“The first thing I did when I got laid off during the pandemic, before even getting on unemployment, the first thing I did was buy a lock-picking kit,” says Monica LaPlante.
When Covid-19 upended our lives, many of us finally had a moment to pause and take stock of what we’d been doing and where we were going. Bands and marriages broke up. People changed careers and lovers. (And, uh, Racket was formed.) It was no different for the 31-year-old garage rocker, who surveyed a wide range of future employment options.
“I thought about becoming an electrician, a taxidermist—I realized I was too squeamish for that,” LaPlante says. She’s sipping a can of kombucha outside Wildflyer Coffee in south Minneapolis. (“If I get a cold press after this I’ll go off the rails,” she warns, though when she does go back inside to caffeinate mid-interview, our animated conversation stays happily on track.) Locksmithery proved not to be LaPlante's calling either, though the picks did come in handy. “I opened our storage unit because I lost the key, which was awesome.”
The DIY singer-guitarist even considered going pro. “I thought for a minute I could be in a casino band, but that is too much work,” she says. “Someone gave me the real rundown: Not only do you have to play every song exactly correctly, but they charge each other for mistakes. If you fuck up you have to give everyone a dollar—I’d probably be better as an electrician.”
Perfection, after all, is far from LaPlante’s goal. “I like to leave room for happy accidents,” she says, referencing the catchphrase of cheery PBS painter Bob Ross. “It’s more exciting to watch someone fight their way out of a mistake than it is watching someone do a perfect cover. Sometimes you’re on the wrong fret and you hit the wrong chord but it sounds kinda cool and you think, ‘Let’s go with that.’”
Her example of the ideal redeemed flub is Kurt Cobain’s guitar work on the Nirvana Unplugged version of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” “He tried to do the solo but he started on the wrong note, so he just kind of adjusted. It’s a mistake, but the next time you hear the song, that’s just how it goes now.”
So how did this young imperfectionist find herself surrounded by uptight musical school shredders a dozen or so years ago? Born in Rochester (“It’s just not a creative place—it’s a very science-minded, straight-thinking tech place”) she fled to the Twin Cities at her first opportunity, enrolling in the now-defunct St. Paul music school McNally Smith and studying guitar among (she’d hoped) like-minded peers. But the program was clearly no place for a garage-rocker. Especially when she was one of only two women.
“Everyone was weird and cagey and wouldn’t make eye contact,” she recalls. “Some would treat me like a person and everyone else was like ‘Steve Vai! Steve Vai! Steve Vai!’ They were like 'let’s talk about Joe Satriani' and I was ‘But I don’t wanna! I don’t want to play acid-fusion-jazz.’ I was listening to stuff like Television and they have all sorts of weird modal stuff, but for some reason…” She makes a whooshing-over-head motion to illustrate the guitar-wank boys’ response to Marquee Moon. “They were convinced that the more notes you play the better you are.”
LaPlante transferred to the more simpatico composition class (“the composition kids were all doing their own thing—and they were also stoned”) and, even more pivotally, interned at Pearl Studios, run by brothers Noah and Zachary Hollander. (Noah has, in the time since, become LaPlante’s boyfriend and manager.)
“We would go to shows and check out local bands, just kind of getting in touch with what was going on,” she says. “Our thing was: If we were to make our own compilation of everyone we liked in town, who would we want on that? We would always seek those people out. I learned a lot about approaching artists from the business side, it was good to get that perspective.”
But as chatty and expressive as LaPlante can be, her outgoing personality conceals a midwestern aversion to asking for favors that slowed down her ability to make connections with other musicians. She didn’t even want to play her songs for the Hollanders.
“I was just really reluctant to be like ‘here are my songs,’” she says, blaming that hesitance on the idea of “female songwriter” prevalent a decade ago. “If you were a girl who wrote things under your own name, everyone assumed that you have an acoustic guitar, and fluffy Zooey Deschanel bangs, and you’re just singing some campy, quirky song about, I don’t know, your cat or something.”
But she couldn’t hold out forever. “I avoided the question so much that [the Hollanders] actually became curious about my songs,” she says. Noah flipped for her recordings, and LaPlante went on to release her first album, Jour, in 2013.
Her formation of a band followed a similar course. “Eventually I just sort of … midwesterned my way into getting real cool people to play with me,” she says of her roundabout recruitment style, bringing in guitarist Orion Treon and drummer Austin Cecil. Completing the unit on bass is Christy Costello, a mainstay in local rock for nearly three decades, from her ’90s days in Ouija Radio to the later formation of Pink Mink. LaPlante speaks of her bassist wholly in raves. “I pick something up from her every time we play together. She always has some little technique or trick, and watching her work ethic makes me want to be a better musician,” she says.
Their bond was forged under fire. “She was my manager at the Red Stag… for two seconds,” LaPlante recalls. “We worked one of the worst nights in the history of serving ever, and she quit shortly after that. It was like an actual nightmare you have as a server. People just kept coming and the computer died. You can’t check people out, tickets aren’t getting printed in the kitchen, and more people just keep coming in. Then the power went out.”
Now we reach that part of the story, obligatory in every music feature nowadays, where the pandemic happens.
LaPlante didn’t want to stop playing. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we keep doing this without being irresponsible assholes?’” she says. So they got creative. They cruised around town on top of Savage Aural Hotbed’s 1992 GMC Vandura as the first participants in the “Bands on Vans” series. They livestreamed Beatle-istically from a third-story rooftop in Northeast. They also recorded the four-song Quarantine EP, separately and remotely. In addition to a crate-digging cover of Linda McCartney's "The Light Comes from Within" and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Do It Clean,” the highlight is “Compression,” as accurate document of quar life as emerged 2020.
“Compression” also features LaPlante contributing an electronic drum computer so vintage and user-hostile she had to scour YouTube videos to get a handle on its strange workings. That’ll come in handy on Halloween, when the band performs early Madonna hits as Madonica at the Entry. (It's one of two shows scheduled for the weekend; the other is Saturday at Palmer's.)
As for what’s next, according to LaPlante, “the skeleton is all there for a new album." The band started recording one with producer Bill Skibbe in Benton Harbor, Michigan, but he was hired by Jack White’s Third Man, and now “his time is vastly taken up," LaPlante understates. But the band has been recording furiously, and, as this weekend's slate shows, playing out as much as possible. Indie rock may not pay as well as taxidermy, but it's steady work.
Where: Palmer's, 500 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: Saturday, Oct. 29, 9 p.m.
With: Carnage The Executioner, Rupert Angeleyes, and River Sinclaire
Tickets: $15 advance/$20 door; more info here
Where: 7th St Entry, 701 1st Ave. N., Minneapolis
When: Monday, Oct. 31, 8:30 p.m.
With: General B and the Wiz and Floodwater Angel
Tickets: $12 advance/$15 door; more info here