“I was wrong about the people”: the Bismarck on North Dakota, Liberalism, and Punk in the 21st Century

Despite having spent the better part of this century in the Washington state, Dan Mohr, Eric Fundingsland, and Chris Jury know a bit about the American Midwest. Growing up in and around North Dakota and playing in all manner of punk bands in Grand Forks in the 1990s (Happy Accidents, They Drive By Night, the Quaranteens, and Imipolex G, among others), the three musicians found themselves in Seattle and/or Olympia by 2002. So did the old friends “reunite” that same year, originally with former member Nate Marshall, to form the (post)punk band the Bismarck. Entering their fifteenth year as a performing group–and following weddings, child births, hirings, firings, two European tours, and what I’m told was not a writing/recording hiatus–the band released its fourth studio LP in early 2017 on the band’s own Pride of Dakota Records.

Busy schedules notwithstanding, the group recently took the time to share with agricouture its thoughts on not only the post-Nirvana Pacific Northwest punk scene but filmmaking, leaving the Midwest, “Portlandia,” and ideology writ large in the twenty-first century.

The band’s music can be accessed here.

Header photo by Earo Shima.

So you just finished up recording a new full-length album. With the exception of the 6-song Wild Prairie Rose (2013), you’ve not released an LP since Great Plains in 2010. That’s seven fucking years–

Dan: We don’t really believe in supply-side economics and certainly not when it comes to our music…

Eric: I have always considered Wild Prairie Rose along with the seven-inch record that was released by the Michigan Independents Network to be an album. Like, if we ever made a re-release or did a box set I would just include the seven-inch as part of Wild Prairie Rose. I get murky as to what “counts” as an album anyways. There are Creedence albums that have 9 songs and are 28 min long. Is that an EP? I consider the new one coming out an album even though it may not fit the definition of one.

Chris: I don’t know that anyone was particularly begging for more Bismarck output, but beyond the seven-inch and Wild Prairie Rose we did manage the English Hustle EP, and an album-ish set of live recordings from the 2014 U.K. tour. So that feels like something.

And this record is effectively your first as a trio as well. How did the writing and recording process change in that respect, if at all? That is to say, what about losing a member has been a challenge and/or a refreshing development in terms of self-management, song-writing, touring, recording?

Eric: Some of the songs on the upcoming album, like “Follow Your Heart,” were co-written by Nate Marshall, our old bass player. I would say maybe three of them. We decided to just have me play bass instead of recruiting a new bass player since we didn’t really have time to get anyone before our planned 2016 tour, so we just stripped down some of our older songs and made up a few more. I think the idea was that Nate might come back, but when he decided not to we just left it at as a three piece. I would rather play bass [than guitar] anyways.

Chris: It feels like a very different animal. What we lost in sonic density we hope to make up for with our charm and good looks.

Dan: Well, it’s always easier to maintain a machine with fewer parts. I think we took a little inspiration from Silkworm’s quartet-to-trio transition, although we lack a lot of the restraint necessary to allow their considered, deliberate space to take the place of a fourth player. Or maybe I’m just rushing all of the songs.

Speaking of restraint, your bandcamp site boasts as your group’s tag, “Being asked to turn down since 2002.” Let me borrow a line from Tom Snyder here in reply. He once asked Iggy Pop, “If you toned it down a little bit maybe you’d have more fans—do you think about that at all?”

Chris: Because this is such an unrewarding hobby, money-wise, it just doesn’t make any sense to do anything but exactly what we want to do.

Eric: I don’t think that we have ever really been overly concerned with having tons of fans. If that were the case, we would be playing a more popular form of music. When I lived in Olympia I ran into a lot of bands that were tailor made for a specific audience: hardcore, metal, and so on. I noticed that some of those bands had a short shelf-life and it seemed that very few people actually cared about their music. I also noticed that many of those musicians didn’t last very long playing music because they would get bored and move on to the next big thing. I don’t think that there is a “casual” Bismarck fan out there—we have very few in any case, and they are all pretty loyal. I would rather have that than thousands of faceless people.

How did the band name go over in Germany?

Dan: They did manage to spell our name correctly on fliers, which is more than I can say of this country.

Eric: To my recollection, nobody even mentioned it.

Chris: I was asked on two occasions. Both times were just out of curiosity—why an American band would have a very German name.

What was your answer?

Chris: I told them I grew up in Bismarck, ND. It was news to them that a town with this name even  existed. I then went on to have a great conversation with a young couple about German vs. German-from-Russia immigration to the states.

Right—which is North Dakota’s 19th century in a nutshell. And as not only your name but several of your songs and record titles (Great Plains, Wild Prairie Rose) suggest, the Bismarck has retained an explicit preoccupation with North Dakota despite each of you having lived away from the state for a very long time. How conscious of that theme are you when writing lyrics and so on?

Dan: For me, it’s hard to decouple the memories and emotions of childhood and adolescence from North Dakota, so expressing my thoughts about one tends to involve the other. For example, If I’m trying to invoke that intense feeling of a teenager wanting and trying desperately to fit in but failing in the most pathetic way possible, I am immediately in Columbia Mall [in Grand Forks], looking at baggy mustard-colored shirts at Jeans West or watching the jocks dip mint Skoal by the fountain or lingering by the rack of Guess jeans at Dayton’s hoping to spot the cute girls. It’s one big package. Also, there’s just some really epic-sounding words and phrases like Great Plains or Flickertail or Chokecherry attached to that region.

Eric: I think it just keeps coming up because the three of us all met each other in North Dakota and did various projects together back then. Maybe we just look back to a “simpler” time, but in reality it was much harder to do anything punk rock in North Dakota. It played a huge part in who we became as people, though—we are not afraid of an uphill struggle, in a blizzard, with crappy shoes.

Chris: I feel like North Dakota is a secondary character in every event from my young life—like I need to include what North Dakota was doing, or preventing me from doing, whenever I tell a story. I find I have more to say about those times because actions and emotions were bigger then. Maybe I’m not smart enough to write a decent song about adult stuff like getting a good rate on a mortgage…

I ask the question because some of your references could be read as Midwest expats attacking the “Left Coast,” as in “take me back to the Red States,” or it could just be an outpouring of sentimentality on your part. But I seem to recall Chris somewhere calling North Dakota the “Texas of the North,” so I’m skeptical that many of you miss the place in any profound way–

Eric: I think there is a hint of irony in everything that we do.

Dan: Distance certainly affords us the luxury of being able to romanticize the best things about North Dakota—its work ethic, its sarcastic gallows humor, its love of Diet Mountain Dew—without having to deeply confront the worst things—its political Fox News-ification, its Faustian pact with oil and agribusiness, its insistence on cutting pizza into squares.

Chris: Well, at one point I had a genuine love for what I thought the place was. I was wrong about the people. It will always be the place where all these important things happened in my life, but maybe it is best enjoyed in the rear-view mirror.

Wrong about the people how?

Chris: I made the assumption that, by and large, the people were “charmingly oblivious” to issues of race, oppression, etc. But when given the opportunity, they would default to the welcoming, fair-minded mythology I had applied to them. What I’ve seen when I come back to visit are increasing levels of anger, hostility toward basic fairness, turning away from learning, and certainly outright racism. Obviously I spend more time “out west” when I visit the state than I do in the relatively genteel Red River Valley.

I agree and wonder if you even got that vibe when you and Eric were working on your Grateful Lovers (2011) documentary about punk in North Dakota. What struck me about that film was how your interviewees described their attraction to punk as an effect of their isolation from culture in the Midwest and often their rejection of the racism and anti-intellectualism you describe. And as I recall, we tried to get the state-wide PBS affiliate to air your film and they politely declined.

Chris: We did a great screening and interview about the film at the University of Bradford, U.K. Watching the film in that context, with people who had completely different experiences, really put it into perspective. The idea of just how difficult it was to come into contact with anything “punk” in the first place in North Dakota, and the raw desire a kid needed in order to hear, acquire, and participate in it was very eye opening. Five years on, I think the thing that sticks with me is that the community was created from whole cloth. Seeing how groups of kids, independently, arrive at different solutions to these problems. They created music, art, and literature for themselves, created rules and norms of behavior, even rudimentary economic policies. As someone who has been lucky enough to tour all over the country, as well as overseas, I’ve been able to see how other places solved those same set of problems. What was unique to Grateful Lovers was that most of the folks I was talking to had done that initial creating, rather than inheriting a “scene.”

Eric and Chris—you’ve both done a lot of work in film—mostly in a documentary capacity. But any interest in moving past the documentary and into something more scripted? Also, have you found that you approach indie filmmaking differently than independent music in terms of the work ethic or economics of the projects, or are the two processes more similar than not?

Eric: I actually started out making scripted movies with my friend Bryan Connolly in Olympia. We made several short films in college and put out a feature length film called “The Savage Streets” that played in a few theaters back in 2008. After the movie was done he moved out to Austin and has been involved in things down there. He even appeared on Jimmy Kimmel once in a sketch. My take-away with scripted movies is that EVERYONE has to be committed. It is really hard, much harder to do than making a documentary or even being in a band. I started documenting the band somewhere around 2005-2006 out of boredom and because I had a camera. It has kind of taken on a life of its own since. I have also been interviewing other famous and not so famous musicians for a feature-length movie about touring since 2015. It will be done some day. So, I approach filmmaking the same way [as music], totally. The economics are that you need a camera, a computer and editing software. Time is a big factor, but it’s not any different than anything else creative. Band practice, playing shows, touring, and making records cost money and time also. If it’s worth it to you, you will find a way to make it work.

Chris: I’ve had a number of ideas [for film]…. The constraining factor for me is time, as I work a lot. I think the DIY/Punk Rock methodology is how I do everything, even at work. Learn by doing, assemble the materials and team as you go, be comfortable with imperfection—especially early on.

How about books?

Eric: So far this year I have only finished one book, but last year I would say my favorite book I read was So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.

Dan: I’d say there are two books I read in the past year that I would recommend to everyone who wants to understand how we got into this current political situation and who want to remain focused on reality in the face of a torrent of propaganda—Nixonland by Rick Perlstein and A Field Guide to Lies by Daniel Levitin.

Yes, and on that note you’re coming at this new record in the wake of the Trump inauguration and a flurry of almost nonsensical executive orders and public statements from the new President. Responses to the ways in which this event, and the apparent chaos that has ensued, has affected if not your music directly, then the community in which you create music—Seattle?

Eric: Seattle is pretty safe from him for the time being. Fingers crossed. I don’t think that anything political crept its way into the new album, we will see about the next one.

Dan: Lyrically speaking, ruminations on current politics aren’t really our thing but, considering how intent this administration seems to be on driving the American ship off the cliff of greatness (to borrow a phrase from The Onion), exceptions may have to be made.

Chris: I feel like writing about politics is usually less effective than writing about ideology. Obviously the punk scene in Seattle is about as left as left gets, so there is less imperative to speak. We’ve always been bigger on action than words, though, which maybe doesn’t always make it into the general perception of the band.

Thank you for distinguishing between politics and ideology. That’s what makes the “politics” of your band more interesting and complex than, say, Crass or Anti-Flag or the Clash or Bad Religion or whatever. But if you’re targeting the dominant ideologies in both North Dakota and, say, Washington state, you’re setting yourselves up to be disliked by a broad swath of people from all political persuasions. I assume this is not accidental.

Chris: Accidental…no, but maybe not always intentional either. It is kind of a default for me.

Well, given the actions of your Mayor and Governor it seems that Washington state, and to a degree Oregon, have become the tip of the spear in terms of resistance to the current administration. How does that development square with your aforementioned aesthetics in terms of what observers in the Pacific Northwest punk scene (who don’t understand your lingo, perhaps) might interpret as “red state dudes” making rock music in a very blue place?

Dan: I would hope that our feelings on the Trump administration are blindingly obvious to anyone who talks to us, although, as I said, our music is less illuminating on this front.

Eric: I have always referred to Washington as a purple state. There is a large conservative element here, just not in Seattle. But I was completely blindsided by Trump winning, I never thought he would win. No way.

Chris: Red State Dudes would be a good band name. We had a big-ish dust-up in the local paper about being interpreted as “conservative.” A bit later we had a smaller dust-up because I called out the same paper for not covering a very cool marriage equality event that we only knew about because we were invited to play. We care about these things, and that defines how we act, but not how we create…if that makes sense.

It does—and on that note a lot of your songs do critique, rightly so I think, the knee-jerk liberalisms of the Left not unlike, say, “Portlandia” does. And that’s a show created too by a collection of former punkers. So talk about that—the significance, especially for punk and postpunk, of figures like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein not only satirizing themselves in a way, but bringing the punk self-critique to the (relative) mainstream and often attacking the Left.

Eric: This is where I admit to never having watched Portlandia.

Dan: Generally, I view Portlandia as an amazing testament to the ultimate evolution of 90’s underground/indie culture into, essentially, the new mainstream. I don’t know that any of us really had that as a goal but it happened and we kind of have to take the good, very real progress on issues like gay marriage with the bad, mostly harmless self-righteous blathering that is the grist for Portlandia’s mill. As a (possibly related) aside, in the circles I’ve run in (and especially during high school and college), there has always been this tendency when you’re within your tight social circle to engage in a sort of inappropriate humor one-upmanship, saying more and more offensive things to try to elicit a laugh. I think you can see strands of this in some of the underground writing in the eighties like Forced Exposure. Generally, you find yourself saying horrible, insulting things that a) you would never want the general public to hear you say, and b) you really don’t believe—you’re just trying to get a rise. And I bring this up because I think one of the ways participants in this sort of thing attempt to justify it to themselves is by thinking something like “well, no real person actually would seriously say something like this; it’s like a caricature of a racist/sexist/whatever meant to highlight their foolishness.” But, in my eyes, Trump’s campaign and subsequent election have demonstrated that there are real people out there seriously saying and believing this horrible, repugnant shit and they’re not cartoons, they’re legitimized and empowered and, in some cases, running the country. To this end, I find myself less infatuated with this style of humor as the assholes have really come out of the woodwork, so to speak.

Chris: I often find myself at odds with the self-congratulatory bullshit of the Left. That is where I think Portlandia and others really land the toughest punches. In a big city you can operate in a vacuum and never see any pushback on frankly absurd behavior and beliefs, like being an adult engaged in 24/7 steampunk cosplay. We happen to be part of a subculture that got to define its own critique, but also got to keep that private. That is no longer the case. I’ve always really liked the E.O. Wilson term “behavioral hypertrophy.” There are behaviors and beliefs that are so difficult to hold, and so retrograde that they actually become an impediment, but they hold some value in signaling that becomes adaptive. Like owning a monster truck—expensive, difficult to drive, poor on gas—but that also signals how the owner is rich and “skilled.” I feel like we have a lot of monster trucks in America right now. The punk scene has different signals, but the same theory applies.

Right—and I’m wondering what effect that has, if any, on punk and postpunk subculture. I’m thinking of the scene from an older “Portlandia” where Jello Biafra wakes up from a 30-year coma only to run around in terror as he sees fashions and behaviors that at one time—in the 1980s—would have terrified yuppies now being appropriated by those same “yuppies” in 2015. But in the end he hooks up with the crust punks to nothing more than panhandle. That is, punks are yuppies today—and that the “real” punks—the crust punks—are just impotent and embarrassing, making the whole thing sort of a farce…

Eric: I need to see that episode now. Oddly enough, Dan and I break out a random Jello Biafra impression every once in a while.

Dan: There’s probably an analogy here to the way that hippies were viewed in the 80’s—as these laughable, pointless relics of a time whose good ideas had (allegedly) been absorbed into the mainstream. Think of the parents on “Family Ties.”

It’s interesting that you mention both Nixonland and “Family Ties” so far as Alex P Keaton—this hippie progeny—grew into a right-wing Nixon toady. I’m thinking of the old line by Walter Benjamin about how fascism is the inevitable result of a failed revolution–

Chris: What I find more fascinating is the huge web of people who were formerly involved in punk or D.I.Y. culture fanning out into the broader world, everything from economics to science to academia. In the process, the thing I feel is most important, the ethos, has gone with them. Sure, hair colors and clothing that used to shock are now available at the mall. Those things mattered to us as signaling, but were not what defined the movement.  ⍟