The brothers Cactus (AKA Page Burkum and Jack Torrey) have been harmonizing and strumming as The Cactus Blossoms for years now, but their first legitimate album was released earlier this year. “You’re Dreaming” brought the brothers out of Minneapolis and into venues across the country for the first time, including York’s Sign of the Wagon on Wednesday, July 27. We talked to Page at home (Jack was working on his car) about life on the road, the band’s appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion” and scrubbing the internet in advance of their new album.
Kevin Stairiker: Your song “Stoplight Kisses” gets a lot of play on the local radio stations, have you heard any reports of any traffic-related incidents because of it? I imagine there’s people out there kissing at stoplights, and the light changes and someone gets rear-ended.
Page Burkum: Haven’t heard of that stuff yet, but, when we see couples at our shows, I feel like we’re sort of helping out the guys a little bit. Hopefully some romance is happening. [Laughs]
KS: Now that “You’re Dreaming” has been out for roughly half a year, what sort of reactions have you been getting?
PB: See, we probably only hear the nice reactions.
KS: I guess that’s true, no one is coming up to you after the show just to say, “Hey, your album sucks.”
PB: Yeah, exactly. I think the best way for us to gauge reactions thus far is to play new cities and seeing if people are there to see us. So far, we’ve had a lot of really fun shows and it’s been good getting the full band on the road with us.
KS: “You’re Dreaming” is your proper debut album as the Cactus Blossoms, but you’ve been a band for five or six years at this point. Was that time spent sort of sculpting songs out or waiting for the right producer or something else entirely?
PB: That time, five or six years ago, is when we started the band in any fashion. That was kind of our first time playing shows in the Minneapolis area. We’ve recorded stuff in the past years that we released without a label, but there’s different versions of songs that we put out on the new record. Partially for clarity, when we put the new one out, we made the old ones harder to find.
KS: I was going to say, I tried finding those older versions online and couldn’t find them anywhere, so you did a good job.
PB: Well, yeah. It’s so hard to get rid of anything with the internet in existence. It’s not like we’re ashamed of any of those recordings, we just wanted the new thing to be easy to understand. It’s kind of our first official debut.
KS: You recorded the album mostly live. Was this new ground for you guys or is it the only way you know?
PB: The process was pretty similar to what we did before. We did most things live – especially the key components of songs – you know, the singing, drums, bass, acoustic guitar were all done live together. Sometimes, we’d play some really sparse live guitar and overdub more later. That worked pretty well, I mean, there were times where I wish we could overdub vocals, if you don’t like what you sang that day. I like the basic method of it. It creates a cohesive sound. Things start to sound sterile when everything’s done separately.
KS: Of course, there’s the old cliché about bands spending their whole lives working on their first album and then get a few months to pump out a second one. No pressure, but have you already started looking forward to what the next album is going to look like?
PB: You know, I’d love to tell you that we have a huge stack of new songs we’re sitting on patiently, but honestly, the last few years have been so busy for us that some of our leisure time for daydreaming and writing songs has gone away. I know we’ve had a few ideas here and there though, so I’m hoping for a change of pace eventually.
KS: Touring-wise, before the album was out, were you guys just playing in Minneapolis or had you already started to venture out to different states and areas?
PB: We were just booking ourselves back then. We definitely mostly stuck around Minneapolis, but every once in a while we’d get an offer to play at some festival far away and we’d play a few shows along the way. But we had never done any real touring around before.
KS: Now, I’ve never been to Minneapolis, so I have no real idea, but is there a country scene to speak of there? Or are you sort of outliers?
PB: I think the scene here is a little bit of everything. I wouldn’t tell people about some big country scene here, but there are definitely country bands here. There’s always been, like, every kind of band here. But I don’t think there’s one that dominates everything else. There’s an open-mindedness to music here, so people can find what they like.
KS: Are there any Minneapolis artists that you look up to? Past or presently active.
PB: Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s older guys who were pretty important in the folk scene in the ’60s that are here, like “Spider” John Koerner and Tony Glover. They were in that group that got to know Bob Dylan a little bit when he was passing through here, and there’s a ton of folks out here like that. As far as younger guys, I don’t know if I admire them, but I’m fans. [Laughs.]
KS: [Laughs] Peers then!
PB: Exactly. There’s another guy from here named Frankie Lee who is just coming on the scene nationally – we’ve played shows with him a bunch of times. There’s a lot of good people here.
KS: How did you and your brother get involved with ‘Prairie Home Companion?’
PB: There’s actually a good story behind that. Right when Jack and I started playing together, we were backing up a friend playing at the state fair. We find out the same day that there was a country duet competition happening at the festival, as well. We never entered competitions like that before, but since it was happening while we were there, we went ahead and entered it. We did end up winning, which was exciting by itself, but after we were done, someone from ‘Prairie Home Companion’ came up and asked if we’d like to be on their show that night, because they were doing a live broadcast. It was a fun experience and pretty frightening being thrown on the radio without knowing beforehand. That was our first national exposure. That was back in 2010 or 2011.
KS: And they invited you back, right?
PB: Yeah, that was our very first experience, and we’ve done it a bunch of times since then. Actually, we just played one of their last shows in St. Louis. Well, you know, not that the show is ending, but Garrison Keiller is leaving.
KS: I had a question about a particular song on the album I really love, “Change Your Ways or Die.” Is there one central concept to the song or is each verse its own cautionary tale?
PB: Well, I’ll tell you: I didn’t write that one, but I’ve heard Jack say that there’s a song about when you go too far – actually I think that’s the exact line, “When you go too far, you never come back” or something – I think that’s the basic idea. You can apply it to a lot of things. Sometimes, things are past the point of turning around.
KS: Well, you didn’t write that song particularly, but I know that you do write songs as well. Is it that Jack just writes more songs or are you less inclined to use the songs that you wrote?
PB: Yeah, I just haven’t written as much. My role has more been in how we play the songs together. Arrangements, harmonies and whatever ends up making it in the final sound. Hopefully…I was going to say hopefully I write more songs, but I don’t really care. [Laughs.] If they happen, they happen.
KS: Since the album’s come out in January and you’ve been touring new places, can you think of the best show you’ve played this year and why?
PB: It’s really hard to say, but one that stuck out as being really fun was playing in New York City earlier this year doing one of our own shows. We’ve had some shows where we opened up for other people and it was really fun, but what made it really fun was there was such a good crowd that night. It kind of amazes me when I’m in a place like New York City, that’s so big and has so much to offer, to have people come out and see us. That’s part of why I won’t forget it. We’ve had a lot of really fun shows, though. A lot of times when we’re coming into a new city, we have no idea if anyone will show up, or what they’ll be like. But it usually turns out to be a good time.
(The Cactus Blossoms will be playing a sold-out show at Sign of the Wagon on Wednesday, July 27)