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Ed Ackerson: The life and legacy of an essential Minneapolis musician

Ed Ackerson, who died in October, will be remembered by friends, family, and bands at a 'celebration of life' show at First Avenue on Saturday.

Ed Ackerson, who died in October, will be remembered by friends, family, and bands at a 'celebration of life' show at First Avenue on Saturday. Ashley Ackerson

“I’m left with all of this,” Ashley Ackerson says. She’s surrounded by the music her husband, Ed, recorded over his 35-year music career—LPs, CDs, 7-inches—and the instruments and gear he made it with, in the very room where he worked: Flowers Studio in Uptown Minneapolis.

“Sometimes I sit around and cry through it all,” Ashley says. “But it’s also amazing. I can feel him sitting in this room, and in the house—it all feels very warm to me. Like he’s here.”

Ed Ackerson died on October 4, 2019, at age 54, after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer a year earlier. But at Flowers his spirit is still alive. He bought this former greenhouse in 1996 and built it into one of the best recording studios in the country, working with veterans like the reunited Replacements and younger bands like Motion City Soundtrack. The studio, still going strong after his death, is as much his legacy as the music he made—something tangible he left behind for Ashley and their 4-year-old daughter, Annika.

That legacy will be front and center this Saturday at First Avenue’s Ed Ackerson Celebration of Life Benefit. Ed’s bands will perform, as will musicians he worked with and produced over the years: the Jayhawks, the Kraig Johnson Experience, Mark Mallman, and Two Harbors. (Proceeds will benefit the Ed Ackerson Family Fund and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.)

“It’s not going to be a tribute rock show—it’s going to be a proper rock show like Ed would want,” Ashley says. “What Ed would love is bands to play their own music. He probably would vomit if everyone was just covering his songs all night.”

The Dig: Olaf Medhus; 27 Various: Marlin Levison/Star Tribune

The Dig: Olaf Medhus; 27 Various: Marlin Levison/Star Tribune


Ed Ackerson appeared on the Minneapolis music scene in the heady days of the ’80s. But while other local bands opted for the noisier garage-punk or hardcore made famous by the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, Ed’s short-lived band the Dig distinguished themselves with a clean mod-rock sound heavily influenced by the Jam. The Dig wore suits on stage, and their sound echoed the early Who and the Small Faces.

“Ed was faithful to his mod influences in just about every way,” says Chris Pavlich, frontman of Two Harbors, who met Ackerson in the mid-’90s. “He pulled up on his old Vespa scooter wearing a Fred Perry shirt, mod haircut, and sunnies. Basically, straight out of Quadrophenia.”

Ed brought that same smart sense of style to the stage, which set him apart from the tattered grunge look of the time. “The Blue Boy Rickenbacker, the hair, the clothes... I loved that about him. Effortlessly cool,” says Pavlich.

Or so it seemed: That level of cool required hours of unseen effort. Ed was a self-taught musician who learned how to play the old-fashioned way, experimenting on his guitar while carefully studying the songs in his record collection.

“He taught himself all the instruments, including drums, piano, keyboards. He just kept going, and working and pushing himself to be better,” says Ashley. “He never was formally trained, but his IQ was really high; he was valedictorian of Stillwater High School. He had a scholarship offer to Yale. He could have been a doctor or a lawyer, but he pursued music and indie rock instead.” She laughs. “For better or for worse.”

Ed also formed a record label in the mid-’80s, Susstones, with his friend John Kass. Starting with early 7-inches by the Dig, Susstones would continue to release Ed’s music, as well as that of his friends and cohorts, throughout the rest of his life.

The Dig didn’t last long, breaking up for the same reason most bands do: They fought constantly. Ed formed the 27 Various in 1986, fusing his love of Pete Townshend and Paul Weller with the sprawling psychedelia of the 13th Floor Elevators and early Pink Floyd. Ed had a unique ability to balance pop hooks and musical experimentation, with his jangly, psych-heavy guitar riffs always front and center.

“Some musicians are very good at crafting sound, and some are good at crafting songs, but very, very few are good at both,” says Christian Erickson, a music scene contemporary who first met Ed in the late ’90s. “We became fast friends, and after that I saw and heard most of what he was doing both live and in the studio. He saw music as both texture and structure—the way things sounded was as important as the song being played. To him, a song was much more than a collection of words and chords—it was a total experience.”

Though the 27 Various made their mark on the Minneapolis scene before disbanding in 1992, Ed’s music was still not widely known outside Minnesota. After he formed Polara in 1994, that all changed.

“Polara was very much this band of unsupervised siblings squabbling about everything in the basement, and Ed was kind of the oldest brother who tried his best to keep a lid on it,” recalls Dan Boen, Polara bassist and a longtime collaborator of Ed’s. “That was great for our live energy, but when it was time to record, he’d become the producer and we all deferred to that. He was great at getting good performances out of everyone, and really good at making people play together, which doesn’t always happen. Once it all was working, Ed would smile and say, ‘There it goes. Sounds like rock to me.’”

With Polara, Ed truly refined and perfected the stormy psych-pop sound he had been building toward. The band’s 1995 self-titled debut led to a major-label bidding war, with the band eventually signing to Interscope Records in 1996 and recording three albums for the imprint.

The Celebration of Life show marks the exact 25th anniversary of Polara’s debut, and Ashley will celebrate the occasion by releasing the record on vinyl—translucent orange vinyl, no less—for the first time. “The first Polara record really started it all, and it’s why this studio exists,” says Ashley. “And Ed knows that it’s finally coming out on vinyl. That was his wish.”

Polara

Polara Joseph Cultice


Ashley and Ed first met (where else?) at Flowers in 1998, at one of the famous New Year’s Eve parties Ed threw each year at the studio.

“We started to hang out that next year, and the rest is history,” Ashley says. “We knew we had a special thing early on. I moved in in February 2001, and we decided to get married for the fun of it in September 2007. There was never any pressure, we were always best friends. We loved to do the same things, had the same passion for music, and had big dreams of raising Annika and growing old together. We just loved being together, it really didn’t matter what we were doing.” They moonlighted in each other’s bands (Ed playing bass in Ashley’s band the Mood Swings and Ashley joining Polara’s later lineup), then formed BNLX together in 2010 along with drummer David Jarnstrom.

“We started the band specifically to make bold statements, both musically and conceptually,” Ed told City Pages in 2017. A Sonic Youth-like screed, “Message From HR” is built from vacuous corporate-speak: “Got a message from HR/A Memorandum/Your Attitude defines your altitude/Every setback is an opportunity/Together everyone achieves more.” As Ed put it in 2012, “I like the sugar-coated pill aspect of writing a cultural critique or a political critique with a song that’s easy to dance to and sticks in your head.”

Those statements were also political when the moment demanded it: The 2016 election prompted the band to return from a two-year hiatus with the anthem “Resist! Resist!” “There’s a long road ahead toward progress,” Ed said at the time. “This song is something to hum, sing, or shout along with while we all move forward together.”

BNLX’s marketing techniques were just as innovative and provocative as their music. Longtime music scene mainstay and journalist PD Larson took on the role as a self-described “press officer” for Susstones, harking back to the days of the Beatles and the Stones, but with a mischievous modern twist.

“We tried to incorporate this real over-the-top subversive press strategy with a lot of corporate speak that Ed was picking up from Ashley’s world at Target,” Larson says. “We wanted this air of mystery. They went by the names A.A. and E.A. and their pictures were intentionally blurry. It was counterintuitive of what you would normally do, especially with someone like Ed who had a track record by then. But instead of exploiting that, it was kind of obscuring it, which he greatly enjoyed.”

BNLX released a series of quick-hitting EPs in the 2010s that the band referred to as Quarterly Reports, as well as two full-length LPs, and Ed continued to draw inspiration from younger bands around town. Rather than competing with the next generation, which wasn’t in his nature, he offered advice as well as recording time at Flowers.

“Ed’s support gave us legitimacy in the Minneapolis scene and also the confidence that people liked what we were doing,” says Devon Bryant, bassist in Fury Things, a then-fledgling band that played many shows with BNLX and recorded at Flowers. Bryant recalls playing the Ackerson-curated BNLXFest—and having to close the show. “Going on after BNLX with their full-on production and light show was a little bit humbling. I think Ed could tell that made us a little nervous, because he let us keep their light show when we played. A very classy and generous move from a classy and generous guy.”

“He always valued the scene here, and never stopped growing with it,” Ashley says. “Even as he got older, he always connected to younger people. He threw these Sussedtaculars and BNLXFests, and he’d always pick up one or two new bands, these 20-year-olds, new kids on the scene. There was still this great connection and love for music, this synergy and community. There was always a community around him. He never wanted to just put out his own art, he always wanted to support everybody else. That’s why he revitalized Susstones and opened the studio up not only for his own art but so other people could pursue their dreams here.”

Ed also became a highly sought-after producer, working with the Jayhawks, Golden Smog, Motion City Soundtrack, and Soul Asylum, as well as producing the Replacements’ final recordings, the Songs for Slim EP.

“I’ve known Paul and Tommy forever,” Ed said at the time. “They like to work fast, capture the moment and spirit, and our studio is designed to make that sort of thing happen easily. Basically, we just set up the rock and roll band and waited to see what happened.”

“Great engineers know how to capture the energy of a band, but great producers are capable of shaping that energy into something better and more powerful. I think Ed did both extremely well,” says Erickson. “He had a great sense for the narrative drama in music—like, how does a song pull you in and what journey does it take you on. He also knew when to push for technical perfection and when to push for character and imperfection. A lot of vocalists said he was one of the best producers in town at getting great singing performances out of people. And I think that dual focus on feel and finesse was the reason why.”

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It was Pete Townshend who broke the news of Ed’s illness. Ackerson had kept the news under wraps, but during the Who’s 2019 St. Paul show, his hero offered his support from the stage: “Ed, I hope you recover. God bless Ed!”

A month later, Ed Ackerson was gone. But he was making music right up until the end, and some of those last recordings will be made available for the first time at the First Ave show. One of Ed’s final projects, Capricorn One, will be offered on limited-edition hot pink vinyl. “Pantone 806 C!” says Ashley with a chuckle.

“He did it all himself, top to bottom, every single piece of it—drums, keyboards, piano, vocals, all of it,” Ashley says. “Ed produced, engineered, and wrote it all. We’re calling it ‘the space rock journey.’ It is, in my opinion, the best of everything he’s done. A lot of people are going back in time and getting into the Dig and 27 Various and the Ackerson solo records, and that’s great. But I encourage people to listen to his new stuff too.”

Ashley fights through tears as she continues. “Going through a loss like this is horrible. Without the music community I don’t know what I’d do. Not only the community here in Minneapolis, but the music community at large has been very supportive. Many people have reached out and offered support. It means so much.”

A GoFundMe page for Ashley and Annika organized by Dan Boen has raised over $73,000, and there’s a forthcoming tribute album to Ed organized by his Swedish friend Jonatan Westh. “It started while Ed was alive and we tried to keep it a secret from him,” says Ashley, who hopes to release it later this year to celebrate Ed’s birthday.

The fact that rock and roll is still being played in Flowers is a source of deep comfort to Ashley, with musicians dropping in not only to check on how she’s doing, but also to make some welcome noise in the studio that Ed built.

Kris Johnson, guitarist in Two Harbors and one of Ed’s best friends, is now Flowers’ head engineer and studio manager. “As Ed’s illness was progressing, he told me he wanted me to take over the studio and to ensure that it lived on,” says Johnson. “And he told me what his vision of that was. It’s hard to put into words what that means to me. For Ed, his studio was an extension of himself, and who he was as a person. It’s the summation of everything he had spent his entire life building. And to be entrusted with that is a massive thing.”

The future of Flowers Studio is still unwritten, but Ashley has some ideas. “Annika is only four, but this is her studio if she wants to have it someday,” she says. “This thing could probably never be built again, and Uptown is too expensive, it would be impossible to start this thing from scratch again now. So, I feel grateful that Ed had the vision, the foresight, and the guts to invest in this. He took his money and didn’t blow it all on drugs or champagne or whatever, and put it into this place. It’s expensive to keep it going, but it’s one of a kind, and I’d love Annika to have the opportunity to see if it’s something she wants and to explore it.

“Maybe she’ll be a producer—she’s singing all the time. And Ed got her into the Small Faces already, so we’re good there.”

Click here for our six-album introduction to Ed Ackerson's music.

Ed Ackerson Celebration of Life Benefit
With: The Jayhawks, Kraig Johnson & the Poe-Gram, Mark Mallman, Two Harbors, BNLX, Polara, and DJ Jake Rudh
Where: First Avenue
When: 5 p.m. Sat. Feb. 15
Tickets: 18+: $20; more info here

Ed with daughter Annika

Ed with daughter Annika Sara Montour Lewis