Chris Crain bears his soul, at his own pace, on “Glow”

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Photo credit: Chris Taylor

Chris Crain was in no rush to complete his 2020 album, “Glow.” He wasn’t pushing toward a deadline or under pressure from a studio. Instead, he found himself on a mission to create the album on his own — writing, performing and recording it solo. Crain had been working on the 10-track album for at least two years and says he wasn’t trying to make a radio hit or a pop anthem; he was aiming to create something deeply personal, at his own pace.

Divorcing himself from the pressures to create on a timetable, he was able to write and rewrite songs, working parts over and over, until he was satisfied. And “Glow” truly offers a satisfying listen.

Expertly navigating genres like jazz, R&B and including elements of hip-hop, he writes in the first person, including stories from his own life of strength and resilience. “Glow” also offers a glimpse into his recording process, which, due to a neurological difference, is also unique to himself.

In our conversation below, Crain discusses the method he uses to play the guitar with limited use of one hand, his foundation and the work he does to educate and inspire youth.

Chris Crain interview

Nate Imig: What would you say your mission statement is as an artist? I know you do so much more than music, but you kind of realize your brand and your mission through your music, too. So let’s start there. Like what, what’s your approach to music and the power of music?

Chris Crain: So for me I was born with a birth defect called brachial plexus palsy, and it left me with very limited use of my left hand and my arm. So I can’t stretch it up straight. I can’t do this with my fingers. Music was the thing that gave me confidence. It helped my self-esteem. And it made me into a strong individual. Music was a way for me to escape, to go, “Man, I can travel all over the world just by closing my eyes and hearing the sound.” And I realized that at a very, very young age. So music became my safe haven. It sheltered me, and it just kept my mind. So I wasn’t slow, I wasn’t behind, because I could always do this when I felt I started to feel down on myself. Or I could always go and pick up the instrument or play or listen to a song that just kinda helped boost my emotion. So for me, music is a therapeutic kind of thing. I believe, of course it’s God given and should be used to build. For nothing more, nothing less. It has to be that thing that makes a difference, because it can. And I’m an example of that.

NI: How has your difference in your hand affected your musicianship? Are you able to play the piano with both hands?

CC: Oh, both hands. If you listen to my music, you never even know. I also play jazz. I have a jazz EP as well, and you listen to it and it’s like, “Man, there’s no way his hands like that.” But what is, what is did for me? It allowed me to create a style and a sound that, you can’t really mimic it.

Chris Crain. Photo credit: Roche Bufford.

I put in a lot of hours man, I was practicing, and even now I’m playing the guitar and the bass and tracking right before I got on a call, and working on a record for an artist out of Vegas, mixing and editing, I produced. But it enhances my playing. I played guitar upside down, Jimi Hendrix [style]. But my first guitar, that’s the way I played. I’m right handed, but because I can’t use my left my fingers on my left hand, I just flipped it upside down and played while playing. We just give me a unique sound and it makes the storyline even that much stronger. So when I talk to young people or adults, I’m able to push them to eliminate excuses. The only person, the only thing that can stand in your way is you. And so I use that as motivation and as a motivator to help other folks go through, you know, we keep pushing.

In addition to “Glow,” Crain’s also released an official video for his song “They Say” in Dec. 2020.

NI: And I know you do a ton of work with the community, with your foundation, which we’ll talk about a little bit later on, but let’s get into this album “Glow.” What was it like creating this album? Was this a pandemic project or was this pre-pandemic? Or a little bit of both?

CC: A little bit of both. I’ve been working on some of these songs for about two or three years now. And what I decided was with this album, I wasn’t trying to be trendy. Wasn’t trying to create something for the radio or for the people. When I wrote this album for myself. Irt was just for me, what I was hearing. And by profession, I’m a keyboard player. I played keys, piano, organ. But I picked up the acoustic about five, maybe six years ago. I love acoustic guitar. So every song was written from the acoustic guitar first.

NI: You said that this was a different approach for you on this album. Was that the difference?

CC: Yes. So I started with the bass; it was acoustic. And then I added all of the other things as a song needed. You know, I have an approach where I don’t listen to what the trends are, but I let the song tell me what it needs. So if you listen to the song closely, it’ll tell you what it needed in this measure. And then it took what you have to be open-minded. And once I learned to do to do that kind of assessment and let the song kind of guide me, man, you hear all kinds of things like from fret noise, but what the fret noise would have, like a tone to it that would lead to a really cool string line that could go right here. Or it’d be like a rhythm that’s kind of really a wrong rhythm that, well, it was an accident, but if you put a drum beat there, then it kinda makes it a cool, maybe an eighth note or something that kind of pull them together. I just kind of let it happen.

NI: I’m sure a creative or a musician listening to this definitely feels that that idea of just like trusting the work and trusting the process and trying to just kind of let the creativity flow. That’s a tough thing to do, especially as an artist, when you’re already stepping outside of your comfort zone and stepping outside of your process, but leaning into it, letting it happen and taking your time with it. And taking two years to write these songs, it really shows you how personal they must be.

CC: I’ve done projects where I rushed, and I got to get these 12 songs written. And I listened to it a couple years later, like, “Ah, I should have did this, or I should have waited.” And this time I just took my time, you know, I write, produce, I record, mix and edit all of my own music. I use different people to master, but I do my own mixing and editing. So, you know, the patience of creating a project that you can listen to over and over again, first as an artist, because sometimes artists, we create music and we move on to the next team. But since I released his album, Sept. 29 of this year, I listened to it all the time, and I love it. I stopped fooling around with trends a long time ago. And this album “Glow” is a reflection of the patience, the sincerity, the honestly, the vulnerability. I opened up a lot on this album and I’m excited about it.

NI: Can you share a song on the album that you feel really was a vulnerable moment for you?

CC: There’s a song called “Never.” Well, I’ll just say the lyrics and it’ll tell you so it starts out: “Never thought I could fly / somewhere, be on the sky. / Always wanted to find / a love I could call mine. / All mine. / So much better than the last time / I can believe in love this time.” So that line was some disappointment. And you hit a point where you’ve done all that you can do, and it just doesn’t seem like it’s enough. So you start exploring other things.

I have a space like that with music. I finished my degree, I have a marketing degree, and I just couldn’t break through the ceiling. You know I’ve played and met a lot of people and everybody says, Chris Crain, your music is great and you’re this and you’re that, but it never seemed to be moving to that next place.

CC: And I’m saying, well, “What am I not doing?” And then I got to the point to where I was like, “Ah, okay, enough of that now,” putting in job applications and you know, I’m trying to get a real job. It starts out each verse kind of tells a story of somewhat defeated Chris Crain, but by the end of the song, it shows that I had transcended the defeat, and now I’m in a place to where my time has finally come and that’s how the song is. And so that song is, it was very personal because I put my own experiences out there.

NI: And that’s the kind of stuff, as a listener, that you can pick up on, even if you don’t know you’re picking up on it. This album is so lush, and broad, and musical, and beautiful. And I can just tell how much of yourself you put into it. So congratulations on an excellent album in “Glow” this year, nominated by Radio Milwaukee listeners.

Before we go, I want to ask you a little bit about your foundation, The Better Project Awareness Foundation. What’s the foundation about and what kind of work does it do?

CC: Essentially we use music as a platform to help encourage. We work with, young kids, primarily kids ages six through 16. Of course we’ve worked with kids older and even some adults, but I started this foundation. I was getting calls to go into the school system and to teach these specialty classes, or to even do something with the kids because they’re their music teachers just wasn’t connecting. I found it to be problematic. So I started hosting these free music camps where I taught every instrument that I learned to play from bass guitar, drums, piano. I even added dance and percussion. It started out with four kids, and by the time we did our last camp, we was up to like 70 kids per day hosting camp for a week.

And it was important to me to give them the very thing that helped me get past low self-esteem and anger management, because of my disability, because I was different, I had a boiling pot of anger inside of me because of that. You know, kids are very cruel and they’re very honest. And so I was different, and I heard about it a lot. And so so my, mission was if I can catch kids at this early age and put something inside of them now in these camps, we don’t just teach music and all these piano classes and guitar, but we also have sessions, sessions with that we’ll be talking about low self-esteem and perseverance and those kinds of things.

So my goal is if we can catch them early, then by the time they’re 19, 20 years old, they have something inside of them that helps them as an adult continue to walk. And it all stems from music. And so music is the platform that we use or the vehicle to drive this car, just to get to them a music attraction. Periodically we find a kid that that’s amazing, that has a gift. And if they need instruments to practice, then we purchase instruments for them to take home so that they can grow.

NI: Wow. Congrats. And you think about, I mean, you mentioned it’s grown to 70 little humans working there. I mean, to think about these individual kids that go through this program and get this appreciation of music and get this mentor that they can look up to. And it just sounds like a really beautiful program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Johanna Rose delivers real emotion on their lo-fi masterpiece ‘Postponedalone’

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood and sponsored by the Milwaukee Public Library.

Raw, real and emotional is the easiest way to describe Johanna Rose’s debut solo project, “Postponedalone.” Raw in a sense that the pieces of this dark puzzle start from the inside out rather than the outside in. Their delivery and attention to the imperfections make this work beautifully painful, yet emotionally present. As I was listening, I could feel the words needing to be let loose.

I had the honor of chatting with Johanna about the project, how an escape to Vermont helped heal the soul and the intention for future records in 2021.

Johanna Rose | Photo by Samer Ghani
Interview with Johanna Rose

Kenny Perez: I think I’m listening to this album, “Postponedalone,” really struck emotions within me, which, you know, it’s every artist’s intention to, to strike feelings in the listener. And I really sat with this a few days and really loved on it, and was saddened by a lot of the songs. I’m going to read a quote here, “a series of demos, voices, memos, and songs recorded at 3 a.m., old and new, put together in a low-fi emotional outburst.” And that’s basically what it is. And you also said it may be occasionally have some happiness. I love this album.

Johanna Rose: Oh, thanks so much. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. I’m just here to make you cry.

KP: Talk to me about the process of making this first piece.

JR: Well, I think that if I’m correct, this came out pretty quick after quarantine started. And I think that maybe other people experienced this, too, but my life had been very, out and about. And all of a sudden I was like, “Oh my God, I’m alone. How do you be alone?” I just was kind of allowed the time to think about that. And I had always wanted to do a solo album, but had always had reasons not to do it because it wasn’t polished enough or it wasn’t good enough. And I decided that I was enough, and that this was enough, and it in its rawness was just what I needed to let go of. And here we are.

KP: It’s definitely a raw album. I am a lover of different styles of music. It’s so refreshing to hear this piece of art. There’s one song that I really, really stuck with me and it’s a song called “I Should Leave.” The first line is, “Does anyone notice the difference in my smile?” Talk about your smile now.

JR: Well, I feel like it’s present, it’s here. But that line is talking about when bad things happen or hard things happen, how we can really internalize that and feel like, almost feel like we are wearing it and people can see it, you know even if they can.

KP: It’s such an emotional project, at least from my vantage point, that you created here. And obviously it really struck a chord with with our listeners and with the people that chimed in and what they were listening to this year. I mean, 2020, with all the social injustice, it’s not right. It’s not 2020 social injustice. Hasn’t just started. It’s been going on for for decades for centuries. And this pandemic is what really has taken us back, was definitely a project that speaks to that speaks to feeling. So thank you so much for that. With that, I’m going to say three words, “Vermont, treehouse, outdoors.” What, what has that done for you in 2020 and moving?

JR: I think it was, it’s all part of the same path that I was kind of set on and that hopefully the world was kind of set on since the pandemic started, which is healing. As cheesy or, or maybe predictable as that sounds. I mean, it I really did kind of starting with this album, start going down a path of realizing what I liked about myself, what I didn’t like about myself and what I needed to grow. And part of that was a real disconnect from the natural world. And I was lucky and privileged enough to have some, a space where I could build a treehouse and live in it. And it was off the grid. There was no electricity or water running water, and it was wonderful. It was what I really needed to kind of get my head in the right place for what I imagine is to come. And I think that the world is kind of doing that. We’re realizing what we like about it, what we don’t like about it, what we need to address, what we need to grow, what we need to let go of,

KP: I follow you on Instagram. And I can see some of the images that you posted with the treehouse and with the outdoors of Vermont. Really like breathtaking views and the trees that during this fall. Amazing, amazing stuff. One of the things that caught my attention was the the quote from R.B.G., The Notorious R.B.G., I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talents she had to do, her work to the very best of her ability. If you can tell me a little bit about that quote and what it means to you.

JR Well, R.G.B. I’m actually in a [musical] group called Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We’re kind of choir, I would consider us a choir. And I always painted when I was younger before I was a musician, I grew up thinking I would be a painter. And that’s one of the things that I reconnected with this summer. I painted a lot, and I painted a mural on the tree house, and I grieved through painting. And when she passed, I found that quote just to be really true. Like I believe, I believe it. I think that she definitely lived her life according accordingly. And I just wanted to honor that. So I did what I do when I want to honor anything. I pulled it and hung it in a tree with a whole bunch of flowers.

KP: What can we look forward to in the future from Johanna Rose?

JR: Well, when I was in Vermont I did get to write a lot. I think that in my younger years, I kind of felt like I needed to be in a, in distraught, or in a painful place, which is very inspiring. And you can kind of see that in “Postponedalone.” And I’m not saying that I’m writing happy songs or anything, don’t get me wrong. But I did get to write a lot in this kind of calmer place, more channeled maybe. And I am helping to put that collection of songs out sooner than later.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Support from our community makes stories like the one you just read possible. Make a gift to support the team behind the programming you use and enjoy!

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Klassik shared a taste of what’s to come with ‘Klass Notes’

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and Milwaukee Kayak.

2020 was (insert adjective) for Milwaukee’s musicians. For Kellen Abston, also known as Klassik, it seems from my conversation with him, that it was a kind of incubation and chance to try some things out and explore the inner landscape. As an artist whose work is almost typically excellent, winning Milwaukee Music Awards with nearly every new venture, it’s no surprise that his straight-to-digital-for-free release “Klass Notes” lived up to his usual high standards.

Klassik | Photo credit: Mahdi Gransberry

I got the sense from the interview that Kellen has made good music this year, but that the journey was just a part of what we may hear whole in 2021, making “Klass Notes” a sort of appertif. But it is good, and not only do we talk on that subject, but also the book he helped pen and still further, what remains for 2021.

Listen to our conversation below.

Klassik interview

Marcus Doucette: So it’s a year between your last album, which was, I really felt like, you coming into your own. You stepped up in I think every regard, obviously it had that theme. And then 2020 happens. What was 2020 for you? 

Klassik: For one, I think I’m someone who always has moved at his own pace. We had the vinyl release show a week before everything shut down, like March 6. So that was like really the end cap of the album cycle for me. And I was already kind of working on new material. I just was like, you know, everything’s shut down. I want to read more and write more and experience more of the things that I really care about. It’s allowing me to write from an even more introspective place, if that was possible. I’m growing as an adult and growing in my artistry. I put out “Klass Notes” like, “hey, I’m here,” but like, also there’s no rush for me.

There’s never been a rush for me, like, “I’m going to give you a single next week.” Here’s a body of work that I’m not going to promo and push, but this is just really taking some pages out of the notebook as I’m working through larger scale ideas for next year. This is me at home making these things and working through different styles and approaches all in like a very concise little presentation.

Marcus Doucette: As music, it’s like your notebook. Am I correct in kind of reading that way? And as it turns out, it was really good for 2020. It’s not a physical release, but is it available for people to pick up?

Klassik: Yeah, for now it does exist on SoundCloud for people to listen to it. So I believe you can download straight from there. I plan to make it more available in more ways, but for now it is available for free on SoundCloud because that’s kind of guy I am.

Marcus Doucette: You also have a book you are working on. Can you tell me about it and who you are working with? 

Klassik: That is the brainchild of Joey Grihalva, who has done a lot of really dope writing for local publications and I think he was at 88Nine for a while. Super good dude. He did the Milwaukee jazz book, and even further back we have a connection in that him and I also ran cross country together in high school. So that’s when I actually first met Joey. So he’s known me for awhile. And then at the beginning of this pandemic, he approached me with this idea to write a book about me, but also more than me, like the actual Milwaukee story and tying in a lot of like the history of the city. So he’s going back 20 years and tying in my father’s murder, and more recently my struggles with substances and like alcohol. So this is my story, but it’s more than that. I always say that the city is a part of what I create, and this gives great details on that.

Marcus Doucette: So would you consider “Klass Notes” almost a companion piece to this? 

Klassik: I would say that everything has been very synergetically connected. So “Klass Notes” is more so bleeding into the next body of work that I’m working on, which is like equal parts a live touring kind of mobile experience that I’m working on and also like a project, but I’m pretty sold on the title and the theme because it picks up what “Klass Notes” basically was introducing. This would be a project called “Master Klass.” So it’ll be like a masterclass and what it is, this is the next evolution of what I’m doing, a continuation. So I think that that will probably be more end up being more of a companion piece, because the book comes out actually on what would have been my father’s birthday, Feb. 23. So I’ve got some things that were already in the works, and during this pandemic things have lined up in a way that I can only be grateful for.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Support from our community makes stories like the one you just read possible. Make a gift to support the team behind the programming you use and enjoy!

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

adoptahighway searches for honesty on ‘Coaxing A Ghost Into The Room’

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

adoptahighway | Photo credit: David Szymanski

Barry Paul Clark, a.k.a. adoptahighway, has been a mainstay in Milwaukee’s electronic scene for years. I have been lucky enough to work with him on many projects, including reinterpreting J Dilla and Marvin Gaye. In the Marvin Gaye show, I connected him to Chris Porterfield of another Milwaukee 20 of 2020 group, Field Report, and because of that connection Barry is now a member of the band. He is definitely one of the most dynamic and versatile artists in the city, and that versatility can be heard on his latest release, “Coaxing A Ghost Into The Room.”

On previous albums, adoptahighway used computer software for the production. On this album, he used real instruments to create something more personal. He also approached the process of making this album from a different perspective. “Coaxing A Ghost Into The Room” is not only a beautiful album but at its core it has been therapy for adoptahigway. And the fact that he shared this with his audience is one of the reasons why this project resonated with me, especially in this mentally emotional and exhausting year.

Listen to our interview below.

adoptahighway interview

Tarik Moody: As a musician, how has 2020 been treating you?

adoptahighway: Well, it’s obviously been quite a shift in how I go about my day to day, because, you know, before all this hit, performing music was kind of my full-time thing, whether it was with freelance stuff with different orchestras or chamber ensembles or hired out gigs with the bands that I play in and record with. So all that came to a halt and I’ve had to try to find ways to stay motivated and stay productive and try to figure out how to hit the ground running when this is all over and not necessarily have to build our way back to where we were, but hopefully take off from where we left off.

Tarik Moody: So talk about this project, “Coaxing A Ghost Into The Room.” It seems like a very personal kind of project. It sounds almost like therapy.

adoptahighway: Yeah, that’s correct. Therapy was part of what went into starting this music. My adoptahighway project is a solo thing that I’ve been releasing music for 10 years at this point. It’s been a long time since I released another adoptahighway album. It’s been a little over five years and I’ve just kind of had a little bit of a separation from how I was seeing this project and how I was approaching this project. And just kind of overall in general, I was becoming separated from why I wanted to make music and what I was making music for. I’m really, really fortunate to have been busy making a living making music with the different bands and projects and stuff, but I just felt like I was getting really kind of separated from that.

And there were just some things going on, both in my professional and my personal life that caused me to reach out to a therapist. I had been working with him for about a year, a lot of 2019 and then into 2020, and just trying to reset through cognitive behavior therapy, how I was approaching creative process and being able to see something all the way through. Because some of my biggest challenges, and I know I’m not alone in this, but it’s just getting started on something. And one of the bigger obstacles was trying to define something or give it a meaning before it even existed, which I think a lot of creative people run into. It doesn’t matter really what the discipline is; we always want something to have this real depth and this like perfect expression. But I think that even though that’s a good goal to have, if you’re starting from that point it can be a real hindrance to what is created. And so I just was working with this therapist and kind of readjusting through cognitive behavior therapy how I was approaching making music and then just life in general. 

Tarik Moody: How did you approach this album compared to your previous works? What was the process like to create the first song? What did you go through?

adoptahighway: This is the first adoptahighway record that I used all live instruments. I didn’t use any software instruments or things like that. I was recording into software obviously, but it’s all synthesizers, hardware, live instruments. So there was that approach to it and kind of like I was speaking to a moment ago, I sort of developed this mantra of just like, “let’s see,” and like, just get started, start making something. And then when you see it start to take shape, you can decide what direction you want to take it in. And I’ve found through that process that I’m actually becoming more excited once I start to create something, because the excitement is starting to lie in, “Oh, what direction is it going to go?” It’s almost like when you get it out of yourself, it can start to take on its own sort of form and its own sort of life.

Tarik Moody: Did you feel like this process actually helped with what you’re going through? 

adoptahighway: Yeah, it absolutely did. Because you know, once it was finished, I could look back and see how I got to that point. And it did it was just, it was something that I personally felt proud of just because I was able to finish it. And I’ve talked to talk about this with other artists and musician friends of mine, about how every time we create something new, we’re like getting closer to a truth that we’re all chasing, you know? And that’s why you can sort of look back on your previous work and, you know, maybe not necessarily like it anymore or necessarily think that it represents who you are today, but it still exists. It has its own life. And every time, at least personally, every time I release music as adoptahighway, I’m feeling like I’m getting closer to a real truth in the expression. Even though I always strive for an honesty, it just feels like with this release in particular, I kind got through something that makes me feel like I’ve gotten closer to a real truth.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Support from our community makes stories like the one you just read possible. Make a gift to support the team behind the programming you use and enjoy!

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Dead Horses reflect on their sentimental ‘Birds’ EP and the biggest show of their career

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin with support from Bold Impressions Digital.

Dead Horses had a pretty big year last year. It culminated with them opening for The Who at Alpine Valley, a venue with a capacity of 34,000. In 2018 they released their album, “My Mother the Moon” and their song “Turntable” has over 28 million plays on Spotify right now.

Their music has the ability to connect right to the soul. Early this year they released an EP called, “Birds.” For the EP, Sarah and Daniel went up to the Fox Valley and took a hold of producing the songs in a way that they have never done before. The result shows the heart that this band is known for.

Dead Horses | Courtesy of the artist

On the EP they included an instrumental track called “Hollywood.” I thought the name was some kind of indictment of what the city stands for or something like that, but I was charmed to find out that “Hollywood” was titled after a regular at several of the bars in the Fox Valley. They had a stool with “Hollywood” written on it, waiting for him to come sit down. A true taste of Midwestern bar hospitality.

Tragically “Hollywood” was killed in a bar fight outside of one of his mainstays, and when the band heard of him and his warm reputation, they wanted to honor that by writing his name on the song. And I think that is a good indication of the thoughtfulness that this band puts into their life and their work.

We spoke to Dead Horses guitarist/singer Sarah Vos and bassist Daniel Wolff. They explain how they met and formed the group, the wild experience of opening for The Who, and the vision that guided this latest set of songs.

Steam the interview below.

Dead Horses interview

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Support from our community makes stories like the one you just read possible. Make a gift to support the team behind the programming you use and enjoy!

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Eli Cash’s ‘StereoType Assassin’ is an opus more than 10 years in the making

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Eli Cash’s latest album took quite a bit longer than he expected to complete. The rapper first began recording the songs that would become “StereoType Assassin” more than a decade ago with his longtime producer/collaborator Steezy Wonder, but it was only after the pandemic hit this year that the two finally got around to compiling them into a finished product.

Eli Cash and Steezy Wonder | Photo credit: Sarah Julius

For most rap projects, that delay would be the kiss of death, but Eli Cash specializes in the kind of rap that doesn’t really have an expiration date: turntable-heavy, golden-era-indebted hip-hop that sounds just as classic in 2020 as it would have in 2010 or 1995. We talked to Eli Cash and Steezy Wonder about the album’s long gestation, and what it is that draws them to that cherished era of hip-hop.

Eli Cash

Evan: This is Evan Rytlewski from Radio Milwaukee, and I’m joined now by rapper Eli Cash and producer Steezy Wonder, talking about their new album “Stereotype Assassin.” This is a collection of recordings that you guys have made over the last decade. How did you go about assembling recordings that date back from that long ago into a coherent album?

Eli Cash: We always had a basic tracklist kind of in mind for how the album would flow, but we had never finalized it. We didn’t have cover art and stuff, but we always knew that all of these songs were going to make it on the album. And from there, it was just a matter of going back through different takes and remastering the songs. Justin, Steezy, here was able to master the songs again and you create some new interludes to kind of help sequence the album, like the intro and outro and everything. But aside from that, I mean, the songs were always written to be a concept to begin with. So it was just a matter of going back in the archive, so to speak, and digging them all back out again and making them sound good.

Evan: Why did it take so long for you to use them? Did you have plans for them immediately or could you just not find the proper project to put them on?

Eli Cash: It was kind of a matter of us both being kind of perfectionist a little bit. We kept wanting to change the songs more. And then right around the time that we recorded the last song, which was in like 2012, that’s when I had my first kid. And then life happens and other priorities came into the mix, you know, and it just kinda got put on the shelf and then it turned into a thing of, “Oh, maybe it’s been too long. Maybe we should just move on from it.” But after revisiting the songs and realizing they still sound good and stood the test of time, it seemed like it would be a shame to not still put it out. 

Steezy Wonder: You know, it was a labor of love for sure. We were working together for a number of years before this and we put out a couple of albums and this was something that I was really, really proud of from a production standpoint. And we always had plans of releasing it, but as Chris said, you know, life happens. I was involved in several side projects with another Milwaukee artist, and I sort of dabbled in the indie rock scene for a while. And so life got in the way, but we were really, really excited about this album. It was always playing at my house. I love all the songs and it was just something I wanted to share with the world at the right time. And as odd as it sounds, 2020 was the right time.

Evan: The album almost reminds me of some of Dan The Automator’s projects, just because there’s such a big premium placed on the turntablism and it’s got sort of a science fiction concept running through it.

Eli Cash: Yeah, Dan The Automator was an influence, specifically like Deltron 3030. We listened to that a lot, but all of his work for Handsome Boy Modeling School and all his production has a really cool cinematic feel, which is always something we kind of were going for with the Stereotype Assassin theme song. It almost sounds like a theme for “Superfly” or something. You know, it has almost like a superhero vibe to it. And we kind of wanted the whole album to feel like that, like it could be a movie in itself, you know, and we always just toyed around with adding other instruments, and it was fun. We only had the one turntable setup just in that studio, but we were able to get some cool scratches out of it. And that was always just like a fun thing to add to it, to give it more of an old school vibe. You know, we always try to make stuff sound like it could be classic. Like it could be from the golden age ’90s, or it could be something current. And, and that’s something that I think is a good bridge between the two.

Evan: What is it about that golden age that appeals to you guys?

Eli Cash: Well, for me, that’s like what I was kind of like raised on listening. Like from a really young age, I had uncles who were like big into hip-hop. So like the first CD I ever bought was A Tribe Called Quest. And I was really obsessed with Tribe and then got into Nas a lot. And, you know, all of those artists, I heard them like pretty much as they were coming out. And that to me was like, what hip-hop was supposed to sound like, you know? And from there I went back and got into Rakim and more of like the traditional classic rappers, but something with the golden age sound, it always just had a feel to it that I feel like a lot of the later rap just didn’t have. And you know,  it feels less digital, it feels more like actual analog work and it’s almost like more like you can hear the production being done. It doesn’t sound like it’s been put together by a computer or something, you know, and there’s something to that.

Steezy Wonder: Yeah, the golden era was big.I love the big 808 drums, love the feel, the sampling, That era used was really important to us. DJ Shadow’s another big influence of mine from instrumental sampling, and trip-hop. We really wanted to create a cinematic moving album and, even from a film cinematic standpoint, Tarantino films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” at the time had a big influence on the soundtrack feel of the album. I was really thinking, how can we put together a musical album that really has a cinematic or movie feel to it, and so pulling from those influences really helped tie it together.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Support from our community makes stories like the one you just read possible. Make a gift to support the team behind the programming you use and enjoy!

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Operations discuss the origins of their blissful, guitar-dazed debut album ‘Fog Museum’

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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.

Operations | operations.bandcamp.com

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.

Interview with Operations

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.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Support from our community makes stories like the one you just read possible. Make a gift to support the team behind the programming you use and enjoy!

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

GGOOLLDD’s ‘Here We Are’ takes you on a wild, ‘dungeon disco’ ride

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and sponsored by Badger Liquor.

Margaret Butler of GGOOLLDD. Photo credit: Alyssa Leicht.

If you’ve seen the band GGOOLLDD perform, you know they bring a full out spectacle on stage, especially in the wardrobe department. Peek into Margaret Butler’s closet (which I had the unique opportunity to do during our video call), and you’ll see lots of sequins, bodysuits and capes.

But those shimmering costumes stayed on their hangers this year, unilluminated by stage lights, as she and bandmates Nick Ziemann and Nick Schubert have had to cancel their tour and reschedule their album release show multiple times, due to the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, however, the band remains optimistic. They hope to play songs from their album “Here We Are” at their upcoming Milwaukee concert — although date is still in flux — and they’re planning to hit the studio in January to begin recording new music.

“Here We Are” is the band’s first full-length album, and it’s their most dynamic release yet. The album takes you to incredible, fist-pumping highs in the first third, then swirls around dreamy interludes in the middle and ends in an almost dirge-like fashion, with a dissonant piano chord fading into silence. It’s a powerful collection of songs that has a distinct narrative while simultaneously compelling you to dance.

Listen to our conversation below about the album, the quarantine and achieving a “dungeon disco” sound. And be sure to check out the band’s official site for links to purchase the album, including a limited edition vinyl.

GGOOLLDD

Nate Imig: I got to say the album “Here We Are” is a really great album. There are some real bangers on there. It had the highs and the lows; it really had everything you wanted. And I’m bummed that I can’t see it live. And I imagine this has been such a difficult year. How are you guys doing with this? Like being on pause right now? How’s this lockdown treating you?

Margaret Butler: I mean, it was just like it’s been a bummer, but after you get your release show pushed back so many times, you’re just like, “All right, well, we have to focus on other things.” We’re actually excited because after this interview we’re going to stay on and start start on some singles. We haven’t really written music together since COVID started, because we’ve just been waiting and waiting and waiting. And finally, we’re getting that February [2021] show moved again. That was supposed to be our album release party in February [2020]. It’s supposed to be the day, the day that the album actually got released this year, but next year, and then that got moved again. So we’re like, we gotta do something. We can’t just sit and wait for this album release show, like it’s just too much. So we’re actually getting together to try to put out some more, just put out some more singles because we’re tired of waiting. We want to write music.

Nick Ziemann: Even though the album didn’t get it in the sun, it got time in the shade, whatever —

MB: Kind of a bummer because that was our very first full length. Now we’re like, maybe that’s a bad omen.

NI: I hope you don’t forget about these songs.

MB: No, no, no. We’re still gonna, I mean, we’re still practicing them. Like we’re very excited for when we do have a show it’s going to be awesome. We’re still going forward. The same plan. It’s still gonna be an awesome show, but I think like we just miss writing music together. So that’s important.

NI: Let’s talk about this album in particular. It has just such a fun energy and especially some of those early songs like “Money” and “Success” that we play 88Nine. They take you to these fist-pumping places that are just so fun. But then the album goes through some lows, as well. And by the end it kind of ends on this definitive, like “dunn” sound, almost funeral-like. How did that structure of the album kind of, how was that informed by what you’re trying to accomplish and state with this album?

MB: Very thoughtfully. I mean, I think that I went over that list of songs in my head over a hundred times before landing on it. Cause it is sort of a story album. And then there’s a lot of angst in there which is very, very different than any of our other records, because we’ve always just been like “dance, pop, dance.” Since we were doing a whole full length record, it’s important to like have a story and putting those ups and downs. And I mean, I think that I would get really bored listening to a dance pop album that was nine, 10 songs long, personally. But unless it’s Robyn, of course, unless it’s Robyn.

NI: And Robyn fans would probably love a few tracks on this album, as well. And I’m thinking about your whole catalog, and I think you hit right on it, that this is the first full-length release from you. And I felt like each, each slot on the album truly did feel intentional and like you were listening to that story. And that definitely came through the few times I listened to it.

NZ:
I mean, we, we discussed it a lot, but she had an idea in her head.

NI: Where does that put artists right now, where you’re in this position where you want to do these more complete works, and where does that put you when you’re formulating formulating? You want to put out singles, but you want to put out albums and everything’s all screwed up right now —

MB: I think lucky for us is that we did put out a full-length album. I mean, COVID shut everything down like a week later, but you know, we did get that out. So like we’ve been writing we wrote a bunch of songs cause we just, you know, we were playing. So we have all these songs that we’re sitting on and because we had such a heartfelt record and they were those low points and then were those dark songs. We, you know, we learned a lot about writing more emotionally and just what we want out of a dance pop song. And so we have a lot of really fun songs in the works that I’m really, really excited about. And now that I’ve had that release of putting out that full album, of getting out those concerns and getting out of that angst, like the next chapter is just really exciting for us. So we have been on hold for a really long time. And I think the only, like the only thing I can say is as an artist, like you don’t have to play live shows. We can keep putting out music. It’s not the same payoff, but I think I can’t, we can’t just sit here and not, you know, if you don’t use you lose it.

NZ: But we did, we did get the “car” back, you know, like we wanted to ride it out and we wanted to write a longer story and, and create those highs and lows. And yeah, like you were just adding to what you’re saying, because we did that. It’s it’s party time, but the party is just delayed a year. So we just kind of it’s it’s waiting, but we have, we’ve got a full tank, so we’re just trying to not get too hard on ourselves and not overthink it.

NI: You talk about having the tank being full, maybe that was one of the kind of unintended bright spots of this year, as it maybe gave you that chance to get back into some writing. And while we’re talking about new music, can you give us any more info on kind of what’s next there?

MB:
Honestly we decided like last week, with the show moved again, we’re not going to sit on this anymore. Like we gotta do something. So we literally just decided this. I would like to start recording, you know, late January, but that says nothing about when anything will come out, but it does say that we’re actually in it again.

NI: That’ll be reassuring to Radio Milwaukee fans and listeners that you there’s more coming from GGOOLLDD.

NI: I wanted to ask you about the album artwork. This looks like such a fun day that you guys had here. I want to know the story behind the shoot.

Nick Schubert: That was a fricking nuts day.

NI: You’re sitting in some bed together and there’s like a room service spread, and some ’70s looking like Jell-O sculpture. I’m not even sure what, tell me about this photo shoot.

MB: So I got inspiration from this old ’70s photo where it was like just these two people in a bed covered in fur. And they’re like, you know, half naked and smoking cigarettes. And there’s just like just gross, like giant steaks around them.

NZ: I think it was “worst album covers of all time,” like a Buzzfeed article or something.

MB: So I was like, man, this could be, this is actually great. I don’t know why you think this is bad. This is amazing. So yeah, I just came up with a color scheme and went to the Cermak and just bought everything that was and yellow and green. I made that croquembouche. That’d be cake in the middle.

NI: I’m sorry. You gotta tell me about a croquembouche is. I don’t think I’m familiar.

NS: You don’t know what that is? Jeez.

MB: It’s a pastry tower, these little cream puffs, you know, little pastry balls with the cream inside, and they stack them and you make them to this like Christmas tree looking thing.

NI: Ah yes. A croquembouche. Of course

MB: It was really cute because I was, I was like, obviously eating it and all the photos and I couldn’t get through the whole thing. And I, we brought it out of the hotel that I accidentally booked for two nights.

NZ: We got hotel room in Milwaukee so we didn’t have to clean up the mess as much.

MB: So I just, I liked the wood headboard. It actually took me a while to find.

NZ: She’s pretty particular, but yeah. It was fun.

MB: And then on the way out, all the bellhops are they were really wide-eyed when they saw that croquembouche, and I was so excited that they were so excited, because someone ate it for me. Yeah. So it didn’t go to waste.

NI: I’m so glad that you’re able to capture this outing because it is definitely not the worst album cover. I know that it’s a great album cover.

NZ: Hey, you’re a charmer. Thank you.

NI: So as we go on here, if you could just kind of give some listening notes to a Radio Milwaukee listeners, or anybody who’s listening to this, who may be listening to the album for the first time, what can you say to get them primed and in the right headspace to listen?

MB: I would say if you’ve listened to our music and seen our live shows, we we tried really, really hard to make this album sound like we sound live. Basically,because I feel like all of our other albums are quite shimmery, which I’m not against that. I think that they’re all great in their own way. They’re all my children. But this one is definitely a little bit grittier and it definitely sounds more like we sound live in the live setting.

NS:
I think it’s got like a, more of a glam rock vibe to it.

MB: It has more emotion.

NS: And down, like you were saying, it feels like you’re on a roller coaster at Six Flags Great America.

MB: It really does. It’s a lot of fun to dance to it. And that’s another reason I’m upset is because I’ve been practicing all the dance moves for the album for that release show. And you know, it’s such a fun album to dance to because it is so up and down and it’s just going to be awhile

NZ: We we’ve used the words “dungeon disco” for this album.

MB: We actually have two ducks. We names them “Dungeon” and “Disco.”

NI: Well, congratulations on an excellent album. Here we are from gold. One of Milwaukee’s 20 of 2020.

All: Well, thank you. Thanks Nate.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Cullah taps into our senses with his magical ‘Cullahtivation’

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

It was really cool jumping on this call with Cullah for Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020. In all transparency, I hadn’t heard much of his music outside of the tracks we’ve supported on the air here at 88Nine. When I tasked myself to interview Cullah, I dove in head first and now can honestly say I am a fan!

Cullah | Photo by Meghan Stark

Did you know he has dropped 14 albums and he hasn’t even hit the age of 30?! I can’t process that either. Where does one get the energy to create such work, and amazing stuff at that?

I’ll tell you something, the versatility he has to offer as a musician is evident in the breath of work he has put out into the universe. In the interview we talked his beginning, his now and what he has in store for number 15.

Stream our conversation below.

Cullah interview

Kenny Perez: So “Cullahtivation,” it’s a great album. You’ve been producing music since you were about 12, 13. Am I wrong?

Cullah: Oh, you’re right. Yeah, that it’s something like that. 2006. So I released the first album when I was 15, but I have stuff recorded from 2001, 2003, but that will never see the light of day.

KP: Yeah. But you know what? The album in 2006 — this is why I was so intrigued by you when I heard the first album. You dug in at the age of 14, 15 years old. And you did your thing. And I was like, so inspired. I was like, wait a minute. This is like 2006. There’s this breadth of like artistry, right? Even though we’re young, we’re creating on Fruity Loops, we’re creating an Ableton. Now we’re moving to Pro Tools. There’s, there’s this artistry. Talk about that, that whole from 2006, that first album “Adolescents” to “Cullahtivation.” Talk about that, that growth process.

C: I was just talking about that the other day about someone, about how it honestly doesn’t feel that different. Like it’s, there’s so much that is different about the process in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways, it’s not. I was thinking about that 2006 [album], it was all instrumental, just me composing in a mini, a piano roll and just kind of messing around with different sounds. I honestly wasn’t thinking too much. I just felt a really overwhelming desire and urgency to make the music as soon as I figured out how to do it. And as soon as that started to come out and started to flow, I just couldn’t stop. And so before I knew it, I wasn’t trying to do an album a year until maybe until maybe like 2013 or 2014, then I really started to be like, “Oh, wait, I’m doing this every year.”

KP: Did you find out that you could sing rap song rights after that? You talked about just being musical composition, where, when did you find your voice?

C: So the, the stuff that won’t be ever see the light of day, it’s the stuff with my voice when I was well before the 2000s, I have lots and lots and probably five times as many songs as were released on “Adolescents,” but all with my voice. I was using windows sound recorder before that, like, and you can only record 30 seconds at a time with this thing. At least I thought that’s what you could do. And I was just using like an on his old, huge tube monitor with like a microphone built into it. And, and I always kind of knew I could sing. I was I was singing to myself all the time, trying to just pretend like I was an opera singer and singing sing in the school musicals and stuff.

My, my mom is one of 17 kids and they were all in a family band and they all learned how to sing and play music. But my mom, as soon as I was born, basically she stopped. She stopped doing all the music altogether, but encouraged us to play. But so it was kind of weird. It was like she stopped, there was still this huge, like momentum of music coming from her and from her family and inside me. But there was just this kind of void now of her just transitioning to other things. But it was still inside me, I think. And so I kind of took up the baton and kind of kept running with it.

KP: So there’s definite musical background. It sounds like. And from listening to a lot of the album from listening to a lot of your albums that’s, and that’s 14 of them, if you didn’t know out there it’s 14 albums got a 15th coming out next, April 27. What’s the, what’s the significance of that date?

C: April 27 is the date that I was born. So it’s it’s my birthday. So the significance is simple. Sometimes less is more, but originally I released it on my birthday to try and get people to listen to it in high school. Because before, before even Myspace and Facebook, although Myspace came in pretty hot in my high school years. But before that people just had to know if it was your birthday, you know, someone would know, or someone would. And they’d, everyone would have to tell each other.

KP: And, and congratulations, you have the 15th coming out on April 27 of 2021. But, “Cullahtivation,” talk about that. It’s been an interesting 2020. You talk about social injustice, this pandemic and other things, but talk about this. When did when did you start working on “Cullahtivation?” Was it specific for 2020, or was it before that, that you just dropped it?

C:So the part of the releasing things on my birthday has tied me pretty strongly to a yearly lifecycle of an album. Right? So every year, except for 2012, which was just a terrible mess, like a lot of my gear was destroyed that year by accident. But, or maybe no, 2011, sorry, but the I’ve, I’m so tied to this, this release state that like a lot of the pandemic and social, like all the George Floyd protests and everything happened almost immediately after I released my album on, of cultivations or around that time. So I had finished, I’m almost, I finished all my stuff by probably the beginning of March or late February now. But back in some of the earlier albums, I’ve finished them the day before. But now, now I have to like send it off to vinyl. I have to do all these things ahead of time.

So almost immediately, like day one, or even like those last weeks in to coming up to the, the album release, whatever I’m working on goes on to the next year. So “Cullahtivation” was new 2019, really? So like you hear that and that’s really a 2019 cycle. But from April to April, and then this 2021 album is going to have a lot more of the whole pandemic and social justice aspects to it. Cause that’s really the reflection of 2020. It’s because I’m constrained to that date every year. It’s kind of like a little sonic autobiography. That’s what I call it. Like people can tune along, and like I’ve had people who said they’d been listening since 2009 or whatever, and they listen every year and they looked in. It’s that random, specific date that no one would ever know about care or care about.

It’s not a holiday, it’s not anything. But because it’s consistent and because I’m constrained to that, people know exactly, they know exactly when to expect it. But yeah, it’s my 30th birthday and my 15th album. So it’ll be 50% of my life releasing a music every year on my birthday. Wow.

KP: “Cullahtivation” was definitely after listening to it really internalizing. It was a beautiful record, man. Congratulations on that. One of my favorite tracks on the “Cullahtivation” album is “Runaway.” I love the, I love the vocals, man. I loved that the drums and the electronic sense that you capture in that track, but really congratulations. Then I appreciate you. I appreciate you for being on. Is there, can you give us just a little something where we can find your music? What can we do to support you?

C: The best way for people to support and what I’ve been doing these last couple of years has been doing a pre-order fundraiser-type drive for each album now. So what people are interested in supporting me that the best way is to go directly to my site, Cullah.com, and they can go and give a certain amount to pre-order essentially either vinyl or people can get their name shouted out in songs, and they can get their name written on the back of the vinyl. And they can, you know, give. Give whatever they want as a thank you or however they decide to do it. But that’s all it goes directly towards all the expenses. And this year’s fundraiser, I’m giving 15% to the North American independent venue association to actually do something about the fact that all these venues are just, are just dropping like flies. And it’s really scary to be totally honest. But, but yeah, so that’s the best way to do it. And I really appreciate, I really appreciate you having me on, and I love all what 88Nine does for Milwaukee has always been a huge fan for forever. So always happy to be part of it and super honored to be included in the 20.

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

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Devil Met Contention learned to take their time on ‘Wait’

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All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and sponsored by the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Devil Met Contention | Photo credit: Samer Ghani

2020 has been a tough go for musicians the world over with opportunities as limited as the next lockdown and social distancing putting live shows in limbo. But where there’s struggles there are also opportunities and Milwaukee’s Devil Met Contention, true to their name, have found a way through the year’s bedevilment to not only work, produce and promote a new album, but actually take the existential-ness of the times and use the space to re-calibrate, experiment and refine.

I had the chance to rap with Nez, the band’s drummer, about their process on their excellent and aptly titled new EP “Wait.” I must admit that though we’d not met, the vibe was friendly and I gained a greater appreciation for the outfit’s headspace. We’d really dug the album, our listeners agreed and Devil Met Contention were an easy choice for our Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, but we wanted to know more…

Devil Met Contention interview

Marcus: Throughout the month of December, Radio Milwaukee is celebrating Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, the best releases of 2020 from Milwaukee musicians. And I am joined by Nez of the band Devil Met Contention.

Nez: Oh, it is my pleasure, Marcus. Thank you for having me.

Marcus: You’re 100% welcome. It’s nice to connect with people. 2020 has been so weird. I don’t even know who I am anymore.

Nez: Yeah. You know that feeling. I know what you mean. That feeling is tough, especially in a city like Milwaukee, where a lot of the musicians and the people in this business know each other and we hang out, we see each other at taco trucks and and Riverwest swap meets and all those things. And it’s been so hard this year to kind of live in your bubble. It’s like, we all need those Flaming Lips bubbles to walk around in where we could like roll around and maybe like high-five each other through the plastic or something. I don’t know.

Marcus: One of the things that has been great about this year has been the fact that Milwaukee musicians have not given up there have been tons of new releases. There’s been a lot of great stuff. And your band Devil Met Contention has picked up kind of where they left off.

One thing I sort of felt like was when I heard the new album, it was like, what is this band? They sound a little different. I’m wondering if you can speak to, what’s been going on between the last album and this album, and where this album came from. I feel like you guys like literally went into the kitchen and came up with something totally different.

Nez: It’s funny that you mentioned that. We rehearsed for a long time at David Schuyler, our guitarist’s house, and the basement. And it was a really small space. So we were all like physically very close together and we would just no make tapes of like rehearsals and ideas or Sam would come in with an idea and we’d kind of beat it up. And so what we decided this time around and is that we were just gonna make a bunch of music and, and this was in 2019, you know, we were going to make a bunch of music and then figure out how we were gonna do it later on as far as like the release schedule. So we really weren’t limiting ourselves to any kind of sound or instrumentation or anything.

And because we kind of did it on our own, it really gave us the freedom to kind of explore a little bit more. You know, when you go into a studio, the clock is always ticking and you’re like, “alright, we have to play these songs perfectly exactly this way.” And we take them home and listen to them for a week and see where they’re going to go. And so I think having control of that whole recording process from beginning to end, really let us like stretch out and kind of open up more.

Marcus: I definitely think that’s a part of a lot of a lot of artists’ and bands’ journeys. And I liked the fact that it sounds like you freeing yourself up from the studio where it’s kind of like the ticker is always running. Once you get into the studio and money is being spent with every minute. When you’re recording at home, it seems like it affords you a certain amount of freedom. Was that a deliberate thing that you wanted to do or was it just kind of how it ended up?

Nez: I think I would say it’s a little bit of both. You know, we did our previous single ourselves, because that was like a quick thing. But before that we had done a little work with Daniel Holter before he left town in his wonderful studio Wire & Vice. And that was a great experience and he is a fantastic person to work with. But even doing two songs with him and really trying to get it right and not worry about what the price tag is, you start to think about all the songs that you have in the can that you still want to work on. And you start to look at the like the bill, you know, especially for bands where we are. It’s not like we’re making a ton of money as a band, and everybody kind of pitches in on their own to kind of help pay for other expenses. And then with no money coming in at all in 2020, it just made sense for us to do as much as can on our own.

Marcus: It sounds like you’re working on process a lot right now. What direction do you feel like you’re moving into? I know it’s hard to talk about a future that’s not written, but how much is intentional where you guys are going and how much of it is maybe exploration?

Nez: You know, that’s a really good question, especially because with this band there’s always been like little threads. We’re all very different people as band members, but where we connect musically and like artistically is very much in, you know, a little bit of a fantastic or futuristic kind of way. So I think it’s really natural for us to make music that has like more space maybe than other people would be interested in and not being afraid to like release a song, you know, wait, like, there’s one track. That’s like two songs put together and it’s pretty long. And you know, it’s kind of an exploration where you’d have to kind of go on the journey where the song takes you. And so I think a lot of the exploration is kinda more built into our process than it used to be when we were playing a show and let’s say, you’re like, “Oh, we’ve got a show in April and we have to put a set together and we’ve got, you know, like 45 minutes, let’s like drill the song.”

So everything’s really tight. We don’t waste a lot of time between songs. You just want to get max music out there, you know, but when you know that there’s no shows and you just kind of have like a deadline in your head of like, “Hey guys, we want to have this music ready to release by this time.” It gives you a little bit more room to explore, you know, maybe try different sounds or, or do just music that other people might think of your band as not being in that direction. And I think for us, it’s kind of interesting because each one of these kind of groups of songs that we worked on together, I think there’s four altogether, four groups. Each one of them might end up kind of having a feel. But at the time that we were creating them, maybe we didn’t realize that they were connected.

And then when you listen to like 12 songs to get realize, “Oh yeah, there’s a connection here. These four go together or these three to go with, go together.” … I think we’re thinking about it a little bit more because you want to make sure that people enjoy the music on all levels … That’s my favorite thing as a drummer. If I can play a show and I see people popping their heads or moving their feet, then I feel like I’m doing my job. You know, then it’s up to the rest of the band to, to tickle their ears. But I’m just, I’m trying to get the body moving, you know?

Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020 is presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

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