The year was 1975 and on the pre–disco music scene in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, cover bands ruled. Outside of a handful of bars and campus coffeehouses that comprised the local folk/blues scene, working musicians had little choice: If you wanted a paying gig, you had to play other people’s hit songs. But when the Suicide Commandos played their first gig in September 1975 at the Blitz Bar in downtown Minneapolis, they changed everything.
Here, suddenly, was a real “alternative rock” –a stripped–down three–piece comprised of guitarist Chris Osgood, bassist Steve Almaas, and drummer Dave Ahl (all of whom sang), whose sets combined original songs with rarely–heard pre–punk nuggets. And every tune was delivered with the raw energy that once had fueled the fabled Twin Cities garage–rock scene of the 1960s, when bands like the Litter, the Underbeats, and the Trashmen ruled the roost.
From these humble beginnings grew one of the most fertile and productive scenes of the American indie/alternative rock explosion of the 1980s and ‘90s. The Suicide Commandos’ pioneering efforts paved the way for the Suburbs, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, and so many more.
Forty–two years after that crucial first gig, the Suicide Commandos have released a new album, Time Bomb – only the second full–length studio set in their long history, following on Suicide Commandos Make A Record (Blank/Mercury, 1978). Time Bomb welds together all of the trio’s primal influences with catchy–as–hell new songs, contemporary studio sonics, and a level of performing energy that’s fairly astonishing for three guys who, post–Commandos, continued to play music as solo artists, in duos, and/or with other bands. The passing decades have made the Commandos into better players and sharper songwriters, each man contributing his distinctive style and sensibility to the thirteen original compositions that comprise Time Bomb.
“I think Time Bomb is a good title,” says Steve Almaas, “because while we’re doing something new that we couldn’t have done back then, we’re revisiting the influences that brought us together originally. There’s a really high intention–to–execution ratio on this record.”
“Making an album is a big step,” Chris Osgood admits. “The impetus really came from Steve, who called me after Tommy Ramone died [in July 2014]. He said, ‘All of the Ramones are gone but all the Suicide Commandos are alive. Do you have any songs kicking around?’ My first response was ‘No, I don’t!’ But we’d been playing together two or three times almost every year since ‘96, with Steve and Dave each contributing a song or two that came into the live set.”
Drummer/vocalist Dave Ahl explains: “We’d hoped to make an album to mark our 40th anniversary in 2015…but it took us a couple more years. Steve had one song [Time Bomb’s opening flag–waver “Hallelujah Boys”] that we’d played at some of the reunion gigs; Chris and I had one we’d been playing in an acoustic version [“Cocktail Shaker”]. Once we’d agreed to make an album, it just went from there.”
For the Commandos, Time Bomb brings it all back home in some other significant ways. In April 2016, after four days’ rehearsal and two sold–out shows with Bob Mould at fabled First Avenue, the band cut all the basic tracks for Time Bomb with engineer Kevin Bowe in just three days’ work at Master Mix Studios in Minneapolis. Mixing was entrusted to Mitch Easter at Fidelitorium Recordings in North Carolina. “Mitch really brought his ‘A–game’ to this record,” says Steve. “None of us were even there for the mixing sessions! A perfect example is the rave–up in ‘If I Can’t Make You Love Me’ – we just talked to him about that section ahead of time and Mitch realized it perfectly.”
Chris Osgood calls Easter’s contribution “enormous. There are things that he created out of whole cloth, like through his use of reverb. On Steve’s song ‘Mean Time,’ there’s kind of a swell just before my 12–string solo – that’s totally Mitch. Bruce Templeton at Microphonic Mastering also made a major contribution.”
The band contacted Paul Stark who instantly agreed to release the project. Paul and veteran music executive Peter Jesperson arranged to issue the album on a revived Twin/Tone Records, the pioneering Minneapolis indie they co–founded in 1977 with the late Charley Hallman. (The Suicide Commandos would’ve been the first act to release an LP on Twin/Tone had they not chosen to sign with Blank Records, an imprint created by future Metallica and AC/DC managers Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch.)
The songs themselves are rife with references to the Suicide Commandos’ musical roots and shared Minnesota history. “Cocktail Shaker,” written and sung by Dave Ahl, name–checks blues man Dave “Snaker” Ray: The two musicians played together for several years in the ‘80s. Chris Osgood’s “Pool Palace Cigar” is classic Commandos boogie, the lyrics invoking the band’s earliest gigs beyond the Minneapolis city limits. “In Faribault or Marshall or Owatonna,” Chris recalls, “there was always some local poolroom where we’d go to play pinball and hang out before the gig.”
“Pool Palace Cigar was not the actual place where this happened. But it was one of those places and represents the mentality of one small town where a little person, a midget, showed up regularly to be abused by the regulars, who beat him up and then went back to what they were doing. That’s what inspired the line that goes ‘It’s the American dream writ small / Beat up someone smaller and you get to feel feel tall…’”
“Frogtown” started with Dave Ahl, who recalls: “I had all the words ready to go and I asked Chris to help me with the chords, which took him about fifteen minutes. It was Steve’s idea to have a female rant in there, so we asked Phyllis Wright, a comedian and actress from Minneapolis. She had the perfect voice for what I was looking for.”
The darkly humorous “If I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the album’s only three–way co–write, features a “rave–up” instrumental break reminiscent of the Yardbirds medley that (per Steve) “was one of the Commandos’ big party pieces, back in the day…Chris added a musical saw along with that distorted harmonica and voice. There’s also a little nod to our late friend Bruce Allen of the Suburbs.”
Steve Almaas’ “When I Do It, It’s O.K.” was “a song that I wrote in ’96 for the first Suicide Commandos reunion. We played an outdoor festival on Lake Street in Minneapolis, and I swear it looked like there were 10,000 people watching! We played and it was really powerful – I thought then ‘shit, we should make a record!’ – but the time wasn’t right. Fast–forward twenty years, and Dave had established his business of building recording studios and fine–tuning listening rooms. He’d gotten some new gear for his house, so that he and Chris could work on songs in a comfortable setting. And of course in 1996 you couldn’t work on tracks long–distance, and now you can.”
If a single song could be said to sum up Time Bomb’s vibe, it might be Chris Osgood’s “Late Lost Stolen Mangled Misdirected” – in particular, the line “Sometimes something broken gets resurrected…”
“In a way, that song is about this entire project,” Chris muses. “Not that we were ‘broken,’ exactly, but at our age we’ve been all those things. I like to think that it’s a hopeful song. The title comes from the disclaimer used for all sorts of contests and promotions: ‘Not responsible for entries that are,’ etc. Maybe it’s about all of us entering the contest of life, in which all those things happen to us inevitably.”
“I’m viewing Time Bomb as the Suicide Commandos’ chance to stake our small claim in the annals of music history,” says Steve Almaas. “When people talk about the original American punk rock bands, I would like our name to be listed among them.”