Building community through music: Nate Larson marches to his own drum
BEMIDJI -- It's a Saturday night and the Blue Ox is packed.
Two Minneapolis-based bands --the Color Pharmacy and the 4onthefloor -- are in town.
The following weekend, a similar-sized audience arrived in anticipation for local band Uncle Shurley to hit the stage.
Nate Larson had a hand in both shows, albeit in different roles.
Larson, a percussionist for Uncle Shurley as well as the Seasonals, has booked shows for the Blue Ox Bar and Grill on and off for the past few years, helping to bring some major acts into Bemidji.
But whether the long-time musician is on stage or behind the scenes, music is about one thing to Larson: building community.
"To see a whole room full of smiling people, that feels really good."
A LOVE FOR MUSIC
Larson has a tough time pinning down exactly what kind of music Uncle Shurley plays, though he said it combines elements of funk, soul and reggae. And likewise, it's hard to describe his instrument.
"I have a couple different configurations for my drums, and I've added stuff and I've built my own stands and it's really an unorthodox way of playing drums," he said.
That's fitting, considering Larson has followed a somewhat unorthodox path to becoming a musician.
Despite the fact that his mom was a piano teacher, Larson, 32, never learned how to read music notation.
"I would hear a song on the radio and I would say, 'Teach me this song. And my mom would go through theory and say, 'You have to hold your hands like this,'" Larson said.
"And I was just like 'Teach me this part,' and she just didn't have patience for that."
That didn't damper his love for making music, or at the very least making sounds.
Larson joined the elementary school band before quitting in high school because he didn't want to play in pep band. His personal practice sessions during study hall would occasionally draw the ire of the high school choir director.
"I don't know a thing about music theory. I can't read music, I can't do any of that," he said "I guess what I gained through music playing in junior high and high school was just experience and learning sounds, understanding how to make the sounds."
During his night classes at Bemidji State University, Uncle Shurley practiced in his living room. When their percussionist left for graduate school, Larson was asked to join in.
"I've just been friends with them for a long time," Larson said. "It's been a great experience."
Despite that love for music, and consistent trips to music festivals and concerts in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, Larson never expected to get involved in booking shows. He was approached by Blue Ox management about using his connections to book shows locally.
There, he works with Mike Huerbin, a member of the local media company 218 Productions. He said Larson has the thick skin required during some tense negotiations with band management.
"He's got a great ear for good talent and a lot of really good connections," Huerbin said of Larson. "He's kind of hung out and known a lot of these musicians for years."
JACK OF ALL TRADES
You're more likely to find Larson working with his hands than behind the glow of a computer screen.
That fact is evidenced by the straw bale house he built in rural Clearwater County with the help of friends and family. Next to it, a large hole and cinder blocks mark where the future addition to the house will stand.
The house where he and his 2½-year-old daughter live contains all the necessities of a more mainstream home: electricity, plumbing and gas. But without contractors or expensive supplies, it came at a fraction of the price, Larson said.
"It just seems logical," Larson said, adding that he knows of at least four other people in the area who have built similar homes. "It's cost-effective. It's easy to heat, easy to cool."
These days, Larson is occupying himself with a day job in Bemidji and thinking about the future of the local music scene with the Blue Ox facing closure by the end of the month.
He and members of 218 Productions are hoping the music scene continues to thrive. Besides potentially being forced to find another venue, they'll have to find a way to pay bands to come to town.
"It can be a financial risk, but it's a gamble I think all of us are willing to take," Larson said.