September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Jammin' Ben

Schirmers practices for band gigs in dairy barn
Ben Schirmers plays guitar and sings with the band, Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets. He has been with the band since it started in 2003. Schirmers farms with his brothers, Tim and Dave, near Sauk Centre, Minn.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY JENNIFER BURGGRAFF
Ben Schirmers plays guitar and sings with the band, Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets. He has been with the band since it started in 2003. Schirmers farms with his brothers, Tim and Dave, near Sauk Centre, Minn.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY JENNIFER BURGGRAFF

By By Jennifer Burggraff- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. - When Ben Schirmers wants to practice playing guitar, he doesn't venture far from the double-12 parlor where he milks 110 cows for his brothers, Tim and Dave Schirmers, near Sauk Centre, Minn. He simply steps into the farm utility room, picks up his six-string and plays.
"It's not the best acoustics with all that tin," Schirmers said with a smile, "but it's not about the acoustics, it's about getting ready."
Schirmers grew up on his family's dairy farm across the road from the barn his brothers have been dairying in since 2003. For the last nine years, he's also been a member of Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets, a band based out of Sauk Centre. The band includes Schirmers, who plays guitar and sings, Dana Robinson, who plays bass guitar and sings, and Jeff Marthaler, who plays the drums. A fourth member, Andy "Dude" Christen, plays harmonica - or the "blues harp" - when he is able.
Since forming in 2003, the utility room in the Schirmers' dairy barn has become the practice site of choice for Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets, and for Schirmers himself.
"This was something that worked," Schirmers said. "We have all the power we need, it's private, and we don't have to worry about having to turn down the noise. It's more of a convenience thing."
The cows certainly don't seem to mind the music as they listen from the freestall barn.
"I claimed the space right away," Schirmers said of the, then, fairly empty utility room.
Today, the room houses all things typically found in a utility room, as well as equipment for Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets, including an old drum set, a guitar and some sound equipment. As the environment in the utility room is not the best for instruments, Schirmers said they keep the beat up stuff in there and save their good equipment for performances.
How often Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets practice is dependent on when they have a gig.
"In the early days, we practiced a lot," Schirmers said. "Last year we hardly practiced because we were playing so often. Now, [we practice] maybe once a month to learn new songs."
It's not uncommon, however, for Schirmers to pick up his guitar and practice playing and singing a few things by himself in between farm work.
Schirmers has been playing guitar since 1992, when he was just 11 years old.
"My sister had an old guitar in the house and I was fascinated with it," he said. "I never could understand how to make sense of it until I figured out that ... first, you have to have all the strings on it and then you have to tune it."
He began taking lessons in Osakis, Minn., from a man named Mel Lamar.
"He was a good guitar teacher. Everybody I graduated with took lessons from him," Schirmers said. "He would teach you what you wanted to learn."
For Schirmers, that included country music and the Beatles.
He took lessons for two years and lost interest, only to pick the guitar back up when he was in junior high to take two more years of lessons from Greg Buren. To this day, he continues to go to Buren for an occasional lesson.
"To learn some songs that are pretty difficult, I go to him," he said. "If I can see someone do it, I can usually do it."
Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets formed when Schirmers, Robinson and Marthaler began playing together in local Battle of the Bands competitions in 2003. When their name became recognized as a local band, they looked at what it would take to play in bars and at events.
"Sixty songs was the key," Schirmers said. "Jeff said we would need at least 60 songs to play from 9 [p.m.] to 1 [a.m.]."
Working up to fluently playing 60 songs meant a lot of trial and error, and a lot of practice time in the utility room. It also meant trying a variety of songs.
"We are pretty much a variety [band], from Merle Haggard to Nirvana and anything in between," Schirmers said. "Jeff pushed the regular bar band songs - 867-5309, Sweet Caroline. He picked things that always work. Dana and I picked whatever we wanted to play or thought we could get away with singing."
In all, Schirmers said the band has tried in excess of 300 songs over the years, with between 75 and 100 in their current repertoire.
Since competing in Battle of the Bands, Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets has played at everything from weddings to street dances, at private parties and in bars.
"Big street dances are the best by far," Schirmers said.
Last year, he said, they were booked nearly every weekend year-round. This year, they cut back to a couple times a month - a pace that keeps playing fun and fresh for the band members.
As far as working band events into his dairy farming schedule, Schirmers said they practice when they can, in between things. They also keep events within a half-hour drive from Sauk Centre. This typically allows Schirmers to finish milking - a task he does with Tim - before heading out. On the farm, Schirmers also helps with odds and ends field work, like picking rock and chopping stalks, on the 700 acres of owned and rented land they run.
While it takes some effort and time on his part, Schirmers thoroughly enjoys playing guitar and singing with Dana Robinson and the Bottle Rockets. He's also enjoyed teaching Tim and Dave's children a thing or two on the drum set and guitar in the farm utility room.
"They're even getting kind of good," he said, smiling.
"It's a fun hobby," Schirmers said of playing in a band. "... and it's always good to walk out of a bar with more money than you came with."
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