Minnesota band Desperate Acts plays a polished take on Gainesville-influenced gritty punk rock. And they do so as veteran musicians of some unlikely former groups. But they also don’t want the whole "ex-members of" cliché to define their band’s identity.
With a new full-length, State Secrets, out now and a more defined vision for themselves, Desperate Acts are poised to make noise in the punk underground.
I sat down with drummer Karl Hensel to talk the band, the Midwest, and some underrated Minnesota gems.
How did the band come together, especially since you’re all in different states?
We are all in the Minneapolis area again, so that part is easy. As dumb as it sounds, my old band, Holding On, was kind of asked to do a reunion show, but we played as “Edgebreak” which was the first straight edge band to play a Dillinger Fourth of July show—it was all formerly straight edge guys doing legit covers of straight edge classics. It was a ton of fun, and Matt, our singer and guitarist, played bass for that and we talked about doing a band again since we shook the rust off and had a space we could use.
I think both of us thought we were done playing music, and even something like that makes you realize that it never leaves your system, even when you’re not playing your own songs. After a few months of demos and hacking through some bad songs, we started to find an idea that worked and that direction just develops over time when you’re on the same page.
How did the relationships with Kings Road and SBAM come together? Are there any plans to get over to Europe given the SBAM release?
It was really organic. When we finished the record, I sent it to some friends because we planned to do it ourselves, but we felt like maybe someone would take a flyer on it. One of my friends asked if it was okay to send to Stefan at SBÄM and they liked it and got in touch. Knowing that we’re a new band and a pretty small one at that, and that our “Ex members of” tag is meaningless for this band, I really didn’t expect any labels to care, but they said yes, when others didn’t reply, or jokingly/seriously told us we’re too old and don’t tour enough.
As for European tours, we’d love to see that someday, but the world of touring is so messed up with 2020 and 2021 cancellations all trying to fit into 2022, so I don’t expect any chances until 2023. If the world will have us, we’ll try to make it.
The band’s lyrical content seems at once deeply personal but also very relatable. What themes and ideas are addressed in “Brian” and “East Hill” in particular? Conversely, what is the band addressing in “State Secrets” and “Humble Lights”?
I think the fact they’re relatable is why explaining those lyrics is a fool’s errand. Matt writes the lyrics, but in most cases, I get to hear them as an outsider and ask him “is this about xyz?” and he says yes, or he says no. But if he says no, it doesn’t matter to me, because that’s how I hear it and that’s what the song is about.
I view songs like "FM," "Drying Out," and "Jeff Crisp" totally different than Matt probably intended, but that’s what makes him a great writer. If you’ve lost someone and struggled to process it—it could be through unexpected death of natural causes or self-inflicted ones—the details of a song from the writer’s experience don’t change how you interpret it, because their experience is not literally your experience.
One of the best compliments is that someone I respect and know told me one of our songs made them tear up. That’s the greatest compliment, and I don’t need to know what made them do that or why. The fact they listened closely and hit that point is something you can’t take for granted.
You all come from the hardcore and punk underground, but also from very different ends of that pool so to speak. Karl, what was the musical adjustment going from bands like Martyr AD and Holding On to Desperate Acts?
For me personally, it’s all the same. It’s all a different form of aggression and precision, I guess. ometimes more of one, sometimes more of the other, but I don’t see it as much of an adjustment because we all still play loudly and aggressively. Martyr AD, I always felt like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, so that felt like the biggest “adjustment” of the three.
I can hear remnants of hardcore in some of the songs, we’re just better at finding the melodies and harmonies in weird places whereas 20 years ago, the song would’ve been twice as fast and just screaming.
State Secrets is a very cohesive record. Perhaps because of or despite the literal distance between you all as members. What was the recording process like for the LP?
The recording process was obviously fucked up and weird. We were supposed to record with Jay Maas in Boston, and that was cancelled due to it being in May 2020. So we just kept writing and writing, and communicated about ideas by email and YouTube with Jay. We started practicing and writing in person again in May of last year and just kept smart, safe, masked, and got tested if needed and started tracking in August, finished six songs, then finished the next four in early 2021.
We had a lot of space to think, plan and prepare because we all had almost nothing else to distract us and I could really think about how I drummed for the first time in my life instead of just playing fast fills and fast beats as much and as often as possible. Recording one person at a time with no one else around was weird, because part of the fun is being in the studio and hitting those spontaneous ideas together, but that’s how we had to do things if we wanted to record last year.
It came together really well and that’s as much due to us being prepared, but Brian and Jay being equally prepared on their parts, too. Recording and doing production 1500 miles apart wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago, but we were lucky that it was pretty easy to do.
If the members of Desperate Acts were Avengers, who would be Iron Man, who would be Hulk, who would be Thor, and who would be Captain America? You must justify!
Thor: Brent. He’s got the hair and kinda looks like him. Hulk would be Dan—he gets the angriest in the band. Captain America would be Matt—he’s from Wisconsin, so I think that just seems like people from Wisconsin identify as either Captain America or Punisher skulls with flags on them. Just process of elimination. Iron Man is me because I think the band would admit I don’t stop. I’m always going, so figuratively, I’m pretty hard to destroy if I have an idea. I’ve also never seen a single MCU movie, so these are all based on very limited knowledge. I think I did great.
What can we expect from Desperate Acts in the coming months in terms of shows and activity?
We’ve got some shows in the Midwest to wrap up the year over a few weekends coming up all in the region, and winter will slow things down. 2022 will be here soon enough and I’m sure we’ll have more things going on then, but really we are subjected to what the world will let us do and what we can make work. We’ll just keep writing and when we can get out play songs and hang out with people, we’ll do that.
Everyone has to relax and be patient right now and hopefully people like the record, share it, and when we can come back in 2022, more people will be there when we finally can get out longer distances than Chicago.
Most underrated hardcore and/or punk band from Minnesota? Any era.
- '(70s) Suicide Commandos: Their LP, Make a Record, came out a year before Ramones S/T and Clash S/T. Not taking anything away from those records, but they were before them and they deserve to be mentioned in the same conversations of early American punk.
- ('80s) Hüsker Dü: The band is loved, just not as much as they should be. They were already on tour and did backing vocals on DYS Brotherhood, so before the Boston hardcore scene really jumped off, they were already doing it. Their discography from 1979-1987 is so crazy in terms of evolution, sound, experimentation and quality. There’s no other band that put out that much music and changed that much in such a short period of time other than the Beatles and almost all of it is fucking awesome and only sounds like Hüsker Dü. And I mean that when I say the Beatles thing. No one sounds like Hüsker Dü. They’re like Fugazi—you can only be inspired by them, but you’ll never sound like them. I just don’t think they’re revered by the overall punk scene the way they should be. People might love them, just not enough.
- ('90s) Man Afraid: They were a perfect blend of aggression, intelligence, and melody. Tragically, they broke up before they ever could get any real attention, but it was a perfect mix of 50% hardcore and 50% punk. Almost like Born Against and Jawbreaker mashed together in a singularly unique political hardcore sound that still sounds like no one else. I’ve heard that John Darnielle and Laura Jane Grace were fans, and Wes from American Nightmare turned “I could see your breath, though you seemed so dead” line into “I could see your breath, though we looked dead” so those who know, they know. I feel so lucky to have witness something like them.
Best movie or book or TV show you got down with during the pandemic?
I think any answer other than I Think you Should Leave with Tim Robinson would get me kicked out of the band. Technically, it came out before 2020, but I don’t care. That’s the answer.
Get all of Desperate Acts' important links right here.
Help Support What No Echo Does via Patreon:
Tagged: desperate acts