Behind any average wood fence lies a yard with a dog, a picnic table and detached garage. Under the right cosmic conditions, that garage may or may not produce a band of like-minded members. However, the very last sound you’d expect to ring through this placid neighborhood is polka.
Inside the garage, a merry band of middle-aged men brought together by their kids who attend the same school rock out to their version of an ethnic genre of music tracing back to the 19th century. If their band name wasn’t enough of an indication, The Meat Rabbits play a kind of “pistol-polka” that you won’t find at any sleepy soiree.
In preparation for their German Kulturfest performance at Moorhead’s Hjemkomst Center on Saturday, Sept. 14, the band took to their run-of-the-mill garage to practice a form of polka-rock that resembles a kaleidoscope of doilies and rosemaling set to the tune of Led Zeppelin.
“We’re on the cutting edge,” says Matt “Cat-Pote” Rutten somewhat sardonically. As the current drummer and all around musician, Rutten is a historian of sorts for the band, laying out elaborate yet somewhat questionable folk tales of the band’s beginning.
“If we got rid of this guy, we could find six other Ruttens to take his place,” Chris “Bittersweet” Hames interjects, referring to Rutten’s large family from Butler Township, Minn. As the accordion player in the band, Hames picked up the squeezebox a year ago after his grandfather passed as his attempt to keep the tradition alive.
“I think I gave you your first lesson,” Rutten interrupts.
Spending just a few minutes with the band illustrates that no singular thought occurs in the group without an echoing of accusatory comments. With seven years together under their belts, they still find new ways to pester each other.
While the band is outfitted by a mismatch of haberdashery hats, Hawaiian shirts and graphic tees, their cutting-edge musical prowess rings true with a swift tempo in their original arrangements of pop and rock songs from The Beatles and beyond. They produce a throwback sound that is as easy to listen to as it is grind-your-heels-into-the-ground energetic.
“I think I could find recordings from like seven years ago when the band was named the Cat Steppers, because it sounded like we were stepping on cats when we played,” says guitar player Matt “Abs of Brunz” Brunsvold.
At the start, the band went by a few names, toying with a rock sound as a wedding band that had yet to find its polka edge. Eventually, they got the somewhat reckless idea of taking old songs and giving them new life. Speeding up slow songs and turning the lights down low on fast ones, playing with the power of pace by mincing up a bar of notes until there’s no more hares left to split — until the song is supremely rabbit stew.
With band experience tracing back to the day he first picked up the bass, “Cool-Hand” Luke Helm holds the obligatory reserved role during practice, perhaps considering the next time he’ll have peace and quiet again. His band credentials run the gamut, with previous experience playing in 3 Minute Hero as well as other rock groups.
The newest member of the band, Dan “Danjo” Gast first picked up the banjo in high school but never really played it that much until he joined the band. As a newcomer to the group, Gast manages to keep the group organized even with four other members to corral.
“We’re just a group of guys who like to hang out and have fun,” Gast says. “I didn’t really have that before because I have five kids and I’m busy all the time, but now it’s all about taking that one day a week to meet up and play music.”
At the core of their sound, The Meat Rabbits refresh a grinding rock tempo with a bit of their heritage. The smile written across each face during practice reads a bit of nostalgia for the days when their grandparents would play polka music.
As their German Kulturfest appearance approaches, the band runs through their set list again and again until it’s time for the group to pack up their polka brigade and head out to the next unassuming crowd. Whether they perform deep in the woods or the middle of downtown, it’s not the polka that surprises audiences, but the idea that polka might still be alive today.
The call of the garage isn’t free beer or the distant dreams of stardom; it’s the beat that comes alive in every big toe. It’s the chance to heckle the guy playing across the room if he takes a break or runs out of breath in the middle of a tune.
The Meat Rabbits might not capture polka true to form, but when they’re performing, it’s like a time shift in a tone pleasantly their own. In the end, for a band where each and every member owns an accordion, polka truly is alive — even if it’s not what you might expect.
What: German Kulturfest
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14; The Meat Rabbits will perform at about 1:30 p.m.
Where: The Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead
Info: $10 admission for teens and adults, free for kids 12 and under; visit hcscconline.org/german-kulturfest to learn more
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and appeared in print on Monday September 9, 2019.