Column 67 — The Return of The Protoculture…

Category: Blog — @ 1:18 pm March 9, 2006

The timing is a bit askew on this week’s column. The Protoculture show is not this Sunday, but a week from this Sunday — March 19 at O’Leaver’s, with Kite Pilot. I didn’t see any reason to sit on this story for a week, however. The only thing missing from the column is a description of the band’s new material. The original Protoculture recordings are intricate little marvels of post-punk pop. The new stuff, of which I was lucky enough to hear a rough mix, is much more dense sounding even though it’s the same three-piece we all know and love. Track “Formerly a Feeling” has a guitar sound reminiscent of Mercy Rule. “Airplanes and Fireflies” features Erica Petersen-Hanton on vocals and is poppier than any other Protoculture song I’ve heard (very near Kite Pilot territory). Final track, “The Brightest Twilight,” is closest to the old Protoculture sound. It all rocks, of course, as does the mysterious never-released fifth track from the Whoop Ass sessions. The band has no clue as to how they’re going to put this out. “I can’t see someone locally putting out something by us,” said drummer Koly Walter, adding that the CD is a “one-time thing. Saddle Creek wouldn’t be interested. We’re not a Speed! Nebraska-type band. (Dave) Goldberg started a new label, but we’re not really their thing, either.” That means the CD will likely be available (eventually) as a self-released CDR type deal with no distribution outside of their gigs. A shame, because I think there’s an audience out there for this music. The Protoculture really is a revelation in that they combine the best qualities of math- and post-punk with a true pop sensibility (and you can dance it, too). Though the proposed compilation CD may be a one-off, the band’s performance a week from Sunday isn’t. The Protoculture plans to continue performing together into the foreseeable future. Walter said both The Stay Awake and Chicago’s Head of Femur have voiced interest in playing with them.

Column 67: My New Laugh
The Protoculture are back
It was 1997 or ’98, I don’t remember which, but it was definitely one of those times when Omaha’s music scene was curving downward oh so slightly. A number of good bands had broken up or simply quit. Nothing interesting seemed on the horizon. Not yet.

So I made my usual trek down to the Antiquarium to see Dave Sink. I could always count on Dave to load me up with hope in the form of amazing records that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. It was Dave that introduced me to Mousetrap. It was Dave that explained Simon Joyner. It was Dave that slid a copy of his Frontier Trust 7-inch into my record pile.

Things were different this time around, though. Dave didn’t have much to recommend. “It all sounds like crap to me,” he said, clearly uninspired by the latest efforts, be they from Omaha or points far away. “Except for this.”

He handed me a 7-inch with a black and white sleeve by a band called The Protoculture. “You may want to check these guys out,” he said. And so, I took the record home and played it. And played it and played it.

The single, “Driving a Stolen Car on a Borrowed Road” b/w “My New Laugh” was a revelation. The sound combined the ominous detached pop of early Talking Heads with the tense, post-hardcore posture of Fugazi and the volatile dissonance of Polvo. At the chorus (if you can call it that) three angry voices screamed “My new laugh will kill your smile.” Pure genius.

I was writing about music for one publication or other at the time, and realized I’d found the next band that I wanted to write about. So I called Dave, asking how I could get in touch with The Protoculture. “You’re too late,” he said. “They’re done.”

I never got to see them play live. And from the sound of it, not too many others did, either. But that’s about to change. The original line-up of Clayton Petersen, guitars/vocals; little sister Erica Petersen, bass/vocals, and Koly Walter, drums/vocals, are at it again. Last weekend I finally got my interview with the band over coffee at The Blue Line. I had my copy of the 7-inch in hand, and told them what a poppy, angsty, angular masterpiece it was. They just smiled.

One of the reasons The Protoculture called it quits in the summer of ’98 was that they weren’t feeling the love, from anyone. “We never realized people actually liked us,” Walter said. “We had shows at The Cog Factory and we played with The Faint at Sokol, and no one showed up, maybe because when we moved to Omaha, we didn’t know anyone.”

The band formed in ’96 in Kearney, where all three attended college. They moved to Omaha a year later and tried to establish themselves playing with bands like Bright Eyes, Opium Taylor and Simon Joyner. In the end, though, they never drew a following. A year later, and it was over. Clayton got married and wound up working as a financial analyst at First National Bank, where he is today. Walter said after the breakup he spent months in solitude, working at M.J. Java and reading Russian novels until he landed a gig at McMillan Magnet school doing what he still does today — teaching 7th Grade World Cultures. Erica also fell into seclusion. Turning down an offer to join The Faint, she focused on playing guitar and performing music solo. She eventually joined Son, Ambulance, and later, formed Kite Pilot with the guy who would become her husband, Todd Hanton.

And that would have been the end of the story, except that in the middle of their brief two-year history The Protoculture got together with A.J. Mogis at Whoop Ass Studio in Lincoln and recorded five songs. Two would end up on that single I bought from Dave Sink, followed a few months later by another self-released single, “Cloud Named Girl” b/w “Condescendence.”

A copy of the first single found its way on Clayton’s kids’ Fisher-Price record player. “The kids would play the record and sing along to ‘My New Laugh,’ and I started thinking about those old songs and how we needed to write the final chapter,” he said. “I figured we’re all here in Omaha. Why not?”

Erica had the same idea, and the two began bombarding Walter with emails at McMillan. Last November they began practicing in Erica’s basement. “It all came back with surprising ease,” Clayton said.

So did the songwriting. In January, the band recorded three new songs in Erica’s basement with husband Todd behind the board. The plan calls for releasing the new material, along with tracks from the two singles and the fifth unreleased song from the Whoop Ass sessions.

And on March 19 at O’Leaver’s, after waiting for eight years, I’ll finally get to see The Protoculture perform live. I won’t be alone. In their absence, the band has become something of a legend among local music followers. I tell them this and can see by the look on their faces that they’re not buying it. “At least our parents will be there,” Clayton said, “and my wife.”

Oh my, are they in for a surprise….

One final addendum to this column. I asked the band what was their biggest exposure they received the first time ’round. They only played maybe a dozen shows locally, including an opening slot for Simon Joyner at a gig held in a rehearsal space inside The Rose Theater. “John Peel played our single on his radio show,” Walter said. “Dave Sink acquired a recording of it from someone he knew in Sweden.”

“Peel said something like ‘With a clever title like this (Driving a Stolen Car on a Borrowed Road) it better be good,'” Clayton said.

“People called in to hear it again,” Walter added, “So he played the song once more on his show. It was nice to know that someone somewhere liked it.”

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