As a twenty-plus-year employee of Vintage Vinyl, Matt Harnish knows a few things about the buying and selling of vinyl records. Behind the shop's buying counter, he'll nicely leaf through your great-aunt's moldering copies of LPs by the Carpenters and Herb Alpert before they are inevitably relegated to the dollar bin, and he's seen the most recent wax explosion seduce new converts into spending $30 on a repressing of Dark Side of the Moon.
So, when it came time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his band Bunnygrunt's formation, he decided to goose the market a little with the release of My First Bells. The LP compiles the group's earliest EP recordings, demos and a few rare tracks. The band's 1993 and 1994 output found the trio at its most jangly and innocent, a sound that would harden and grow muscle over the years. But some of the tracks on the comp — "Criminal Boy," "Mississippi" — distill the elements that made the band a favorite of underground pop aficionados all over the world.
Bells offers a one-stop fix for fans of the band who don't want to go scrounging for the original EPs, though, as Harnish notes, the 300-run edition of the new LP likely won't be around forever.
"It's weird; we actually made more copies of some of those [seven-inches] than we are making of this thing," he says. Still, the band's silver anniversary offered the band a chance to take stock of its past.
"Over the years there have been a lot of people who got into the band later on and then knew about all these early recordings but didn't have them or didn't want to shell out for them," says Harnish of the impetus behind the compilation. "They aren't super rare, but it's just the hassle of sending some dork $20 on Discogs."
Bunnygrunt has seen many permutations, and just as many stops-and-starts, over its 25 years, but the musical relationship between Harnish and Karen Ried has been the band's engine that whole time. Ried began on drums before moving to bass in the late '90s; after a five-year hiatus the band re-emerged in the early 2000s with a louder, more rock/less pop edge, with a line-up that could occasionally reach five or six members. In listening back to the band's baby-steps, Harnish notes that while these songs don't make modern-day Bunnygrunt set lists, he's happy how they've held up.
"When we reformed in the early 2000s, when Karen was the bass player, that was a good excuse to not re-learn those songs," says Harnish. "We like them — I'm surprised at how much I like this record. I thought it was gonna be a little more embarrassing to listen to."
While My First Bells offers fans a physical artifact, the band offers St. Louis fans a fairly immersive way to celebrate. The Bunnygrunt 25th Birthday Weekender finds the band members playing five different locations over three days alongside a host of old and new friends.
Since Ried lives in Portland, Oregon, Bunnygrunt shows are few and far between these days. But last year, when he was touring as his one-man cover-song show Matt Harnish's Pink Guitar, Harnish, Ried and drummer Eric Von Damage strung a few shows together in Ried's part of the country. That lit the fire under Harnish to celebrate the band's longevity in style.
"We played four shows about a year ago in the Pacific Northwest, and that was when I really started thinking about a big 25th weekend blowout," he says. "We hadn't played together in two years, I think, when we played those shows, and everything just clicked back into place. It just reminded me why we did it all those years.
"On that tour, I was talking to old friends, and the whole notion of it being 25 years kept coming up," Harnish continues. "We'd play with these great bands and I'd think, 'I should bring these bands to town! I should bring these bands to town for our 25th anniversary! I should make it a festival!' It's the things your mind wanders into on an eight-hour overnight drive through the desert."
Among the bands coming to town for the Weekender will be the Omaha-based Wagon Blasters. Two of that band's members were in a group called Frontier Trust, which played St. Louis regularly and developed a kinship with Bunnygrunt. In fact, the album cover for My First Bells features a photo of a young Harnish and Ried taken by lead singer Gary Dean Davis; Harnish recalls that it commemorated the band's first out-of-state show in 1993.
Other out-of-town guests have even stronger St. Louis ties: beloved guitarist and one-time Phonocaptors frontman Jason Hutto returns with an ad-hoc band of local scene lifers; Mario Viele, the former guitarist for the Sex Robots and now an in-demand engineer in New York, brings his group the Passengers to town; and James Weber, whose Julia Sets used to feature Harnish on bass, returns home from New Orleans for a solo performance.
"I essentially just texted them both and told them when the shows were and that they were playing," Harnish says of Hutto and Weber.
Those long-time friendships and bonds are essential for any band hoping to make it five or ten years. But as Harnish looks back on his 25-year relationship with Ried, he sees a bond forged over countless gigs, late-night drives and a shared musical vocabulary..
"I guess Karen and I just found a musical partnership that worked," he says. "Although we've both played with other people over the years, we both kind of couched that in terms of Bunnygrunt, just because we learned how to be in a band by being in a band together."
With Bunnygrunt's 25th anniversary weekend on the horizon, Harnish pauses to question, "What's next?" Would the band celebrate its 30th or 40th birthday in the coming decades?
"As long as somebody will book a show for us, and we're both in the same city, and we have a half-hour to practice, we'll play a show," Harnish says.
Bunnygrunt's 25th Birthday Weekender kicks off at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 22, at the Schlafly Tap Room and will wind its way across five venues over four days. For full information visit facebook.com/therealbunnygrunt.