Darren Jackson leads indie-rock duo Kid Dakota through the American psyche

Mark Baumgarten

The west is the future/It’s bright and metallic/The west is a fever/It’s hot and hypnotic/The west is a promise/The west is a new land/The west is an old lie/The west is a bad man

-Kid Dakota, “Atomic Pilgrim”


Sitting in his Dinkytown bedroom, Darren Jackson clicks through a series of photographs on director/photographer Wim Wenders’ Web site. The photos are all of American landscapes, filled with dusty broken-down homesteads, rusted out Volkswagen Beatles and abandoned drive-in movie theatres.

After a few more clicks, a list of song titles appear on the screen. These are all the songs Jackson has written for his local indie-rock duo Kid Dakota. And among all these songs are the 15-or-so Jackson and bandmate Christopher McGuire have recently been playing around the Twin Cities and are planning to record onto a full-length album in September.

Minutes earlier, Jackson played one of the songs, a dark and pounding anti-epic called “Pine Ridge,” on an acoustic guitar. The song tells the story of South Dakota reservation life, complete with incest and drinking binges fueled by government checks.

Like many Kid Dakota songs, “Pine Ridge” paints a picture of the refuse of the great Western dream, the abject characters that would live next to those discarded rusted out cars in Wenders’ photographs.

The full-length album that is planned will be the follow up to Kid Dakota’s debut EP So Pretty, which came out earlier this year. On the EP, Jackson proves himself the trumpeter of Western degradations, singing about personal landscapes filled with polluting smokestacks, drug-abusing friends and hillbilly coal miners.

But with his new material, Jackson uses his penchant for lyricism to explore territory that is a little bit unfamiliar.

“There’s sort of a theme that runs through all the new songs,” he says. “It’s kind of about the failure of the future, or the limits of technology.”

The album, Jackson assures, will be filled with less personal material, more narratives and more third person. But, if the duo’s recent live shows are any indication, that doesn’t mean the music will be any less intense or gripping.

At a late-July show in Duluth, Kid Dakota (sans McGuire) brought a noisy NorShor Theatre crowd to a low barroom din as Jackson paced his way through a melodrama of sound, complete with hanging chords and a sonic guitar that buzzed its way through beer bottles. The music, though, was only a template for Jackson’s sparse, honest lyricism with a heavy Midwestern flavor.

“I’m in Minnesota again for the winter/I didn’t come for ice fishin’/I didn’t come for duck huntin’/I’m not Scandinavian/Or in search of Paul Bunyan/I came for the taper” sang Jackson in his ode-to-Minnesota-treatment-centers, “10,000 Lakes.”

“I try to write suggestively, so it’s not all out in the open,” Jackson says. “You have to kind of use your imagination, make up the story behind it, or fill in the holes.”

This “filling in the holes” is where Jackson’s music gains it’s emotional edge. Instead of writing songs with lyrical melodrama, Jackson treats extremely emotional topics, like love, addiction and death (even the death of fishes), in a cold and stoic style. “In this way,” he says, “the song won’t do the feeling for you.”

This mix of a minimal lyrical style and experiential lyrical content is what makes Kid Dakota’s music at once accessible and applicable to us early-21st Century Westerners.

In a society that covets personal freedom but still carries a Judeo-Christian ethical undercurrent, Jackson proves himself a confidant to the great number of Americans who have been nickel-and-diming morality by way of infidelity, drug-abuse and greed – and, let’s face it, that’s a lot of us.

In “Two Fronts” Jackson sings, “Well you know out here on the prairie/Dreams are made of sod/And when those black clouds come a rollin’ in/They can turn your dreams to mud.”

The detached way in which Jackson delivers his stories doesn’t spread guilt, but rather recognizes that in search of the Western dream many of us have found more unconventional paths to follow.

“I hope (my music) is positive in that sense, that you can take your difficult experiences and turn them into something good,” says Jackson. “My mother and I always have these mini arguments. She says, ‘It’s so sad you had to go through all that stuff,’ and I say, ‘I got a lot of good songs out of it,’ and she says, ‘that’s not a good reason,’ and I say, ‘I’d never have it any other way.'”

Mark Baumgarten welcomes comments at [email protected]