums, "Off The Hook," they were gone in a year.

"Off The Hook" is a disc Freeman calls one of the band's greatest.

"I think the song-writing came full-circle on 'Off The Hook,'" he said. "There was a cohesiveness to it. There was a variation in the musical style on the album, but everything is still all related. It was produced well and taking the songs together as a whole, I think it was the most consistent thing I did."

The ensuing four years saw The Magnolias working their old stomping grounds in Minneapolis, such as The 7th St. Entry, as well as their regional haunts, O'Cayz Corral in Madison and The Unicorn in Milwaukee. Also on the itinerary were dusty old wedding halls from Green Bay to Sioux City, Omaha to Kansas City, at which The Magnolias would occasionally headline five-band hardcore bills. But the old fire and focus displayed by the group in the past seemed to be on the wane, with members today recalling the mid-'90's as being "a mess" and without a recording contract.

The Magnolias signed a one-off deal in 1996 with the revamped Twin-Tone Records, which had resumed operating as Twin-Tone Records Group. The band went back to the studio one last time that year to record their final full-length masterpiece "Street Date Tuesday." On the album, the band's musical fury and Freeman's angry vocals encapsulate the disgust they must have felt looking back on the missed opportunities and disrespect they were shown by the industry while being deeply revered by the Midwest punk underground.

Fortunately, production values on "Street Date Tuesday" were high, because Freeman never sounded more possessed vocally, going ballistic with his rants on such compositions as "Bullet For A Badman," "Dropping Blood and Names," "Old News" and "Trash Bin." But to add insult to the injury displayed on the disc, a tour to support the record died for lack of interest when club owners balked at the band's substantial requested guarantees and the record label did not provide support it had promised.

The Magnolias withered in the late 1990's and would not be heard from again until a 2000 reunion. Bassist Johnny O'Halloran moved back to the Boston area and when not visiting his beloved Italy, Freeman could be found working anonymously at a downtown Minneapolis tobacco shop, occasionally fronting his solo projects The Pushbacks and the short-lived Action Alert in the Twin Cities and around the Midwest.

The past decade, however, has seen exciting flurries of activity in The Magnolias' camp, with an appearance at SXSW and the release of a compilation of obscure, archival tracks, entitled "Better Late Than Never." This disc was supported by the band's first-ever European tour in 2008. On the inaugural overseas trek, the band hit a dozen cities, including St. Etienne, Biarritz and Paris, France, as well as Madrid and Granada, Spain.

Freeman recounted the stroke of luck that led to the tour.

"An acquaintance of mine, Ross Kersten, had done a tour in Europe with this French agent from Kill City Booking out of Lille, France," Freeman said. "This agent's name was Francois Boit. While on their tour, a Mags tune came up on the tour van's stereo. Francois mentioned that he was a fan of The Mags. Ross told him that he knew me. So that was the hookup."

In 2007, as Boit was filling in dates for The Magnolias' summer European tour of 2008, Spanish booking agent Juancho Lopez from Lizard Music caught wind The Magnolias would be coming to the continent. He quickly wrote to Freeman expressing his interest in setting up shows in Spain.

"Between the planning of the two agents, we played a three-week tour in France and Spain," Freeman said. "We toured France and Spain again in the spring of 2009 for three weeks, this time with more shows in Spain than France, and one show in Portugal."

The European trips have been eye-openers for the band, with members meeting dedicated fans they didn't even know they had.

"The tours were great. Some places were better than others. Some were small, some big," Freeman said. "Francois does not drive, so we all took turns driving. We loved it. Everything was new to us. Most places put you up in hotels and either catered food, or took you out to dinner. We met a lot of great, supportive people along the way."

From 2000 to 2010, the band has experienced numerous lineup changes, but almost every change has meant the return of a member who previously played in the band. O'Halloran played bass on the 2008 tour of Europe, but did not make the 2009 trip. In his place, the band coaxed Killorin back into the fold and he remains an anchor in the rhythm section. Lead guitarist Eric Kassel made the first European tour, but was replaced on the second by former Magnolias member Mike Leonard. Drummer Cook, who played both foreign tours, parted ways with the band in October, 2009. He has been replaced by Freeman's former band mate in The Pushbacks, Pat McKenna.

The bands sound has matured into a distinguished, powerful, pop-punk hybrid. Freeman is surprised the band has lasted as long as it has. "Sometimes I wondered if it would last another week, or maybe another month," he said. "Getting signed to Twin-Tone definitely gave us a comfortable position. It gave us incentive and kept us busy. I've seen a lot of bands disappear that really deserved a lot more attention and respect than they were given."

Steve Sharp