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Music

Muskellunge are Back from the ’90s, and Just in Time

They broke up just when they were getting started. But it's never too late to start again.

I think this photo was taken a while ago.
Jen Jurgens

“I don’t like talking into the mic,” Reba Fritz says, not talking into the mic. “Singing is different, but what am I supposed to say?”

In a corner, John Crozier is tuning his guitar, as guitarists will do, and during the lull in this Muskellunge rehearsal Fritz is speaking to three visitors, present to simulate the actual audience the band hasn’t performed for in years.

OK, that’s not entirely true—there was an unannounced warm-up gig opening for Cindy Lawson at the White Squirrel in St. Paul, and a KFAI in-studio, if that counts. But now the band is preparing to play an album release show for a record that’s been 30 years in the making, at the Hook and Ladder in south Minneapolis. Muskellunge exhumed the recordings that fell by the wayside when they suddenly disbanded to create In a Mess, In a State, and a Second Too Late, (Korda), and they had to re-learn how to play some of those songs again. After all, the ’90s were a while ago.

Sorry, yes, the ’90s. Not to dwell in the past, but you can’t tell the story of Muskellunge without revisiting the golden age of Uptown, an era I realize anyone under 40 instinctively rolls their eyes at. (Sometimes justifiably, sometimes you’re just being jerks. Either way, cut it out, or your eyes will stay like that.) That’s where Crozier, Fritz, and bassist Benji Boyd met, while working at the Kinko’s on Hennepin, right next to the Uptown Bar, where they’d head for drinks and live music even when Fritz still needed a fake ID.

“You’d meet people who were making flyers for their band and then there was a connection,” Fritz recalls of the Kinko’s job. The word that keeps popping up to describe her old ’hood is “scruffy.” “The energy is what made me want to move down there when I got out of high school.” Muskellunge played its earliest shows at Sons of Norway around the corner, opening for big indie-pop bands like the Hang Ups (who Crozier would later briefly join, and who are headlining the Hook and Ladder show).

The new/old album, recorded at the Terrarium in 1991-92, bristles more than their crisper pals in the Hang Ups ever did, though just as tunefully. Crozier’s studio-rat obsessiveness never cuts into the forward-tilting abandon, his guitar sometimes establishing its presence on tone alone (that teletype rhythm on “Still Learning”) or expanding out from shoegazed fuzz into hooky lines. Boyd’s frisky bass tumbles to the fore on a cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Chartered Trips.” Fritz’s voice is always unshaken at the center of the storm, whether keeping her bearings or summoning the noise. Throughout there’s a broader sense of dynamics than soft verse/LOUD CHORUS that came to be a cliché. If some of the fresh-faced ’90s babies looking backward for inspiration these days had recorded this album, it’d be in Best New Music contention.

These songs emerge from a time when major labels swooped into any town with a promising scene and dangled advances before the eyes of most every young white person with a guitar. It was all so long ago the members of Muskellunge don’t even remember who came courting them, when or where. (Was it V2? Was there a showcase? Did they stop by the studio? Does it even matter?) That all probably sounds fantastic to anyone with a guitar and no money and in 2021, though the process led to more bankrupt disasters than to success stories. As for Muskellunge, they never got to be either alt-rock stars or a cautionary tale.

“We were best friends,” Fritz says wistfully. “We talked all the time, and we were really close. Then John wanted to leave. I was mad at him. We’d just started talking to some labels. I thought we were moving up, and then…”

So how did it end? “Tragically,” Crozier says. “We don’t like to talk about it.”

A few years after the split, Fritz left town, moving around the country for almost two decades. Crozier went on to other studio projects. Boyd started a family. (A fourth member, drummer Eric Tretbar, had planned on reuniting with the others but later opted out due to COVID concerns. His replacement, Jesse Pelkey, is a scene vet who currently plays pop-punk in the band birdhole.) Still, the legacy of Muskellunge was captured on tape, waiting.

When Fritz returned to Minneapolis in 2017 (“I still feel like I just got back”), she and Crozier worked on a track together for a sampler album from the local cooperative music label Korda. The ice was broken. “He has a practice space, and I said, ‘I really miss singing. Can I just come down and sing?’” Fritz recalls. “And he started coming in and playing drums, and we started talking about doing songs again. We talked through any problems we had in the past and why the band broke up and just… healed, I guess.

“We’re more mature now,” Fritz says. “We communicate. And I know, for me, I want to talk about everything. It’s like any other relationship—you’ve got to be open and honest. And if something bugs you we gotta talk about it.”

“And she’s not shy about that!” Crozier laughs.

Fritz quickly clarifies, “I used to be though! When I was younger we wouldn’t talk about anything. We’d just… leave. We wouldn’t talk about feelings or… whatever.”

“That’s all we talk about now,” Crozier says. “It’s squishy.”

Having learned to communicate, the band is also looking to publicly shed some of ’90s reserve, that need to act like you didn’t care if anyone likes you or don’t want to seem like you’re trying too hard because it could look or feel phony. That means learning the tricks of social media promotion. And maybe talking into the mic between songs.

“The whole indie rock thing I grew up with was that not only on stage do you not show much emotion, but in person,” Fritz says. “It just didn’t feel honest. You don’t want to put people in an awkward spot to ask them to come to your show if they don’t want to.”

Whatever reserve Boyd may have once had is certainly no longer apparent. “I’m just happy too be playing with these guys again, whether it’s new or old stuff,” he says. “It’s corny to say it’s like riding a bike, because it’s not just that, but it does feel so right and comfortable.”

If the past is behind them and the present is a moment they’re holding on to, the future of the band is uncertain. Muskellunge will likely continue in some form, in the studio and, perhaps, more rarely, on stage. Crozier and Fritz have been writing together (and still have a cache of unrecorded and unfinished older songs to return to). And Fritz has written an album’s worth of songs she thinks (probably correctly) can occupy “a little niche that has not been filled: songs about people who have lost their dogs, songs about dogs that have been lost.

“I had these two gals who were with me for 12 years, and I just moved around a lot, just me and the dogs,” she says. “When I lost them about a year ago, I wrote so many sad songs. I didn’t make it obvious they were about dogs.”

So to hell with the coulda beens and on to the what’ll bes. As Fritz puts it, “How many times do you get go back to something that ended badly?”

Muskellunge
With: The Hang Ups, Deep Pool
Where: Hook and Ladder
When: Fri. Nov. 19, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15/$20. More info here.