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Dan Wilson is laughing. He's chuckling from a pay telephone on the concourse of a shopping mall in Minneapolis. The background tinkling of a holiday bell-ringer accents Wilson's conversation over the long-distance line.

Dan Wilson's happy because he's recalling the time when his band, Trip Shakespeare, was deemed the absolute worst act in the Twin Cities by virtually every major player in the local press. One newspaper even had Trip Shakespeare positioned prominently on a separate readers' poll listing the worst American bands of all time.

"We were third on that one," Wilson says with an audible smirk. "Just behind New Kids on the Block and the Monkees."

Wilson says the criticism used to hurt. He says it wasn't a lot of fun trying to explain to his grandmother why the press kept calling him a "pretentious fool." But Wilson's over it now. So's his grandma. Just one year later the same newspapers are currently cheering Trip Shakespeare as the absolute best band in town.

"Yeah, we're the tops right now," Wilson chortles. "All of a sudden we're the culmination of Minneapolis' `pop underground.'" Such is life for a band with a goofy name and an even goofier sound. Wilson says the name was an unprovoked inspiration. The sound, though, is obviously calculated; so much so that Trip Shakespeare's overall effect often prances far beyond the bounds of bombast. On the plus side, the band's vocal histrionics and convoluted pop patterns suggest the definition of "quirky" before new wave came along. Think, say, 10cc circa 1975. But just as often, the group's adventuresome originality stumbles over itself in pursuit of grandiose arrangements and needless frills. Just like, say, 10cc circa 1975.

From any angle, it's an approach that makes for a quick-dried initial impression. "I realized on our last tour that by the end of our shows people are either excited and up front at the stage or they're long gone out the door," Wilson says. "It can be a very decisive reaction."

Trip Shakespeare's roster is made up of Wilson and brother Matt Wilson, both on keyboards and guitars, along with bassist John Munson and drummer-percussionist Elaine Harris. The three men trade off on lead vocals. The band's first recorded testing of the waters came in 1986 with the independently released Applehead Man. Trip Shakespeare was just a trio at the time. Dan was living in San Francisco where, he says, "I was a painter, living the life of an artist." He pauses. "In other words, I was working all day as a carpenter." Wilson says brother Matt sent him a copy of Applehead Man, along with an offer to return home and join the fledgling band. Wilson agreed to sign on and in the next four years Trip Shakespeare spit out three LPs, starting with another indie effort, Are You Shakespearienced?. That album helped Trip Shakespeare land a major-label deal with A&M, which subsequently released 1990's Across the Universe and the band's latest LP, Lulu.

Wilson becomes noticeably upbeat when talking about Lulu. The album was recorded, by choice, in a live studio setting with everything--instruments, amps, mics--crammed into one room. Wilson says finding a producer willing to work under such conditions was difficult. But the band was determined to go with the more primitive setup. The goal was to get what Wilson calls "a kind of whole band feel" that was missing on Across the Universe, which was engineered by former Material drummer and Lou Reed sideman Fred Maher.

Wilson says Maher was a relatively conservative producer with more traditional recording methods. "You know," says Wilson, "do the drums Monday, the guitars Tuesday; the piano's in another studio and that's scheduled for the weekend. You do all this layering and by the time you're done, you're miles away from a live performance." Wilson adds that the band's relationship with Maher suffered in other ways, too. "He had always worked with individuals and never really produced with a band as a whole. We make all our decisions as a band--as a group--and I think it was all kind of weird for him."

Thus, the Shakespeareans were intent on a different direction for their next LP. The band insisted that the record be recorded live, either in studio or on stage. Wilson says a number of engineers and producers were considered for the project. But only one, Justin Niebank, seemed excited about the game plan.

"To him, the live setup was completely normal," Wilson says of Niebank, whose production credits (Blues Traveler, Jason and the Scorchers) include extensive experience working with old-time blues musicians, all of whom recorded live and direct with little thought of overdubs.

"We especially wanted to get a piano into the studio with the other instruments," Wilson continues. "Justin kind of looked at us and said that was the only way he knew how to record a piano. We knew we had the right guy."

The next step was to find a studio. Wilson says the band was interested in using a recording house tucked away in the woods 50 miles south of Minneapolis. The band liked the idea of the remote location and proceeded to sell A&M on using the little-known facility. "We were one of the first to record there," says Wilson. "So the record company was concerned about the equipment, if it checked out. We told them, `Sure, sure, nothing to worry about.'" Wilson's giggling again. He's laughing because he's recalling the many bugaboos that indeed hampered the isolated studio. Like the time an eager engineer was poking around in the control room. "We could see him in there with this screwdriver," Wilson recalls, "and all of a sudden there's this big explosion of sparks and the guy's thrown clear across the room. All this while we're out in the studio trying to record."

Everyone survived, including Lulu, which was released a few months ago to generally favorable reviews. A lot of critical attention, both positive and otherwise, seems to be focusing on the album's liberal use of retro-pop tendencies from the Sixties and Seventies. And while Beach Boys harmonies are evident in spots--along with John Munson's uncanny knack for singing like John Cale at the low end and Cream's Jack Bruce up high--Wilson claims that Trip Shakespeare is not into the "ironic, winking" sort of flashbacks of a Redd Kross or Jellyfish.

"If older songs get to you when you're young enough, then there's nothing you can do about their influence," Wilson says. "But to me, there's nothing more tiresome than playing `Name That Quotation.' I don't go to see bands just so I can elbow my friends and say things like, `That's a song from Strawberry Squeezebox in 1971.' We're not into that kind of game."

Indeed, the game these days for Trip Shakespeare is to flush out future fans. Wilson says the band can claim a loyal following back home in the Midwest--but then, aren't those the same people who gleefully trashed the Tripsters just a year ago?

"It's impossible to figure out what people think," answers Wilson. "We recently had this great show in Chicago--I mean, it was so good it was almost scary, like you're up there and you don't know what's going to happen next. Great show, really exciting. Afterwards I talked to someone who said she liked us better back when we were more spontaneous." Wilson lets out a laugh. "More spontaneous? That was the most spontaneous show we'd ever done. There's no way you can figure out that kind of thing."

Trip Shakespeare will perform at the Sun Club on Saturday, December 14. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Dan Wilson says it wasn't a lot of fun trying to explain to his grandmother why the press kept calling him a "pretentious fool." Trip Shakespeare's overall effect often prances far beyond the bounds of bombast.

"I don't go to see bands just so I can elbow my friends and say things like, `That's a song from Strawberry Squeezebox in 1971.'

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Ted Simons