Q&A with Red Pens’ Howard Hamilton

Red Pens at Jagerfest in fall, 2009 - Photo by David de Young

It’s been a fast year for Twin Cities upstarts the Red Pens. After dropping their first album, Reasons, last summer, Howard Hamilton and Laura Bennett won City Pages’ Picked to Click honors in September and, more recently, had the honor of topping the bill at First Avenue’s Best New Bands concert.

Having pretty well conquered the local scene, the Red Pens decided to make the next big step and take their show on their road. Starting February 21st with a show at Chicago’s Hideout, the duo – accompanied by fellow Minneapolis band, Voytek, who Hamilton describes as being similar to the Ramones “with super bratty lyrics” – are embarking on a two-week tour out east that will take them through New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, with other potential dates to be added.

As they were preparing for their trip, How Was the Show caught up with Hamilton to see how the band’s plans are shaping up.

How long have you been planning this trip?  Was there a certain point when you knew it was time to go out on the road?

We have been playing almost weekly in the Twin Cities and I think everyone that needs to see us has seen us and formed an opinion by now. We were planning on going to South By Southwest in Austin but we didn’t get asked so this tour popped up and we said, “Why not?” We both could really use a road trip and this is going to make us reset ourselves and miss home so we can come back and take things to the next level.

What sorts of new pressure have there been to deal with in organizing the tour?  How have you dealt with them so far?

This tour is really poorly set up so we had to let go of control and put it all in someone else’s hands, which for me is a huge stretch since I usually set up all of our shows and ask questions and get all the info before we say yes.   This tour is forcing us to put our lives in other peoples’ hands and fly by the seats of our pants a little more than usual.

Yes, it has been stressful. We are down to the wire with booking – some of the shows are still tentative even a few days before jumping in the van.   We are trying to convince ourselves that it’s a baby step in the right direction and we really do need to get out of town badly. Mid-February in Minnesota is a good time to leave; maybe when we come back it will be spring. . .

Did anyone else help organize this trip?  What was the planning process like, and did you have control over it?

Dusty Miller, part owner of Nicollet Park Recording Studio and the guy who just engineered the new Hold Steady record, pretty much told us he was setting the whole thing up for us. He just joined Voytek on bass duties.   Like I said before, we had no control and it has been an experience for sure, a very good exercise in patience and trust.   Our expectations are low for turn-outs but we know we will make some connections and contacts that will help out tons the next time we go out.

What sorts of venues will you be playing on this trip?  Are there any in particular venues or cities that you’re looking forward to?

We are playing at Pianos in NYC, which is the most important show on the tour, and Maxwell’s in Hoboken which really could turn out to be a gas, so we are really looking forward to those.   We have some adventures around the corner, for sure; some grey areas on the tour where we know we are playing that night but where and with whom is still a mystery so we will see how it all pans out.

You were asking for gas money last week at the Kitty Cat Klub.  How will you be traveling and living over the next few weeks?

We are renting a huge van from a local band and both bands are going in it. I can only imagine the gas it will guzzle, and some of the shows aren’t exactly money makers so motels will be on a case-by-case basis. If we can afford it we will go for it, if we meet or know someone in the town we play we might crash at their pad. Who knows, we are really throwing it all up into the air and seeing where it lands.

Aside from playing in new areas of the country, what has you most excited about going on tour?

I personally love truck stop gift shops and meeting people that see us by accident and freak out about our music. I love just watching the countryside go by and the few hours you have to explore the city you are in.   I like taking photos of ridiculous things you don’t see everyday. I look at it as a paid road-trip.

You played a new song, “I Want More,” last Saturday.  Do you have much new material in the works, and do you foresee writing more while you’re on the road?

I think we are going to do an EP of new songs this spring, we have three or four new songs that we bust out live once in a while, then back off of to let them simmer.   I have some ornate plans for the new songs, but instead of going, “Today I am going to bang out a new song from start to finish because I am inspired right now,” I am going to use a little bit more planning and slow forming of the ideas.

I am working on tons of lyrics in the van, I have a new way of working “workbook style” where I am going to work on song ideas, lyrics, and written descriptions of how I imagine the songs will sound, what background loops there will be, et cetera.   I am not going to work on the music until I have several of these ideas filled in with titles, words, and sketches of the sounds.   I am looking forward to working on a fresh new batch of songs as soon as we get back.

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