With 'Hey Muse!' Chan Poling looks back at the Suburbs’ past, but keeps moving forward

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The Suburbs Jay Smiley

Chan Poling’s collar is untucked. Fixing it is the kind of thing a wife might do before her husband left the house, but the 59-year-old Suburbs frontman has been a widower since 2011. Poling’s outfit—sport jacket, denim-esque button-up shirt with pocket square, slacks—complies with the stately University Club’s dress code, but he’s still a bit rumpled on this Friday morning. His silver hair is combed, but damp. His eyebrows are unruly, his whiskers white.

Blame aging. Or maybe the 10 a.m. meeting time. Poling remarks that coffee at a country club is an “evolution” from the man he used to be—rambunctious frontman of the Suburbs, the renowned new wave band he formed with Bruce Allen, Michael Halliday, Hugo Klaers, and Blaine John “Beej” Chaney in 1977.

Though Poling and Klaers are the only original members remaining, the Suburbs’ verve is undiminished on their new album, Hey Muse! “I’m not saying it’s the best album we’ve ever made—but I am saying that,” Poling teases in his deep, silken voice. “We believe in this record and people are responding to it.” (“Responding” is an understatement; the band netted more than $50,000 to record the album through a “funraiser” on its website earlier this spring.)

“I think this is the best of the Suburbs’ late mature records,” says John Munson, Poling’s New Standards bandmate and longtime buddy. “The band feels fully gelled and involved now. The tunes are occasionally wistful, but never maudlin, and they are chock full of hooks.”

The album is pulsing, danceable, fun, but there’s an undercurrent of seriousness. The most boisterous song on the album, “When We Were Young,” starts nostalgic and celebratory—“When we were boys/ We fell in love with the loudest noise”—but then takes a darker turn. “When I say, ‘It’s just so tragic now you’re gone,’ I mean it,” Poling explains. “It’s kind of sad. We’ve lost people along the way.”

Of the band members, Allen died in 2009, Halliday bowed out due to arthritis, and Beej took a “leave of absence” in 2014 due to “serious health issues.” “Do we all miss Bruce, Beej, and Michael?” Munson asks. “Yeah, of course. Just as we miss our beautiful smooth faces. Ain’t nothing to do about it.”

As for Poling’s wife, Eleanor, she died at age 51, in their bed, from brain cancer. Poling describes it as “the most painful thing I think I’ve ever gone through … just brutal.” But the maxim “time heals” turned out to be true; every day since her death has hurt a little bit less. “The worst it is now is kind of a pissed-off confusion, like ‘What the fuck? Why did that have to happen?’ The real tear-inducing, gut-wrenching feeling is kind of tamped down a little bit now,” he says.

Nearly four years ago, Poling sold the hobby farm in Prior Lake where the couple raised horses and moved to Cathedral Hill in St. Paul. Once the initial grief eased, Poling says he felt “freed up” creatively. “A great stress was relieved and I’ve kind of cut loose into the world, like ‘What else is there to do?’ Eleanor lived a very big life. When I saw that, just gone, I realized, this is our time. So what do you want to do? Do you want to watch TV?”

The answer, obviously, was no fucking way.

“Chan is consistently one of the most florid, unprecious, and prolific cats I know,” Munson says. “If there was any significant break in his productivity, I did not really perceive it. The ideas are always there.” As songs arrived unbidden, Poling recorded them on-the-go with his iPhone. As opposed to his younger days, when he tried to write what he thought would be “catchy or popular,” now “I just write what pops in my head and makes me happy,” he says.

And what makes him happy would seem to be love. Of all kinds. The father of three and grandfather of two says, “I have lots of loves: my family and kids and friends and… lovely relationships. I like romance.”

And while Poling has a “lust for life” (read: wine), he says he’s trying to take better care of himself. “I’m not perfect. I should probably hit the gym a little more,” he admits. “Some of our friends never bothered with that. They just loved that lifestyle of smoking and drinking and drugs. That was their lifestyle until it killed them. I have no interest in that.”

Here, Poling’s pale blue eyes appear misty. Sensing something left unsaid, I offer to turn off the recorder if it will facilitate a confession. He insists he doesn’t have one. “You think I’m circling around something, but I’m just circling,” he says. “It’s your article, but I wouldn’t make a big theme about ‘the rejuvenating life.’”

When I ask what he means, he explains, “I mean life is complex. I do love life… but a lot of artists struggle with depression and ways of dealing with that. I’ve been there. I know a lot of people who have been there. But I’m here now. And I’m loving it.” After an awkward silence, he adds, “I feel like I’m talking myself into a strange place.”

“A lot of the articles about you skew optimistic. Are you saying that’s not the whole story?” I ask him.

“I’ve seen and experienced a lot of stuff and I’ve got to find a way to come out of it with a life-affirming credo or method to go forth each day. But it’s not all candy-colored roses. I kind of like a mix.”

“A mix of pain and blessings?” I offer.

Poling laughs. “Pain and blessings, yeah. But it’s very important to count your blessings.”

The Suburbs certainly have much to be thankful for, though they’ve weathered the typical ups and downs of a music career. In 1982, the band received a half-million dollar advance, subsequently released four albums on major labels, and played with acts like R.E.M. and the B-52s. And yet...

“We couldn’t quite break into the upper echelons and just got frustrated and quit in ’87,” Poling says. “By 1993, we were totally bored and wondered why we stopped.” The band reunited and began playing “recreationally,” reclaiming their former glory on the release of 2013’s Si Sauvage with new members like guitarists Jeremy Ylvisaker and Stevie Brantseg.

Though the Suburbs comprises much of Poling’s adulthood, the band isn’t the entirety of his identity. “I’ve no intention of being a rock star,” he insists. “If that was what my life was, that would be a bummer to me.”

Fair enough. But he’s still a punk. During a break in our conversation, Poling admires the pool outside and asks an employee—too young to know who the Suburbs even are—if it’s open.

“Monday is when it officially opens,” the employee replies.

“But what about unofficially?” Poling asks.

“I’m sure no one would stop you.”

The Suburbs
With: Ryan and Pony, DJ Jake Rudh
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri. Aug. 4
Where: First Avenue
Tickets: $22/$25; more info here


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