Hometown: St. Paul/Minneapolis
Members: Johnny Solomon, Adam Switlick, Al Weiers, Molly Moore, Jonathan Blaseg, Dan Demuth, Dillon Marchus
Current Release: Lions & Lambs EP
For Fans Of: Bon Iver, Sunny Day Real Estate, Elliott Smith
Back in 2007, things were going well for Minneapolis band Friends Like These. The indie-pop group had been on tour with The Stills and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and had just booked a gig opening for fellow Minnesotan band Soul Asylum. The only problem was that on the night of the show, frontman Johnny Solomon had once again found himself in jail. Solomon called guitarist Adam Switlick to come and bail him out, and the two raced for the venue. But they were too late, and it marked the ending for the band. The drummer moved to Scotland. The bass player went back to school. And Solomon just ran away.
“After I got out of jail, I realized my life was a mess,” he remembers. “I decided I was just going to give up music. My intention was to move far away, but I only got just across the border to a small town in Wisconsin. I thought I could just live like a small-town guy and get a job.”
But the drugs and alcohol—“bad choices and wildness”—that had landed Solomon in jail weren’t the only thing he was struggling with. His bipolar disorder was undiagnosed and untreated, and things just kept getting worse. He turned back to music.
“I just started writing again,” he says. “The Current [KCMP, 89.3 FM] picked up one of those songs, [“Not the Kid”], and started playing it, and it kind of took off as a single. They told me I better finish an album.”
Solomon didn’t have a band name—or a band—and came up with Communist Daughter on the spot, after the Neutral Milk Hotel song. He called friends including Switlick on bass, Al Weiers on guitar, “and this girl, an attractive young girl who supposedly sang,” he says of his now-fiancée Molly Moore. “I was single, and I said, ‘Why don’t you come sing with us.’ And she turned out to be much better than any of us expected. And everything started clicking.”
While Communist Daughter got off to a great start, recording a full-length debut, Soundtrack to the End, and getting invited to play CMJ 2010, things hadn’t really changed for Solomon. His bandmates stuck by him, but it wasn’t always easy. “It seemed to be going well except for my whole ‘still dying’ thing,” he says. “I had a thing for [Molly], but she said she would never date me because I was such a mess. And Adam was the friend you always want, even when things were horrible. He’d be like ‘Ah, you’re horrible to be around,’ and then he’d show up the next week.”
But CMJ was a “disaster,” he says. “I couldn’t play shows or stay normal for very long so I had to check into treatment and put everything on hold for a while and try and get my life back together before we could do anything. The band was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you figure out what you need to do.’ I’d like to say I made a choice but it was like I was going to die or go to treatment, so it wasn’t much of a choice.”
The band canceled all the promising opportunities and Solomon went into treatment in rural Minnesota. By the time he entered a halfway house in St. Paul, all the momentum was gone.
“We really did have to start almost from square one,” he says. “Treatment takes a long time. I was coming off of meth and getting on medicine for the bi-polar stuff. My brain took a long time to get back to functioning. Half the band were new guys, and I had to fill out the sound differently. We just started again. Once your album’s been out for a year and you haven’t been doing anything, people kind of write you off.”
The new seven-piece lineup released an EP titled Lions & Lambs, a heartbreaking indie-folk album that’s both intimate and intricate. They used its release as an excuse to tour both coasts in a 15-passenger van, sleeping on luggage and slowly rebuilding an audience. But this time, Solomon is doing it sober. He’s engaged, and “it feels good.” For two weeks of the tour, the band found itself opening shows for Jason Isbell, who’d battled demons of his own.
“It was funny,” Solomon says. “Jason Isbell is a songwriting hero to me. When we released Lions & Lambs at First Ave [in Minneapolis], we played with him. Right about then was when he started telling people he was sober. I wouldn’t say there were similarities because every situation is different. But it was cool to have me and Molly on tour with him and Amanda, and being able to chat about some of that stuff. It was kind of a similar thing—Johnny and June kind of stuff.”
Communist Daughter is now shopping an LP around to record labels. It was recorded with Kevin Bowe, who’s written songs for Etta James and Dean Martin. “It was kind of a different step for us,” Solomon says. “We’re kind of indie musicians and he’s not. He kind of held our feet to the fire on stuff. We worked with a lot better microphones and had to sing on key for him. He wasn’t taking it otherwise.”
The dozen songs on the album pull heavily from the last few years of Solomon’s life. “It’s all autobiographical kind of stuff,” he says. “Even when I’m trying to write stuff that’s not directly me, I end up putting a lot of my own experience into it. A lot of it is about getting sober and seeing the world differently. It’s not necessarily seeing unicorns and rainbows; it’s just being able to talk about stuff differently.”
Solomon might not have been able to run away from music, but he’s shaken off the worst of his own demons. And there’s nothing to stop the band’s momentum now.