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Punk, Netflix and Phil Collins: How DIY fueled Joe Wong’s journey

Priscilla C. Scott

Wauwatosa-native and musician Joe Wong shares that his gateway to a life in music was radio. And he got hooked at an early age, magnetized to the “left of the dial.”

Primarily, Wong fell in love with the jazz he heard on WYMS (the 88Nine predecessor known as “Jazz 89”), The Kathleen Dunn Show on WPR, and a goofy and punk-centric show on 91.7 FM WMSE known as The Joe & Pete Show, which for years reveled in music from “emo-core” staples like Cap’n Jazz, Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring (and dished out plenty of witty banter).

Not long after, Wong learned piano and drums by playing the kit in various bands and eased wide-eyed into the punk scene, logging stage time at storied Milwaukee clubs and spots such as Sydney HiH, The Unicorn and The Globe.

Wong’s first band Akarso — a punk trio with former Call Me Lightning drummer Nathan Lilley and bassist Gregory Roteik — rapidly gained a devoted following and a community that expanded his world. As often happens in the Milwaukee music scene, he made fast friends and called Riverwest punk houses not only a home, but a place to experience music.

Wong’s sights eventually started stretching outside the city limits, heading to Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduation, he took up a transformative state of mind, holing up in a cabin in Wisconsin’s northwoods to rehearse for hours a day, long before that “other guy” (aka Bon Iver) made it his calling card.

Wong went on to move permanently outside the city and state lines, touring and sessioning with bands such as Parts & Labor, Marnie Stern, The Beauty Pill, Man Forever and Mary Timony, who remains his friend and partner in music to this day (both having worked on each other’s most recent records).

After a chance scoring project opened that door to similar jobs, Wong made the move to Los Angeles and began working on the Netflix series Russian Doll and Master of None, as well as more recent releases like Carol & The End of The World and Krapapoplis.

Not one to sit still (and also questioning his overall place in and path through the world), Wong expanded his musical mind further with the initiation of The Trap Set podcast, in which he] dives in deep in conversation with drummers such as the late Mimi Parker of Low, Questlove of The Roots, Jim Eno of Spoon, Janet Weiss of Wild Flag and ex-Sleater-Kinney, Tony Allen of Fela Kuti, and Dan Didier of The Promise Ring and Maritime. To date, Wong has recorded and produced 309 episodes.

All roads ultimately lead to one’s true home, it seems, and Wong’s personal achievement culminated after years of musical absorption and output through radio, school, punk houses and bands, touring, scoring and podcasting. On Sept. 18, 2020, Wong released his full-length solo debut, Nite Creatures, to Decca Records. The album was produced by Timony and features Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips, Jon Natchez of War on Drugs, Shudder to Think frontman Craig Wedren, Anna Waronker of That Dog, Mary Lattimore and a 24-piece orchestra.

Joe Potrzebowski from his "The Joe & Pete Show" days.
Peter J. Morateck
Joe Potrzebowski from his "The Joe & Pete Show" days.

To say that Wong’s longtime friends, fans and followers were astounded to hear him morph from a drummer and podcaster to a vocalist and leader of a chamber rock ensemble would be an understatement. Crafted in the style of more classic rock genres with elements of chamber pop and prog rock, Wong’s solo material charts his growth not only as a musician, but as a person — his compositions full of elevated lyrical ponderings and observations.

His latest album, Mere Survival, follows in the same footsteps of that first effort and finds Wong at the beginning of another exciting journey, even though the layovers have been multiple. Soon after that album’s release, I sat down with Wong and Joe Potrzebowski — formerly of The Joe & Pete Show on WMSE (and current Joe Wong fan and friend) — to talk about Wong’s musical start in Milwaukee and how their personal connection sparked a life path, showing just how (and where) the punk scene in Milwaukee stretched its wavelengths decades later.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

EW: So I guess beginning at the beginning, Joe W., wanted to talk a little bit about your start in Wauwatosa.

Joe Potrzebowski: Yeah, Joe. I mean, I'm familiar with your history. Erin’s familiar with your history. But let's start there nonetheless, right? You grew up in Wauwatosa. Born and raised, I think, in Wauwatosa, correct?

JW: Well, I was born at St. Joe's in Milwaukee, but I was raised in Wauwatosa, yes. Which is where you live now, correct?

JP: Correct.

JW: I grew up in Wauwatosa, and something didn't feel right, and I started exploring the radio stations to the left of the dial, and I heard your mellifluous voice. It really was a portal into a different world at a time in my life when I was kind of searching for something beyond what was being presented to me.

JP: And that was early mid-’90s or so, correct?

JW: Yeah.

JP: And you were a listener, you were a caller-inner, and we struck up some sort of kinship along the way, I think — mutual friends and whatnot, mutual likings and dislikings, for that matter. And then you kind of branched into the bands yourself, correct? And you even became somewhat of a mainstay on the show to some extent.

JW: Yeah, I started playing in bands when I was pretty young because as a drummer, it's easy to find a band. Guitar players are a dime a dozen, but drummers — especially at that time — were more rare, and having a drum kit that you could use for shows and practices was rare also. So even though I couldn't really play yet, I found myself in bands. And so I started playing in clubs like The Unicorn and The Globe, which are now both gone, when I was 14.

And when I was 17, I started a band called Akarso, and I think that might've been the first band that you played on the show. It was a math-rock band with a guy named Greg Roteik, and Nathan Lilley was the singer and guitarist. And Nathan went on to form Call Me Lightning, among other bands later on. That was kind of the first band that I was in that toured and played all around the country. And it was, for me, a formative experience that shaped my view of the world at an early age.

JP: You were a little humble there. I don't think it was just because you had a drum kit. You were, and are for that matter, a good drummer. I think you were in demand — and still are, for that matter. But after those … let’s call them “punk rock” bands, “math rock” bands or whatever … I should say, even before those, you did have some formal training in music.

JW: Yeah. I started taking piano lessons in the mid-80s with a woman named Mrs. Sailor who lived in Wauwatosa, and then I later moved on to her son, who was probably in his 20s at the time. And then in public school, I don't know if this is still on offer, but I could take violin lessons in fourth grade and then clarinet lessons in fifth grade. And in sixth grade I started playing drums, and that's when it really clicked.

Like the other stuff, I felt like I had some aptitude for it, but it didn't really feel relevant to the kind of music I was listening to. I was always listening to pop music of some kind. So once I started playing drums and recognizing the link between that and pretty much any kind of music that I was interested in at the time, then it became central to my identity.

That's when I was 11. I think my background is kind of a 50/50 mix of organized music-study where I'm deliberately working on something and then just learning from experience and from the people around me. And a big part of that early on was the punk-slash-DIY community in Milwaukee.

JP: I think after that, or maybe in the middle of that punk/DIY, you went off to college if I recall correctly … out West.

JW: Out East. I went to a music school in Boston when I was 19, and I did that for a couple of years. It was a great experience in some ways, but I never really felt at home there. I went with the ambition of starting like four or five bands and meeting a bunch of people, but I didn't really encounter that many people that were on the same page as me at the time.

But the one thing I did get from going to music school is starting to think about pursuing music as a vocation rather than just as a passion and even allowing myself to have that desire. I think coming from the DIY scene, that was sort of frowned upon in some circles. I mean, in some circles it wasn't, because if you think about a band like Fugazi — which to me is like one of the shining examples of DIY — they were extremely hardworking, and they did eventually make a living playing in the band, even though they were only charging five bucks for a show.

But I think that there was this attitude (especially in the ’90s), which seems really foreign now, where people were trying to avoid selling out or monetizing something that was creative and vital in a spiritual way. Of course, now nobody's afraid to sell out, and the concept doesn't even exist anymore because it's hard enough to make ends meet. So, anyway, I digress …

JP: You said that formal education, while formative, wasn't quite your style or whatever — wasn’t quite your “jam” for lack of a better phrase.

JW: Yeah. I think most of the progress I've made when I've been kind of deliberately studying music has been in a one-on-one setting for some reason. And as a contrarian, even at music school, I just felt kind of at odds with the curriculum to a certain extent. But I did have some really great mentors there. And I worked really hard when I was there. And I think that kind of set a template for how I proceeded.

Also, the other thing is I was humbled because there were so many talented people there that were far beyond my abilities technically, and I kind of figured out that I'd have to carve out some sort of niche and determine what I might be uniquely qualified to offer as a musician in order to succeed in some way.

JP: I think that DIY mentality carries through your entire career, all the different aspects or all the different incarnations of your career, right? I think after that formal education, you went on and — I don't want to say went into seclusion, but went into seclusion in a farmhouse and hammered away. I don't want to say taught yourself, but “found your voice.”

JW: I tried to find my voice, but I didn't quite find it. I was trying to metabolize all this disparate information that I was getting from these drumming luminaries that had taught me at school, and sometimes their philosophies were at odds with each other. So it was very confusing, and I just wanted to kind of figure out what I wanted to hold on to and what I needed to let go of and what was relevant to the kind of music I wanted to make.

JP: A little more DIY, right?

JW: And I made an album, too, that I subsequently threw away, but if I would have kept it at the time, it could have been the — well you know, this was in Chippewa Falls, Wisc., home of … uh, or adjacent to the home of Bon Iver, so I could have hit that mark, sooner [laughs].

JP: You blew it! [laughs] But nonetheless, you persevered, I guess, even after that shortcoming, right?

JW: Uh, yeah, I guess so? [laughs]

JP:  I'll let Erin interject here.

EW: I wanted to talk a little bit about all the stuff that was percolating, and you were going back to what we were talking about with Milwaukee and listening to WMSE and being in the punk scene …

JW: And WYMS, too.

EW: And WYMS, too. Yes.

JW: ’Cause I was a huge jazz fan as a teenager, too. So I would kind of go back and forth between WYMS, and then I go a little bit to the right to WHAD and listen to Kathleen Dunn, who was awesome [laughs], and then WMSE.

A sticker from WYMS' jazz era.
A sticker from WYMS' jazz era.

EW: It's a little hodgepodge. There's like a little jazz, a little newsy stuff, a little prog, a little punk, a little bit of everything. How did that Milwaukee musical experience shape the sound of your own solo material? Because I hear elements of rock, punk, prog, classic stuff …

JW: Yeah, it's hard to say how it shaped the sound of my solo music other than I wouldn't be making it had I not had the experiences I had as a kid in Milwaukee.

But I think one thing about Milwaukee that was really positive for me is that it was a small, tight-knit community — and, well, there's actually several small, tight knit communities in Milwaukee — and it can be really nurturing, especially when you're young. I think the downside is that people might be kind of humble to a fault and afraid to really go for it sometimes.

But when I was a kid, I found a lot of support — not only from people in bands, but also going to the record stores in Milwaukee. I can remember buying my first Impulse! records at Earwaves for like 25 cents or going to Atomic Records, and it was like a portal into a different world. Especially pre-Internet, information felt a little bit more scarce.

Unlike some of my friends that grew up in big cities — like New York or L.A., where there's more available of everything — in Milwaukee, you kind of have to be a scavenger to find stuff that's beneath the surface. I think that's been a really useful skill that was developed back then, just kind of like searching for something.

EW: It's kind of like being a crow of sorts, you know? Picking through the stuff.

JP: Again. It's more DIY … things weren't laid out in front of you. Like you said, you had to scavenge, you had to go find them, you had to word-of-mouth-it. There weren't shows on every corner, every weekend or whatever, right?

JW: Right, like going to the record store and scouring the bulletin board or the walls to see who's playing in the basement.

Another thing is, I lived in a basement on Bremen Street. Me and two friends took over the house in ’98, but it had been a punk house for years before, and bands like Modest Mouse and The Faint and Cap'n Jazz had played in that basement. A bunch of great bands played there during our tenure there, too, even though we got burgled thrice. [laughs]

But it was kind of like a scavenger hunt, you know? You go to the record store. I remember one particular show I went to, I was at Atomic Records looking for something. And then on the wall, there was a show listed for that house on Bremen — it was 2805B Bremen, by the way. And it was a band called Karate on their very first tour, I think, and Arm from Minneapolis.

Karate is now kind of experiencing a renaissance because their catalog's being reissued by Numero Group. They were on Southern [Records] at the time, but I had heard Karate on Pete and Joe's show, and I was a fan, and I was like, “I can go see this band? In a basement? Okay.”

JP: They were great.

JW: [to Joe P.] Were you at that show?

JP: Of course. It was fantastic.

JW: And I think they played in that basement at least one other time when they expanded to a quartet, but just knowing that having that discovery, that you can have a transcendent experience in a crummy basement — that informs my whole worldview.

And I would also say like every opportunity I've gotten for more mainstream projects that I've done as a composer or a producer, that's all a circuitous byproduct of getting in a van or playing in a basement in Milwaukee; like I can trace it back, step by step, to that.

EW: What is the one place or thing or maybe even sound that epitomizes Milwaukee for you? And I think you've already answered it — it's those basements, it seems like.

JW: I think it was one of them, yeah. And then all the other places. I just remember how exciting it was to even play in a club when I was a kid. When I was 14, my dad would have to go so that I could be admitted to play at The Unicorn, where a few years earlier Nirvana had played or Soundgarden. That place was a death trap.

It was in the basement of the Sydney HIH building, and we'd always heard that the owner Gus had shot somebody, so there was this mystique around him. I think it was probably in self-defense; I don't really know the whole story, but he had a reputation for being kind of a tough guy. But he was always so nice to all the kids that would play there for the all-ages matinees.

So, yeah, I don't really know if there's a sound, but yeah — just kind of like the community and the sense that there's a big world out there, even though it was a relatively small city. Like it felt like there were a lot of possibilities.

JP: Moving on to I guess what we can start to define as your professional adult career, right?

JW: Yeah, that also started in Milwaukee. I had played in a band in Washington, D.C. in my early 20s, and it didn't last very long. I moved back to Wisconsin to try to figure out what I wanted to do next.

I was thinking about moving to New York at the time. And some friends of mine who I met at the basement shows — Chris Smith, Sarah Price and Dan Ollman, and Sarah was the drummer of a band called Competitorr that I recorded back then. They played in the Bremen house a bunch of times.

Dan is a filmmaker that's currently making a movie about a band from Milwaukee, and then Chris is one of the top documentarians of his generation. Chris and Sarah made American Movie together, and then Chris has gone on to do big projects like Tiger King, etc. But they were making a movie called The Yes Men, and they asked a friend of mine, Didier Leplae, and me to write some music for it. We had no idea what we were doing. We didn't know any of the conventions of film scoring, but we just kind of applied the DIY attitude and made it happen.

Then I was waiting tables at the time, and the film was released — it got a distribution deal. I could basically see the marquee with the name of the film as I was going to my waiter job. [laughs]. I felt like that was like a good indication of, “All right, you made something that some people will see, but you still need to work, and you haven't struck it rich yet.” And it kind of just pointed me in a direction how maybe I want to kind of keep exploring this composing thing.

JP: And you did!

JW: It seems like part of it is just luck, knowing the right people at the right time, but then from there you have to recognize when you get lucky and capitalize on it if you can.

JP: So you continued on with your composing for TV and movies, and that became your profession, I guess, at that point, right?

JW: Yeah, I was kind of doing that for the first I would say 12 years. I was still in Milwaukee for some of the time, and I was playing with all kinds of bands. I was playing with these jazz musicians, and I was playing with this salsa group, De La Buena, for a little while and a Senegalese band called Sindoolaa. I think I was in like five or six bands in Milwaukee.

Then some of the friends that I'd made in D.C. introduced me to Mary Timony, and I was playing drums for her for a while and touring with her. And then I joined a band in New York called Parts & Labor. During this time, the bands I was playing in were breaking even, but we weren't making enough to live off of necessarily, and so I was kind of concurrently scoring movies and TV shows and playing in bands.

It would be like working from a laptop during the day in a van from place to place, and then there were times when I would get off stage, and I'd have to go work all night. But I think the two things fed each other, and I wouldn't be the composer that I am if I didn't have the experience of traveling and playing with great musicians.

JP: About 10 years ago or so, I think you again kind of had a “DIY moment” and decided to start up a podcast that has taken root and taken flight,called The Trap Set, which is about 10 years going over 300 episodes and still running, correct?

JW: Yeah! So one of the formative experiences in Milwaukee that wasn't in a basement was a show that I saw at The Rave. It was Fugazi with Lungfish and Chisel. And ever since then, all three of those bands have meant a lot to me, but Fugazi was kind of like my North Star as a punk kid.

I was on tour with a woman called Marnie Stern, who's an awesome guitar player, about 10 years ago. And, at the time, I was feeling really depressed. There was a lot of dark stuff happening in my life. I wasn't feeling any joy from playing music, so I was considering whether I wanted to keep doing it or try something else with my life. It was almost like I was asking myself if I was in a loveless marriage ’cause it was such a big part of my life and such a big part of my identity, but I had to be ready to drop it and try something else if there wasn't anything there anymore.

At the time, Marnie was dating somebody who was on Saturday Night Live. So we got back from tour and got invited to go to a taping of SNL. And it just so happened that Brendan Canty, the drummer of Fugazi, was also invited to the taping.

I kind of cornered him at the afterparty and was just pumping him for information because he has lived the kind of life that I thought I wanted to live. Not only was he in a couple of the great punk bands of the ’80s and ’90s, he also went on to score films and TV shows and direct documentaries, and he has an enormous amount of kids, but he seems to be a really great dad, and they all have a great relationship.

It was a mystery to me how he did it. Like, how do you do it all? I was just trying to ask him how he functions, and it occurred to me that it could make a good podcast because it was kind of similar to the early episodes of Marc Maron's show where he was desperate and asking other comedians how they walked through life. So, anyway, that's what started the podcast. It was just a thinly veiled cry for help; it's just like solid gold for podcasts. [laughs]

JP: I know it started out initially as just drummer interviews and the “getting to talk to the people that never got a microphone in their face before” type of mentality, but obviously it's branched out from there. Now you're interviewing singers, guitarists … anybody in the business, basically, is what it comes down to.

It's no slouches that you've had on the show. You've had countless big names that people don't know about. I don't have a better way to phrase that — session drummers, whatever. And it's funny that Fugazi is this running theme, and it started with Canty, and your latest [at the time of this interview] is Guy [Picciotto], right? So, you’re “bookending” it.

JW: Yeah, right. So, we branched off / branched away from drummers after 200 episodes, and so then, the first non-drummer guest was Ian MacKaye. Then recently Guy came on, and that came to me because Guy produced an album by the great Jim White, who is your favorite songwriter's drummer. And Jim made his first solo album.

I'd always been a fan of Guy's production, especially with bands like Blonde Redhead, and am a fan of his … basically everything that he did; but he seemed mysterious to me because he doesn't really do very many interviews, so that was really great. All I need to do now is get Joe Lally, and I can close up shop.

JP: It's kind of like your own EGOT, right?

JW: Yeah, but we are the only podcast that's had both Phil Collins and the singer of The Shaggs.

JP: So you beat me to the next punch actually in that I know that Phil Collins was kind of your “white whale,” right? Like that’s not a joke. I know you revere Phil Collins, but it was also kind of like, “We can never get him, and then … bam!”

JW: I thought, “If we get Phil Collins on, that's an indication that this thing has had some legs.” And I didn't really think it would happen. I wasn't, like, shocked by the time we did get him because we had been gaining steam. But it was pretty astounding to get an email from him. It was pretty crazy.

He represents something to me that's really interesting because in the ’80s, when I was a kid, I didn't connect with this music; it was ubiquitous, and it just wasn't for me at the time as a kid. Then as an adult, I kind of went in through the back door of the work Phil did as Brian Eno's drummer and Genesis, but then I also started to embrace his mainstream ’80s solo records, which I think are masterpieces.

It kind of represents this phenomenon where sometimes things are kind of hiding in plain sight. And as you evolve as a person or change as a person, then all of the sudden they start speaking to you, and it's really exciting. That's one of the more exciting kinds of musical themes that I've experienced, you know? Just discovering artists or starting to feel artists that just weren't appealing to me at other stages in my life.

JP: Is there any other proverbial “white whale” that you're looking for on that show? What's your next “benchmark” or whatever you want to call it?

JW: I really don't have one, anymore. I mean, it's just that we've done so many of them. It's just a victory lap at this point, just in the sense that it's really changed my life in a substantial way and helped me and helped other people that I hear from, people that listen to the show.

But, yeah, there's definitely people. Speaking of this phenomenon, I've always respected Laurie Anderson, but I just saw her live, and I would say it's in the top five of the greatest things I've ever seen. So, yeah, I would talk to her, Kate Bush, I met Neil Young recently, and he seemed like he might come on.

But, you know, with people like Neil the trick is how do you kind of engage with them in a way that is meaningful because they've been interviewed so many times over the last 60 years. It's more like you can't really prepare for it. Also, it's not necessarily that interesting. I could also take the angle of like, okay, what's the most obscure thing I can ask this guy that his super fans will get something out of, but it's like you can't really prepare. You have to just kind of go in there and see if something happens in the conversation. But who knows?

EW: I wanted to talk a little bit about evolving in general. We were speaking about how your tastes evolve over time. You as a musician obviously have evolved, like with your solo project. Because of your podcast and television work, has that helped you evolve into the solo musician you’ve become along with the connectivity you've been provided with these musicians you've spoken with — growing through the self and also growing through reaching others and just generally connecting with the world at large more?

JW: Yeah! I think as a drummer and as a composer, my primary role had been to help deliver someone else's baby into the world. I think that's been a super valuable skill, like really learning how to understand someone else's creative intention and figure out where that Venn diagram intersects between your taste and their taste, and how you can help put someone at ease and elevate whatever it is that you're working on, together.

I think it also kind of helped me develop skills that I use when I write my own stuff. Like the stuff that I've been writing is sort of this orchestral pop music, and getting to work with orchestras or orchestral instruments in my day-to-day life makes me comfortable doing that, or just makes it so that's what I hear.

Doing the podcast was kind of a bridge between being a supporting player and having barely enough confidence later to try to make my own statement. It kind of served as a bridge because it was my show, but I'm there telling someone else's story or helping them tell their story.

So it's kind of like a combination of my curation and other people's narrative, and so that kind of helped me do my own thing. I tried to quit many times, but then once I kind of got through the first album, it felt like I had the momentum. Then I had to bring Mary Timony to town to produce it, and having someone else to be accountable to is really the thing that saved me from scrapping the whole thing — someone that I really trust, who's a genius.

Joe Wong and Mary Timony in the studio.
Joe Wong; Instagram
Joe Wong and Mary Timony in the studio.

JP: Somebody that knew you very well, too. My understanding is you're good friends, so she could boss you around in a friendly way, right?

JW: Yeah! [laughs] But I remember the night before, she was going to fly out for the first sessions, I said “Hey, you should just come on vacation. Like, take the flight, I'll get you a hotel. I don't think I can do this.” And she said, “Oh, we're doing it.”

JP: Sometimes you need that person to drag you out kicking and screaming literally out from behind the drum kit in this scenario and in front of the microphone and to write your own stuff down on paper and trust other people with it for that matter.

JW: Yeah.

JP: Well, your first … let's call it a solo album; it's hard to call it a “solo album” because of all the musicians you had on it and helped bring it to life, including Mary. But it first came out in 2020, and it was called Nite Creatures on Decca Records.

JW: It was the perfect time to release an album. [laughs

JP: Well, you're right, and you're wrong. I will tell you this: Obviously, it made promotion and support of that album a little difficult, releasing it in early 2020. But I do have to tell you, Joe, for better or for worse, that album landed on my doorstep … what, February, March, something like that?

JW: It was later in the year. It was supposed to be February or March, and then the record label said, “Okay, we have to wait for this pandemic to blow over. Give us a few months to push it back.” And then I think it got pushed back … maybe six months. It came out in the fall, I think.

JP: But I was going to say for better or for worse, that album is my soundtrack of the COVID pandemic. I listened to it a lot, you know what I mean? And when I do hear those songs now and I listen to it again, for better or worse, it brings me back to that time in my life. And I think that …

JW: … It makes you sick? [laughs]

JP: No, not like that. In a good way. Sitting in my house, spinning a record, listening to that, reading … I almost said reading a newspaper. I'm not that old. But reading articles or whatever and just enjoying that music. 

I will say, knowing you for as long as I've known you and knowing the music that you've done, when I first heard that album, I didn't expect another math-rock album. It was different. And I think it took people … not by surprise, but a little bit like, “Oh, is this the real Joe Wong voice?” You know what I mean? This atmospheric ethereal pop, this orchestral music … rock? I don't even know how to define it, but it was really a breath of fresh air. 

It was nice, not just to hear your voice singing, which I was gobsmacked by it. Some of our friends, I’m sure you know, came out and saw you for one of the first L.A. shows you had. I made the mistake and did not go because that was pre-pandemic. And I thought, “Oh, I'll catch him at another one.”

JW: Yeah, we had a whole tour booked. Like four tours got canceled, I think.

JP: And they told me they cried while they listened to it. I mean, it's an impressive debut album. And now you have this sophomore album, which just came out more or less, Mere Survival. Once again, much like the Nite Creatures album, your supporting cast is ridiculous, to say the least. And I think that's where these proverbial connections from the podcast and composing for TV and movies comes into play, right? I mean, you have Matt Cameron, Nate Mendel, Jim Keltner, who was a session drummer for the Beatles …

JW: Yeah. Right.

JP: I mean, that's pretty good. [laughs]

JW: He's a Traveling Wilbury.

JP: But now, interestingly enough, I noticed on this album for most of the songs, you played most of the studio instruments, correct?

JW: Yeah, the rhythm instruments for most of the songs. Then we had like a big string and horn section later.

So first of all, someone like Nate … I think maybe the first time I heard Nate play was on your show when Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate came out. I met him because I was out here, and I did an album with a guy called Bill Dolan, who was in 5ive Style and Heroic Doses, and he called Nate to play bass on it, and then Nate and I have been friends ever since, and I'm actually producing Nate's solo album right now.

And someone like Matt Cameron, he was like a god to me as a kid. I saw him at Marcus Amphitheater, I think maybe ’95 … ’94 or ’95, when Superunknown came out and they were at the height of their powers, and I never ever would have guessed I would even meet that person, let alone collaborate with that person.

So I think kind of like what we were talking about before is that when these things happen, it feels sort of natural, but it's not lost on me that it's a dream come true, and it just makes me open to any possibility in the future, you know? Jim Keltner played on the album because he emailed me and called me after the first one came out, and he said, “Hey, I'm listening to your album in my car. It's pretty cool. Let me know if you need somebody to play drums on another album.” And I was just like, “Okay, well, now I have to write stuff for Jim to play on.”

JP: That's a pretty good indicator that people are enjoying your music, right? That somebody of that stature … that prominence in history is literally seeking you out in that scenario.

JW: Well, yeah, and we're also in a paradigm where everything is quantified in an unhealthy way, so I could go on Spotify and just look at everybody that has 10 or 100 times more listeners than I do and feel weird about it. I have to remind myself that it's never been about that to me.

Like I said, I've had transcendent experiences in a basement. The people that are reaching out to me are the people whose opinions I care about and whose work has shaped my life. And it's kind of like when I think about your radio show, Joe, my album probably wouldn't have happened if I hadn't discovered that radio show early on. I think that's a beautiful phenomenon to zone into. It's just kind of like the universe folding into itself and kind of …

JP: You find your tribe, right? And you find your people, and you find your sound along the way. I mean, I think that's just how it goes. I think that's certainly the power of music, for sure, right? 

You hear something that might strike a chord in one person, and other people don't hear it in any way, shape or form and don't follow along. But then, that’s your person. That's the person you're going to be sitting with in a crummy basement on Bremen Street, listening to some band that's touring out of the back of a van, and then you're playing with Jim Keltner 20, 30 years later or whatever. 

Like you said, that's kind of how the universe works. But I think that, not to be nostalgic or metaphysical or whatever, that's the power of music, and that's why we're kind of here, I guess, right?

EW: Can I talk a little bit about Mary Timony?

JW: Yeah!

EW: Mary is so instrumental to this record, I feel like, and you conversely worked on her record at the same time?

JW: Mmm-hmm.

EW: How did Mary Timony in particular help you piece together Mere Survival? What were her touches on this record?

JW: She's the lifeguard when I'm drowning. To make the kind of music I've been trying to make and to just even do it to begin with, for me, is very uncomfortable at first and very vulnerable in a way that I wasn't accustomed to. I saw her as somebody who's been making albums since the late ’80s, starting with Autoclave on Dischord [Records], and then going to Helium on Matador [Records], and then all the solo albums and other supergroups that she was in like Wild Flag and Ex Hex. So I thought, “Okay, this is routine for her. No problem.”

The truth is, when I started working with her and producing her album, I had to be that lifeguard, and I had to figure out how to do that. The realization is that she's willing to go deeper and deeper every time, so it's equally as hard or harder with each successive record.

But I think understanding what it's like to be that person who's struggling to stay above the water made her the perfect person to help guide me through it when I was really scared. I think her musical sensibility is one that I really respect, and we have a lot of the same touchstones; I even played in her band 20-plus years ago. So if she likes a song that I'm working on, then I can trust, “Okay, maybe it's decent.”

Sometimes it's hard for me to tell if something I'm working on is any good when I'm in the midst of working on it, so having someone else's vantage point at my disposal is super valuable. Especially hers because I think she has incredible taste, but it was really more like she was my spirit guide, taking me through this adventure.

EW: You have a great relationship where you also work on her own records as well. You say she challenges herself with each successive record. Do you feel scared to help someone like that who’s had such extensive experience? Do you feel like you can comfortably speak up and offer your guidance on her work?

JW: Yeah. I would say that the challenge was just trying to figure out how to make her feel as comfortable as possible, and I think I wrongly assumed that this was going to be sort of a walk in the park for her. But it wasn't.

It was a very challenging record for her to make, and it was happening at a very challenging time in her life where it was bookended by either of her parents dying. Her dad died right at the beginning of making it, and her mom died at the end, and she was their primary caregiver. And, fortunately and unfortunately, my dad died when I was making my first album, and so I think I could understand the emotional state that she was in.

But, that said, I think I revere her so much that I didn't recognize at first how difficult it was going to be for her. I thought, “Oh, she's done this a dozen times before. It'll be no problem. We can just get down to it.” But then I realized most people need the same kind of caretaking energy. That's what production is, I think. It’s not like, “Oh, you played a wrong note.” She knows that it's really like tuning into someone's emotional state and trying to help them.

JP: I think the next logical question would be — touring. Now that there's thankfully no pandemic behind this album, I know you guys, in some semblance of a band or whatever, have a residency coming up in L.A. for a few shows.

JW: Yeah, we're going to do a residency at a really great club called Zebulon, which I used to frequent in New York when it was there, then it moved out to L.A.

It's a great way to kind of figure out how I can scale down the band because everybody in my band has several other projects that they're working on, so I can't be beholden to the schedule of 20 other people. So I'm trying to figure out ways to present the music with a smaller group. Then the big band is getting together later in the summer. We have some festival stuff coming up, and I'm going to try to string together some other dates as long as we're all together and we've practiced.

JP: And try to make your way through Milwaukee, right?

JW: I would love to. Yeah, I would love to. That would be a dream come true.

EW: That would be great.

JP: Even the pared-down the full orchestra, or whatever … just you and a ukulele would be fine. [laughs]

JW: No, it wouldn't. I guarantee it.

EW: Do you want to tell the folks out there where they can find your new record, and what’s the closest you're getting to the Midwest where folks can go see you? I know a lot of your Milwaukee fans would probably love to catch you playing, and you're probably still working on tour dates and stuff.

JW: Yeah, I don't know when we'll be there, but it's definitely a high priority place for me to come. The album's available on all the streaming platforms, and we also have several different LP variants available at record stores and on Bandcamp.

EW: Fair enough! It's been a dream talking to the two of you.

JW: Like a bad dream?

JP: I’d say, you’d better dream bigger, Erin.

EW: [laughs] No! I've been a fan of both of your work for a while, The Joe & Pete Show.

JP: We’ll cut all this.

EW: Famous folks, here.

JW: We need to get The Promise Ring “Pete & Joe” theme song based on their song “Watertown Plank”.

JP: It's on

JW: Okay. That should be the outro for this segment.

EW: [laughs] We'll work on that.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee