Smokin’ Music Without the Mirrors

Photo of The Celebrated Workingman by Erin Landry
Interview by Erin Wolf

Sometimes, the best things are underneath one’s nose, and these best things often remain in unrealized appreciation until someone…anyone…points out their existence.

Local music is just one of those ‘best things’. The countless musicians and bands who write, practice and play in Milwaukee often remain unnoticed, save for pockets of devoted friends and fans who faithfully support their best-kept secrets, while the rest of the city remains in a state of slight and innocent oblivion.

The latest issue of VITAL Source Magazine helps bring to light some of the musicians, bands, and industry artists and operators that might be right under your nose. VITAL Source’s Managing Editor Amy Elliott and issue guest Editor DJ Hostettler talk to Fan-belt about tapping on Milwaukee’s shoulder, pointing out local musical gems and throwing an outrageous finale party to give the city a unique, 3D learning experience…
Every year Vital Source does a music issue — what made 2008’s music issue unique from past years’?

Amy Elliott: This is VITAL’s fourth annual music issue, and for the second consecutive year, we decided to keep it one hundred percent local. Last year, that kind of happened by accident; when a couple of national interviews fell through, we took a good, hard look at our local features, and the more rocks we turned over, the more little music-shaped salamanders we started to find…that sounds bad…

but, a conversation struck up at a coffee shop turned into a great story about Milwaukee record collectors, and we had all of these new releases from local musicians that we suddenly realized could comprise an all-Milwaukee music review section, and it just kept looking better and better. Our local music coverage was more than enough to carry the issue…I’d say the 2008 Music Issue is all about taking a look at everyone that has a role in Milwaukee’s music scene — not just the musicians (duh) but the sound engineers, album designers, photographers, producers, people that get the word out on the street. We wanted everyone to get the chance to play. Pardon the pun.

DJ Hostettler: Plus, this was the first VITAL Source local music issue that I guest-edited, which makes it unique in about the best possible way one could hope for. I’m still trying to figure out why Amy and Jon Anne [Willow] thought it was a good idea to drag me into this, but I think we stumbled onto a pretty great thing with our ‘let’s cover all the cooks in the kitchen’ approach.

What caught your eyes, as editors, about the local ‘scene’, currently?

AE: From my perspective — as someone who moved here two years ago from Detroit — I think the two most amazing things about music in Milwaukee, are, for one, that you can’t really nail Milwaukee for one notorious sound, like Detroit garage rock revival or that funny Omaha indie thing that happened like six years ago, or those quirky, noisy, harmonizing hyper-literate folksy kids in Seattle. We’ve got a smattering of everything, and more importantly, I think everyone shares their toys. It’s fun to go to a dirty, sweaty hardcore show at the Borg Ward one night and see a bunch of the same people catching some roots-rockers open for a touring band at Turner Hall literally the next night. I’ve seen that. It’s awesome.

The other thing I find amazing about is how it’s growing. I think it’s rapidly, feverishly growing and evolving, and I think there’s a lot more enthusiasm in the community for what’s happening in Milwaukee music than there was even when I moved here. I don’t hear as much of that alleged ‘inferiority complex’. I don’t hear it at all, actually. Maybe I’m not listening.

DH: And that’s the challenge of doing an issue like this — with so many different types of music flavoring the local scene, how do you make sure you cover *everything*? An undertaking like this teaches you pretty quickly that no matter how involved you are in Milwaukee music, there’s some segment of it that you don’t know a damn thing about, and you’ve gotta really force yourself to experience parts of the town you’ve unknowingly avoided.

The symbiotic relationship of musicians with other artists, such as photographers, videographers and graphic designers is a necessity, but rarely ever brought to light — what was it like to piece together an article that showcased this quintessential industry pairing?

AE: I’ll let DJ take the lead on this, but I will say, just from a mechanical standpoint: last year we ran a piece where we paired established, careerist Milwaukee musicians like Peder Hedman and Peter Mulvey with emerging artists like Juniper Tar’s Jason Mohr, Lisa Gatewood, Element Everest. It was a beautiful story, and I’m still proud of it. BUT. It was a huge pain in the ass to coordinate. Musicians keep odd hours, and getting them together even in pairs to do the interviews with the writers and for the photo shoots was nerve-wracking in the extreme.

This year, I almost fainted when my photographer (the wonderful and talented Erin Landry), called me three days after I sent her contact information for all the artists featured in the story and said, “the shoot’s finished!”. After I recovered from almost fainting, I almost cried. It was a piece of cake.

DH: I mentioned this in a blog post on the VITAL site this week, but all anyone had to do is venture out of town to see that there’s no reason for that perceived ‘inferiority complex’ to exist, if it does at all. Venture out to a rock club in Chicago, Detroit, even D.C., and someone will have some knowledge of a band from Milwaukee. Bank on it. That’s the best evidence that there is, of a scene that’s growing.

[It was tricky] making sure the piece was properly balanced…”OK, we’ve got a photographer, a graphic artist, an instrument repairman…now, do we have a good, diverse selection of bands? What are we missing?”. My real hope was to find something really outlandish to cover — a band with a personal fashion designer, or maybe a band with its own projectionist or, I dunno, a magician that comes out onstage? Something! 

In the end, I think the piece turned out extremely well-rounded and fascinating, and it’s a testament to the artists and the contributors who did way more of the actual legwork than I did, being on the road, half the month!

This year, Vital Source Magazine is not only featuring local music in its pages, but also in a special showcase: canyonsofstatic, The Celebrated Workingman and IfIHadAHiFi were all featured in the issue, and will also be playing live at the Cactus Club. This is the first time Vital has done something like this, correct?

AE: Yes, although this has been VITAL’s year of “holy shit”, we’ve never done something like this before!” In an effort to make friends, influence people and have lots of fun, we’ve thrown parties this year to ‘launch’ our issues, including several Gallery Nights (“holy shit, I’ve never curated a gallery show!”), a bike party (“holy shit, I’ve never organized a group bike ride!”), a film party (“holy shit, I have never seen so many socially awkward filmmakers in one place!”) and a short fiction reading at Schwartz (“holy shit, everyone’s sober at this party!”). But yes, this is our first rock show, and we’re dangerously excited about it.

What are you hoping readers and listeners will come away with, with this ‘3D’ reading/listening experience?

AE: I hope that everyone wakes up in the morning with ringing ears and a pounding head and a new-sprung hope for Milwaukee and the musicians that live and love and work really hard here. And, I hope that everyone has an awesome time and makes new friends and falls in love a little bit. And I hope everyone tips their bartenders unusually well.

DH: Hey, it’s a pretty special party, but at its core, it’s just gonna be a solid rock and roll show with solid local rock and roll bands, so as long as people get righteously ripped, get rambunctious and have a great time, I’m good! Of course, if people happen to drop some extra cash on our CDs and t-shirts, that’ll be a bonus…

Smoked Out: A Great American Rock Show, featuring the music of The Celebrated Workingman, IfIHadAHiFi, canyonsofstatic and tunes spun by DJ How of The Establishment is set to take place this Saturday, November 15th at 9 p.m. at the Cactus Club (2496 S. Wentworth Ave.). 21+ and $5 cover.

Special Notes:  
1.Hostettler is also a member of IfIHadAHifi
2. The Celebrated Workingman is playing in Madison tonight (Friday) at the High Noon Saloon, opening up for Megafaun and The Rosebuds
3. The canyonsofstatic MP3 “Slowly To Sea” is their personal “favorite” and not available on their recently released album, The Disappearance…it’s a Fan-belt/canyonsofstatic exclusive…enjoy!

MP3 “We’re Numb”, The Celebrated Workingman

MP3 “Paradise By The Paulding Light”, IfIHadAHifi

MP3 “Slowly To Sea”, canyonsofstatic

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