One Girl, Two Cities

Q&A with Gus Watkins of ACTN


This is the fifth of a 5 part series of interviews with Gus Watkins, a local music artist. He is a member of five different bands, all with different members, all of whom are releasing a CD over the course of their collective residency at Gamut Gallery this summer and fall. They’re calling the series of shows Genrebeast.

The Genrebest manifesto is as follows: We believe music is about art movement, not genre; community, not scene; playing, not partying.

ACTN will perform October 29 to celebrate the release of their new album “You Will Never Be Known” and will be joined by K. Raydio, MINNIE/BLUNTZ, The Stress of Her Regard, and Bobby Kahn with “And Now It’s” will host.

Q. What does ACTN stand for?
A. ACTN is pronounced by saying the letters. It’s not shortened for anything, exactly. Well, there’s a story behind what ACTN stands for, but it’s not very interesting. The truth is, I just like how it rolls off the tongue when you say it. Ay-See-Tee-En. Go ahead and try it. You’ll like it too! Seriously. Say it out loud, right now. It feels good!

Q. In 3 sentences or fewer, describe your sound and who your influences are.
A. I take influences from all over the place, but I think we sound a lot like Peter Gabriel meets St. Vincent. I like off-kilter hooks and things that are poppy, but surprising. I’ve also needed something from every single other project in Genrebeast (Ghost Army, DEATHDANCE, Patch, and Qaanaaq) to pull together the skills and people to finish this album.

Q. What’s the overall message behind the new album, “You Will Never Be Known”?
A. There’s not so much an overall message, as in, something I want you to take away from this. Part of what I like to do is to ask questions and raise points, and let the listener take that where they will. Lyrically, there is a theme that runs through it, which is about your sense of self as you relate to others. Isolation, loneliness, apartness. I examine it from a zeitgeist perspective, and from an interpersonal perspective, and also from my own perspective. There’s even a bit of environmentalism and generational discussion that sneaks in. A lot of that probably speaks to my personal experience of my twenties, and coming to terms with my own introversion.

Sonically, I wanted to make it fun and danceable. I kind of hid all that serious stuff behind the beats and bass. It’s a pop record after all!

Q. What’s your favorite thing about each member of the band?
A. First and foremost, it’s their willingness to play these crazy songs! But seriously, this is going to sound like a love story, because I have the best people working with me.

Peter Kenyon (drums) works so hard and pays attention to all the details I put in ACTN songs and then promptly forget about! He has to learn a lot of intricate stuff, and execute it. My favorite thing about Peter is his humility. The dude is a really fucking strong songwriter (in Patch), and he got to be that way by accepting almost every single piece of criticism given to him, improving where he felt he needed to, until he and his music became above reproach. It inspires me every day.
Ray Minge (cello) is one of the most musically gifted people I know. He bought a cello and taught himself to play it for ACTN, about a month before we left on tour back in 2015. His ear for pitch is unbelievable. But my favorite thing about Ray is that he’s the most emotionally stable person I know. It’s vexing how chill he is!
My friend KPT (keyboards) is joining us for this last show. KPT has a mind for pop genius that is rare. He has an unbelievable work ethic, tied with great instincts. My favorite thing about KPT is his discernment. He knows what’s good pretty fast, and he shows a tremendous amount of respect to his audience by always making sure what he does is worth their time.

Q. This is being promoted as a Halloween show. Should people dress up? What will your costume be?
A. Dress up! I think the staff at Gamut Gallery is even going to do a costume contest. You can win a print from Kate Renee, whose 7 Sins work is up at the gallery right now, and is really gorgeous. As for my costume, I’m not sure. It’s all I can do to dress myself in the morning as it is!

Q. Tell me about the hosts, Bobby Kahn and “And Now It’s” and how you chose them to be part of the show.
A. Bobby is one of the coolest people in Minneapolis. His enthusiasm, and his love of dancing and music is so inspiring to me. Look up “So You Think You Kahn Dance” if you want to know more about how amazing this guy is. Jade and Cassie from Gamut suggested he host it, and I’m so glad he is going to be a part of this. His show “And Now It’s” is funny, too. I’m glad cable access still exists, and I’m glad Bobby is on it.

Q. What characteristics of K.Raydio, MINNIE/BLUNTZ, and The Stress of Her Regard stood out to you that made you want to include them in the lineup?
A. K.Raydio is one of the best performers I’ve seen in Minneapolis. She’s so polished, so poised, and her songs are rapturous. I’m ecstatic to have her on the bill, because she really connects with people emotionally. MINNIE / BLUNTZ make totally fun off-kilter pop stuff. I’ve known Mo Bluntz for a long time, and he’s just such a great musician. Anything he’s involved in will be a good time. And I love the lyricism and the guitar work in The Stress of Her Regard. Watching those guys actually kind of blows my mind because their songs are either so transcendentally simple that I’m incapable of getting it, or they’re more thought-out than I can know. I guess they just write good songs that sound good. What else could you ever want?

Q. Now that Genrebeast is coming to a close, what takeaways do you have from this collective series of shows?
A. Wow. I’m going to attempt to keep Pandora’s box shut here, because I could probably write a book about what I’ve learned from this series of shows. One of the big takeaways I have from this is how important community is. Find people, be good to them, and let them be good to you. Put your dreams into motion, and when people think that makes sense, let them help you. Some art galleries I approached didn’t understand the vision of what I wanted, and couldn’t get why I’d want to do rock shows in their art space. But Gamut Gallery understood that music is art, too, and they wanted that energy around them, just as much as I wanted their energy around me. What a blast to connect on a vision!

One of the things I wanted to set out and prove with this series was that music and fine arts shouldn’t be segregated. I wanted a space where people could get more out of a concert than getting squeezed on $8 beers. I like theater spaces for music, too, because theaters are built to focus on performance. But theaters are big, and I wanted this to be more intimate. People were kind of confused at first when I started throwing shows at an art gallery, and it wasn’t just a DJ spinning in the corner during hors d’oeuvres. These are fun shows! Somehow we managed to talk people into coming to an art gallery to see live music, and keep coming back. Everyone who comes seems to have a lovely time They even dance! I always leave with a lot of joy and love in my heart, and I can’t always say the same thing when I leave a bar. The sense of community, the sense of respect for the performances, and the audience’s willingness to experiencing music as an art form, while surrounded by incredible visual art is something really special. I’m proud that we accomplished it.

Genrebeast is all about breaking down genre barriers and putting great bands together regardless of their genre — good music is good music. People just want to hear something worth their time! And part of the concept of a “genre” is based on antiquated 20th century marketing, to make sure people knew what side of the tracks certain singers came from. That’s why I think it’s less important to think about genres than about the overall community and place in time, and what technologies and techniques are employed to make music — like an art movement. I’ve also tried to have a diversity in lineups, because I think it’s really important for everyone that we stay connected and intermixed. If Minneapolis wants to be seen as a big-time city, it needs to start acting like one, and part of that means more diversity in arts and entertainment. I’m not the first person to say that, of course, and a lot of people are doing good work in that area. But I like to highlight it when I can, and I want to do my small part.

Q. What’s up next for you?
A. I enjoyed the album-making process quite a lot this year, so I’d like to do that with others as a producer. It was really enjoyable to record and produce five albums in a year. Stressful sometimes, but ultimately it was a real joy. I think I showed my chops and ability to make magic happen in the recording studio in a variety of situations, so I’d like to take that into producing and helping other bands record albums. So hopefully I can do a bit of that next year for others.

Also, I’m leaving Minneapolis for a while, so I’m sure I’ll pick up some new habits and ideas while I travel. I don’t know how to stop creating. What’s next for me is hard to say, but that’s what makes it the most exciting!

Celebrate the final Genrebeast show with ACTN, K. Raydio, MINNIE/BLUNTZ, The Stress of Her Regard, and Bobby Kahn and friends at Gamut Gallery October 29. Click here to purchase tickets.

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