After starting as a chaotic, Stooges-esque hard rock band in the 1980s, Run Westy Run eventually found a genre-defying sound to call their own. Right away, the band’s records exploded with an amalgamation of indie, punk, funk and rock.
While they didn’t break as big as their Twin Cities contemporaries Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, they did attract a hugely loyal local fanbase — due largely to intensely energetic and downright legendary live performances. And also unlike those bands, they’re currently active, with their first full-length album of new material in more than 30 years arriving this week.
Released on Bandcamp today, “Beyond Reason” precedes a Friday release show at the Turf Club in St. Paul. It’s the latest performance from a band that never broke up, but has paused, reshuffled, and evolved.
“I would say that we're more friendly and patient with each other now,” says singer Kirk Johnson. “Things are much more intense when you’re young and wild, and you got a lot of things going on, so that’s probably the biggest difference now.
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The band was formed in 1984 by St. Louis Park-based Johnson and his brothers Kraig and Kyle, with Terry Fisher and Bob Joslyn rounding out the original lineup. The band’s moniker comes from a 1960s children's book of the same name.
Their last full-length album, “Green Cat Island,” arrived in 1990, a few EPs followed and by the mid-’90s the band’s pace had slowed down. By the end of the decade, they were entirely inactive. Kraig transitioned to playing with the Jayhawks and Golden Smog. Kirk formed his (now) longtime pop project called Iffy.
Finally, after years of swirling rumors, the band’s hiatus came to an end in late 2013 with a set of holiday shows at First Avenue and the Turf Club. Since then, the band’s recorded output remained limited, save a 2014 live album, and 2017 EP. (The latter is the only Run Westy Run release on any streaming platform.)
Through many different iterations over the years, the band's core has always remained Kraig Johnson on vocals and Kirk Johnson and Fisher on guitar. The current lineup also includes bassist Paul McFarland and drummer Peter Anderson.
With Friday’s album release, the band is making up for lost time. Recorded at the late Ed Ackerson’s Flowers Studio in Minneapolis, the band self-produced “Beyond Reason,” with Anderson handling engineering and mixing duties. Most of the album's 14 tracks should sound familiar to the band’s diehard fans. For this long-awaited release, Run Westy Run culled material from their massive backlog of songs, many of which have become mainstays in their recent live performances.
“Over the past few years of practicing for shows and coming up with songs during rehearsals, we realized that if we don’t record these songs, they’ll just fade away,” says Fisher.
One of those live mainstays is the album’s lead single, “Milkyway’s Mainframe,” which premiered on the Current’s Local Show on February 24. Fans may recognize the hook-driven, effervescent track by its former name, "Come On and Dream With Me.” Opening with a quick and grabbing harmonized “Ahhhhhh” before kicking into high gear, the song is equal parts Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground. The song sets the tone nicely for the rest of “Beyond Reason.”
Not every song on the album was pulled from the back catalog. The opener, a 52-second jangly instrumental called “Automercial,” is one of two songs the Westies wrote in the studio — something very out of the ordinary for them. The rock ‘n’ roll jam “Dimestore Tricks” was also penned on the spot.
“I know that some bands go in and actually write in the studio, but we've never done that,” says Fisher. “So that's something that I don't really understand. It sounds kind of expensive to do it that way.”
Fisher leads the charge on “Automercial,” laying down some velvety blues licks while the rest of the band finds and settles into their groove. The song has somewhat of a soundcheck quality to it, which is only reasonable after three decades out of the studio.
There’s no shortage of tasty bits of ear candy layered throughout “Beyond Reason.” With a fuzzed-out intro riff leading into a fast and tight rhythm, a bassline that runs rather than walks, and plenty of “woo-oos” to keep things interesting, “Foodcourting” is a perfect example.
“That all came together pretty organically in the studio,” explains Fisher. “It was like, ‘Hey, I got an idea. Maybe we try some Wurlitzer here.’ Or, ‘let's try this. Let me have a go at it and see what happens.’ It made for some really nice happy accidents.”
On “Heightened Flamingo” and “Unwound,” guest contributor Jessy Greene’s crisp, quivering violin compliments Run Westy Run’s grit beautifully. A highly-accomplished violinist, Greene has worked with the Jayhawks, Wilco, RZA, Post Malone, the Foo Fighters, and Pink, among many others. She’s also been a longtime Run Westy Run collaborator, so it comes as no surprise to see her featured on “Beyond Reason.”
Greene was in town for a performance with Golden Smog — the supergroup of Midwestern musicians that has reformed a handful of times in recent years. “So we just had her go over to the studio where she listened to the songs and played them right there,” notes Kraig. “It was easy breezy.”
On “Moxin Hey,” Johnson and Fisher’s guitars take a backseat as McFarland’s driving bass groove grips the wheel. The guitars are ever-present but serve as more of an accent — until the solo, that is. Fisher unleashes a fuzzed-out barrage of notes that blasts through at a blistering, yet controlled, speed.
“Beyond Reason” isn’t a punk album, or any other single type of album. It even looks towards bluesier pastures on “A Livingfield” and turns on the slap echo to go full rockabilly on “Rory to Aretha.” That sense of genre experimentation and zigging when they’re supposed to be zagging has been at their core since day one. And it just works — beautifully.
And it’s only the beginning. They’re already planning to return to the studio in mid-summer to work on a follow-up release, which is a heck of a lot better than waiting another 30 years.
Since “Beyond Reason” is self-produced, you’re hearing exactly what the Westies envisioned. “You know, Lemmy from Motörhead used to say, ‘When you create something, run it up the flag pole and see who salutes it,’” says Fisher. “I always thought that was fantastic. And he was right. If it brings you joy, that's all you need it to do.”