Column 331: Tilting at Windmills with Big Harp; The Get-Up Kids return tonight…

Big Harp

Big Harp


Column 331: Big Harp: One Attempt at a Perfect Life

by Tim McMahan,

Somewhere on a sun-baked highway in Southern California drives the Senseney family. Presumably in a mini-van.

Behind the wheel is father, Chris, navigating the straight-arrow route from their home in Los Angeles to Palm Springs. His wife, Stefanie Drootin-Senseney, leans over and adjusts a strap on the car seat that holds baby Twila, age 11 months, while brother Hank, who will be 3 in September, cranes his little neck toward the window, waiting for the giants to appear.

The giants in Hank’s world stand upright, one right next to the other, each with three heads that spin around a single eye, all facing the same direction like a row of sentries guarding the hilltops.

“Hank wanted to see the windmills that make electricity,” Chris said. “We found them, and he was happy at first, but he didn’t like it that we couldn’t go into the windmills.”

Golden family moments like this are one of the reasons the Senseneys moved to Los Angeles.

The story began three years ago in Omaha. Chris was the frontman to arty folk-rock band Baby Walrus, as well as a sideman in a handful of other acts including Art in Manila and Flowers Forever. Stefanie played bass in Saddle Creek Records band The Good Life as well as in her own project, Consafos.

“We’d seen each other around Omaha,” Chris said, “but we didn’t really know each other until the tour.” The tour was a joint road trip between Art in Manila and The Good Life. “It just kind of happened. We kind of hung out during the tour, now here we are with all these babies.”

Their move to Los Angeles was driven more by convenience than rock ‘n’ roll. Stephanie’s parents live out there, an eager pair of babysitters. Chris’ home in Valentine, Nebraska, also was an option, but “there’s not much of a music scene there,” Chris said.

Music wasn’t on his mind much at first, anyway. Perhaps out of a sense of duty or roll-playing tradition, Chris got fitted with a cubicle inside an LA advertising agency, where he joined the legions of Americans who toil behind a computer from 9 to 5.  Still, he never quit writing music.

Big Harp, self-titled debut (2011, Saddle Creek Records)

Big Harp, self-titled debut (2011, Saddle Creek Records)

“It seemed to make more sense to at least make another record and put it out and tour on it and see what happens,” he said. And so, Chris and Stephanie created Big Harp, and fleshed out Chris’ simple story ballads, sung with a smoky, throaty yowl similar to Mr. T. Waits or Mr. R. Newman or Mr. D. Berman or Mr. S. Merritt. They got their friend, Pierre de Reeder of Rilo Kiley fame — whose daughter is around Hank’s age — to let them use his studio and record their songs over the course of three days.

They sent the recording around to some labels and got a few bites, but it was their old friends at Saddle Creek Records who took the bait. “There was some back and forth,” Chris said. “They wanted to make sure we were willing to tour and do other things bands do.”

And so, on Sept. 13 Saddle Creek Records will release the debut full length by Big Harp, but before that happens…

Somewhere on a sun-baked Midwestern highway drives the Senseney family headed to Omaha. Presumably in a mini-van.

Sharing the back seat with Hank and Twila is a drummer, and maybe one more band member, along with someone charged with looking after the kids when mom and dad are on stage. Just like their search for the windmill giants, touring is a family affair.

“We’ll try to have one of our moms along or try to find a friend who can come with us,” Chris said of the tour logistics. “We’re going to do whatever we can to make it work. It’s not the easiest thing to do with kids, it’s a little harder, but we can manage. The only concern is we’re going to have to make more stops along the way, and we’re not going to be sleeping on people’s floors. It’s going to be more of a production, but that’s okay. I think it’ll be fun.”

In some ways, Friday night’s show at The Slowdown is a return to the scene of the crime, though Stephanie has made trips back and forth between Omaha and L.A. to coordinate her new project, Omaha Girls Rock (, a much-needed organization focused on providing support for girls who want to try their hand at making rock music. Helping her is an army of the area’s best talent — members of Omaha’s tight-knit creative community who are more like an extended family, a type of family that doesn’t exist for them in L.A. It’s something that the Senseney’s have learned to live without.

“It’s different now, we have our own family,” Chris said. “Most of the creativity stuff happens at home. I’m doing this with my wife, someone who’s always around me. We have each other to work with; we have our own creative community.”

Life for the Senseney family seems, well, kind of perfect.

“I don’t know if it’s perfect,” Chris said, “but we’re all really happy where we are right now. We’re looking forward to getting the record out, hitting the road and bringing the kids along, and seeing if we can make it perfect.”

Big Harp plays with The Grisly Hand and Gus & Call Friday, July 8, at The Slowdown, 729 No. 14th St. The show starts at 9 p.m., tickets are $7. For more information, go to

* * *

I first interviewed Kansas City self-proclaimed emo band The Get-Up Kids way back in 2002 when they were arguably at the height of their popularity (you can read that story here). Three years later the band called it quits after a decade in the business. A year after that, I interviewed then-former Get-Up Kid Rob Pope as a member of Merge Records band White Whale (read that one here). When asked if he still listens to his Get-Up Kids output, Pope said he hadn’t. “I’m sure I will at some point for novelty’s sake,” he said. “The last time I did listen to it, it took me back to when I was 18, which was cool. I still appreciate music I listened to when I was that old, but, really, do you listen to the music you listened to when you were 18?”

Well, Rob, now not only will you get to listen to it again, you’re getting to play it again, as the band has reunited with a new album released this past January called There Are Rules out on their own Quality Hill Records imprint (rather than old label, Vagrant). Now you, too, can relive those 18-year-old memories all over again tonight when The Get-Up Kids play at The Waiting Room with The Globes and Major Games. $19, 9 p.m.

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — 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 © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


Column 321: Omaha Girls Rock is about more than rock ‘n’ roll; Jonathan Richman tonight…

Category: Blog,Column — Tags: , — @ 12:53 pm May 5, 2011

Omaha Girls Rock logoColumn 321: Omaha Girls Rock is about more than rock and roll

by Tim McMahan,

I was drawn to Slowdown last Sunday night not only because the lineup was stellar (Fortnight, Honeybee and Hers, Conduits and The Good Life), but because I was down with the message behind organization “Omaha Girls Rock.”

But before we get to that, let’s turn to Stefanie Drootin, founder and executive director of OGR. As a member of The Good Life, Drootin is among the best bass players Omaha has ever seen. When I asked her about her motives behind forming OGR, she recalled a story that she characterized as a “funny example,” that was anything but funny.

“Years back, when The Good Life was touring with Rilo Kiley, we were at a Brooklyn club during sound check and the bouncer kept trying to kick me and Jenny Lewis out of the club,” she said. “We told him we were in the band, and he said, ‘No you’re not, you’re groupies following the boys.’ And I said ‘Dude, Jenny’s the lead singer.‘”

It would be easy to simply chock this up as just another example of a thick-headed bouncer who’s suffered one too many blows to the head, except there’s obviously more to it than that, and Drootin knew it, along with every other touring woman musician who’s been asked, “So which dude in the band is your boyfriend?” or “Hey merch girl, where do you want to set up your table?”

Because despite the efforts of Janis Joplin and Tina Weymouth and Patti Smith and Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry and Ani Difranco and Liz Phair and Siouxie Sioux and Kim Deal and Mia Zappata and Kat Bjelland and Tina Turner and Shirley Manson and Beth Gibbons and Joni Mitchell and Heidi Ore and Stef Drootin and every other woman who’s strapped on a guitar or sat behind a drum kit or keyboard or stood alone behind a microphone at the front of the stage, rock ‘n’ roll has always been perceived as a boy’s club. A club where women on stage are viewed as oddities or gimmicks or eye candy or “obviously” someone’s girlfriend (especially if she plays bass). Where a girl with a guitar is not a musician, but a “female musician.” Where any band in which more than half the musicians are women is referred to as a “girls group” (and when was the last time an all-male band was called a “boys group”?).

Drootin knows this. So do the 29 other musicians and people involved in our music scene who are listed on the volunteers page of It’s a list that could also double as a roll call of some if the best musicians in the Midwest who just happen to be women. It’s a list that’s way, way too short. Drootin knows this, too.

That’s why she put together Omaha Girls Rock, an organization whose vision statement reads: “Our ultimate goal is to provide a support system enabling and encouraging girls to design their own futures and to realize those designs.” Sure, it’s about giving girls the confidence to pick up an instrument and form a band, but Drootin says it’s more than just rock and roll.

“Our workshops are not just about music, though that’s a lot of it since it’s a rock camp,” she said. “The workshops also deal with self esteem, body image, stuff so girls feel confident no matter how they’re treated. I feel like I was lucky that I had the confidence to be able to deal with a lot of the stuff that goes along with being a girl in a band.” Unfortunately, not all girls are so lucky.

Participation in the program doesn’t require previous music experience. The day camp, to be held at UNO’s music department July 11-15, is for any girl ages 8-18. Upon arriving at camp, girls will be checked in by a faculty member before assembling themselves into bands. Every day they will receive instruction in their chosen rock instrument (guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards or drums); attend two workshops on subjects ranging from self-esteem to songwriting; and have rehearsals guided by a “band manager” (counselor) in preparation for the final showcase, slated for July 16. Along the way, the program will develop and hone life skills, such as cooperation and creative thinking, and participants will emerge as confident and capable young women “sure of their voices, and of their worth.”

“A lot of girls think you have to be a singer or the token girlfriend bass player to be in a band,” Drootin said. “We’re saying you can be whoever you want to be.”

Her vision for Omaha Girls Rock is ambitious. Future efforts include going to schools and recruiting girls to get involved in music and in rock. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she said. “This is our pilot year, and we want to make this as huge as we can, but we’ve got to take the first step, which is band camp.”

It’s safe to say I, along with most of the 200+ at Sunday night’s fund raiser weren’t thinking about the organization’s problem statement or gender issues or the role of women in rock when we were watching Drootin and the rest of The Good Life kick out songs from the band’s enormous catalog of songs. We were just loving the music, and that’s the way it should always be.

To find out more or to get involved in Omaha Girls Rock, go to

* * *

Mr. Modern Lovers himself, Jonathan Richman, is playing at The Waiting Room tonight with, I guess, nobody, as no opening acts are listed. I take it back, it sounds like he’ll be joined by a drummer, and will be singing in no less than five languages, based on this Reverb review of Tuesday night’s show in Denver. $13, 9 p.m.

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — 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 © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.