There are a few Minnesota bands whose live performances have a reputation for being especially electrifying. City Pages‘ 2009 Picked to Click winner Red Pens are one; garage-punk rockers the Goondas (on this year’s list) are another. And while not technically local, Philadelphia-based band Free Energy also fit squarely in this category.
Formed from the ashes of Red Wing indie band Hockey Night, Free Energy have generated lots of good buzz in Minneapolis this year. They like visiting the state more than half the band hails from: they’ve played half a dozen shows here so far this year, and will add to that tally when they visit the 400 Bar this Thursday with Hollerado. (Foxy Shazam were also on the bill, but cancelled dates after one of the band members poked an eye.) Some call this over-saturation, but their fans are so devoted and enthusiastic, they could probably play twice as many shows and still keep rooms packed.
I spoke to lead singer Paul Sprangers over the phone last month in the midst of Free Energy’s seemingly never-ending tour schedule. Both in talking to Sprangers and seeing Free Energy play live at the Triple Rock in September, it become clear that their name fits their mission. During our conversation Sprangers spoke a lot about energy and connection. He sees the band’s success as a direct product of how well they’re connecting with their audience from on stage. And so far, it’s working for them.
I saw your show at the Triple Rock in September with Titus Andronicus. I have to say, I’ve never seen two bands enjoy playing with each other so much. I thought it was cool you each brought the other band on stage for your sets. Is that something you usually do, or is Titus special?
A lot of times we’ll play the last song together or something, but with us and Titus we would go up randomly and mess around during the show; it was pretty spontaneous. And that’s pretty rare, where you feel that comfortable with a band to be able to do that.
Did you and Titus work on any music together while on the road?
We did do a joint cover on our last show at Webster Hall. We played AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” We hashed it out that night for the encore. It’s the only one where we’ve totally collaborated.
Your stage presence is very charismatic and energetic. Has it always been that way, or has the way you do shows evolved as you’ve been on the road so much these last few months?
It’s always kind of been how Free Energy has operated, and we’re definitely more comfortable now than we were in April. The experience allows us to have more fun and enjoy. Hockey Night shows were fun, but we were more confrontational then. We weren’t as connected to the audience; [that connection] is what’s made us successful. Titus is so great at that. All their shows are like a giant party, and everyone is there together to see the band. There’s a reason it’s a live show. You go to connect and transmit energy back and forth.
You guys seem to like Minnesota. We’re lucky to have you play here a lot, and Minnesota audiences certainly really love you. Is it a different experience playing here than the other stops on your tour?
It is different. We like playing here. We have friends and family come out to our shows; we still know the sound guys and the people who work at the clubs. It’s such good energy. We try to play in Minnesota as much as possible without being there too much. It’s our home away from home.
Why did you leave Minnesota two years ago to move to Philadelphia?
We see ourselves as being a Minnesota band. When people say we’re from Philly we say “No, we’re from Minnesota.” It happened because Scott (Wells) and I were in New York recording the record, and Geoff (Bucknam) was living in Philly. We needed somewhere cheap to live that was close to New York, and Jeff had friends there, which made it easy.
Have you connected much with the music scene there?
Free Energy hasn’t been a part of the music scene, but the individual members have. Jeff is connected to the folk scene in Philadelphia, but we don’t have any peers…other rock and roll bands. We have really, really good shows there, but musically, the band is less connected.
So do you think you’ll stay in Philadelphia, or move back to Minnesota, or go somewhere else?
I think maybe we’ll go somewhere else. It would be cool living and recording on the West Coast.
Have you been working on new music recently? When will we see the next album?
We have a lot written. We’ve been demo-ing, and will probably spend December and January recording. Next spring may be pushing it, but we hope to have a new album out next summer or fall.
Will it be a continuation of your existing sound, or have you been trying new things?
A little bit of both. There’s a wide variety of sound in our new material. Some are more poppy; other are straight-up rock songs. We also have some super dancy tracks. The challenge will be picking the ones that are best and programming then together so they make sense on a record, and in our live shows.
What can you tell us about Foxy Shazam, who you’ll be playing with at the 400 Bar on November 18th? What can we expect from that show?
It’s pretty wild. It’s a high-energy show. They’re like a carnival; lots of stage shenanigans. Hollerado is playing too; they’re really good.
What have you been listening to while on tour? Does it influence your writing process on the road?
Our new van has a CD player, so we’ve been listening to Mates of State and Titus—bands we’ve toured with. Usually I’ll just hum melodies into a voice recorder either on my phone or computer. Or during sound checks, Scott will work on a riff.
How did you get the name Free Energy?
It’s not that interesting of a story, actually. We named a song that years ago. When we needed a new band name Geoff’s girlfriend suggested it. It stuck and fit, and all the meanings of the term worked with the spirit of the band.
You seem to really want to make a connection to your audience, and that you see your role as more than just being an entertainer. What do you see your job being, as musicians?
Ideally we’re doing someone more than just entertaining. I try to think about what I would want to see. In our research, watching videos of old rock bands, the most compelling shows—like Springsteen, Queen, Bon Jovi, those big cheesy bands—are able to make some kind of connection that isn’t self-involved. There’s a reason to connect; you want to give people something they can’t get at home. The role of the music is to host and lead a giant party and exchange of energy. It’s up to the band and the personality of the band to determine the success and quality of how that’s going to be.