Bells’ Toll: Let Independents Ring – Our Q&A with North Styrenn

North Styrenn is quite possibly one of Minneapolis, Minnesota’s best kept secrets. The band would have remained one, too, if drummer Clint Trotter hadn’t given it all away via Instagram. Better known as @a_music_affair in the IG vinyl community, he revealed that his band was on Spotify one day, later posted a story of himself drumming, and more or less peaked our music-perpetually-on-the-brains interest (plus, if you take a peek at his account, his bio shares that he’s a drummer). Since Clint’s account is one of our favorites in the vinyl community – he takes well-lit photos of albums we both love and wish we had, and he clearly gives some thought to composition – we were eager to hear his band’s latest release. But, we couldn’t find them on social media (imagine our surprise!).

Ryan Pula, the band’s lead singer, avoids social media like we once did, referring to himself as a “social media recluse.” The band’s latest release, Waiting, is also pretty new, so, as of now, the band doesn’t have an IG account, or even a full website yet. Thankfully, though, Clint directed us to the band’s Hear Now landing page. North Styrenn has actually been active since 2002, but several lineup shuffles prevented them from regularly performing and releasing new material. In fact, their first release, The North Styrenn EP, didn’t come out until 2006, but it is pure ‘90s-esque goodness, reminiscent of the Screaming Trees, Jane’s Addiction, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Lemonheads, and even some of Minnesota’s other greats, like the ‘Mats.

There are definite classic rock influences present as well, but North Styrenn’s sound is all their own and it’s a wonder to us that the band doesn’t have a larger following (outside of Minnesota in the early ‘00s). They come off as an undiscovered ‘90s band – they are definitely talented enough to have been picked up by a label at some point, but, perhaps, were never in the right place at the right time (like so many other talented bands). They also started families and spent quite some time searching for an elusive fourth member, only to discover that they already had what they sought – each other. Waiting, which took a long 13 years to put out following the release of The North Styrenn EP, is a bit more polished, but the inherent murkiness of their debut still remains. While the band stopped performing for several years, they never stopped writing material and later took the same analog approach to recording that they used on their EP, making for warm, subdued tones.

For example, with the addition of strings, “Alone” has a richer, fuller sound, but is not lacking in the broodiness (the inherent murkiness we’re referring to) that is characteristic of so many grunge greats. Clint shines on this one, too, having written the song himself. The band’s sound is pretty diverse, though. Take “A Wider Change,” which bridges on Britpop, combined with a rhythm section that reminds us of Rod Stewart’s version of “Forever Young” (especially in the choruses of “a journey we all share”). “Chime In” further stretches the band’s sound (did we mention we love all the lyrically coincidental bell references on the album?), with guitarist/bassist Victor Johnson taking the lead on vocals. This one is a bit darker, heavier, and, again, reminiscent of the mid ‘90s. Then, there’s “Under the Blue Sky,” which also features strings and keys, but is driven by a sweeping, mid-tempo groove.

There’s a lot to love on both Waiting and The North Styrenn EP, which has us hoping that the band will resurface with their new album in the next couple of years, or at least sooner than the year 3000 (said in Conan O’Brien style, if you catch our drift). But, really, as long as they exist somewhere in time, we’ll be satisfied. At least for now, the secret is out.

Our Q&A with Ryan Pula follows below:

The Bell’s Toll (BT): What’s your story? Can you tell us about how North Styrenn formed, and about your band members? How long have you known each other? How did you get your name?

Ryan Pula (RP): I got into playing music as a 12-year-old when my mother got me a guitar for Christmas. I took some lessons and played around a bit, but, by 14, it got tucked away in my closet, and it did not come back out until I was 17. From that point, music took on a new use as an emotional tool, a weapon for struggling with teenage confusion, I guess. For the next 10 or 15 years, music was all I thought about and all I cared about. As far as North Styrenn, it's probably most accurate to say we formed in 2002 from just a group of friends who were all into music. I met Victor (guitar and bass) in the summer of that year, when he responded to a post I put up on a local music scene page.

In Autumn, Victor left for a year abroad (Budapest), and the drummer we were playing with quit shortly after that. My girlfriend at the time mentioned that somebody she worked with played drums, and so entered Clint. That next summer when Victor came back from Budapest was the first time that Victor, Clint, and I all played music together. Our first gig was a few months later. The naming of the band came about as a combination of two ideas; first being from Minnesota and having the word "north" in your band name seemed logical, if not uncreative, and, second, I was reading a book at the time from author William Styron and I liked the sound of his last name…a slight respelling and voila! you have a strange, confusing, and often mispronounced (Styrene) band name.

BT: Your EP, The North Styrenn EP, was released in 2006, but your newest release, Waiting, was just recently released in 2019, which is a long time in between releases! We read that you had some member shuffling early on, but have you gone through any other changes in the band, or what would you say contributed to the long wait for Waiting?

RP: From 2007 to 2018, I was in a coma, but it was not an unproductive coma like most. When I awoke, I had an entire album’s worth of material worked out in my head; it just took a little shaping from Victor and Clint…this would make for a much better and more exciting answer than the truth! I read these questions at work right before I left, and I thought about this question (why the 13-year gap between releases) on my nearly one-hour commute home. To be honest, I think there were a lot of factors at play, as you know there was a pretty steady rotation of band members in the early years and we spent a lot of time looking for that fourth member to add to the chemistry that the three of us had. I can't speak for Victor and Clint, but, for me, when we lost our bass player in 2007 (who went on to be a very successful musician) there was a certain degree of broken heartedness and possibly exhaustion at the idea of searching for a fourth member again.

That fighting spirit that I had throughout my twenties that felt and believed that, no matter what, music was going to be what I did with my life, slowly started to evolve. This isn't to say that we weren't constantly working on music for the next five years, because we were (95% of the music from Waiting was written during this time), but there was no longer a sense of urgency and we were no longer actively gigging musicians. All of our “music time” was spent recording and working on new material. You add in that Victor got married and started his family of five, and a few years later I started my family of six, life got very busy. There is a scene from Rocky III where Mickey is explaining to Rocky how he lost his edge, and he says, “…but then the worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter…you got civilized.” However unrelated it may appear, this is what it makes me think of.

BT: What’s the Minnesota music scene like? Do you still play shows in Minneapolis and Saint Paul often, or have you branched out at all?

RP: I'm not a good person to answer this question, as I do not keep up with the Twin Cities music scene very much anymore, and North Styrenn has not gigged in over five years. I will say that when we were gigging constantly, it was hard to find bands that fit in with our vibe, which is probably why it was always difficult to find a fourth member who understood the sound we were going for.

BT: Do you plan on putting the band on social media? We’ve never been big fans of social media ourselves, but there’s surprisingly little information about you online! Are you trying to remain a secret (lol)?

RP: I have to admit that when I read “are you trying to remain a secret,” I had a pretty good laugh 😊. Clint and Victor are more social media savvy. I am what is known as a social media recluse! But I do agree that North Styrenn does not have a huge footprint online. Maybe this Q&A will begin a trend in the opposite direction, and we'll know who to blame if you ruin this *secret* band operation we've got going.

BT: Can you tell us about your newest release, Waiting? What was the recording process like? Did you work with the same recording engineer (Daryll Hurst) as you did for your EP? Who produced your latest release?

RP: The thing that is probably most of note, here, is that the entire record was recorded analog to 2" 24 track tape, and mixed and mastered to 1/2" 2 track tape, which is something that is pretty rare today, and quite a bit more work. But I believe it pays off in the end for two reasons: First, analog tape has a certain sound that feels warm and natural, and, second, because there is no cutting and pasting like in the digital domain. It requires that the musicians really know their parts, and that performance aspect I think really comes through on albums recorded to tape. As I pointed to earlier, 95% of the material was written within a couple years of the EP – we probably did pre-production on over 50 songs in this period until it got cut down to the 11 songs on the record. All the drums, bass guitar, and rhythm guitar tracks were recorded in a warehouse space in 2011 and 2012 (except for “Waiting” and “A Wider Change,” which got redone in 2018). The lead guitar, vocal tracks, and all other instruments were recorded in my home studio in 2013 and 2014.  By the beginning of 2015, all but two songs had been mixed, and just needed to be mastered. Daryll Hurst was the engineer and co-producer (North Styrenn were the other co-producers) for everything except for the songs that were redone in 2018, which were engineered by Rob Oesterlin at the Terrarium studio in Minneapolis.

BT: We think you guys had the potential to be signed back in 2006 – were you ever courted by a label?

RP: Thanks for saying that, we did too! I only remember hearing rumor of one label person being at a show in 2007, but nothing came from it and we never knew if this were true.

BT: How do you think you’ve grown as a band from the release of your first EP to now? Do you think your sound has changed?

RP: This is a good question – of the over 100 songs that never got past a pre-production recording, I can usually guess the year they were done, even the ones I never remember recording. This tells me that we have slowly evolved over time, but, that said, everything we do sounds like North Styrenn to my ears, which I suppose is a good thing.

BT: The only description we’ve found about the band is that you’re a “modern rock band with a classic rock sound.” We know Clint likes several classic rock bands, along with ‘90s bands like Soundgarden and the Smashing Pumpkins, just from following him on IG. Does the rest of the band feel the same or which classic rock influences would you claim?

RP: That's probably a pretty good description. We definitely have many places where our influences overlap. I think you can hear many of these influences in our music, from ‘90s grunge to ‘90s Britpop to ‘80s alternative to classic rock, like Pink Floyd and The Who.

BT: Some of the things that stand out for us on Waiting are the whispering over your vocals in “Seige of the Sun” and the strings in “Alone.” What were the ideas behind these songs?

RP: The whispering on “Siege of the Sun,” I'm 95% sure was Clint's idea. It does give it a certain spooky kind of vibe, which, along with the EBow, is what we were going for. I think the strings on “Alone” were my idea – that song stood out as unique on the album, and I thought the strings would further set it apart, plus I think they work very well over the rather unique chord progression.

BT: The new album sounds very cohesive, in general, which we love. Did you have a certain concept in mind when working on the songs?

RP: Thank you! I think the cohesiveness just comes from having a good engineer and getting good performances to tape. There was not a particular concept that we were striving for during the recording process, but I should also add that having all the instruments recorded in the same or similar acoustic surroundings probably also contributed to its consistency.

BT: We saw on Bandcamp that you write the band’s songs, but can you tell us about how you collaborate with the band during the songwriting process?

RP: I actually don't write all of the band's material; it's probably accurate to say that many of the songs originate from ideas that I'm messing around with, but Clint and Victor's input was invaluable in bringing these songs to completion, and they would probably sound very different had their footprints not been on them. Not to mention there are songs on Waiting where I had only a little bit of input in the writing process, or in the lyrics. Examples would be “Chime In,” which was mostly written by Victor, with lyrics by Victor, and “Alone,” which was mostly written by Clint, with lyrics by Clint.

BT: Do you consider the band to be a hobby, or are you considering touring or playing regular shows in the future, to make it a full-time gig? What are your day jobs, if any?

RP: I have a dislike for the word hobby; music is a passion that I hope continues for many years to come, but with a full-time job and a wife and four kids, it is a passion that exists within a very limited time budget. That said, if someone were willing to pay me a livable wage to be in North Styrenn and then told me I could be home for dinner every night with my family, you could bet that, without any hesitation, I would take them up on that! Of course, I say that knowing there are hardly any rock musicians in the world who this is true for. I'm just making the point that for this to become a full-time gig, I would have to make sacrifices that I'm not willing to make, at least, not anymore.

BT: Do you like and/or play with any other local Minnesotan bands?

RP: Not presently.

BT: How do you feel about some of the artists that have come from Minnesota (Prince, the Replacements, etc.)?

RP: Everyone from Minnesota loves Prince, it's in the water here. As far as the Replacements, it was only in the last five years that I really started to listen to them. I really dig their raw vocals and rich guitar sounds.

BT: We’ve seen Clint post about playing drums recently – do you have set rehearsal or recording days, and what are you working on now?

RP: We actually just recently got a new rehearsal space which we haven't had in a long time. It’s much more convenient than just meeting up at the recording studio sporadically. It's been a lot of fun to get together playing songs that we haven't played in years, but also, more importantly, to work on new material.

BT: What’s next for you guys? Have you considered a vinyl release?

RP: As for a vinyl release, we did do a very small number of vinyl for Waiting, and if there were an interest, I'm sure we could do more. We have already started work on our next full-length album, the first song has been recorded and just needs to be mixed, and we have a good start on the second song. So, let's see…by 2031, I would love to do my second round of Q&As with you, kidding of course, 2035.

BT: Thank you so much for your time! We hope to hear more from you soon, and to see you on IG!

RP: Thanks, Jess and Kady – I very much enjoyed doing this!

(Please note: this interview was proofread for grammar and clarity).

About the “Let Independents Ring” series:

When we first started writing for IE Weekly back in 2007, we wrote a few columns on mainstream artists before we began covering the local IE music scene, mainly discovering bands via MySpace. Around the same time, we started collecting records more obsessively. We met and fell for so many bands and have continued to support both independent artists and record stores. Through this series, we plan on highlighting bands and musicians that want to be “heard” amid the vast and competitive musical landscape, hopefully contributing to their growth. In her master’s project, Kady compared local bands to non-profits, as they typically put most of what they have into creating art, thereby providing a service to their communities. By sharing independent bands' stories through short Q&As, our goal is to inspire more listens, follows, likes, and, perhaps, success, to let them loudly ring. We hope you’ll also lend them your ears (and, us, your eyes).

If you're an independent artist or band and would like to be featured in this series, please contact us for consideration. We can be reached at jkbellstoll@gmail.com or via Instagram (@thebellstoll).