Leagues of Their Own

The Minor Leagues survive internal and external friction to create their best work to date

Three years ago, it was a safe bet that The Minor Leagues would soon be dominating the Cincinnati Indie music scene. The band’s 2006 album, The Pestilence is Coming, and its entertaining live work had earned them two CEA nominations and they were already working on a follow-up release.

“We were going to be one of those bands that had albums hit you back to back,” says Minor Leagues frontman Ben Walpole in the back room at Northside hangout Mayday. “Pestilence came out in June, and I thought we’d have (another) album out before Christmas, for sure. It was Christmas, 2009.”

The album ground to a halt when the Leagues’ string arrangements evaporated after the arranger denied permission to use them. Mounting stress within the band boiled over and The Minor Leagues went on an extended and unintended hiatus.

“I didn’t talk to Ben for like a year and a half,” says guitarist and co-founder Patrick Helmes. “We didn’t have anything better to do or we had too many other things to do.”

“It wasn’t that we didn’t like each other,” says Walpole. “We hit a wall at the end of 2007 for a lot of reasons and we needed that time off. We didn’t do anything on the album or with the band.”

It was a plain shame. Walpole and Helmes had founded The Minor Leagues in 2000 and the band, in varying forms, had released several fascinating and often conceptual projects (including a truncated Single of the Month series), all marked by the band’s sweetly edgy Weezer/They Might Be Giants/10CC Indie Pop sound.

“(CityBeat’s Mike Breen) once described our first couple of CDs as being like you’d walked into an inside joke that you weren’t a part of,” says Helmes with a laugh.

“But that’s pretty accurate,” says Walpole. “We’ve tried to get — not being pretentious or pompous about it — a little bit more serious.”

Pestilence looked to be The Minor Leagues’ breakthrough, which made the band’s absence from the scene unfortunate and unexpected. Walpole had nearly given up on songwriting, drumming for The Damn Thing and content to be simply playing and not creating.

Slowly, the Leagues began to reconnect with a sense of rejuvenation. When a New York writer contacted Walpole about basing a musical on Pestilence (a script has been written but financial backing is needed), he felt the time was right to resurrect the Leagues and finish their new album, This Story is Old, I Know, But It Goes On.

“That was when we were like, ‘Yeah, I guess we should probably finish this next album, because it’s better than Pestilence,’ ” says Walpole, laughing.

Long a rotating cast, the Leagues had settled into a core group — longtime drummer/ multi-instrumentalist John Kathman (who had moved to Nashville during the hiatus but moved back to rejoin the band) was joined by bassist Josh Combs in 2004, guitarist/trumpeter Luke McGlasson in 2006 and keyboardist Amanda Lee this past summer. But the arrival of ex-Damn Thing vocalist Hilly Kenkel in 2007 kicked everything up a notch. Walpole was able to match the missing string parts using Kenkel’s voice; she’s rightly credited on Story as “Choir of One.”

“I’m a human violin,” says Kenkel.

“And it works much better than the actual violin,” says Kathman.

Given that the subject matter of Story is a particularly difficult break-up that Walpole endured, it’s conceivable he may have needed some distance from the material before completing the album. In any event, Story is an intimate epic fashioned by an Indie Pop orchestra of nearly 30 participants. Even with so many contributors, Helmes describes the process as streamlined.

“We did a lot of cutting on this album we wouldn’t have done prior to this,” he says.

“We had a lot of songs that were jokes at the beginning, when it was fun to just be able to record ourselves and hear it,” says Walpole. “John still says stupid things after we’ve stopped playing. Hilly does too. We still had fun but when we went to the end process, we went out of our way to cut it. We don’t really need Patrick to knock down the pyramid of soda cans between tracks.”

In many ways, Story stands in stark contrast to the sonic density of Pestilence, which was a layered, multi-leveled affair.

“There were songs on Pestilence that had 50 or 60 tracks,” says Combs. “Things like shakers and keys. Literally, car keys. And cats.”

Perhaps most amazingly, the comparatively sparse Story was recorded in bedrooms, living rooms and band rooms over the past five years; a studio wasn’t involved until the mastering phase at the end.

With the release of Story, The Minor Leagues are poised to become the major local presence that was imagined for them three years ago. The band’s appearance at the showcase at MidPoint presented by its label, Datawaslost, was a revelation. And the band’s recent CD release show at Mayday was packed with fans exultant at their return.

“We’ve just gotten better,” says Walpole.

“The songs are better, everybody’s gotten better at playing and the live show is much better with everybody involved.”

For more on THE MINOR LEAGUES, including early 2010 show dates, keep checking www.minorleaguesmusic.com.

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