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Buzzed: The Sugar Stems Dish Out the Pop

Jul. 15, 2009
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The Sugar Stems aren't out to fool anyone with their name: Their music is undeniably sweet and carefree. If the Candy Land images on their MySpace page weren't clue enough, hearing the band live sends out intermittent buzzes of pop endorphins-the first, pleasant stages of a heady sugar buzz.

Vocalist/guitarist Betsy Borst and harmonizing guitarist Drew Fredrichsen create a charismatic live performance that recalls the energy of pop groups of the '50s and '60s, with heavy emphasis on the vocals and their harmonies, bright guitars with open chords and snappy percussion, and belted-out stories of crushes, triumphs and retaliations. Borst says their name is the icing on the cake. "Stephanie [Swinney, bassist] thought of our name," she explains. "Sugar, because we're sweet, and Stems because we're tall."

The pop quartet has been around for about a year, playing shows with other like-minded local bands such as The Midwest Beat. "It took a while to really get the ball rolling with this band," Borst says. "There were other members before all the members that are in it right now. Our first lead guitarist was Zach [Byrne] from The Goodnight Loving, and he decided to go tour with them full time. Long story short, we ended up with Drew in the band: We were a band for a good year before we started playing shows regularly. The songs were there from the beginning … but once Drew joined the band, something just sort of clicked."

Fredrichsen's elements of power-pop (lent from his other projects, Leg Hounds and The Jetty Boys) nicely complemented Borst's style of writing, and although the official make-up of the band is a 2:2 boy/girl ratio, the sound the Sugar Stems evoke is heavily influenced by girl groups such as The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes and The Shirelles. It also floats in a smidge of '90s pop-punk-"As a teenager, I listened to The Muffs a ton," Borst says-and strong female vocals that have echoes of Neko Case.

"I think I can speak for Drew, too, that neither of us set out to write pop songs," Borst says. "But, you sit down, and that's just what comes out. I love that people can say that it's pop and they like it and love it, and can dance to it at shows."

The Sugar Stems are anticipating the release of their first recordings, fresh from the mixing boards at Howl Street Recordings in Milwaukee, where they worked with Justin Perkins. The band plans to have a 7-inch single in time for their upcoming show with Seattle folk-pop group The Dutchess and The Duke and is excited to make travel plans now that the recording process is nearly finished. After playing together last fall, The Dutchess and The Duke invited the Sugar Stems to visit them out west, an offer the band might take them up on.

"We'll start small with the Midwest and maybe take it from there," Borst says.

The Sugar Stems open up for The Dutchess and The Duke at Club Garibaldi on Thursday, July 16, at 9 p.m. with The Goodnight Loving and The Get Drunk DJs.


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