The generation gap isn't what it used to be. Just ask surviving members of the indie-rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Most of them are either closing in on AARP eligibility or are already there. Yet even as members of that generation have gotten married, started families and settled into middle age, many have remained involved in music. Artists such as Mary Timony, Bob Mould, Dinosaur Jr. and the Mountain Goats have not only stayed active well into their forties and fifties, but are currently making some of their best-ever music. So why not celebrate reaching that milestone while you've still got some of your memory and health?
That is exactly what St. Louis mainstay Matt Harnish, best known as Bunnygrunt's guitarist and vocalist, is planning. Except for a couple of years in the mid-aughts, Bunnygrunt has existed continuously for more than twenty years. This summer, the band released a new album, Bunnygrunt Vol. 4, and toured the UK. Harnish is also a DJ, label owner, concert promoter, record-store clerk and occasional journalist. He remains one of the most enthusiastic and active members of the St. Louis music scene.
Harnish turned 45 not too long ago. He will observe this milestone on December 15 with a compilation seven-inch (at 45 rpm, with nine songs total — four on one side and five on the other, each 45 seconds long) and a show at San Loo. We were curious about what keeps him interested after all this time.
RFT Music: Why a 45th birthday party? Other than an excuse to release a single, that is.
Matt Harnish: It's a nice number. It has lots of good connotations: records, guns, malt liquor. A few of my friends have thrown "45 only" DJ parties for their 45th birthdays, so I figured the only logical upgrade would be to convince people to record 45-second songs to release on a 45 for my 45th. It's a little late, as my actual birthday was in October, but whatever. I blame Record Store Day for all delays.
You've been playing music since your twenties. How have you changed as a musician or songwriter over these past few decades? What are some lessons you've learned that you didn't know when you were starting out?
I've never been one for writing "grand statements" in my songs — except for that one somewhat subtly anti-RFT song I wrote — so lyrically I haven't changed all that much. I stopped worrying about my guitar playing after [Eric] Von Damage joined on drums and Karen [Ried] took on bass full time. I knew I had a rock-solid rhythm section that would carry whatever I did, so my style has gotten a little looser, as I didn't have to cover as much ground. That's more situation than age-related, though.
I guess I've heard a lot of different kinds of music since the Grunt started, so some influences have probably slipped in there somewhere, but that's the music critic's job to notice that or not. If I could have told young me one thing, I would have magically appeared at that practice Karen and I had immediately after we fired our bass player in 1995 and said, "Just continue on as a two-piece. You'll be the first White Stripes."
Do you get self-conscious about being older? Be honest: Do you feel old at shows?
Depends on the show. God bless Stephen Houldsworth for wading into the pit at Bonerville to take photos. I just don't like getting run into as much as I used to, but that's only at basement punk shows. When I'm at bigger indie-rock shows at the Pageant or Peabody or wherever, I wonder why everybody's on their phone and looking bored. I like a little space around me and I like decent sound, so it's nice that there are currently a lot of good rooms in St. Louis booking things I want to see. I don't really network at shows, and I've never been really good at small talk, so I've always gotten a little bored between bands. Once the music starts, though, I don't care about anything else happening in the room.
How has the St. Louis music scene changed during your time as a participant?
Our secret is finally getting out. There have been good bands in St. Louis ever since we started — and well before, of course — but they never seemed to go on tour until a few years ago. We were always bragging about Darling Little Jackhammer, Lydia's Trumpet and the Volatiles back in the 1990s, but nobody in other cities ever knew what the hell we were talking about. Now everybody's playing shows everywhere. There are starting to be solid show exchanges going on with bands in cities like Memphis, Minneapolis and Kansas City. Everybody is starting to figure out how weird and great our bands are. I couldn't be happier about all of that.
Your life has changed over the past couple of years. You and Karen, your longest-running bandmate, both got married. You moved to Washington, Missouri, and Karen moved to Portland. How has Bunnygrunt adapted to it?
We're in a fallow period, for sure, but we've been there before. I'm as curious to see what happens next as anybody.
Do you find yourself losing interest in new music? Or does your job in a record store ensure that you continue to keep up with new stuff?
As far as bands that would be considered Bunnygrunt's peers, I still mostly find out about new bands when we play shows with them. My favorite finds of 2015 were Mammoth Penguins, Witching Waves, Peaness and Threatmantics. All of them were bands we played with on our UK tour this past summer, none of whom I had ever heard of before seeing them live. As an individual, I am always happy to give something new a listen, but I don't do research on new bands to stay current or whatever. If I hear something that hits me, it hits me.
Why do you think so many have stayed involved in this music? Is there less of a stigma about playing indie-rock in one's forties?
I blame the baby boomers. They were the first generation to feel like they were allowed, expected or destined to "stay cool" for their whole lives, so that made everybody after them feel like it was OK to never bow out gracefully. They ruined it for everybody. We should have all gotten out years ago, except those of us who shouldn't have. Gift of the Magi, man!