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Where are they now?: Freedom to Free Energy

Flash back to 1996. The Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis Morissette, Oasis, Mariah Carey, Metallica, Bush and Coolio ruled Billboard charts, and British pop group the Spice Girls released its first hit song "Wannabe."

Meanwhile Red Wing High School senior Scott Wells, junior Paul Sprangers and eighth-grader Evan Wells were separately discovering, consuming and developing their own taste of music.

Come back to present day and you'll find the three guys -- now unified -- are borderline rockstar status and perhaps the most successful Indie-pop band members ever to have grown up and out of town.

They call themselves Free Energy. Named after a guitar riff Scott Wells created, the group includes Sprangers on lead vocals, Scott Wells on lead guitar, brother Evan Wells on bass, Nicholas Shuminsky on drums and Sheridan Fox on guitar. They are currently based out of Philadelphia.

2010 served as a major breakout year for the band. After releasing the inaugural album "Stuck on Nothing," Free Energy was catapulted into the spotlight - from performing on "Late Show with David Letterman" to being named one of the best bands of 2010 by Rolling Stone magazine.

The journey, however, was not to overnight success. An incredible love for music began back at an early age.

"I guess probably it was the most important thing for me," Scott Wells said.

"I was obsessed, completely obsessed, with music," Sprangers recalls of his high school years, "I would listen to music every chance I had -- before school, in the car, wherever. My family was very musical. My dad always listened to cool stuff -- the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, the Doors, the Beatles, Dylan. So I inherited his music and tastes early on. He and my mom were always singing. So it was just part of my DNA. I wrote songs on the family piano from as early as I can remember."

After high school, he went to college and began to record demos of music he and Scott had earlier penned on the side. Sprangers then passed along those samples to a friend of Scott's - a student at Carleton College in Northfield, with ties to recording studio Sunny Electric.

From there, the band Hockey Night was formed. During the height of the emo-rock band's existence, Sprangers recalled first hearing their music broadcast over a Twin Cities radio station.

"It was surreal," he said.

The band eventually split up, but Scott and Sprangers stuck together, kept writing music and were eventually signed to the New York City powerhouse DFA Records based on their homemade demos.

After signing and spending a year writing and demoing, they moved to New York City to record with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem - and Free Energy was born.

"For some reason, DFA was the only label that really understood us," Sprangers said. "They got what we were trying to do and could hear potential in our demos. We learned so much from their philosophy, and continue to apply it to this day--it was a true education."

As the record neared completion, the whole band moved to Philadelphia and released the 2010 album "Stuck on Nothing."

They toured relentlessly with other musicians, including Mates of State, Titus Andronicus, Hollerado, Foreign Born and the Postelles.

Free Energy even opened for Weezer during the iconic band's Memories tour and performed on the Weezer Cruise in January 2012.

Just this year, Free Energy members released their second album, "Love Sign," on their own record label with producer John Agnello. They describe the experience with DFL Records as a dream come true, but felt like it was a good time to push forward.

They found that Agnello's work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and the Hold Steady made him a good fit for the band, but it was his formative work in the 1980s with the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Hooters and Bruce Springsteen that sealed the deal.

"He really produced," Scott Wells said. "He came to band practices in Philly. He helped us shape the songs and get the sounds that we needed. He helped us get more clean, digital drum sounds like the Outfield used, which was a priority for us. We wanted to make the biggest, brightest rock songs we could."

Their sound is not local - it is much bigger than that. From power fist-pumping ballads to songs about love, truth, and the journey within - Free Energy continues to create what Sprangers defines as "almost his calling."

"My life is a perpetual education and I love it," he added. "My life is a dream."

He now lives in Los Angeles, but still makes it back to town on occasion. For him, Red Wing means freedom.

"It's kind of like a place I was able to run wild and explore - in a really safe environment," he said. "I remember running in the woods in my back yard, going to see the river - or would bang out melodies on the piano."

The boys and their band will be in town Thursday and Friday, performing as Free Energy for the very first time in Red Wing.

"We were really stoked when we got booked at Central Park and Harbor Bar because they were our stomping grounds. We took the opportunity to come back and present our music in the placed that encouraged it," Sprangers said.

If you go ...

What: Indie-pop rock group Free Energy

Events: 8 p.m. Thursday June 20 at Central Park Band Shell

10 p.m. Friday June 21 at Harbor Bar

More info:

Stacy Bengs-Silverberg

Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.

(651) 301-7880