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My Friend Stu’s Return Highlights Mankato’s Incessant DIY Music Scene

June 7, 2018

Despite a record setting blizzard this April, when most shops closed and the city of Mankato gave up on plowing, My Friend Stu were determined to play. And the 150 fans who would be catching the band for the first time in 25 years were determined to show up.

The group was part of the late 80s/early 90s Mankato music scene that spawned the Libido Boyz, a band that toured nationally and in Europe before breaking up in 1992 on the verge of mainstream success. They opened for Nirvana, were friends with Green Day and Babes in Toyland and showed the rest of us just how far being in a garage band could go.

I witnessed this era first hand as a teenager growing up in Owatonna. Something in the air changed around 1991, the year that punk broke, when bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. inspired kids like me to form our own bands. We played our own songs at the local VFW and rented out the Chalet at Morehouse Park to showcase local music. Soon we would discover that nearby towns like Faribault and Waseca had their own punk bands doing the same thing. But Mankato was the epitome of how huge our movement had become, a movement that said you didn’t have to be a rockstar to form a band and write your own music.

It wasn’t until we filled in for another local band with Mankato ties at a show on a farm outside of Mankato in 1992 that we realized we were just the tip of the iceberg. That was when I first met My Friend Stu drummer Eric Bunde. The Libido Boyz headlined as the crowd sang along to the lyrics, slam danced and stage dived in a frenetic storm of energy. I was blown away. Bunde’s first question to me; “Have you guys toured yet?” I had no idea you could do that, but in that era we learned that anything was possible. It would turn out that many of these Mankato bands were doing just that.

I reached out to Bunde after I moved to Mankato two years ago. He had hinted that My Friend Stu were considering a reunion show. The Libido Boyz did one last fall as the aging crowd stage dived and jumped around much as they had when they were kids. I sat down with Bunde and My Friend Stu singer Leon Rohrbaugh to reminisce about that era and talk about where they are now.

“We got together with really no idea that we were going to play a show,” Bunde said.

They jammed at the Minneapolis home of guitar player Mike Mrotz. The four of them were surprised by how much they gelled over all this time. Singer Leon Rohrbaugh hadn’t seen bass player Eric Davis since their last show in 1993. Davis travelled all the way from Colorado to reunite with his old bandmates.

“I drove my motorcycle from Duluth to Mankato for pizza and then back up to the cities to Mike’s house,” Rohrbaugh said. “We stayed there for two nights, relearned the songs.”

With the chemistry still there, My Friend Stu agreed it was time to reunite alongside old friends Marble and Old Towne Ghosts for one April show in Mankato.

They played a short, but tight set of the favorites, including songs from their last release, My Friend Gerry’s Flower Groove, a compilation of like-minded bands of that era. Their hard to define songs still stand out after all of these years with a sound that still pushes the edge today.

“We didn’t have any pretense of what we wanted to sound like because this was the first band we were in,” Bunde said, although Rohrbaugh had been drumming for other bands like 40 Ton Beatnik, Reach and Billy Goats Gruff for a couple years before My Friend Stu formed.

Bunde and Rohrbaugh both credit the Libido Boyz for supporting and encouraging their new band when they formed in 1990. When Bunde and Davis were still in middle school in 1988, they saw their first Libido Boyz show at Mankato’s Teen Center, an all-ages venue downtown. It was intimidating at first, the punks at the shows back then wore spikes, slam-danced and skateboarded inside the venue. But as the night went on something clicked for he and Davis.

“By the end of the night we realized this was a pretty safe place to be and these people were actually a community and we could feel that right away,” Bunde recalled. “We’ve talked about how absolutely life changing that night was. After that show I had this fire in my heart.”

My Friend Stu formed two years later, when the Mankato music scene was on the national radar. Rohrbaugh had already been playing local shows and weekend trips to Sioux Falls, which had a similar scene. It wouldn’t take long for the new band to acquire the Libido Boyz’ old touring van. Rohrbaugh set up a little office in his bedroom closet and racked up phone bills calling punk rock venues across the country to play at. They booked shows all the way out to Colorado and back for a summer tour. Bunde said it never would have happened without the support of their parents.

“I was sixteen and my dad just threw me in a van with a box of groceries and said, ‘Well have fun!”

So off they went, playing a different city each night, opening for larger punk bands and sleeping in the van. At times it could be haphazard; this was long before cell phones and Google Maps, yet the tour went smoothly.

“I ended up taking off with these ladies one night in Boulder (Colorado) to the girl’s dorm,” Rohrbaugh recalls. “I didn’t know where we were. Somehow after an awesome night of hanging out I was able to find the guys, find the van, get some breakfast. We dumpster dove at Falafel King – ate some garbage falafel and made the sound check that day in Pueblo. It was a magical time.”

Rohrbaugh also credits their parents for allowing them to go as far as they did with their music.

“A big part of it – and it sounds silly to say – we were able to have such a great experience because our parents let us,” Rohrbaugh said. “We had multiple parents who’d buy us gear, drive us to the Entry on a Sunday night so we could play a punk rock show, get us back and still make us go to school. I think that was really important because if we didn’t have any support from anyone we would have been getting in trouble.”

When My Friend Stu got back from their first tour, they’d made friends with other bands on the road, including Chicago band 8 Bark, who let them crash at their place when My Friend Stu played there. Back in Mankato, they were still in high school and lived with their parents, but when touring bands came through town, they found a way to put them up.

“There was one time my parents came downstairs and there were 37 kids from Sioux Falls in the basement,” Rohrbaugh laughs. “So my parents would buy doughnuts and orange juice for the kids.”

As the Libido Boyz released their first record on a major label, the Mankato scene only grew. Eventually there were over 20 local bands playing shows in town and around the Midwest. It also captured the attention of other established bands like the Offspring, Rancid, SNFU and Green Day, who played a memorable show in 1992 at a farm outside of St. Peter. My Friend Stu and Mankato friends Loin Groove opened.

“I had been approached by Adrian who was Billie Joe’s secret girlfriend (Mankato native and wife of Billie Joe Armstrong),” Bunde explained. “She’s from here. They were looking for a place to play.”

Bunde immediately asked a high school friend who held shows at his house in the past.

“I passed Dan Fischer in the hallway (at school) and said, ‘Hey, Green Day is looking for a place to play, would you put them up in your backyard?”

So they came. The local bands finished playing right when the police showed up and shut the show down. A friend volunteered her parents’ farm near St. Peter, and Green Day and all of their fans drove the 10 miles so Green Day could play their set. They tipped over two wooden farm spools which stood seven feet tall on their sides. Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt played on one, while drummer Tre Cool played on the other. The show would go down in Mankato music history as one of the best.

That year was bittersweet. After the Green Day show, My Friend Stu’s audience grew to the hundreds. But their mentors were winding down. As they were making demos for Warner Bros., the Libido Boyz called it quits at the end of 1992, playing their last two shows to sold-out crowds at the What’s Up Lounge in Mankato and the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. By this point, Rohrbaugh had moved up to Minneapolis and the rest of the band were graduating from high school. My Friend Stu played their final show in 1993 to a crowd of 300 in Mankato.

Until now.

The reunion show this April was a flashback in time in many ways; there were a lot of familiar faces. When the band took the stage, the crowd muscled their way to the front as the band plowed through 11 songs in 30 minutes, playing one of their tightest shows. It was obvious they all still knew their chops, but Bunde took a break from the drums for 10 years after My Friend Stu broke up. Then he realized he needed that outlet.

Bunde currently drums for War Rooster and Bee Balm Fields. Rohrbaugh has been a fixture of the Duluth Music Scene for 21 years. His old band Ballyhoo had their own reunion show at Duluth’s Homegrown music festival this spring; he currently sings and plays guitar for A Band Called Truman. But looking back they both agree that there was something special and unique about the Mankato music scene 25 years ago.

“When I was in it, I didn’t realize how special it was while it was happening,” Bunde said. “It wasn’t until later that you realize it’s not so easy to book shows. It’s not so easy to get 200 people to show up. I don’t know what it was but we had some magic thing that happened here.”

He doesn’t know why everything came together then, but he thinks it was somewhat of a domino effect.

“To use a metaphor, Libido Boyz were the big rock that landed in the water,” Bunde said. “I feel like we were the next ripple and there are still ripples coming out from that time. There are still people that are striving for that type of spirit and energy to reemerge.”

And for them, My Friend Stu came from a special time and place in music history.

“I’ve talked to the other guys and we’ve never been able to capture that again,” Bunde said. “Every band we’ve been in since has had some idea of where we’re trying to go. It’s never been as natural as My Friend Stu was.”

 

By Dan Greenwood

SouthernMinn Scene | editor@southernminnscene.com |
115 5th Street West Northfield, MN 55057