Jordan Gatesmith intended to start a punk-rock act, but it didn’t work out that way. The debut LP by the singer-guitarist’s band Howler makes it clear that the 19-year-old’s influences extend way beyond three-chord thrash. Released by Rough Trade in January, America Give Up plays out like a catalogue of the Minneapolis-based Gatesmith’s listening habits. “Back of Your Neck”, for instance, welds rockabilly six-string licks to doo-wop harmonies; “Back to the Grave” suggests the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Reid brothers buzz-sawing their way through a Chuck Berry 45; and “This One’s Different” comes on like the Strokes tapping a keg for a beach-blanket bender.
Reached in Austin, Texas, where Howler is playing at the South By Southwest festival, Gatesmith explains his rapid musical evolution. “I had really kind of grown up on nothing but punk rock—a lot of late ’70s, early ’80s punk rock,” he says. “And even proto-punk, like Iggy Pop and Velvet Underground and stuff. That was something that really interested me at the time. But right when Howler started, I started getting into ’60s psych and garage, and even a lot of ’50s things. Like, Elvis became a huge influence when Howler started. Howlin’ Wolf did, as well. I think I kind of took it all in subconsciously or something like that. And, trying to start a punk band, I think that maybe all kind of filtered in there.”
Howler’s spirited mashing up of several decades’ worth of rock ’n’ roll has caught the ears of the British media, with America Give Up earning raves from the BBC, NME, and the Guardian. That last publication’s Alexis Petridis had Gatesmith on his podcast earlier this month, and he had some less-than-glowing things to say about the Minneapolis–Saint Paul music scene. The frontman’s opinion that nothing of real note has emerged from the area since the heyday of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements set Twin Cities Internet forums ablaze with debate.
“Maybe it’s a ‘Minnesota nice’ thing, and people can’t handle that sort of criticism,” Gatesmith says of the controversy. “But I don’t think it was anything to really get mad about. I’m just some kid who has an opinion, like any other kid has an opinion.”
It’s easy to forget that Gatesmith is still a teenager, given as he is to offering assessments of 35 years of Minnesota music history. He also mentions that he’s been playing music “for a long time”. So, when exactly did he start?
“When I had just turned 14, with my friends,” he recalls. “We were a punk band, of course, and we were called Tits. I still think that’s the greatest band name I’ve come up with. I don’t even know if I came up with it, actually. Maybe I didn’t. I think it’s probably the best band name I’ve ever encountered, though.”
It is a pretty great name, but only if you happen to be a 14-year-old boy.
“Dude, I’m still 14 years old,” Gatesmith says. “I swear.”
Howler plays the Media Club on Tuesday (March 27).