For a period of time in the early 1990’s, the most reliable place in Minnesota to see touring punk bands — some on the brink of arena stardom — wasn’t the Twin Cities, but Mankato. How and why did our 22nd largest city become ground zero for underground music?
I sought out some of the musicians, fans, promoters and volunteers who made it happen. A quarter of a decade later, they all remember Kato in the 90s as an important time.
In the beginning, there was Ernie November…
Mike Mrotz, volunteer at punk venue Marti’s:
Mankato was a small town that seemed really boring as a young kid. In eighth grade, an older cousin gave me a copy of Dead Kennedys Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables and this opened a new genre of music for me. I started realizing there were a couple of record shops in Mankato that were independent and they carried more non-mainstream records and zines like Maximum Rocknroll. I feel like I spent a good year carefully studying copies of MRR and buying a few records trying to figure out what punk rock was.
Jeremy Jessen, musician and Marti’s organizer:
I think one of the most important things that funneled punk rock into Mankato, at the time, was having Ernie November Records. We had kids interested in the music. We had bands and shows. But we also had a place to go and get pretty much every record that was being put out in punk/hardcore nationally around that time. And if they didn’t have it, they could order it straight away.
Carrie (Chicos) Neerland, Marti’s volunteer:
I grew up in Fairmont. A small number of us would drive an hour to Mankato to see punk rock shows and buy records in the early 1990s. Dustin Perry [from Libido Boyz] worked at Ernie November at the time and, although shy, was awesome and would introduce us to new music.
…and the Libido Boyz
Matt Marka, musician:
The influence of the Libido Boyz can’t be underestimated.
Josh Steinbauer, musician:
Libido Boyz were the kings of Mankato Hardcore scene. Not that they were particularly hardcore, I think we were just following the vernacular of scenes like DC and New York. Later on the joke was “Mankato Farm Core.”
The Libido Boyz were the sh** and for a while it seemed like they played shows all the time whether they were basement shows, or at the local teen center that was open to all ages or at some other rented one-time location. Those guys also did some touring early on and made connections with other “underground” touring bands from that era.
Dustin Perry, Libido Boyz bassist [noecho.net interview, 9/21/2017]:
[We got] the chance to make friends all over the place. We got to go on tour out west a couple times and play with awesome bands we looked up to. We got to tour Europe and were on a Maximum RocknRoll comp which was definitely a big deal at that time.
I don’t know of any other bands that made it as big as Libido Boyz did, though several were very formative in the scene which revolved around basement shows, garage shows, Marti’s, YWCA, there was that empty storefront in the downtown mall that had a bunch of shows, there was even an epic show out at a farm where Green Day came to town and played on farm spools and a pick-up bed.
When I was a freshman in high school, the older kids in the scene were having shows at different places around town like the Eagles Club, kids parents’ barns outside of town, basements, or skate ramps. We didn’t have a proper central venue. For a little while in 92-93, once I got more involved in setting up shows, we were able to rent a vacant store called Ehler’s in the downtown mall.
Ehler’s was a favorite of mine, it was an empty clothing store space located in the dead Mankato Mall in downtown. It seemed crazy to me that we could rent out the space in this mall for $175, pack it with a couple hundred kids and a few loud bands and have a ton of fun. Up until this space, we would hold shows at places and there was always some type of situation that happened that would get us banned from doing it again.
Marti’s: the center of the scene
Ehler’s lasted probably 6 months before ownership got tired of the scene. My dad has always been very supportive of my music and my involvement in the scene and he full on helped me and a few other people locate and rent out a space, an old pizzeria downtown called Marti’s. No liquor license or other way of making money other than the door charges. It started out as just trying to get the shows we were having at Ehler’s over at Marti’s, but as people around the country were made aware of Marti’s, punk rock booking agents started to get our number, [booker/volunteer] Jason Knudson’s number, etc. and we started to get inquiries from bands we only dreamed of getting to Mankato before that.
Aaron Hagebak, singer for Dredge and show-goer:
Jason Knudson booked a lot of the shows around that time and he was really tied in to what was cool and up and coming. I think after some of the earlier larger bands went back to Califronia and told their labels and other bands, that started a pipeline to Southern Minnesota. The group of kids also did all the marketing, took money at the door, and basically ran a small business as juniors and seniors in high school. The shows started small, but consistently got larger over time. NOFX, ALL, Rancid, Face To Face, Bouncing Souls, Shelter and 108 all played, but there were shows every single night and people were always there. The funniest show to look back on was The Offspring (in their early days) opening to about 30 kids for Iceburn, who everyone showed up for.
At Marti’s, if you were willing to pick up a broom or to take money at the door, you could become involved. I was able to be involved in numerous aspects of Marti’s including helping bands load/unload, setting up/cleaning up, managing the door, and helping to arrange shows. As a girl, this felt unusual to have this experience in such a typically male-dominated space. But at Marti’s no one really cared as long as you were interested in the music and invested in making the space sustainable.
I think there were plenty of people in Mankato who were interested enough to go to the shows even if it wasn’t exactly their thing.
It really was all about getting our favorite bands to show up and play and not profiting on any of them.
The kids going to the shows bought merch from the touring bands and the shows were usually pretty well attended. Typically the majority of the door money was split between the touring bands. It was a really good stop to add to a tour and I think word traveled by mouth really quickly.
I think there was less noise to cut through coming to our spot for certain bands. You didn’t have to deal with the bureaucracy and competition of First Avenue. More underground bands could come to Mankato and play a stage with a decent PA and present themselves in that sort of manner versus playing a squat house basement in Minneapolis. And sometimes they did both.
Maybe a visit to Paglia’s Pizza was the swaying factor.
All things come to an end
You have to keep in mind that we were selling tickets to a relatively limited group of people and you could see the scene getting fatigued with shows as more and more shows happened. The people carrying the heavy load on the management end were probably getting fatigue along with the scene itself. This is no new insight and I don’t think it can be attributed to the closure of Marti’s; as punk rock became more mainstream, scenes all over the place changed. I do wonder if this did change some of the do-it-yourself drive that created scenes like you saw in Mankato or Sioux Falls.
Smaller towns and college town scenes have ebbs and flows and always will. Kids always drive the energy of punk rock too, so it’s hard as an adult now for me to opine on when Mankato ebbed and flowed because it would all be through the lens of my experience, and I left after high school.
A (counter) culture
This was such a special time, because it was right around Nirvana breaking, where every kid in America was watching MTV and immersed in music culture, whatever their individual taste was. We didn’t yet have the internet and the thousands of different personal distractions and interests. The late 80s/early 90s was when the world started to connect via electronic and print media, but before the internet … eg. college radio, regional record stores, tape trading, zines, published phone numbers and touring networking guides. Things all converged at once to create a magic time that I don’t think was unique to Mankato. There were smaller middle class and/or college towns all over the Midwest that were stoking this type of culture alongside the basement scenes of the bigger cities.
The internet has opened up access to all the bands anyone would want to hear about, and you just aren’t introduced to them organically/naturally at shows like you used to be.
I think a counter-culture developed from the feeling that we were not connected (nor ever would be) to the mainstream (the major players and music on the radio). What was special about the era’s punk scene was the ethos and focus on morality. It was anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobia.
It’s interesting, too, because if you look at ethos through the aesthetics of the scene (in the time capsules of records, zines and stickers), it was like the pre-internet comment box for kids figuring the world out – if you had any thought about anything, you could whip it into a zine or sticker. That said, it wasn’t an inclusive utopia. we were almost all white (which was fine in a town that was almost all white), but while there were girls present, there were not nearly enough making music and noise on stage.
The Mankato scene was welcoming. It did not matter who you were. As a young woman in the punk rock scene, it was important to be welcome as an equal peer (and not as a manic pixie dream girl), feel heard, and not pushed to the back of the crowd or touched in an unwanted way (which happened a lot, by the way). In a way, the Mankato kids wanted to exemplify what was going on in other places (D.C. for example) and my male friends would often say “get up in front” during shows.
All the hair bands on MTV looked like aliens and totally of a different world. I could never really relate to that performance aspect of “rock stardom,” and I still can’t. When I went to those local, punk rock shows, I saw people who looked a lot like me, and were standing 2-3 feet in front of me and playing real instruments, playing original songs, and having an absolute blast doing it. It was over for me then. This was what I was gonna be into. I had no other choice.
By Tigger Lunney
Photos courtesy Erika Lo. See more at www.facebook.com/mankatohardcore.