Operations discuss the origins of their blissful, guitar-dazed debut album 'Fog Museum'
The trickiest needle for any rainy day guitar-pop album to thread is how to capture the feeling of being bummed out without actually being a bummer. It's a trick the Milwaukee quartet Operations have mastered. On their debut full-length " Fog Museum," the group sings about life's great disappointments over clouds of guitars so thick and tuneful that the end result is a pick-me-up.
The band lives up to its promising pedigree. Singer/guitarist Alisa Rodriguez anchors one of the city's great ambient projects, Apollo Vermouth, and her co-lead Charles Markowiak has contributed to several knockout emo albums as a third of the trio Estates. Both were members of the '90s-worshipping guitar-pop group Sundial Mottos, along with Midnight Reruns' Graham Hunt, whose departure for Chicago created the opening for them to spin off a new project.
Rounded out by drummer John Schoneman, of the Milwaukee slowcore band Haunter, and bassist Sam Gargulak, Operations pulls at some of the same threads as Sundial Mottos, but twists them into shoegazey, blissfully gloomy knots. We spoke with Charlie and Alisa about the band's origins, the possibilities their roomy sound presents and the duo's big-picture plans for the project.
Evan: Could you tell me a little bit about how the band came together?
Alisa: We basically started around the time when we found out our guitarists from other band, Sundial Mottos, told us he was going to move to Chicago. After that we were both thinking, "man, this kind of sucks, because we probably won’t see each other much.” Then I had the idea of Charlie and I starting a band where we both played guitar. In the other bands Charlie and I had been in, Charlie played bass, but the guitar is his main instrument, and I think it’s his strongest, too. So that was the idea that we would start this band together and make music we really love, because I think we were both for the most part music lovers first, and then musicians. And I think that helps a lot, where we can bounce ideas back and forth and it feels really casual, no pressure.
Evan: The band has such a distinct sound, and really distinctly nails a specific era of dream-pop and shoegaze. Did you guys have a vision for how you wanted the band to sound from the start, of did it take a little while for you to fall into that?
Charlie: I think we're definitely both very inspired by that style of music, so I think it just kinda came into play when we were bouncing ideas back and forth off of one another. Initially one of us would bring in a riff, and we’d play around with it to fully form it. Then when our rhythm section came into the band as well, I think that really kind of rounded it out and we started writing songs more collaboratively as a band as the songwriting process for the album went on. Some of the riffs I think we’d both had for a while and then were able to put them into a song together.
Evan: You two have played in all kinds of different projects, from ambient to emo. When you started this band did you have to purposely decide, “OK, we’re narrowing down what we do to focus on this one style?"
Alisa: I don’t think we were ever like “we want to sound like this, this and this.” I think that's what takes the fun out of it as a musician. You want to keep growing and evolving, and Charlie and I we really admire bands that kind of jump genres a bit, bands like Yo La Tengo, who jump around a bit but always sound like themselves. That’s really inspiring for us, because we don’t always want to be the dream-pop or shoegaze band. I think it’s cool that we can’t really be defined by one genre of music.
Evan: What was the process of recording this album like?
Charlie: Alisa suggested that we track with Dave Vettraino, who has a band called The Hecks that we really like. So he wanted to go down to his studio back in Chicago to record. “Fog Museum” we kind of had been writing since 2018, and we played our first show at the tail end of that year. So were were simultaneously like writing, playing shows around Milwaukee as we were finishing up writing that. So I think we really wanted to go in and track as much as we could live. For the most part, that's what we did over the course of Labor Day weekend last year with Dave, and then we did some guitar overdubs and some other percussion overdubs.
Evan: To me, these sound like songs that could play out in any number of directions. You could toughen them up a bit or soften them and make them hookier and prettier if you wanted. Do you guys mess around with them a bunch live, or do you have a pretty set idea of the tone you want for each song when you play it?Charlie: Yeah, I think you kind of nailed it there. Some of the arrangements are a little bit sparse so I think as you're kind of gearing up to play these songs out there’s room to play with them. I don't think we really set out to write them so there would be flexibility live, but I think the way the songs came about and the way we were simultaneously playing out and testing them as we were writing them allowed us to play around with the arrangements. You know, live music is hopefully going to come back sooner than later, so that’s something we’d like to explore when we’re able to get back on stages again.
Evan:I've talked to some shoegaze or shoegaze-adjacent bands over the years, and a lot of them have said that there’s definitely an audience they can tap into, a fanbase that’s hungry for this kind of music and seeks it out. It may not be the biggest music in the world, but you can definitely find a following making it. Do you feel like you’ve been able to tap into that audience, or has it just been really hard not being able to tour.
Alisa: That's a good question. I think it's a lot easier now to find an audience online. It's not the fun part of promoting it, but I think Bandcamp has really been a huge benefit for us, and obviously a million other artists. Even when you just like put on like your album and tag it as shoegaze or dream pop or whatever, people will like click on that and explore a lot of things. It’s sort of like an algorithm thing too. You never know, like who's going to find your stuff. I think there was a blog from Italy that wrote about us and said some really nice things. And it's like, “Oh my gosh, like we have a fan from far away.”
Evan: What are your hopes for next year?
Charlie: I want to see a show really bad. I want to jump around at a show, even just watching a show. But as far as our group goes, I’d like to put out more music, of course. You know, this is going to sound ambitious, but Alisa is going to be a lifelong friend of mine, and I like that model that that group Felt had, where they put out an album every year for 10 years in the 1980s. And you know, our band started in 2020, so who’s to say we couldn’t do that? I’m not saying that will be the end result, but I would love to do that.