Interview: Banner Pilot Keep It Real And Give Us A Souvenir

Interview with vocalist and guitarist Nick Johnson and bassist Nate Gangelhoff  |  By Tom Haugen

My interest in all things Banner Pilot probably started before yours. In 1991, the suburbs of Minneapolis weren’t exactly a hotbed of punk rock activity. At my high school, you might spot an occasional Crass patch or someone passing around a Babes in Toyland cassette at best. Banner Pilot frontman Nick Johnson roamed the same hallways that I did – he had a Bad Religion shirt and rode a skateboard. I had a 7 Seconds shirt and rode a BMX bike. We got along just fine. About 15 years after graduation, Nick tells me his band has a new album on Fat Wreck Chords and sends me a copy. I put it in on a long drive to Alabama and don’t stop listening until I reach Mobile. Then I listen to it on the drive back. In fact, I haven’t stopped listening since, and I can only assume I’m one of many considering how popular Banner Pilot have become in a short amount of time. Here’s what Nick and bassist Nate Gangelhoff have to say about the band and their new album Souvenir.

Interview with vocalist/guitarist Nick Johnson:

I heard from you in the early 2000s and you were playing around town in a cover band. Next time I heard from you, you were crisscrossing the country on tour and putting an album out on Fat Wreck Chords. Did Banner Pilot happen as fast as it seemed?

Yeah, after Rivethead [broke up], I hooked up with the Hawaii Show, a performance art type project my friend Steve was doing. We’d write original songs and then lip sync them live with inflatable guitars and headset mics. We even wrestled in mashed potatoes once, it was awesome. I was itching to start playing punk rock again though, and I remember hanging out with Nate one summer night in ‘04, listening to The Soviettes, thinking, “We should start a band!” He already had a bunch of song ideas and we started writing. Between 2006 and 2008, we ditched the drum machine and got a band together, did a few small tours and released an EP, a 7” and then an LP. We got really lucky in ‘09 when Fat wanted to release Collapser.  It’s been a fun ride for sure.

Do you get a lot of raised eyebrows from your family about Banner Pilot? Does being on the cusp of 40 and playing punk rock go over well at the holiday dinner table?

My niece and nephews think I’m pretty cool!  But no, it’s not a big deal to my family.  They think of it like a hobby and are always interested in hearing about where I might be traveling to next with the band. If I was trying to make a living off punk rock, the conversation would probably be a little different.

Does impending fatherhood mean less time on the road with BP?

I don’t think so, but it probably will mean fewer long stretches on the road – gotta be home for tummy time and to get milk thrown up on me!

There are several Minneapolis references in your songs and you guys have an unwavering loyalty to the Twin Cities. Most people think of Minnesota as a miserable place to live. What keeps you here?

I ask myself that same question every year around this time! This winter has been particularly brutal with over 50 days below zero, ouch. Aside from inertia, I’d say friends/family, the vibrant music/art scene, and awesome summers – tons of lakes and parks. It’s a natural backdrop to a lot of the songs since I’ve lived here almost my whole life.

What do you guys do other than the band – job, career-wise? Is it feasible to make a living playing music these days?

I work in a hospital. The other guys do things involving mortgages, investments, and running movie theaters. Making a living with music really isn’t feasible at our level, but the band does basically pay for itself for which I’m really thankful. We’re just doing this for fun.

Are you still holding down lyrical duties on the new album? If so, what kinds of themes are explored?

I am! Some of the songs explore themes like loss, regret, isolation, and being stuck. Others are more about redemption, hope and optimism.

Is the lack of profanity in your songs a conscious decision?

I’m definitely conscious of it when I’m writing. I’ll allow myself a curse here or there, but too many lessens the impact and feels lazy to me. I’ll try to come up with another way to convey the intensity/emotion. That said, what we lack in profanity, we more than make up for in alcohol and weather references.

I heard a rumor – or maybe I started one – that Banner Pilot are playing our 20 year high school reunion this year. You in?

Assuming we don’t have a wedding or bar mitzvah booked that weekend, totally!

Interview with bassist Nate Gangelhoff:

How do you approach writing the music for a Banner Pilot song? Do you write 100% of the music?

I probably write 99% of the music, but I split the melodies – which are more important, in my opinion – about 50/50 with Nick. I guess the main approach is to throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks. If you try 20 ideas, you have a reasonably good chance of getting something good out of it. The key is to not get hung up on or attached to the other 19 things that don’t work. I think if we looked at it like, “OK, now we have 12 ideas, that’s our album,” we would be releasing a pretty horrendous record right now. Basically, be willing to scrap stuff, be patient, and don’t get hung up if you realize something you may have spent a lot of time on turns out to, in fact, totally suck. The other thing that I think is a good idea is to try to picture how a random fan would react if they heard a song come up on shuffle, or a radio station, or whatever. If you can really, truly picture them getting excited, singing along, etc., then you’re on to something. It doesn’t mean you’re “right,” but it’s a good sign. On the other hand, if you, the person writing the song, can’t even picture that, get rid of the song.

You described Heart Beats Pacific as “Collapser on steroids.” How would you describe Souvenir compared to Heart Beats Pacific?

I guess it’s basically like we’re continuing to up our steroid-intake, and we’re having positive results. So far, so good, keep the program going, ripped and ready to go, etc. Beyond that, I think we dialed back some of the “slickness” for lack of a better word. We may have gone a little too far in that direction last time. Hopefully, it’ll sound a little different than our previous albums, but still be immediately recognizable as a Banner Pilot album. That was the goal, at least. Landing in the sweet spot between, “OK… I guess they’re playing the same song AGAIN,” and, “What are these idiots trying to do?”

Is it rad sharing the stage with bands that influenced you as a kid?

Yeah, it’s been very, very cool to share the stage with bands we all grew up listening to.

Is being a touring punk rock musician with a sizable amount of record sales as glamorous as all the kids think?

Do kids nowadays actually think being in a punk band is glamorous? That’s weird, if so! It’s super, super fun, but certainly not glamorous. I guess sometimes if we have a really good show, we will buy more extravagant burritos the next day than we would otherwise.

If Billy Morrisette from Dillinger Four hadn’t put you guys in touch with Fat Wreck Chords, where do you think Banner Pilot would be today?

That’s a really good question. I like to think we’d still be plugging away – in all honesty, this sounds hokey, but I think writing and recording music is just as fun even when barely anyone hears it. But realistically speaking, all the new fans we got through working with Fat really got us extra excited and probably sparked us to be a bit more motivated. If that hadn’t happened, it’s certainly possible we would have sorta petered out by now.

How many side projects are you in currently, and is Banner Pilot your main focus?

Pretty much just The Gateway District, and very rarely, I’ll do a recording with Off With Their Heads. I’m starting a side band – or “project” or whatever you’d call it – with some friends that’s shaping up to be pretty fun, but we haven’t done much yet. But Banner Pilot will always be the main focus.

Get your Souvenir here:

Banner Pilot Tour Dates:
5/03 Minneapolis, MN Triple Rock Social Club
5/08 Des Moines, IA Gas Lamp
5/09 Chicago, IL Beat Kitchen
5/10 Normal, IL Firehouse Pizza and Pub
5/22 Allston, MA Great Scott
5/23 Asbury Park, NJ Asbury Lanes
5/24 Brooklyn, NY Knitting Factory
5/25 Philadelphia, PA The Barbary
5/26 Baltimore, MD The Metro Gallery

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