Milwaukee has an eclectic musical history from Woody Herman, through Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Al Jarreau, Steve Miller, the Violent Femmes and Die Kreuzen, among other notables. (Les Paul and the BoDeans are from Waukesha, fifteen miles to the west.) And, of course, you can’t talk music in Miltown without mentioning The Frogs, formed in 1980 by brothers Jimmy and Dennis Flemion, a pre-lo-fi, fearless quasi-noise-rock combo that became underground legends on a par with Daniel Johnston, and along the way influenced Kurt Cobain and about a thousand degenerate art-rock bands; Billy Corgan invited them to open for Smashing Pumpkins in ’93-‘94. (They wrote some really great, sometimes partially improvised, timeless outsider anthems that they called “made-up songs.” Their ’96 Matador album, My Daughter the Broad, is a good placed to start.)
The net has always been cast far and wide here: Couch Flambeau, Einstein’s Riceboys, Plasticland, The Gufs, Test Pilot, Little Blue Crunchy Things, Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s Kevn Kinney, Citizen King, Paul Cebar, Temper Temper, Decibully, Eric Benet, Maritime, Since By Man, Pele, Black Elephant, Snopek, and, presently, Celebrated Workingman, Altos, Lorn, Field Report, The Championship, Painted Caves, and let’s not forget whiz kids Call Me Lightning and Jaill, and world-class DJ, and all- around nice chap, Kid Cut Up. And that’s just scratching the obvious surface.
There’s the long and colorful heavy metal history. Milwaukee hosts one of the great metal fests (Milwaukee Metal Fest, a very utilitarian, working-class name). And, for the record, Konniption is the most original thrash band in Milwaukee right now. There’s also a well-heeled underground hip-hop scene that is, without question, one of the city’s hidden artistic gems. There’s the meta-hip-hop of Black Elephant, who exist in their own world, and streetwise hard-timers the Rusty Ps and King Hell Bastard, along with national act Coo Coo Cal, Tank, Brew City Ballas, Prophetic, Juiceboxxx and others. The insular electronic scene here is currently enjoying its dub-step moment (although that may be winding down now), and the folks who frequent the dub-step shows and dance-music parties don’t ever really turn up at rock shows in significant numbers, so they’re moot for the sake of this discussion.
The city of Milwaukee is widely considered to be one of the most racially segregated in the U.S., and its musical identity is likewise subdivided into numerous independent sub-sets. The punk/noise-rock kids are separated from the metal kids. The indie rock/college radio kids are separated from the industrial/ electronic/dance-music kids. The jazz fans and blues fans are completely alienated from everyone else. There is little or no connection among any of these groups, other than the amorphous human connection of some friends and colleagues.
At metal shows you see an entirely different crowd than at punk shows, and moreover, you almost never see bands from the various camps playing together. The idea of a thrash band and a post-punk band sharing a bill is such an alien concept to some people that when it does happen worlds often collide, and there results a kind of animosity between the various parties. There’s little coherence to the greater musical landscape, to the point that few mainstream music fans are exposed to any of the numerous brilliant original bands/artists in their own backyard. There’s already a lot of competition for their dinero at the mid-/high-end venues where national acts perform almost every night of the week. The smaller venues mostly exist in a parallel universe, like anywhere else. That’s where this story begins…
Sat. Nite Duets is one of the most compelling and outré bands in the ultra-diverse Milwaukee new music scene, and they’re on their way to becoming one of the best indie rock bands in the Midwest. (Their name is an anagram for “United States.”) But, I say that with some trepidation, because Milwaukee is such a dicey proposition, musically and otherwise, and survival often means laboring to find a niche and then sticking with it for a very long time despite the limited returns. That model is almost taken to an extreme here. How a band like Sat. Nite Duets finds their place in the community, and how they survive, is the thing that often gets overlooked.
When Milwaukee’s premier independent news/arts tabloid, The Shepherd Express, did not include them in their year-end list of Essential Milwaukee Albums of 2012, a troubling oversight, I sprung into action and decided to compose a piece that helps to off-set that mistake. And it should be noted that The Onion A.V Club did include their April 14 show at Club Garibaldi on their “Top Milwaukee Shows of 2012” list. An impressive appearance, since The Onion boasts some high-minded music standards.
Sat. Nite Duets are kind of a post-everything band (post-punk, college rock, grunge, etc.) where musical categorization is concerned, partly due to their chronological appearance in the midst of the mash-up culture of the last 10-15 years, but, also largely due to their musical adventurousness. But there is, however, one particular iconic/iconoclastic band they’re closely aligned with in a sonic sense, and while I hear shades of copious other bands in their songs, from lo-fi post-punk bits and pieces to intellectually overwrought, prankster geek rock, they’re actually not ripping anybody off, amazingly. The band they most resemble, in general, is Pavement, but they’re not a Pavement clone, either, like a few bands I could name.
Right from the git-go I sensed an irreverent, smarty-pants, weirdo, ahead-of-the-curve, shambling, low-rent, early 90s college rock vibe. Everything they do is almost fully digested, and they appear to be an example of 20-something musicians who are real music-heads, the kind of people who collect music and who also play music, the kind of musicians who actually listen to other people’s music. It’s been said there’s something wrong with musicians who don’t like music, or who avoid hearing other people’s music because they think it dulls their sensibilities. It’s usually the case that the more you hear, and take in, the more open and expansive your world becomes, or, at least, we can hope.
I talked with SND’s drummer, Joe Guszkowski, at the Fuel Café in Riverwest, about music and Milwaukee, and when I posed the question about the division and segregation, he matter-of-factly stated that SND have “…every kind of friend…” in their circle. He says, “It’s not really cliquey at all…,” at which I was a tad surprised. He continues: “I would never blame someone for that…” (Not seeking out music off the beaten path.) “…Some people aren’t as adventurous.” Great attitude, but it points to one of the frustrating aspects of playing original music of any kind. How do you get people who have never heard your band to come out and see your band play?
Sat. Nite Duets took shape when the members were eighth graders. Their playing, and their general interest in music, was informed by similar influences, according to Joe. He says they were listening to a lot of Drag City bands, and then he mentions the Silver Jews and Pavement, specifically Pavement’s 1995 breakthrough album, Wowee Zowee. When I mention the sonic similarities to Pavement on a few songs from their 2012 album, Summer Of Punishment he, shrewdly, refers to that as a “happy accident.” Intriguingly, he also includes Springsteen’s Born To Run and Squeeze’s Singles 45s and Under as important touchstones for them.
Initially, they took what Joe calls “a relaxed approach” to signing with a label. Following their sophomore year in high school they began working on songs that were the basis for, and would end up on, their 2010 six-song 10” EP. In 2010 and 2011 they wrote the songs that would become Summer of Punishment. (They recorded the album at vocalist/guitarist Ben Gucciardi’s house, and released 300 LPs and 100 CDs.) They were looking to sign with someone, eventually, but it happened faster than expected when the guys from the NYC label Uninhabitable Mansions, also members of Radical Dads, saw them perform and approached them about joining the U.M. family. They had played about 25 self- booked shows at that point. The word, “prodigious,” comes to mind.
At certain points you can pick up on a collective connection to Pavement that may even be sub- conscious for each of them. “Of Age,” for example, is quite Pavement-esque in terms of the vocal arrangement and the meandering melody line, and the conversational vocalizing of singer Stephen Strupp will certainly remind some of Mr. Malkmus, but the song has its own weird flow, as does everything they do; the guitar solo is killer. They have a good collective ear for the tune underneath the din, whatever that din might be. “Didn’t You Love Me, Baby?” (a great title) breaks free and launches itself all the way back to the 60s, while also sharing some sonic space with the uber-brilliant 90s band Sebadoh. And “Genghis Khan” (maybe the best song on the album) has a dynamite guitar hook, and some excellent noisy guitar flourishes, and Joe’s vocals work very well with the oblique lyrics. The song is an abstract masterwork, and the album is a towering achievement for the first full-length effort by such a youthful band. It is evident these guys have been absorbing music into their beings since they were very young, and they have reached a level of accomplishment in their songwriting that belies their ages. That bodes well. They released what is certainly among the most enjoyable albums by any Milwaukee band in 2012, and if I had done a “year-end best-of list” it likely would have risen into my top ten.
When I inquire about SND’s plans for the future Joe’s low-key response is much like his description of their relaxed approach to getting a record deal. He says the band would like to, at some point, sign with a bigger label and, perhaps, move to another city. However it happens for them, it’s clear that Summer Of Punishment has definitely garnered some deserved attention. They may eventually depart our dirty old town and go on to bigger things, but something tells me nothing can completely alter that Miltown DNA. It’s in them, and it’s got to come out. When I ask Joe what he’s been listening to lately he mentions Baltimore indie rock duo Wye Oak, and then he says, “The Frogs…” Good answer. He follows up with something about how Kurt Cobain was a champion of their cause. “Yes!,” I retort enthusiastically. It’s clear he also knows some history. Keep making us proud, fellas.