Andrew Chats with Collapsing Stars

Andrew Chats with Collapsing Stars


Collapsing Stars are a Minneapolis-based indie folk band comprised of singer/guitarist Justin Wayne Nelson, bassist Adam Heaney, cellist Allyson Strycharske, and drummer Mike Langhoff. While in Austin, Andrew sat down with Justin and Adam to chat about SXSW, the “Minneapolis Sound,” and music’s connective abilities. 

Andrew: So you guys are from Minneapolis. What’s your origin story?

Justin Wayne Nelson: Adam and I have been playing music together since we were 14 years old, Local Rhythm was our precursor to Collapsing Stars. We started hitting the road with Mike four years ago, when I sold my practical Honda Civic for a minivan and just started doing it…we tested a lot of material on the road, when Mike was our touring drummer. Then our old regular drummer had a kid and moved out of the city, and Mike became our full time drummer. After a while, we felt  our sound was changing, so last January we decided to start fresh under the name Collapsing Stars. We released our first record 6 months ago, and it slowly started to garner acclaim, being featured on lists, etc…a week or so after releasing the record, I got a Facebook message from Dan Wilson–

Andrew: From Semisonic!

Justin: Yeah. Dan’s written a lot of songs–he wrote for Adele, he actually co-wrote the song–

Andrew: “Someone Like You!”

Justin: Exactly.

Andrew: People sleep on him, but he’s one of the most prolific songwriters out there.

Justin: He’s done so much that people don’t even realize.

Andrew: Totally. And everyone knows “Closing Time…”

Adam Heaney: We joke that he probably put his kids through college by writing the closing song in bars the world over.

Justin: Yeah so it was pretty cool to hear that one of the most prolific songwriters in the world likes our music…then we got the email inviting us to SXSW, which was cool, then about a month ago we found out we got on the NPR list of 100 artists to see in Austin…a lot has happened in a short period of time. We’re still trying to process it all but it’s great. We’re having a lot of fun, and we love playing music.

Andrew: Dan Wilson is, of course, an iconic Minnesota artist. There’s a lot of Minnesota artists with worldwide acclaim, but sometimes people abroad overlook our scene. How do you see the Minnesota music scene, being part of it?

Justin: We have a great scene with lots of venues and a  supportive local radio station in The Current, and good local press. It can be somewhat difficult to stand out sometimes because there are so many bands…we’ve actually checked out a couple other Minnesota artists since we’ve been here. Last night we saw Step Rockets–we actually met them when we were both on tour in LA at the same time. We wanted to check them out and support our Minnesota brethren, so we went to their show and met them there, and we’ve been friends ever since. We always seem to meet other Minnesota artists in these cool music cities outside of Minneapolis-Saint Paul. For example, our other friend Jillian Rae, who is a great fiddle player, played the Red Gorilla fest here in Austin at the same time as SXSW. While she was here, she acted as as our merch girl, and her husband was our guitar tech at our showcase the other day. The level of support we’ve gotten from other Minnesotans has been huge, i don’t know if that’s specific to Minnesota, but people are really nice in Minnesota–there are very few egos, and it’s a very supportive music community.

Adam: We got to go to this cool thing last night–here was this bar that was just hosting Minneapolis bands. Step Rockets were there, but there were a handful of groups we didn’t even know! So it was cool to go network and make friends with other Minnesota bands.

Justin: It’s pretty funny that we had to come to Austin to meet all these Minneapolis people…we met Sonia, the talent buyer from First Avenue…we met someone who books The Orpheum…it was a totally laid back networking opportunity. Drinking the casual beer, making friends…it’s great to make FRIENDS, not just contacts.

Andrew: That’s what it’s all about! I hate the idea of “contacts.” Everyone who gets into the music industry for the right reasons are the people who love music, and I think that makes it the quickest way to make friends in the world. Music and sports–I call them “the great connectors”– because they’re ubiquitous throughout the world. We all have that ritual of listening to music.

Adam: You play music your whole life, you get to come to South by Southwest, which if you didn’t put the work in, you didn’t get this opportunity–just like sports.

Justin: That’s how I feel talking to booking people, etc…those relationships can be one sided, so I like to offer things in return to people. For example, Andrea Swenson from The Current played our song on the air, so I said to her that if she has any artistic pursuits that she wants me to support, I’ll be there. She released her book a few months after that, so I went to one of her book signings, bought her book, and introduced myself personally. I told her, “you were nice enough to support our art, so I wanted to reciprocate.” I try to, if I can, support what others are doing.

Adam: Yeah. Bands are so nice when you come up to them after the show, but it’s hard to go up to them when they’re busy tearing down after a set…here, you get those moments to make that connection and that’s something I didn’t consider before coming here, how much that would happen, or how strong those connections could be made so quickly.

Justin: And musicians understand, since we are all doing it. There’s not a lot of money involved, it’s not the wisest of career choice…3 years ago, 75,000 albums were released. That’s the level of competition. We’re competing for finite booking spaces. Musicians get that, so we help each other out, lend gear to other bands…I call it “the musician’s code,” to help each other out…I guess in some degree we’re competing, but we’re all in this together. When it comes to Minnesota, I think that a rising tide lifts all boats, and when someone in the scene does well, we all do well…so I’m gonna check out Dessa tonight.

Andrew: I saw this Instagram post recently from Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band. It was a photo of graffiti that said ”Collaboration, not Competition.” To me that should be the motto–the musician’s code, as you said, Justin. I want to get that tattooed on me.

Adam: And even with the sports analogy–there, somebody has to win, but in music, nobody has to win. And that’s what’s so cool about it. You can have an eclectic lineup, everyone brings the fire, everyone does their best, and everyone enjoys it…i’m a fan first, and I just love it, so I love watching people put on a great show. Caitlyn Smith from Minnesota, she blew the roof off last night, and we didn’t even know her before the showcase, and we’re so thankful we were exposed to it. That’s what’s so cool about SXSW, That, and the fact that we booked it over there from Talib Kweli.

Andrew: How was that?

Adam: So sick! I’ve been a fan forever, and it was cool because sometimes hip hop shows are looser and less organized, but his was so tight–they had to have planned everything out, the DJ absolutely ran that whole thing. Such a good performance.

Andrew: That’s an interesting conversation to think about. Does a DJ know what they’re gonna throw? Or is the process more fluid? When I DJ, I like to have a set planned out, but it’s not in stone.

Justin: Gotta feel out the crowd.

Andrew: Exactly. Back to what you were saying earlier, about being in music because you love it: what artists changed the game for you?

Justin: Good question. So I always say my entrance into the music world was involuntary, because my dad was in a band. In fact, about a month or so ago a video clip from the ‘80s resurfaced of 3-year-old me playing with my dad’s band–they were playing “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas” by Alabama, which is apropos for this week…they played all the time in my house in my living room when I was growing up, and that was really formative, so it was just ingrained in me. Started taking piano lessons at 6 or 7, guitar at 15, that’s when Adam and I were in our first band when we mostly played Nirvana covers–

Adam: Entirely Nirvana covers.

Andrew: Any favorites?

Justin: “Aneurysm” was good one. We played the State Fair talent show once–

Adam: Super grueling, they really grind you through the process. You go on cold, so if some magician bombs before your set, tough luck. Anyway, we played “Aneurysm”, and people did not know what was going on.

Justin: If we were smarter, we would have picked something with a pop sensibility, but we played “Aneurysm” and the crowd was…confused. It didn’t go over well.

Andrew: Always gotta confuse the crowd a bit, that’s what I say.

Adam: That’d win here for sure.

Andrew: SXSW and the Minnesota State Fair are two different worlds, it’s true.

Adam: My dad was also in a band my whole life. He’s in three right now. Justin’s story is very similar with mine in that I knew at a very early age that music was something I would do for sure…it was kind of a foregone conclusion. I was just such a fan as a kid. CRAZY obsessed with music, and you never lose that emotional charge. There’s something so real and deep with that emotional connection that you kind of get addicted to it…now it’s about getting that audience to join in that energy, that feeling, that release.

Andrew: What artists were some of your childhood obsessions?

Adam: Early on, I was way into Billy Joel and Michael Jackson. So influential. Billy for the melodies and the piano, he was SUCH a musician. MJ of course, that’s just obvious…as soon as I learned guitar, the Green Day Dookie album…huuuuuge for me. I say that today when people ask how to learn guitar. I tell them to find a band with simple chord structure that you’re into, cause for me, I was so into Green Day that as soon as I learned to play a bar chord it was no longer practice…I’m almost playing “When I Come Around,“ you know? Like holy shit. I never turned back from that. I was obsessed with that band, I just wanted to be anyone in that band.

Justin: That was the first concert I went to, actually, was a Green Day concert.

Adam: My parents didn’t let me go and I still hold it against them. It’s just one of those moments in time you can never get back. I was lucky enough to see Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the day, it was amazing.

Justin: That’s my big regret is that I never saw John Frusciante play with the Chili Peppers. He’s one of my favorite guitar players…as far as influential bands, in my childhood I also had Billy Joel,  but the band that shaped my style and my guitar was Nirvana. I grew my hair long and dyed it blonde for Kurt Cobain. “Come As You Are” was the first song I learned on guitar. My cousin had a lot of Nirvana guitar tab books, and that’s how I learned open chords. To this day, a lot of the Rhymesayer cats pay tribute to Nirvana…like, Dem Atlas wears Nirvana shirts onstage. They were influential not just in rock and roll, but in Hip-Hop as well.

Adam: I was at Lollapalooza a few years ago and I saw A$AP Rocky, and he was so good–

Andrew: Is that 2015?

Adam: Yes! Were you there?

Andrew: I was there, but I didn’t see that show. I think there was a conflict.

Adam: Side note: A$AP Rocky is an incredible performer. The dude just gets it. Full band, amazing set…then he had his DJ play Smells Like Teen Spirit for a full minute and just stood there took it in. It was just for him. You could tell it was so important for him, and he wanted this rock and roll moment, but he didn’t play an instrument. The whole crowd was going nuts and everyone was in on it, and it’s like…we’re just listening to a minute of a recording. We all came to see this dude, and he’s doing a great job, but we’re all going nuts listening to a recording.

Andrew: It’s that shared history. You grew up with it, and you had those experiences, so when you see someone going through the same thing, it bonds you with them.

Adam: Exactly. And it makes him such a good performer, to be able to connect with you like that.

Andrew: Totally. It’s the same thing with sports–people had the same feeling after Kirby Puckett’s home run in the 1991 World Series. When you find out someone else is a Twins fan, you connect on that immediately, and it fraternizes you.

Adam: An instant brotherhood of sorts because you have that common ground.

Justin: It’s a tribal bond. People compliment my Twins hat here. I think people have an affinity for Minnesota, thanks to that scene that started with Prince, Soul Asylum…

Adam: On Spotify there’s this playlist called “Minneapolis Sound.” Like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis…the interesting part of that too is that a whole part of the world thinks of that as the sound that comes from Minneapolis.

Justin: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bob Dylan.

Adam: But is that part of the Minneapolis sound? It is, but…

Andrew: You know it’s interesting, because with the “Minneapolis Sound” people think of the ‘80s funk, but there have been so many “Minneapolis Sounds” over the decades. Like late ‘80s Husker Du/Replacements alt-rock was the sibling sound to what R.E.M. and B-52s were doing in Athens, then today as well with the Rhymesayers Collective and the whole indie hip hop scene, that’s a “Minneapolis Sound” as well…

Justin: Totally. I was lucky enough to play guitar on Dem Atlas’ “DWNR”, so technically I have a producer’s credit on a Rhymesayers record…that’s another brotherhood thing. We met a couple people from Rhymesayers at the First Ave party here in Austin, and instantly you’re part of the family. I’m really proud to have had a small part of that. The Guardian named them the top independent hip hop label in the world. I have a lot of respect for those guys and how they did it–they did it the right way. Got great musicians, didn’t take any major deals, and grew it independently. So much respect for that.

Adam: Kind of how we did it.

Justin: We got here totally independently. No manager, booking agent, any of that…I want to learn from how Rhymesayers did it.

Andrew: Adam and Justin, thank you so much for talking with me.

Justin: Our pleasure, man.

Adam: Hopefully see you around the Twin Cities soon!


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Collapsing Stars’ debut album, “2012,” is available from all the usual sites.

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