The Red Pens make their mark on local music scene

Red Pens
Indie-rock duo Red Pens performing at the Turf Club in St. Paul.
Photo Courtesy of

A local indie rock duo is riding a wave of fuzzed-out guitar distortion into the hearts of critics and fans.

On its new release, "Reasons," and certainly live on stage, the sonic fury of Red Pens rarely lets up. But you won't find freelance music writer Josh Keller inserting earplugs.

Keller said Red Pens, a band that ran away with the City Pages 2009 "Picked to Click" poll, has soaked up the sounds of such alt rock giants as Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth, while still producing something fresh and unique.

"They've found a really strong balance of dissonance, noise, and really great rock and roll pop songs that if they were played on acoustic guitar would still be compelling and would still draw an audience," Keller said.

Red Pens' two members, Howard Hamilton and Laura Bennett, are in kind of a magical period, with their creativity blooming right alongside the recognition they've received.

Hamilton said there was chemistry from the moment they met, originally as two painters who wanted to collaborate. But they quickly discovered they were two spirits united by an obsession about the music they love.

"This record is autobiographical," Hamilton said, "of sort of like us getting together and us..."

Howard Hamilton, Laura Bennett
Red Pens' two members, Howard Hamilton (right) and Laura Bennett.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"... fighting the odds of people saying you can't be an artist or a musician for a living," Bennet interjects, "and I'm like, I'll show you, I'm gonna try."

After several months of jamming together, Hamilton on guitar and vocals and Bennett on drums, Red Pens started scoring gigs. Eventually, the two realized their attraction was much larger than their musical connection.

"There's this vocabulary between us that's just kind of unstoppable, and nobody else could possibly have it," Hamilton said.

If the layers of guitars in Red Pens' songs sound unusual, it's partly because Howard Hamilton comes up with his own tunings. Drummer Laura Bennett either frames or pushes back against Hamilton's guitar onslaught. They both revere each other as artists; Bennett thinks Hamilton's a musical genius and Hamilton is in awe of Bennett's explosive, abstract paintings.

"The imagery in her painting is the way I want my music to sound," he said. "And I know she feels the same way, in the reverse order."

Laura Bennett's painting studio. The two band members originally as two painters who wanted to collaborate.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

If Hamilton and Bennett have a mission, it's to connect with people who are as excited about music and creative activity as they are. Every time Bennett hears a song she's floored by, her reaction is the same.

"I've got to make something," she said. "I wanna move people like that. I wanna see somebody's face react like how my face is reacting right now."

For Howard Hamilton, the quest to be completely original drives almost everything he does. It explains how Red Pens can be filter for a number of different influences, and still sound new.

"It sounds cheesy when you're a kid to have somebody say 'express yourself,'" he said. "But if you really can make your music sound like you and how you feel, it's a remarkable feeling."

Red Pens' next gig is Saturday night at the 501 Club in Minneapolis. The band isn't really in a position to conquer the world just yet. There are no plans for a major tour of any kind; the group doesn't even have a van. But Hamilton and Bennett are thrilled to be making exactly the kind of music they want to make. They say if people want to hear it, that's a bonus, and it appears people do.

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