The one time I saw St. Paul’s Junkyard Empire perform was years ago on a double bill with Tickle Fight at the Uptown Bar. Tickle Fight opened to a packed house. They did a damned good set, too, madman Cody McKinney leading a tight ensemble. And when they got off stage, the place cleared out so fast, you’d’ve thought it was a fire drill. JE got to play for stragglers and friends and family. They also did a fine set, avant-garde jazz laid out behind some very strong hip-hop. After I went home and wrote the evening up, I found myself reflecting that it’s too bad a crew that talented and visionary will probably last a hot minute, drawing flies, then call it a day.
Sometimes it’s good to get one wrong: Junkyard Empire have hung on. In fact, they have prevailed. Their highest-profile outing has been their Anti-RNC Mini-Tour, coinciding with the release of the second CD Rise of the Wretched. Before that was their debut disc Reclaim Freedom and a series of gigs (including stints at the Cabooze and Bunker’s) that, one by one, drew more than flies. Recently, they’ve been the Wednesday night house band at the Black Dog in St. Paul. Now, they’ve signed a record deal: Junkyard Empire are on the Media Roots Music label. They’ve stuck to their guns and come out on top. What can I say? Every once in a while the good guys win in real life.
Drop in sometime at the Black Dog and catch them. The music is wild, off-the-hook chops playing tasty and tight, spacey stuff. The rapping is articulate, hard-hitting social commentary—prose-poetry, actually. The lineup: Chris Robin Cox (trombone, keys), Brihanu (vocals), Bryan Berry (guitar), Dan Choma (bass), and Graham O’Brien (drums). Junkyard Empire founder Chris Robin Cox answered a few questions by e-mail.
How did the label signing come about?
It was serendipitous. We had just finished recording Rise of the Wretched and were about halfway through mixing. My good friend—and a fantastic drummer—Neal Wadhawan said, “[Junkyard Empire] should have Brian Susko mix your record.” I gave Brian a track. When he gave [it] back I was in disbelief at how amazing it sounded. Brian Susko ended up mixing the of the album at McNally Smith. Turns out, he [had as a] longtime friend Marc Nicholas of Media Roots Music, a label Marc started for the sole purpose of getting Junkyard Empire the kind of record deal and representation we need in order to get our music out there.
What’s the first release on the label?
The new record will be called Rebellion Politik. [It] is as much a title of the movement we see ourselves being a part of as it is [an] album title.
How’s the new material coming?
Better than anything we have ever worked on. We are so happy with the music that we can hardly contain ourselves. This music will be our most controversial material to date, as well as our most rockin’. We have pulled out all the stops and allowed our rock, funk, drum-and-bass, and ambient groove influences [to] all work their way into our sound.
How was attendance at the weekly gig?
Attendance was good. As usual with the Black Dog, the crowd doesn’t just sit there drinking beer and yelling and screaming with their friends. People genuinely hang out and check out the music deeply. The Black Dog is dear to all of us and more people should cross the tracks and come check out some music there. As for the Lowertown Commune, the name of [the] weekly gig, we are going to be pulling the plug on our regular participation, because our live show is too loud and crazy for that place. We are talking to other venues about doing a regular thing to develop the show we will play on the Rebellion Politik tour. In the meantime, we are talking with some folks about making the Lowertown Commune more of an open mic kind of thing, featuring more spoken word artists and the like.
We’ve got a team of talented, mindful people backing us on Media Roots, and we plan to take it all as far as we possibly can. We will be playing three small tours this year, one here in the Midwest, one on the east coast, and one on the west coast. In January, we are supposed to be going to France. Look for Rebellion Politik in June.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.
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