Guitarists and songwriters Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt both grew up in the Iowa folk scene, where Ramsey’s father Bo is a major figure. But they came into their own as musicians when they moved to Minneapolis and formed The Pines, recording four albums of understated but richly resonant indie-folk in the vein of Bon Iver, Calexico, and Mason Jennings, who they opened for on his recent national tour. The band opens for Loudon Wainwright April 21 at Old Town School Of Folk Music, but first Ramsey and Huckfelt talked to The A.V. Club about the beauty and hope behind sad songs, how they keep their musical partnership going long distance, and their Iowa connection.
The A.V. Club: Dark So Gold has a very stately, quiet, and sometimes melancholy vibe running through it. Do you think of it as a sad record?
Benson Ramsey: I think that was where the title came from. This record came together differently than our other records in that the title came first. Then “Cry, Cry, Crow” came, then “If By Morning.” That’s never happened before… I remember when we came up with the title. We were on tour in Scotland, and it was the worst winter they’d had in 100 years. And no sun. We’d wake up and there’d be like an hour of sun before sunset, and then it would be dark. For weeks, we were over there. And we were riding along, and I said “Dark so gold, that feels like something,” and Dave was like, “Yeah! That’s it.” Such a bizarre feeling.
David Huckfelt: It’s also bizarre to name your record before you have any songs for it. [Laughs.] But it felt right—we could see it.
AVC: Did that create a filter for what kind of songs would fit on the album?
BR: I think it did. And it was helpful to have that filter, to make it cohesive. You could work in that area, rope it off like you’re digging for fossils… People want to label our songs sometimes as dark, but we’ve never felt that way. They don’t necessarily feel dark. But the more you think about darkness, there’s this kind of beauty in darkness, in things that seem eerie. There’s also this beauty, this comfort in sadness. When you are alone, when you come home from Christmas, you feel good but you also feel this kind of sadness. Emotions are so complicated. I won’t go into it too far, but that was the feeling behind the record. I don’t feel it’s a sad record.
DH: Our songs, to me, aren’t even bleak. I think of them as hopeful songs. I can understand what you’re saying, though… Our songwriting is pretty confessional. There’s not a lot of tricks or gimmicks. I find comfort in songs that have weight, that have a gravity to them, that try to say something and point out what’s underneath the obvious. Your quietest thoughts aren’t the most joyful, jubilant soundtrack in your mind. They’re very close to your heart and very personal. I gravitate toward songs like that.
AVC: And a sad song can be the thing that draws you out of sadness.
BR: Exactly. Sad music can make you feel better. I think too that that melancholy feel is just maybe where things are at in the world. Us as a group adjusting to the music world, and our lives have changed a little bit too. It’s that feeling of living in a new city, this humongous city, and if you don’t know anyone it can be a thousand times lonelier than if you were at a cabin. It’s a profoundly different feeling.
DH: Also, I think we both feel that if there’s anything that is very endangered, it’s time to reflect. You’re not encouraged to reflect as a human being hardly at all. You’re encouraged to jump from distraction to distraction, and if something is unpleasant, kick it out of your mind and move on. Click on this webpage, or download this thing. Move on. What we try to do is, if you sit with those feelings for a while you can comfortable in a wide open space, or comfortable alone in a city, if you can just be at peace with it for a minute… I think there’s an excess of songs that try to take something from you—take your attention. This might be oversimplifying, but ours try to give something to you—some space to dream in, maybe?
BR: Unlock a door you maybe haven’t looked into for awhile, with a line. We work pretty hard on those lines. You do have to just sit down and go with it sometimes.
AVC: It’s pretty interesting that the size of your group is so adaptable—you play a lot as a trio with Ben’s brother, Alex, on keyboards, but The Pines also frequently expand to seven people.
BR: We’ve always liked playing with [many other] players. That’s interesting to us, how the songs will change, whether they’re expanded or stripped down. It’s like a cooperative. The guys we’re playing with now, we’ve been playing with a few years, and we’re just blessed to be [working with them]. Because we moved to Minneapolis on a whim and a prayer, and to find these players and build friendships, it’s been perfect for what we set out to do.
DH: It also leaves the door open to an X-factor. Our formula has been to gather the most talented guys in the room and then have a looseness to it. It keeps it interesting for us, and for the audience. And it also helps the evolution of the songs. You just don’t play them the same with each lineup. They adapt, and they breathe, and they get bigger with the different configurations.
AVC: You’re both from Iowa and have deep connections to the Iowa folk music scene, but you’ve lived in Minnesota for a number of years now, and more recently Ben moved again, to Chicago. Do you still think of yourselves as Iowa musicians?
DH: I feel it’s valid but it’s not something I feel too attached to. It’s unspoken. If I have to think of a place for our music, I think of Iowa the most, for some reason. I think it’s subconscious, part of where you grow up and where your family lives, those early memories and early dreams. I relax psychologically and spiritually there in a way I don’t anywhere else. I’ve lived in a lot of places, but my baseline is my grandparents’ farm in Iowa.
BR: It’s definitely a source of inspiration. It’s important to have a sense of place in art. [Iowa] was the biggest thing that shaped me musically, and it’s still there… With this record, if you want to get psychological about it, I feel like there’s a tearing going on, there’s Iowa in the distance. I left Iowa with this spool of kite string so I could get back home, and now it’s gotten tangled up in trees and tangled up in Minnesota. It’s probably just [because I’m] getting older.
AVC: With Ben living in Chicago now, how do you make a band work when you live in different cities?
BR: Luckily, we travel so much that it doesn’t become too much of a thing. A big part of me feels at home here, so it’s easy for me to be here when I need to be.
DH: It’s good, because we have a chance to write and work separately, and then bring something more specific to the table. We’re so committed that it’s easy. If we go west, he comes here. If we go east, I go there.
AVC: And you can always meet in Iowa.
DH: We’re not one of those bands that has to play together twice a week or everyone forgets the changes to the songs. We’ve played together now for seven, eight years, and that’s a good foundation for spontaneous and irregular things to happen.