Post-punk virtuoso Ed Ackerson has done his time on the garage-band circuit. As a renowned figure in Minnesota’s underground pop scene, he’s been sound man, producer and player for some of the Midwest’s most respected fringe outfits, including Antenna, 27 Various, Balloon Guy and the Hang-Ups.
But after working relentlessly for a decade with little compensation, the 30-year-old perfectionist is finally reaping his rewards.
The debut album by Ackerson’s year-old quartet Polara has received accolades in Rolling Stone, praise in technical magazines such as Guitar Player and extensive coverage in indie fanzines. “Polara,” on the independent Twin/Tone’s Clean label, also put the group at the center of a major-label bidding war.
“It’s really weird to get this kind of attention,” says Ackerson over a vegetarian lunch at the Hollywood Hamburger Hamlet. “There’s a lot of people excited about our record and a lot of hyperbole being passed around. At the same time, we are a new band and this is our first record. We’re only just learning to deal with each other.”
Ackerson, whose impish grin often gives way to a thoughtfully knitted brow, is known for his studio alchemy, and “Polara,” which came out last January, features layers of bittersweet guitar reverb a la Smashing Pumpkins over the compressed wheeze of vintage organs and synthesized acrobatics. One 10-minute-plus track consists solely of a hiccup-like chirp looped over an electric can-opener hum.
“My music has a willful randomness to it,” says Ackerson, whose bandmates are drummer Pete Anderson, bassist Jason Orris and keyboardist Jennifer Jurgens. “I think when dealing with feedback and noise, there’s a point up to which you have no control. We just put together combos, turn on and see what happens.”
But Ackerson, who keeps his sound accessible via rich pop melodies, hasn’t always been so willing to throw caution to the wind. The professed control freak spent many a day before Polara obsessing over every move.
“It seemed the minute I stopped trying so hard, things started falling together in my career,” Ackerson says. “So I’m gonna try to keep going on this Zen approach. I like the seat-of-the-pants nature of it. I’ll do my research, but I don’t want to force things to happen.”
Ackerson grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis listening to his parents’ Beatles and Tony Bennett albums, his own ABBA collection and “the stereophonic drone of lawn mowers every Sunday.”
He became a punk-rocker and high school valedictorian, and went on to play with various bands while sporadically attending the University of Minnesota. He dropped out of college in 1988, rediscovered the music of Hendrix and Cream, and between several other musical projects put out five albums with the group 27 Various. But that band never hit its stride, and a deflated Ackerson decided that he needed complete control. That’s when he brainstormed the idea behind Polara, a band that is entirely his project.
“I previously made concessions to what would get on the radio, what people would like better,” he admits. “I would maybe make a more up-tempo song in hopes people would pick up on it. I did that with several records, and was never rewarded for it. I finally thought, ‘To hell with that, this might be the last record I’ll ever make, so I want to make sure it’s true to me.’ ”
Ackerson has taken cues from what he learned along the way and poured all the hard-earned lessons into Polara.
“It’s really important not to think too hard about things,” he says. “You should be prepared, but not obsess over specific aspects of your band, like what does everybody look like or how are people gonna perceive us? I’ve really surrendered myself, and at this point I just have to trust that it all will be OK.”