There are some good reasons why Run Westy Run derailed in the mid- to late-'90s. The members created or joined other bands, including Iffy, Golden Smog and the Jayhawks. They also moved on to other cities and adventures.
But there are bad reasons, too. A deal with a major label that went nowhere. Addiction. General slacker inertia.
It's all good now, though. In fact, it's very good.
"Even though we never really had our big break back then or whatever, I still had a hell of a time," guitarist Kraig Johnson said.
"And that's why I'm doing this now: It's so fun."
A band of brothers seen as a kid-brother act to the more widely celebrated Twin Cities indie-rock groups of the '80s, Run Westy Run has been out generating good times again for a decade now. At last, though, things are about to get serious again.
The band's first album in 28 years arrives this week with a release party Friday at the Turf Club. Fittingly titled "Beyond Reason," it reiterates what was always great about "The Westies" — their cool, street-hustling grooves, grimy but light-handed and playful guitar riffs, and catchy, barroom-singalong-worthy hooks.
Considering that Run Westy Run's old albums for storied labels such as SST and Twin/Tone — with producers such as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart — are mostly unavailable online and out of print, "Beyond Reason" also carries the excitement of a whole new era and distinct sound.
If this were a band of cute 20-somethings instead of well-worn rockers eligible for AARP membership, the record would've already gotten a 9.0 review on Pitchfork, as it sounds that cool.
"I think you can hear that we play these songs with smiles on our faces," co-founding guitarist Terry Fisher said.
Said Johnson, "There's still a good amount of people that come to our shows even without us putting out new music, so this should be fun for them to finally have something new to hear."
The first Westies performance in 15 years came over Christmas break 2013, when Kraig was home from New York and his brother, singer Kirk Johnson, from California.
More Christmas shows followed, then came sporadic one-off gigs once the members all started moving back to town. All the while, though, it did seem like they were just out to have fun — and the shows genuinely were a blast, too.
Kraig and Fisher found their tight groove again trading snaky, sleazy Stooges and Velvet Underground riffs. Kirk started turning on the old, crazy charm, like a sandwich-shop Jim Morrison on stage. New guys Peter Anderson (drums) and Paul McFarland (bass) — both veterans of other bands — appeared to be having the most fun of all.
It was Anderson who pushed the Westies to finally record the songs they had been toying with over the past decade.
"I just said, 'We gotta do this,'" recalled Anderson, who also works as a sound engineer at Flowers Studio near Uptown in Minneapolis.
Gathered together at Flowers again two weeks ago, the band members recalled the bittersweet circumstances of recording there back in January 2021.
For starters, COVID-19 was still out in force. Also, it was their first time being at Flowers since the death to cancer of the studio's proprietor, Ed Ackerson, a longtime friend.
"Ed had been pushing us to record," noted Johnson, "so it was weird being here without him, it was weird having masks on. But at the same time, it felt great — despite or because of everything bad that was going on."
Add to that mix the fact that Fisher's longtime life partner, Lisa Gardner, had died of cancer just one month earlier. Kirk and Kraig were also carrying on without their other brother and former bassist Kyle Johnson, who died in 2014.
"Those feelings are definitely in there on the album," Fisher said. "It felt good to express them in my guitar playing. That really is the beauty of music, I think — and it's there in my playing."
'There's the spark'
"Beyond Reason" starts with a soulful, slinky guitar jam led by Fisher titled "Automercial" — an opener that hints at how the album was mostly recorded on the fly with the members in the same room playing live and loosely.
Lest you think this is a slacker effort, though, the album then slides right into the ultra-catchy and glowing "Milkyway's Mainframe," which already has proved ready for radio via the Current.
There's lots more where that came from. Other polished highlights include the grinding and sly hell-raiser "Footcourting," the bouncy, B-52s-like giddy gem "Moxin Hey" and a rich, Faces-flavored rocker near the album's end titled "Unwound," featuring guest violinist Jessy Greene (Pink, Foo Fighters).
Twin Cities music scene vet PD Larson, manager of the Jayhawks and a friend to the Westies, has been closely following the band's rebirth since it reformed and greatly admired the growing stockpile of new songs.
"This has been their modus operandi since : working on new material without much thought given to releasing it — a pure form of artistry in many ways," Larson said.
"As much as this 'Chinese Democracy' approach to accumulating material has a certain cool charm to it, I'm thrilled that they finally pulled the trigger to allow these crazy good jams to see the light of day."
The lyrical hook in "Milkyway's Mainframe" — "Come on and dream with me" — is a good indicator of where Kirk found lyrical inspiration in the new material.
"I'm pretty much a daydreamer," he said, "so a lot of it comes from that, and observing different perspectives. I want to open up my aperture more and more."
Kirk formed the innovative dance-pop band Iffy after the Westies — a fadeaway that started when Run Westy Run's would-be-breakthrough album for A&M Records got shelved amid staff changeovers.
The singer spent much of the 2000s in a van wandering between New York and California working as an artist and, he said, "an excellent cat sitter." It was largely thanks to Dave Pirner that he returned to Minneapolis, because he moved into the Soul Asylum frontman's house. (Pirner gets an official thanks in the new CD booklet; vinyl copies are not yet in the making.)
Kraig remained the most musically active. He co-helmed the Americana supergroup Golden Smog; served as a sideman to the Jayhawks, David Poe and Joseph Arthur, and issued his own songs via Kraig Johnson & the Program (more from the latter is in the works).
Still, Kraig said he always missed the chemistry that he and Fisher found as guitarists since their first basement jam session in their mid-teens in St. Louis Park.
"Me and Terry have no boundaries," Kraig said. "Whatever moves us, moves us. If we have a song that's only two chords but it feels good, whatever; we go with it, and we know Kirk is going to put something cool over it. There's the spark."
That revived chemistry came in handy at Flowers. Amazingly, most of "Beyond Reason" was recorded in just one day.
"We had played a lot of this stuff enough, we didn't need to rehearse it a lot before going into the studio or dissect all the songs," Kraig said. "Because it was during COVID, too, we didn't want to be here too long.
"So we were able to do it all really fast, and I think that's part of why it sounds really fun."
"Fast" is a very relative term in the case of this long-awaited comeback record, but "fun" absolutely applies.
Run Westy Run
With: The Mood Swings.
Where: Turf Club, St. Paul.
When: 8:30 p.m. Fri.
Tickets: $20-$25, axs.com.