by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Crazy busy at the office this week. which is why I’ve been lax in doing updates. That, and the fact that nothing much is happening…
So this being Throwback Thursday, let’s take a stroll into the Lazy-i Wayback Machine to 11 years ago (almost to the day) to this interview with Son, Ambulance. As described in the lead paragraph, these were the sunny days of Saddle Creek Records when they could do no wrong, and lost in the hoopla was Son, Ambulance, who a year earlier had released what many consider to be their masterpiece, Key.
Son, Ambulance: Black Sheep Squadron
Last year was a banner year for Saddle Creek Records. The label enjoyed its most prolific period, with major releases by The Faint, The Good Life and two chart-topping singles by Bright Eyes that would be a prelude to the band’s two full-length releases, the first-ever Saddle Creek CDs to crack Billboard‘s top 20.
Meanwhile, amidst all the excitement and national notoriety, Saddle Creek quietly released what was arguably one of the label’s best albums of ’04, Son, Ambulance’s Key, with little or no fanfare. There was no CD release show, no major U.S. tour, certainly no stories in Rolling Stone or the New York Times.
The lack of limelight was nothing new for Son, Ambulance, which has been Saddle Creek’s most under-the-radar band since their label debut, 2001’s Oh Holy Fools — a split-release with an emerging Bright Eyes.
Son, Ambulance frontman Joe Knapp was mum when asked about his black sheep status at the label. On an unseasonably warm January evening, he’s surrounded by his band — a rag-tag group of un-tucked slackers — on the porch of the Creighton-area house where they practice. Like a band of brothers, everyone speaks at once, each throwing in his two cents or finishing the other’s sentence. The discussion centered around their last tour and a drunken gig in Las Vegas on the 21st birthday of keyboard player Daniel Knapp, Joe’s brother.
“That was a wild night,” Joe says, smiling. “We drove to California to get to the ocean and watch the sun rise.”
“I just decided to get behind the wheel and drive,” said bassist Jesse McKelvey. “By the time everyone woke up, we were there.”
The birthday boy nodded in appreciation. “I had fallen asleep, obliterated. My ears popped as we drove through the mountains.” As the sun rose over the Pacific, they all fell asleep on the beach. It would be one of their last carefree moments on that tour. Days later, the broken-down ’87 Chevy conversion van that Joe had bought for $750 from an alcoholic gambler in Pacific Junction would begin to die piece by piece, beginning with the transmission in Oregon, forcing them to drive to Seattle in second gear. Afterward, the engine blew a seal and began “vomiting oil” before its last gasp somewhere along an Idaho interstate. They were saved by tour mates, Boston band Victory at Sea. At the very least, the experience made for a good story.
Rounded out by guitarist Dylan Strimple and drummer Corey Broman (who fortunately wasn’t along for the West Coast disaster) Son, Ambulance performs some of the most unrelenting and uncompromising music ever to come out of Omaha. How do they make it work? “It’s like going for a jog,” Joe says. “You just run and run and never stop.”
Key is a departure from Son, Ambulance’s restrained, folky debut full-length — 2001’s Euphemystic — thanks to the relentless urgency of its music. Knapp’s psychedelic ballads pound ever forward on Broman’s double-tap backbeats, Daniel Knapp’s ringing music-box keyboards and Joe’s breathy, pleading vocals that desperately try to convince us that everything will make sense if we just pay attention. Songs like the 7-minute “Sex in C Minor” and arch, dreamy “Chlorophyll” ruthlessly pedal forward, climbing steadily up a long hill with no peak in sight.
All that tension is balanced by laidback piano ballads like the Procol Harum-sounding “Case of You/Wrinkle, Wrinkle,” the mournful “If I Should Fall Asleep” with its Scottish highland violin intro, and the honky-tonkin’ rocker, “Taxi Cab Driver,” complete with a scorching blues guitar lick that would make Keith Richards blush.
The CD is launched by the dense, echoing opener, “Paper Snowflakes,” a track that captures all of the band’s best elements and rolls them into one tune that channels ’70s FM rock radio in all its brazen majesty. Despite the critics’ constant comparisons to Bright Eyes, Key and Son, Ambulance sound like nothing else on Saddle Creek’s varied roster.
Days after our porch discussion, Joe Knapp was more forthcoming when we talked privately via phone from his parents’ home in Ponca Hills, where he was spending time with his son, Neal, who inspired some of the music on the new album. Knapp doesn’t so much see Son, Ambulance as the label’s black sheep as much as the last remaining under-the-radar act that continues to struggle for attention while the rest of the Creek bands bask in a glow of appreciation.
“Saddle Creek is kind of like a big family, and in some ways we’re more of a distant cousin,” he said. “At least it feels that way. They appreciate our work and the music, but don’t give us a lot of help, really, other than, you know, great distribution and some help promoting the album. They’re getting used to Bright Eyes going gold. Why waste their time with us?”
But he quickly added that “that’s all business stuff.”
“That’s not what we’re in it for. We’re in it to make quality music and to express my soul to people. Our fans appreciate us, and that makes me realize that I’m touching people and being understood for what I do. In a sense, we belong on Saddle Creek because we’re a true underground kind of band.”
Maybe too underground. With a European tour slated for this spring, the band is struggling to merely acquire better equipment so that they can sound as good live as they do on disc. On top of that, Knapp says it’s time that they find a manager to take care of their day-to-day business. “Conor (Oberst) has a manager to turn down offers,” Knapp says. “In our case, we need someone to find things for us and raise interest in us.”
Should that happen, and should Key ever find a larger audience, Knapp says he could see Son, Ambulance go from being a part-time gig to a full-time job. Today he splits his time between the band, taking classes at UNO and working at Liberty Elementary School. “I could see it being a bigger part of my life,” he said. “I feel like it’s not ready to die yet, you know? I could see us doing this years from now, just quietly doing our thing.”
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Well, they have been quietly doing their thing. Maybe too quietly, as the band hasn’t played live in quite a while. There was talk of a new album, but its status is unknown (to me, anyway). Son, Ambulance remains one of my favorite bands released on Saddle Creek Records, held like s secret among its fans. Here’s hoping some day a larger audience discovers the gold buried right under their noses.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2016 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.