Washington Avenue is a Minneapolis thoroughfare that runs parallel to the Mississippi River. Follow it northwest, past the city’s glassy skyline, and you’ll reach a socioeconomic crossroads where the trendy warehouse district and the hardscrabble streets of North Minneapolis begin to blend. In this stretch of no-man’s land sits Bunker’s, a working class dive bar that, twice a week, hosts one of the best drummers in the world.
It’s a perfect mid-June evening, and Michael Bland – sporting his signature overalls, thick-rimmed glasses, and spiked mohawk – is perched behind a fusion-sized set of black Yamahas that look like a toy kit relative to his mighty limbs. As he powers the ten-piece outfit known as Dr. Mambo’s Combo through Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” the wildly diverse, wall-to-wall Bunker’s crowd hypnotically slips into Bland’s crater-deep pocket. Well-dressed thirty-somethings and middle-aged couples crowd the dance floor; hipsters and off-duty musicians play the wall and bob their heads.
Bland is content cloning Paul Humphrey’s tasty groove, but every so often he unleashes a flurry of well-placed embellishments and cross-bar phrases that would make even Dennis Chambers rubberneck. Smiles flash on stage, and as the band slowly segues into a down-tempo doo-wop number, the audience approves with uproarious applause. It’s a special night for the the Combo; their Bunker’s residency has reached a quarter century. The Minneapolis institution has been packing ’em in every Monday night since 1987 (Sundays since 2007), and Bland has faithfully provided the pulse for most every gig, barring tour or studio commitments.
It may seem slightly odd that a dude boasting a mile-long resume of A-list pop stars and cred-heavy rockers still plays covers, but for Bland, Bunker’s is home – the humble venue in which he made his bones. Upon winning a “Best Drummer In The Twin Cities” contest at the tender age of 16, he began sitting in with The Combo, ultimately taking over the band’s much-coveted throne while still in high school. Bland mastered countless styles thanks to The Combo’s eclectic set lists, and he learned the ropes of stagecraft from the band’s top-notch personnel, many being upwards of 15 years his senior. Word of the teenage prodigy’s prowess spread quickly and Minneapolis royalty soon came knocking.
“The first time I played with Prince was at Bunker’s,” Bland recalls over sips of wild rice soup at a cozy St. Paul diner. “He’d just come off the Lovesexy tour in 1988 and he sat in with The Combo. It took a minute for me to realize I was being courted. I looked up and he was just staring at my hands.” Shortly thereafter, Bland’s presence was requested at Prince’s palatial estate, Paisley Park. “He was throwing a party for Bon Jovi, and Living Colour was playing. Then the Combo got up, with Prince on keys. There were probably only about 40 people in this huge room and we’re just jamming. After about ten minutes he looked over and asked, ’You looking for a job son?’ I was 19.”
Not a bad start. Bland’s legacy is forever intertwined with His Purpleness, thanks to his powerhouse performances on hits like “Cream,” “Gett Off,” and “Diamonds And Pearls,” but few reckon the immense scope of Bland’s post-Prince output. “Michael and I have probably cut a thousand songs together,” estimates John Fields, producer/bassist extraordinaire and Bland’s partner in crime on countless projects. “His encyclopedic pop knowledge is unmatched by any drummer I’ve ever met. We use shorthand – I can say, ’Stewart ride, Bun E. beat, Henley tones,’ and he just goes.”
Bland’s credits range from bubblegummers Mandy Moore and the Jonas Brothers, to legends David Crosby and Daryl Hall. He’s freaked the funk with Chaka Khan. He’s covered country with the Dixie Chicks. He’s shuffled blues with Johnny Lang. And he’s bashed with Minneapolis alt-rock forebears Paul Westerberg and Soul Asylum, the latter of which recently unveiled its return-to-form tenth album, Delayed Reaction (produced, naturally, by Fields). The barnburner of a record proves the perfect vehicle for Bland’s brute muscle – a characteristic with which he’s seldom associated due to his R&B rep.
“Growing up black in Minneapolis, you got a healthy dose of rock,” Bland explains. “That’s why Prince’s music is so diverse. That’s why I’m so versatile as a player. My first drum set when I was nine was a Gretsch; 24" kick, 14" rack, 18" floor. So I came up driving a big car. That’s the sound I got in my bloodstream. I wanted to sound like John Bonham – I wanted that depth. Some drummers bounce and glance. I play through. I got size-16 feet – I can’t tap dance”
When discussing Soul Asylum’s down-and-dirty writing process, Bland employs words like “hashfest” and “bloodbath.” Most of Delayed Reaction was penned in the band’s sweaty practice space and tracked close to home at Flowers studio in Minneapolis. A yet-to-be-released collection of “gnarly punk classics” was concurrently rehearsed and recorded at Bland’s urging, in hopes that it would help shake Soul Asylum out of its mid-tempo malaise. Prior 1992’s breakthrough Grave Dancer’s Union, the band’s sound was predicated on volume, speed, and power.
“[Delayed Reaction] is much more energetic than the last few records,” Bland asserts, “in large part because I told [front man Dave] Pirner, ’You dudes are a punk band – you need to get back to what made you want to do this in the first place!’” The high-octane tunes translate into brutal live sets, made even harder by Bland’s Soul Asylum—specific tuning. “I tune everything down so it sounds like ’Back In Black.’ Then I just suffer with the snare being like a cardboard box – no rebound. If it’s a few gigs in a row, I can acclimate. But the first few songs, my arms are on fire.”
Beyond Soul Asylum, Bland stays plenty busy collaborating with scores of artists in varying capacities (he’s a producer and music director as well). He’s also been “tap dancing back and forth” with Prince regarding renewed collaboration. And then there are The Combo’s weekly gigs at good ol’ Bunker’s, where the consummate pro stretches out a bit, but not too much. “My playing has always been aimed at the lowest common denominator,” Bland humbly states when discussing his all-about-the-music approach. “I’m not trying to intrigue or impress or confuse any drummers in the house. I’m just trying to keep the dance floor full.”