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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Charlie Smith ’07, from Latin Band to Military Special

Recently, I was invited to submit an article to my alma mater’s Minnesota newsletter devoted to sharing the activities of graduates doing things of interest in Minnesota. At an alumni function in February, I learned that Military Special’s keyboard player Charlie Smith was a fellow Grinnell College alum. I was already familiar with Military Special and jumped at the chance to both profile Charlie and write a piece promoting his band’s new CD Civil Union and their set of 4 gigs supporting the album which kick off Thursday, March 5th at the Nomad Pub in Minneapolis. The article I submitted follows:

[Photo of Charlie Smith by Adam Kreger.]

Charlie Smith ’07, from Latin Band to Military Special

Charlie Smith graduated from Grinnell College in 2007 with a degree in music. That summer, while Smith was off leading camping trips in Wyoming for high school students, a few friends back home formed the Minneapolis-based dance-rock band Military Special (named for a brand of whiskey available only on military bases). Smith joined forces with them later that fall. In just over a year of playing shows and the release of an EP in 2008, the band has gained critical attention in the Twin Cities music media. Articles in City Pages and Rift Magazine praise the band for deftly balancing synth and guitar driven music and their ability to “bring out the dance” in even people with two left feet. Military Special’s music has often been compared to Bloc Party for its frenetic dance energy and The Cure for its pained vocals.

Smith plays lead synth in the six piece group that derives its sound from two guitars, two keyboards, bass and live drums. He’s also one of the co-writers of the band’s pre-programmed beats, and he told me he found a lot of inspiration for this from the Latin music he learned at Grinnell working with Gabriel Espinosa (Pella, IA), his jazz theory teacher and leader of the Latin Band. “It’s surprising how similar Latin music is to the dance-rock I play in Military Special, rhythmically at least,” Smith said. “And I picked up a lot on creating a tight sound under Gabriel’s direction.” In college Smith played piano in a number of different groups including the jazz band and Latin band as well as miscellaneous groups that played Bob’s Underground Café (the former Pub) and Gardner Lounge. Though clearly Smith found no shortage of ensembles to play with, he feels campus bands not directly involved with the music department would be better served if the school would provide more appropriate practice space and equipment for the campus bands organization, Freesound.

When you say someone is a musician, often the next question that comes to mind is, so what do they do for money? To that end Smith is still tied into the arts scene and works in Minneapolis as an usher for the Guthrie Theater and also at the Cedar Cultural Center. He lives in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood where he also teaches music and records music at home.

On March 3rd, Military Special released their first full length album, Civil Union and they are celebrating the album’s release with a four-gig stand at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis. The shows are part of the club’s respected Minneseries showcase which puts musicians in residence on Thursday nights at the West Bank Club for one month along with some of their favorite bands. (The Minneseries lineup for March is impressive by anyone’s standards and also includes First Communion Afterparty, The Guystorm, and many more Twin Cities bands worth heading out to see on their own.)

Military Special plays an aggressive schedule of 6 gigs in March, then April 30th returns to Grinnell to play a show with Joe McNerty (Iowa City) and Phineas Gage (Watertown, MN).

This article wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t ask Smith for his own recommendations for Minnesota music right now. In addition to the bands playing with Military Special during their Nomad residency he mentions both Look Book as a recent favorite, and says he’s also looking forward to the next release by 2008 City Pages “Picked to Click” artist Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles. It was Lucy Michelle and her band, incidentally, for whom Military Special played their very first show at a house party and the U of M in December of 2007.

You can currently stream the entirety of Military Special’s new album from


thecvstrio said...

The Nomad has really been a great venue for showcasing new artists. Folks, if you haven't made it out there, they have a great feel built into that place as well as a great fenced in outdoor spot for those summer nights. I've played there and booked shows there and had nothing but positive experiences.
Charlie Van Stee