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In St. Louis, there's nothing novel about established musicians reconfiguring into new bands when their old ones die. But when singer/guitarist/banjoist Tim Rakel started playing with guitarist Glenn Burleigh in a new band dubbed the Union Electric, nobody had any idea what to expect. How would the dark rusticism of Rakel's old band, Bad Folk, work with the tightly wound, swerving post-hardcore of Burleigh's old band, the Adversary Workers? Would Burleigh's instinct for complexity and surprise mesh with the more populist, straightforward songwriting values of the folk tradition?
"It was kind of a shift for me," but not in the way you might think, Burleigh says. "Tim actually writes songs that are less in verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-outro structure. In the Adversary Workers, we had a bunch of different syncopation, tempo and time signature shifts, but they were still, for the most part, in a traditional song format. Tim's songs are more linear, I think."
"There's no actual structure to them at all," Rakel confirms with a laugh.
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The musicians they recruited only added to the complex stew of influences. Drummer Eric Von Damage also came from the hardcore scene; he pounded the hell out of his kit for the screamy, angular Corbeta Corbata. Original bass player Mike Herrmann plays with Midwestern roots-rockers Tenement Ruth, and his replacement, Melinda Cooper, most recently trod the boards with East Side indie-rock outfit A Bit Shifty.
The result, as heard on its self-titled, three-song debut seven-inch, finds the Union Electric working in a field — or is that a factory? — all of its own. Burleigh says he's heard terms like "My Bloody Haggard" used to describe the combination of Rakel's deep prairie drawl and the band's loud, propulsive and sometimes droney electric sound. Over Rakel's strummed chords, Burleigh, who switched from bass to guitar for this band, lays down rhythmic stabs and grinds, revealing the influence of his former instrument. This is a kind of folk-rock the Byrds never could've imagined. And in its unpretentious experimentalism, the record thrums with the working-class avant-garde energy that St. Louis seems to inspire.
"I'll take the unpretentious thing as a compliment," Rakel says. (It was.) "There's some really avant-garde things happening here, but nobody will ever give St. Louis credit for it."
Adds Burleigh: "There's no way that where you live can't inform your music, unless you live in a bubble," Burleigh says. "If all I did was listen to the hot new track on Pitchfork every day, and that was what influenced me, it wouldn't matter what city I lived in."
Those two worked on a stack of Rakel songs together before pulling in Von Damage and Herrmann to be the rhythm section. Cooper joined the band when A Bit Shifty suddenly broke up last December. She asked Rakel if the Union Electric could play an already-scheduled show in their place, but Herrmann had already decided to leave the band because of time constraints.
"Tim said, 'Well, we can play, but we don't have anybody to play the bass,'" Cooper says. She quickly learned the set and dived into the deep end. The shipment of the Union Electric's seven-inch had arrived early, so that show turned into the band's record-release party. "My first practice, we were actually stuffing records," Cooper says.
"It just happened to be our record-release show," Rakel says. "It wasn't planned that way at all. That show was the first time we actually all played together. There'd never been more than three of us together at once."
But beyond music, there's one thing that the members of the Union Electric all shared: a left-wing, anti-authoritarian, pro-working-class political outlook. Burleigh in particular worked as an organizer for the much-maligned ACORN and managed the aldermanic campaign of Cherokee Street gadfly Galen Gondolfi. Do they see the Union Electric as an outgrowth of their political activism?
"As someone who's been a professional organizer and worked in politics — no, I do not think a band can create a movement," Burleigh says. "I do think that music and art is extremely important to all ideological stripes; the right wing wouldn't have much without Ayn Rand. But organizing happens when one person talks to another person. Not on Facebook, not on MySpace. It takes people in the streets.
"There's a lot of political bands that I love, but I'm not going to say any of them had an impact on the greater political system," Burleigh continues. "Nation of Ulysses: that was a great political band that, in many ways, put a microscope on many things in our society. Do I think Nation of Ulysses has had any impact on the broader political landscape in America? No. Do I think that there are thousands of people out there who have picked up a Nation of Ulysses record and thought about something differently and came away with a changed opinion? Yes. But that's not a revolution."
Cooper agrees. "You don't decide to pick up an instrument to start a revolution," she says. "You do it because you like playing."
Rakel, who writes all of the band's lyrics (often "liberally borrowed from other sources," he says, in the finest folk tradition), is more interested in the stories behind the sloganeering. "Most of my songs are stories or stories distilled into some sort of abstract version of a story," Rakel says. "We're not gonna cause a revolution. It just comes down to what we want to be doing with our art."
The stories Rakel tells are as rich and well researched as a good book. "Sentence," originally recorded by his band the May Day Orchestra, takes some of its lyrics from the defiant courtroom testimony of Louis Lingg, an immigrant accused of being one of Chicago's Haymarket riot bombers in 1886.
The epic track on side B of the seven-inch, "Ship Out of Luck," is a tale of piracy adapted from "The Mermaid Song" by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, which appeared on the classic Harry Smith folk anthologies. Not surprisingly, Rakel sides with the pirates.
"It's a topical song, too. All the Somali pirates, their demands are fairly reasonable. They're just like, 'There's no way we can make a living in our country.' With the British and American ships coming through, they're targeting the people who are indirectly causing them to live in poverty."
So is that the message that will make the Union Electric into superstars: Go, Somali pirates?
"Ha, yeah, we're playing a benefit show for Somali pirates," Rakel jokes. "We want them to be able to feed their children without robbing ships."
The punkiest tune on the record is also the one with the deepest St. Louis connection. "You Have Been Served" is inspired by Joseph Folk, the St. Louis prosecuting attorney of the early 1900s, who Rakel says, "was elected on this promise to weed out corruption, and all the financial leaders of the city and the politicians were like, 'Yeah, yeah, weed out corruption.' And then he followed through on the campaign and went after the people who supported him.
"It ruined his career. I like to make heroes of people who do that sort of thing."