The April Fools: The Band That Almost Wasn't

Randy Erickson

Brian Drake didn't plan on getting another band started when he decided to recruit some Twin Cities music aces to help him record an album of songs he'd written, mainly just to document them for posterity. He'd been down the rock band rabbit hole many times before, putting out records with at least three of them—Idiot Savant, The Fontanas and 60-Cycle Hum, all standouts on the Twin Cities music scene starting in the 1980s.

But during the recording process, something clicked and The April Fools were born.

"We love playing together and it shows," Drake said. "This is the first band I've been in that is zero drama, and that alone is just such a rarity in the band world."

Drake and his fellow Fools are coming to The Root Note on Saturday for their first La Crosse performance, but Drake's previous bands have rocked out in the city many times before, mostly at the Popcorn Tavern. Drake actually lived in La Crosse for a while in elementary and middle school (his dad was a high school teacher in De Soto) before moving to Neillsville.

When he lived in Neillsville, one of his early bands, Slippery Jack, had a thing for Allman Brothers jams and featured a teenage phenom from Marshfield—Dave Rogers of Dave's Guitar Shop fame. "Dave was a hot-shot guitar player already as a kid," Drake said. "He had a knack for swapping and trading and buying and selling guitars even way back then."

For The April Fools' self-titled debut, Drake recruited a longtime friend with a long and wide resume, Ben Kaplan, to play drums, and another good bud, Scott Hreha, an ace on the bass. And he lucked out in signing up Clay Williams, a versatile guitarist who also plays pedal and lap steel and has advanced skills in the recording studio.

"I call him the master of space and twang," Drake said.

Other guest musicians on the record include chromatic harmonica master Clint Hoover, pianist Peter Guertin, violinist Jillian Rae and Jennifer Markey and Katy Vernon on backing vocals.

While Drake's previous bands were harder rocking, The April Fools album is an eclectic tour-de-force that draws on his early affinity for "California cosmic country" and singer-songwriters as well as later influences from the 1980s, like Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon. Not that he sings like either of them, but his clever songcraft brings them to mind.

Drake and the band's versatility shine on the record, with straight-ahead rockers ("I’ll Never Understand," "She’s on My Lips"), effervescent '60s pop ("Reason" and "Bertha Marie"), honky-tonk country ("Trying to Stay Dry"), soulful balladry ("The Same Girl"), power pop ("Stereo Blue") and many songs that straddle musical lines.

In addition to the songs off the band's debut, which was released in spring 2015, the band also is performing songs that will be on the next record. That album will feature a more collaborative approach to writing the songs, a process Drake said he is loving. "The enthusiasm and the optimism and general good cheer about this record is just like it was on the first record," he said.

The April Fools show at The Root Note will be preceded by a stripped-down version of The Howl Inn, a recently formed local band that specializes in original rootsy country music with an edge. Capping the evening's entertainment will be Barely Losing, a hard-rocking alt-country quartet that features the rhythm section from the late great Shot to Hell (bassist Brian Stehula and drummer Kendric Nelson) along with guitarist Shawn Healy and singer/guitarist Jack Nachtman, who actually played drums for Shot to Hell for a time.

Barely Losing was formed last October, after Nachtman and Healy, good friends since kindergarten, ended up at a Bobby Bare Jr. house concert in La Crosse with Stehula and Nelson. The band started with songs written by Nachtman for his previous band, Mudride, but Stehula has been writing and singing songs and Nachtman is writing new songs, often in collaboration with Healy. "It’s been really fun for me to do it that way," Nachtman said. "I don’t know why we didn't try that before."