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Hobo Nephew salutes Zeppelin on new solo release

Ian Thomas Alexy of the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank and Broken Billy recently released his second solo disc, "Are You Listening," which was inspired in part by one of his favorite albums, "Led Zeppelin III." Image courtesy Joshua Priestly

Ian Thomas Alexy and his brother Teague became so entrenched in the local music scene during the last decade that it's easy to forget that neither of them grew up here. The siblings, who form the core of local favorites the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, actually grew up out east in Somers Point, N.J., about five minutes outside of Atlantic City.

Ian told the Budgeteer that it's a working-class town that survives on summer tourism and the nearby casinos.

"Compared to Minnesota, I'd say it's a pretty rough place," he continued. "Teague and I both had to fight our way through elementary school -- literally. You couldn't make it through school there without getting into at least a couple scrapes."

Despite this upbringing, one Hobo Nephews critic had the gall to refer to the group as "trust-fund kids from Minneapolis posing as hobos." Although only a sliver of that statement is true (Ian does, in fact, live in the Cities now), Ian just thought it was funny.

"We used to beat those kids up," he joked. "But, by the time I got into high school, I figured out how to avoid fights, and focus on being a creative person."

Ian said he started writing his own songs as early as 13 -- perhaps a direct result of his parents' artistic leanings.

"My mom played guitar from the time she was a teenager," he said. "She was never a performer, but she stuck with playing through my childhood.

"She used to practice in the kitchen. I can remember the sound of it very vividly. The kitchen had a linoleum floor that the sound would echo off a little."

And the Alexy brothers' father? He was an expressive oil painter.

"He would always have giant 6-by-8-foot canvasses in the living room, often displaying some sort of nudity or violence," Ian recalled. "Not in a perverse way. It wasn't like shock-value crap. There was a lot of depth. He really loves Picasso and has an amazing sense of colors."

Not only was the head of the household a visual artist, but he also had an eclectic record collection.

"He was really into all kinds of music and would always listen while he painted," Ian said, mentioning that his father introduced him to most of his favorite music -- from Neil Young and Miles Davis all the way down to Tom Waits and Robert Johnson. "He never liked the obvious stuff, like Led Zeppelin, or the Grateful Dead. He was into Jimmy Cliff, but not Bob Marley.

"He was sort of what they would call a hipster today. He introduced me to Jane's Addiction. He was 45 and I was 15. That is just odd."

Before he started embracing his father's taste in music, however, a 13-year-old Ian liked things a little harder.

"I was really into Metallica, so the songs I was [first] writing were about death and destruction," he joked. "James Hetfield was probably the first songwriter I tried to emulate."

By about the time he was learning to drive, however, Ian's taste gravitated toward stuff a little more acceptable to his father. Two of his prized possessions were Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and Neil Young's "Decade," both on vinyl.

"To this day, that is still the most music -- or anything, for that matter -- has ever affected me," he surmised. "Just hearing that music, those words and the sound of those records at that age ... I am always trying to get back to that feeling.

"... In the early '90s they made stereos that had a dual-cassette player, a CD player and a turntable on top. So I could listen to all my parents' records along with the music I bought on CD. That was so cool! Who needs the Internet?"

The next big step in the evolution of Ian's sound came during college. The future Hobo Nephew said he wrote a lot of his debut solo album, "Rootedness," while attending Goddard College in Vermont.

"I went to Ghana during my junior year and studied highlife guitar music," he said. "Most of the fingerpicking stuff on 'Rootedness' came directly from my Africa experience.

"I am not sure how to play most of it anymore. I will have to sit down one day and figure out how to play those songs. [Laughs]"

After college, in the early 2000s, Ian was living in Burlington, Vt., and putting the finishing touches on "Rootedness."

"[I was] just starting to receive some attention as a singer/songwriter," he recalled. "The newspaper printed a full-page story of me with a gigantic picture."

It was at this time, however, that Ian decided to relocate to the Northland to be closer to his brother Teague, who had set up camp here a few years earlier.

"I ended up moving to Duluth (in 2003) and releasing it here, which definitely hurt the sales of it," Ian said. "It was never really made available to the people in Vermont. And that was the audience for that record.

"I never felt like the people in Duluth understood 'Rootedness.' Understandably, it is a very strange world-music-via-Vermont kind of thing.

"I think people in Duluth were expecting me to sound more like Teague's music."

Ian quickly found a way to give the people what they wanted, as it were: He soon joined forces with his brother and, in 2006, the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank's self-titled debut hit record store shelves.

"The thing with Teague and I is we have a lot of fun together; that is probably why the Hobo Nephews exist," said Ian, explaining that he and Teague both consider themselves solo artists. "Another reason the Hobo Nephews exist is there has always been a positive response to it.

People get excited, pretty much across the board."

And Ian said the Hobo Nephews perform for audiences of all colors and leanings.

"We played in Chico, Calif., three weeks ago to an entirely punk-rock audience," he said, explaining that the group's booking agency handles a lot of punk rock and psychobilly shows. "... Everybody looked at us funny when we stepped on stage -- like 'Who the hell are these hippies?' -- but we opened with a Woody Guthrie song and everybody started dancing."

In addition to his solo output ("Rootedness" and the just-released EP "Are You Listening") and Hobo Nephews work (the group now has three full-length releases, an EP and a DVD documentary under its belt), Ian also has another outlet in his rock-leaning outfit Broken Billy. That group's self-titled album was released the same year as the Hobo Nephews debut.

That said, Ian hinted that it's getting harder and harder to divvy up his material between the three distinct properties.

"The genres are bleeding together," he admitted. "I usually write songs in spurts. If I get a sound in my head, I will write three or four songs in that vein, over a period of like two weeks, and then I will move on to something else."

For example, Ian said he wrote all but one of his songs for the Hobo Nephews' latest album, "Traveling Show," in the same week.

In a similar manner, a large chunk of the new, "Led Zeppelin III"-inspired "Are You Listening" EP stems from a debilitating winter he had two years ago. (Sick first with the flu and then with a cold, Ian said he spent nearly an entire month in his bedroom.)

"My mom had just mailed me a box of stuff from the attic that she wanted to get rid of," he said. "It had a bunch of my old books and video tapes, including a giant two-book set of Led Zeppelin sheet music. It had really detailed transcriptions, and showed all of the guitar tunings Jimmy Page used. So when I felt well enough I would get out of bed and play some of these Zeppelin tunes."

Tired of playing "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" -- but too lazy to re-tune his guitar -- Ian started writing songs in open-C and open-G.

"So, once I had a group of songs, I got the idea to make a record that would follow some of the dynamics and harmony of 'Led Zeppelin III,'" he explained. "The songs just ended up that way because of the guitar tunings. It wasn't a lot of work or anything."

That particular Zeppelin album inspired four songs: "Apocalypse Blues" was used on the Hobo Nephews EP "One for the Time Capsule," but the other three, "A Little Bit Further Back," "You Better Pray" and "Not with Words," all appear on "Are You Listening."

"'Led Zeppelin III' is one of my favorite records," said Ian, who mentioned that he used to listen to it on his cassette Walkman while walking across Somers Point to his guitar lessons. "I know it has been mentioned a lot lately, and Robert Plant's new record is inspired by it -- although his new record sounds more like 'The Great Destroyer' to me, which is my favorite Low record." (Coincidentally, the Zeppelin frontman's solo disc that Ian referenced, "Band of Joy," features two Low covers, "Monkey" and "Silver Rider" -- both of which originally appeared on "The Great Destroyer.")

Outside of music, Ian has always expressed an interest in film.

"My first 'job' ever was vacuuming the floor in a video store at night in exchange for a free rental," he said. "This was before Blockbuster. It was a privately owned video store and the owner gave me the job because I rented so much. I have seen every James Bond film, every Clint Eastwood Western and every film in a genre I like to call 'Going back to 'Nam to settle the score.'"

He's not just a fan of the medium, however.

He and Teague both contributed footage to the Hobo Nephews film, "Moments and Truths," and Ian recently completed the first draft of his screenplay --and, not surprisingly, he's already written the soundtrack for it.

"It is a music film about my own experiences," he explained. "I got the idea for it while watching the Willie Nelson movie 'Honeysuckle Rose.' Hopefully I will be able to get it made someday. For now I am going to withhold any info -- such as the title -- although I will say that I wrote a lot of it at Beaner's, where I am having [the 'Are You Listening'] CD release show."


Ian Thomas Alexy will play a CD release show for the EP "Are You Listening" at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11, at Beaner's Central. Caitlin Robertson opens. Cost is $7. Details can be found online at