“I’m not going to get in a van and suffer for my art anymore,” says Chan Poling, vocalist, keyboardist, and songwriter for the Suburbs. These days, he says, the group goes where it’s wanted, when it’s wanted rather than pounding the pavement in every flyover and coastal market imaginable. The real matter at hand is the launch of a new video, for the 2017 track, “When We Were Young”. There is, of course, the unavoidable talk about the past.
The outfit’s 1978 seven-song EP was the inaugural release from the storied Twin/Tone label. From the start, the Suburbs were smart, sophisticated, and well groomed. Bryan Ferry had already proved that one born in the northern sticks could become a suave, urbane showman, and the Suburbs followed suit.
Whereas Englishman Ferry and his band, Roxy Music, may have leaned heavier on the carnal, the nocturnal, the American Suburbs were never afraid to have a laugh, write songs about cows, chemistry sets or settling in for a round of heavy drinks.
In 1984 the group signed with PolyGram and released the more serious-minded “Love Is the Law”, which appeared on the album of the same name. There was plenty of national attention to follow on both radio and television, though by 1987, the Suburbs had shuttered their windows and doors. There would be various reunion gigs scattered here and there. There were also some changes.
Guitarist Bruce C. Allen died in 2009. Bassist Michael Halliday bowed out of the music industry around the same time. Another founding member, Blaine John “Beej” Chaney, left the group before the making of 2017’s Hey Muse!
It’s on that album that we can find “When We Were Young”; it’s the LP’s closing track and a view into Poling’s state of mind, more than 40 years after the band began. Littered with references to those early days and time gone by, the song isn’t overly sentimental. Instead, it’s a snapshot of an era forever gone but also a celebration of having found comfort in renewed shared creativity.
And, all these years later, the Suburbs still garner respect from their peers.
“Our drummer, Hugo Klaers, was talking to Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum the other night at a bar”, Poling says, closing out a 20-minute conversation. “David said, ‘Man, I hate you.’ Hugo said, ‘What? I love you.’ David said, ‘You’ve got the two best guitar players in the Twin Cities, Steve Brantseg,and Jeremy Ylvisaker, in your band! How’d you do that?'”
The video, which was directed and produced by Mariah Crabb and Jeremy Ylvisaker, is made available via the video production house of Advanced Visuals Wealth Management.
It’s possible to hear “When We Were Young” and interpret it in the most literal sense, that this is you looking back on the early days of the band.
It’s probably the most literal thing I’ve ever written, and it’s just as flat-out simple as it sounds. I started this band when I was 19. To have thought of a guy leading a rock band at 60 years old would have been baffling. Each day you wake up, and you’re one day older. It’s a little cliché, but it is a straight-from-the-heart tune.
You started The Suburbs before the Minneapolis scene had gotten the kind of attention it would in the 1980s. The Suicide Commandos had done their record, and the Suburbs and the other Twin/Tone bands were next.
Chris Osgood from the Commandos was my old buddy from the old neighborhood. When I started writing these new tunes, which back in 1977 were influenced by what was just coming up, he was the first guy I went to. I said, “I’ve got these new songs. This is the kind of stuff I’m writing now. What should I do with them?” He was my mentor. He’s a little bit older than me but he introduced me to the original guys in the band. I owe a lot to the Commandos.
You were classically trained. Was it strange for you to dive into rock ‘n’ roll or did you think, “I love all this music, and I want to embrace it all”?
I studied contemporary classical music at Cal Arts and was into the stuff that was happening with Philip Glass, Steve Reich. But when I heard the Sex Pistols and Bowie and Talking Heads, I went, “This speaks to me much more viscerally.” When you’re a teenager that’s what moves your hips more than your mind.
I’ve always heard the stuff you’re talking about as being much closer in spirit than some might think. There’s something that connects Steve Reich with Talking Heads or King Crimson from around that time.
Punk rock and New Wave from that era was the intellectual music. It was way smarter than Toto and Journey, nothing against my fellow musicians. I always thought the punk scene had an edgy intelligence. That appealed to me.
The Minneapolis bands always seemed to have a deeper sense of humor than their contemporaries. Did you have a sense of that?
I remember that in some of my first interviews with New York magazines and the writers would refer to the self-deprecation of the Minneapolis scene. That was the first time I’d heard that phrase. To me, The Suburbs were always about humor. My favorite kind of music is a little nutty and a little funny.
How has it felt to make new music in this decade and have it find an audience?
It was inspiring. I had put making rock records on the back burner. I’ve doing a lot of theatre. I started another group, the New Standards, that’s acoustic. I play the grand piano and I sit down and get to really explore the piano playing part of me. We play with the Minnesota Orchestra, we’ve traveled all around the world with that group. I used to joke and call it my age-appropriate band.
I lost my wife about seven years ago to cancer. That opens your mind a little bit. It lays you bare to your life, to life in general. She always encouraged me and wondered quite a lot why I didn’t play “Love Is the Law” and “Rattle My Bones” and “Cows” which she loved hearing.
We’d lost our guitar player Bruce Allen in 2009, when my wife was still around. We put together a benefit for him with the old guys and started playing. We had to hire a new guitarist and engage a new bass player because Michael Halliday stopped playing. I hadn’t played those songs on a stage like First Avenue in decades maybe. Many, many years. The place was packed, it was nuts. I realized that it was just in my blood. And it was a lot of fun! That’s a pretty good criteria. If you’re having fun, maybe you should do it.
We started noodling around with this new group, and after Eleanor passed away, I found myself with a lot of outpouring of creativity. It’s still coming out, thank God. I had a whole new rock record under my belt and found it to be extremely well received. I was very happy about that. Now I feel like it’s never really stopped.
And I would imagine you don’t have to deal with, “Man, I wish I would have gotten together with the guys when I still had the chance.”
Now I do things that are inspiring and fun. A lot of the reasons that rock bands implode and break up along the way is because you started out so young with all this certainty and ambitions. We made records for PolyGram; we made records for A&M, we toured all over, played with a lot of great people, and we were on the radio. But there’s a certain bar to get over as far as, “Is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life?”
When I had kids, and when it became obvious that I needed to do other things to make a living, all the ambition and the angst of the striving just fell away. Over the years it falls away more and more. You don’t worry quite so much. So, when I sing a song about when we were young, it’s not melancholy. It’s more celebratory, an appreciation.
In Combo and Credit In Heaven still sound very much like now, maybe as much as they sounded like the now of the time in which they were made. I know a lot of people who don’t go back and listen to their old work but when you do hear them are you struck by how good they are?
[Laughs.] Yes, I’m very impressed with my records.
I was at a party a couple of years ago, and there was this great, funky cool record playing. I said, “What is this?” Then it occurred to me that it was “Credit In Heaven.” I’m very proud of them. I think if you try to make something unique and new, it’ll always sound fresh. I heard Gang of Four the other night at a bar, and I was, like, “This is awesome.” The 32-year-old person next to me agreed.
It’s funny, a lot of discerning people, if I may say so, really like that era of music.
I would also imagine that, with the new records, you’re seeing people who are coming into through the door for the first time. And that’s a good place. Plus, some bands have a point of decline. You’re making records that are still as good as, if not better than, the early stuff.
Thank you, man. I don’t want to put out a record that’s just for us the heck of it. When we look out, we see crowds made up of people who are mostly our age. Then again, we were just playing in Madison, and some of the UW kids were right up front singing “Cows” word-for-word.