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Joe Strell - Biography
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On this page: The Imports | ¡Ack-Ack! | Split Heavens | Sylvia Darling | Joe Solo

Joe Strell Wiffle Ball Pitch
Photo by Jack Lenzo.

A Brief Musical History of Joe Strell...

In his solo work, Joe Strell wields melody and metaphor to unveil the turbulent realms of human emotion, relationships, and existence. Composed with acoustic instruments including guitar, mandolin, and ukulele, his songs combine traditional technique with alternative sensibility to deliver a message with wit and sensitivity. The imagery of his lyrics strikes deep, complementing the cool depths of his musical seascape with personal revelation that evokes the universal.

Strell began his musical career in 1980 as songwriter and bassist for The Imports, a Chicago band named after their favorite section in the Wax Trax records bins, and wrought with the post-punk influences of PIL, Joy Division, Killing Joke and the Gang of Four. Coming decades before the international success of bands such as The Strokes and Interpol, The Imports thrilled local audiences with their dark minimalism, playing the intimate circuit of alternative dance clubs of the day including Ann Arkees, Tuts, Ruts, Waves, Gaspar's, Huey's, Jamie's Elsewhere, and the Lucky Number. The final lineup of the Imports consisted of Ben Krug (vocals), Tom Krug (guitar), Joe Strell (bass), and Tom Wall (drums). Previous drummers include Alec Dale and John Krug.

The Imports Single The Imports released a 7" single on Cirkle records consisting of the songs "side one" and "side two", which remains an obscure cult favorite and has gone through multiple printings. For their penultimate show on December 4th, 1980, they opened for The Jim Caroll Band at Sammie's in Minneapolis, a date they followed by headlining the next evening at the neighboring 7th Street Entry to an enthusiastic crowd of admirers. After sharing the night with friends from Chicago in a cramped (but warm) hotel room in downtown Minneapolis, The Imports found their separate ways home through the blinding snow of a Midwestern blizzard.

In the fall of 1981 Strell left Chicago for Champaign, Illinois, where he eventually joined up with the new wave / art rock band ¡Ack-Ack!, which released 7" and 12" singles and contributed to a number of cassette compilations on the small independent Office Records label.

Ack-Ack Another Face Ack-Ack Automatic

Playing out with ¡Ack-Ack! in local clubs several times a month over the course of a couple years, Strell became known for his melodic Rickenbacker bass lines and "beautiful space alien" hair styles (fortified, of course, with Aquanet Extra Super Hold--the coiffure equivalent of duct tape). The lineup for ¡Ack-Ack! varied over time, but the performances captured on vinyl consisted of Steve Shields (vocals), Lynn Canfield (keyboards), Henry Frayne (guitar), Joe Strell (bass), and Brendan Gamble (drums). Previous band members include Tim Stephens (guitar) and Brian Reedy (drums), who went on to form the power alternative trio Lonely Trailer. Brad Giampoli was also a member for a brief period just before the band's ultimate demise, replacing Henry Frayne on guitar.

Split Heavens

During this period, Strell built Dansbane Elandet Studios as an additional outlet for his creativity, and launched Split Heavens, which he would use as the primary vehicle for his solo and collaborative efforts over the next two decades. During this period while Strell lived in Champaign, Illinois, Split Heavens released the two cassette albums Stronger than the Rain and Hydraulic Angel Hymns on the independent label Office Records, as well as contributing covers of "She Said She Said" and "Girl from Ipanema" to the Office Records compilation release "Bigger than God". Both of these covers featured backing vocals by Megan McGinty, who also contributed two lead vocals to the tracks "Sordid Memory" and "A Separate Stance" on Split Heavens' debut release Stronger than the Rain.

Concurrent with his participation in ¡Ack-Ack! and work on Split Heavens, Strell also contributed his skills as bassist to recordings by The Arms of Someone New, Tim Stevens' solo project TX ST Mexico, and the dark alternative Club Crack. He also produced recordings for Club Crack at Willlie Wells Studio and Dansbane Elandet Studio, and engineered/produced several recordings at Dansbane Elandet Studio for Lonely Trailer that were later released on Mud Records.

When "¡Ack-Ack!" broke up in the winter of 1986, a victim of its own flack, bassist Strell and drummer Brendan Gamble combined their creativity in a studio project they called Sylvia Darling, culminating in the release of an album-length cassette entitled "Sand Dancing" on Office Records. This album was recorded at Dansbane Elandet's 8-track studio above Good and Plenty in downtown Champaign, Illinois. Sylvia Darling - Sand Dancing

Incidentally, while Strell and Gamble withdrew into the studio to work on Sylvia Darling, Lynn Canfield and Steve Shields continued their live act, forming "Judy Gang" with local musicians Mike Clayton, Steve Dent, and Bob Kimbell. The Judy Gang expired in September of 1987.

Moon Seven Times Strell and Gamble's highly prolific collaboration lasted until 1989, when Strell left Champaign to move to New York City in search of Polish diner's and taxicabs. Meanwhile, fellow "¡Ack-Ack!" alumni Henry Frayne, Lynn Canfield and Brendan Gamble formed "The Moon Seven Times", also known as M7X , whose debut CD release on Third Mind Records featured Joe Strell on bass, as well as a credit for "train sounds and glasses". These ambient recordings were made using a DAT recorder that Strell acquired through Jan Travers, president of Abalone Games Corporation in New York, who purchased the device (unavailable in the United States at the time) while on a 1990 business trip to Japan.

During his six years in New York, Strell released three albums on cassette under the moniker Split Heavens: Ancient Blue, Walking Towards You, and April Showers. The first two these albums were recorded with a 4-track studio set up in his various apartments in Astoria, Chelsea, and Greenwich Village, and mastered to DAT for cassette duplication. For April Showers, however, Strell took a different approach. Accompanying himself on a borrowed acoustic guitar, Strell recorded fifteen songs direct to DAT.

After leaving New York in May of 1995, Strell moved to San Francisco where he eventually re-established the "Dansbane Elandet" recording studio and record label.

In 2005, having successfully completed a lengthy project to digitize his vast personal musical archives, and having spent several years dabbling with MIDI composition with virtual instruments, Strell decided to return to the fundamentals of live sound and released Under a Mackerel Sky, a somber CD comprising thirteen acoustic tracks all written and performed by Joe Strell. He followed this release in December 2006 with the release of Enormous Morning, a less melancholy but still acoustic collection of original tracks that many have said represents his best work to date. His third solo album In the Balance was released in October 2007, which takes the listener on an intensely personal journey through the wilderness of love and the meaning of life.

Joe Strell
Photo by Jack Lenzo.

Joe Strell continues to live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is currently working on his next release to follow in a series of acoustic albums.

See the links page for additional information on the above-mentioned artists and links to their various projects. For other Dansbane Elandet releases featuring Joe Strell, see Split Heavens and Jake.

Click here to read a whirlwind history of the 1980s Champaign-Urbana music scene, written by Bill Johnson (formerly of Parasol Records).