How Gretchen Seichrist's band evolved into a variety show

Headquarters and Dimes
Gretchen Seichrist and her itinerant band of musicians have a new variety show called Headquarters & Dimes, that's as much experimental theater as it is rock and roll. It's coming to the Loring Theater this Saturday.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

The Minneapolis indie rock band "Patches and Gretchen" has a big weekend ahead. The theatrical debut of the group's wacky and whimsical variety show, named "Headquarters and Dimes," happens Saturday night at the Loring Theater.

For the folks who were driving by CK's Food and Fuel in Minneapolis the other day, wondering why some ragtag rockers fronted by a woman in a fedora with an umbrella were serenading customers in the parking lot, even offering to wipe down their windshields ... it was Patches and Gretchen.

They were holding a telethon, broadcast on the worldwide web, to raise money and interest in the group's upcoming Headquarters and Dimes variety show at the Loring Theater.

This is vintage Patches & Gretchen, a driven, almost desperate band, determined to carve out an audience on its own terms. Its creative engine is Gretchen Seichrist. As a performer, Seichrist is like an absurdist incarnation of Lucille Ball. As a singer, she's Marlene Dietrich's bluesy, drawling, American cousin.

When we last spoke to Seichrist more than a year ago, she was an overly anxious, nearly destitute 40-something single mom of two in dire need of dental work, who had decided to go for broke on her musical career. That hasn't changed. If anything, the stakes today are even higher, if only because she's raised them.

She's viewed by some, including writer and musician Jim Walsh, as one of the most interesting, poetic, provocative performers in the Minnesota art scene.

Show poster
One of the posters for "Headquarters & Dimes," starring Patches and Gretchen.
Image courtesy Patches and Gretchen

Walsh remembers one Patches and Gretchen show, in which Seichrist carried around an oversized water bottle. Walsh laughed when he realized it was a comment on the ubiquity of water bottles, and the commercialization of water.

"You could take that right now and put that in the Walker, that water bottle," he said. "Whether or not that is a validation of art, it's really funny. And that's the other thing that Gretchen is. She is really funny, and a very wry observer."

As a songwriter, Seichrist doesn't provoke mild responses. Those who are drawn to her claim they've never seen anything like her. Seichrist is aware others may not like her style. But she also suspects they're put off by her devotion to being an artist.

"People don't like artists," she said. "They're suspicious of artists. They resent them, if you've figured out that the people saying that they want to be an artist because they're going to their job every day, and they're resentful about it. I understand that. 'Well how come she gets to do that?'"

Patches & Gretchen's last record, "Sugar Head Pie," got a lot of glowing reviews. And Star Tribune music writer Jon Bream wrote that Seichrist stole the show when she opened for her more famous half sister, songwriter Aimee Mann, at the Dakota last fall.

But lately it's been a tough time for the group. A lot of venues and presenters have said no to Patches & Gretchen's ever more theatrical approach. So the band, says drummer Tommy Tousey, took control of its destiny.

Tied to a tree
A concept picture for "Headquarters & Dimes" showing how local music luminaries will be interviewed for the variety show.
Image courtesy Patches and gretchen

"After a while enough people reject you, then you just may as well do whatever we want and make ourselves happy," he said. "And that's how the Headquarters & Dimes thing -- let's just do what we think is creative and what we think makes us laugh, and make the music that we want to hear."

Headquarters & Dimes is like experimental street theater with rock interludes. "Captain Beefheart meets Captain Kangaroo" is how it's described in posters for the show.

Everybody's dressed up in costumes. Songs bleed into skits which morph back into songs. Notable local music luminaries and entertainers are literally tied down and then interviewed. In fact, in the early shows, they were tied to trees.

For a while, they performed the show out of Seichrist's garage and backyard. Then they took it to the parking lot at CK's Food and Fuel.

Now the Loring Theater has offered "Headquarters & Dimes" a weekly Saturday slot if it can demonstrate an audience at its debut tomorrow night.

If that wasn't enough, Patches & Gretchen is also releasing two albums. One, entitled "I Steal Carrots," is full bore Patches & Gretchen. The other, "Blue Skin," showcases Seichrist in more of a solo setting. Seichrist calls the songs on both records her masterpieces.

"They're everything that I wanted to say without caring about any trend whatsoever, or have anything to do with the time that we're in," she said.

"She baffles me. She intrigues me," says singer songwriter Adam Levy of the Honeydogs, another Gretchen Seichrist fan.

"She's somebody that is just not a slave to any conventional stuff," he said. "She's just trying to figure out really novel, interesting ways to present music to people that's not what they're used to."

In Levy's view, Seichrist isn't preoccupied with the craft of songwriting. Her process is very muse-driven, and so are the songs.

"Part of that is going to limit the audience and people who are gonna dig what she's doing," he said. "That's just plain and simple. But that's the charm of it to me."

For Seichrist, there will never be any compromise on her creative freedom.

"If it comes down to it, I'll stand on the corner dressed like a banana and play the guitar, rather than have someone tell me what I can or can't do," she said.

Actually, says Seichrist, dressing like a banana and playing guitar sounds kind of fun.

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