Kathy Callahan has buyer’s remorse.
While waiting for a tardy journalist to arrive, she and the other Gully Boys have passed a warm September afternoon browsing at a pop-up market outside Lake Monster Brewing in St. Paul. The small yarn figures of Pooh and Piglet that the singer/guitarist purchased are very cute; the price she paid for them is, admittedly, a little steep. “Do I need these?” she asks, belatedly.
While the three musicians were casually shopping, they were sorta-not-quite rockognized. “Someone asked if we were a band,” drummer Nadirah McGill says, wondering aloud why that might be.
Seems pretty obvious: The Gully Boys look like a band. Visually, their individual styles complement each other in a way that feels intuited rather than prearranged; personally, they emanate the enhanced camaraderie that results after friendship gets tested by constant collaboration and survives. They move as a unit, finish each other’s sentences, share an unspoken repertoire of inside running gags. “We know what joke we’re making just by looking at each other,” bassist Natalie Klemond says.
This makes the trio easy to interview. One can, for instance, throw out a question like “Do the squirrels seem out of control this year?” and sit back as a three-way discussion of squirrel behavior proliferates around you. McGill shares how their sister’s friend in Fridley actually domesticated one of the furry pests, which leads to Klemond’s matter-of-fact statement, “Squirrels have souls.”
And they couldn’t have worked as hard as they could to get where they are without their shockingly impressive ability to spend so much time with each other. In 2018, two years after forming with no rock band experience at all, they won City Pages’s Pick to Click Poll, which selected the year’s best new music act. They performed relentlessly, toured vigorously, and trumpeted their DIY origins not as a badge of authenticity, but as evidence that you didn’t have to be a straight white cis dude to rock. (In fact, maybe you shouldn’t be.)
Now the group has emerged from the lingering pandemic with a new EP, Favorite Son, a fierce set of five songs whose recent release they’ll celebrate with a three-night stand this weekend at Mortimer’s, the Whittier club where they cut their teeth as a baby band.
After all that time together, some bands might have welcomed the break from constant companionship that 2020 imposed on musicians. But Callahan, Klemond, and McGill spent much of the year figuring out how to still be Gully Boys without playing music.
For many of us, Gully Boys included, 2020 was a year of feeling guilty that you weren’t doing enough—creatively, politically, existentially. Time felt limitless and yet there was little inspiration to be had.
“We didn’t even practice for most of last year,” McGill says.
“I wasn’t even listening to music,” Klemond adds.
“My quarter life crisis happened during the pandemic,” McGill says, trying to tilt a table umbrella to shade the late afternoon sun out of Klemond’s eyes. “There was a lot of pressure on musicians—like, you don’t have anything to do, you should be creating right now.”
“You feel like you should be practicing 10 hours a day,” Callahan agrees. ”But I couldn’t even pick up my guitar.” She’d imagined a scenario for the video for the band’s song “Russian Doll” that never came to fruition. “I wanted to have a scene where I stare at my guitar and it stares back at me—it’s like Ferris Bueller, the guitar gets really, really close. That’s how it felt for me.”
After weeks of COVID isolation in the spring, the turning point came for Gully Boys, as for all of Minneapolis, with the murder of George Floyd in May. All three band members lived on the southside at the time, somewhere between the 3rd Precinct and what would soon be known as George Floyd Square. So they marched. And protested. And pitched in where they could.
“Our community really made sure we were supported growing up as a band, so it was nice to not focus on music for a moment and be really present in our communities,” McGill says. “To say, ‘We’re a Minneapolis band.’”
The three threw themselves into mutual aid, selling “Demolish White Supremacy” T-shirts that Klemond designed to raise more than $20,000 for the Northside Funders Group’s post-uprising reconstruction of north Minneapolis and preparing meals for unhoused people in several encampments around the city. “We had each other’s backs and I learned a lot about community that I hadn’t before,” Callahan says.
But even as they grew more engaged politically, the band still felt like they were lagging behind.
“A lot of musicians had this fear: ‘How will we stay relevant during the pandemic when everyone’s so distant?’” McGill says. “We were all talking to each other like, ‘No one’s gonna care anymore.’”
Gully Boys tried livestreaming a few sets, but performing for a camera didn’t provide the spark they’d hoped. And despite some initial success at TikTok when their song “Neopet Graveyard” went viral, the algorithm took a psychological toll when they got serious about the app.
“We were just looking at numbers,” Klemond says. “It hurt our self-esteem.”
“It was fun to be goofy and stuff but it’s too easy to compare yourself, because you see other people who have so much more content or way more views,” Callahan says. “One bad comment would send me spiraling. We had a whole meeting where I was like, ‘We can’t make TikToks anymore! I don’t want to be a TikTok band!’ So dramatic!”
“Nobody wants to see somebody being miserable on TikTok,” Klemond chimes in.
In fact, there’s a gendered double standard when it comes to how you present yourself on the app.
“You have to be ultra-femme or really made up to get anyone’s attention,” Callahan says. “Whereas the dudes on TikTok can show up and be like [she slips into a dude-on-TikTok voice] ‘I farted in this Pringles can.’ Why can’t I fart in a Pringles can and get a bunch of views? Come on! I’m so capable of that.”
Thwarted, the band members diverted their creative energies into other paths. McGill: “I made 200 pairs of earrings.” Callahan: “I started doing epoxy.” Klemond: “I had a very dark, relatively brief 9/11 truther phase.”
When pressed further, the bassist cautions, “Don’t open this box.” (She later reveals why the oft-memed complaint that jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams is irrelevant.) She’s since moved on to examine the subjects of more classic conspiracies, like the JFK assassination. “I learned all about the Cuban anti-revolutionaries.” The CIA, she tells us, “they set people up to play the long game.”
The Gully Boys’s first 2021 show came in late June, at an open house for the Minnesota School of New Music in north Minneapolis.
“After we played I sobbed for an hour,” Callahan recalls. “I felt a high I hadn’t felt in so long, and after you feel you can literally feel that just drain from your brain. Everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I was like, ‘Just hug me. I don’t know.’”
They’re not the same Boys now they once were. To start, their organization has grown in numbers. After running the show for years, McGill has entrusted management and booking duties to outside parties. And on a personal level, McGill has gotten engaged—though don’t expect a wedding in the immediate future. (“I don’t want to get married during a pandemic,” they say.)
Maybe the most concrete change is that Gully Boys have begun performing live with a second guitarist—one of two second guitarists, in fact. Singer-songwriter Mariah Mercedes and Emily Schoonover of bugsy and Bruise Violet alternate sets with the band, and the group credits them with adding a new spark to their live shows.
“After bringing them in, I fully discovered, I don’t want to play lead guitar. Ever,” Callahan says. “I just want to move my hand up and down the guitar and sing and yell.”
“Old songs that we’re sick of, I’m like, ‘Oh, I kinda like that again,’” Klemond adds.
In this spirit of growth and maturity, Favorite Son even has an actual producer: Zach Zurn handled all the tracks except “Russian Doll,” which Jake Luppen of Hippo Campus produced. “We were like, ‘You can do this stuff with songs? You can layer all this stuff?” McGill says of their latest studio experience. “We were so DIY, we thought ‘What we can play is what we got.’”
The first song they recorded was the title track for the new EP. “It’s dark,” McGill says. “Bitter,” Callahan adds. “Natalie just came in with these lyrics and we were like, ‘Are you OK?’” McGill recalls. The song centers around the ambiguous phrase “power is born,” and Callahan relishes each syllable. The band says it set the tone for the record, with its broader array of guitar attacks, Callahan’s vocals often softening to contrast more sharply with her shouts, and the rhythm section increasingly intricate. The music is fierce but less “punk” than ever (which was never much), a kind of hard melodic rock that pulls from whatever musical style seems like it’ll fit the mood.
COVID finally caught up with McGill as the band was readying for its first indoor show of the year, at the Fine Line.
“It was pretty fucked up,” they say. “I was sick for like five days. I couldn’t breathe, I still don’t have my sense of smell back, months later. My day of release was the day before our show so we had one practice.”
The next night, no rough edges showed. The crowd at the Fine Line was heavily masked and thoroughly psyched as Gully Boys capped a solid line-up of their local rock pals: Vial, bugsy, and Dad Bod.
Like so many happy gatherings this summer, the show felt both premature and necessary, not so much the supposed “return to normalcy” that nobody who’s paying attention expects anytime soon (ever?) but the beginning of a period where we weigh our risks and our needs and improvise as best we can. The band fretted over some minor technical difficulties no one in the crowd gave a fuck about, then closed with Gavin DeGraw’s One Tree Hill theme, “I Don’t Want to Be,” as Callahan manhandled a fedora. They sounded tighter than ever, and most importantly, they looked like a band.
The Gully Boys will play Mortimer’s Sept. 17-19. Find more info here.