“This song is for all the people who have really bad thoughts and can’t get them out of their heads sometimes,” Derek “Whisper Crystal” announces to the crowd gathered at the Var Gallery and Studio to watch the band Social Caterpillar perform.
“And for possums, because over time they’ve never been able to fully adapt to the cold and they’re always frost-bitten on their ears and their tails.”
The audience laughs, and Social Caterpillar slips into the harmonious choir of vocals that kick off its new song, “We’ve Got Bad Electricity in Our Heads” — a lamentation about being a hypochondriac and overanalyzing everything.
The members of Social Caterpillar — a five-piece Milwaukee ensemble that’s been playing together since the beginning of 2016 — are experts in this style of shifting tones. Much of the band’s lyrical content, in particular many of the songs that make up the 2016 debut EP Welcome to the Petting Zoo, are saturated in anxiety, loneliness and an aversion to societal “norms.”
However, the moments of dreariness are broken apart by the band’s chemistry and collective uplifting attitude, as the members joke with the audience and each other and genuinely enjoy being onstage.
At one moment, vocalist Kyle Smith hauntingly croons, “I don’t like what I’ve become.” The next, the band is performing a song about a time-traveling cruise ship that hails from a year in which marijuana is significantly more potent — a song that supposedly was only to be played one time and never be performed again, according to the band.
A large part of what Social Caterpillar is about is moving forward collectively, in a positive manner, during times in which there is so much to fight for and so much negativity in the world.
“You need to be able to sing about sad stuff sometimes, but I think we’re moving in a better direction and having a better outlook on life through having friends and appreciating that,” Smith says.
From duo to five-piece
The group is composed of Kyle Smith on vocals and guitar, Derek “Whisper Crystal” on drums, Eric Ash on violin and guitar, Eli “Lazer” on bass, and “K-rad” on cello.
After Smith moved to Milwaukee, he and Ash began to write songs and perform together as a duet. They gradually added friends to the party, becoming in August 2016 a five-piece band.
The band performs frequently in and around Milwaukee, and went on a short tour to Kalamazoo, Michigan, during which the players listened to Harry Potter books on tape.
Social Caterpillar released Welcome to the Petting Zoo Dec. 2, 2016.
While the EP focuses a lot on Smith’s anxieties, the growth of the band as an ensemble has allowed Smith to look at his life through a different lens.
In particular, sharing songwriting duties with Ash has had a positive influence on the lyrical content.
“It really brought me to a better place, looking at someone else in my life that does this and has a better outlook on life,” Smith says.
‘All things are political’
The name of the band is a long-winded acronym that sums up the driving force behind Social Caterpillar’s music: Striving Onward Collectively And Illegally Against The Law, Cosmic Art Terminates Every Relation Of Power Instantly, Limitless Love Amongst Rebellion.
“The Wu-Tang Clan taught us about acronyms, and this acronym tells us a lot about what we do with our music,” Whisper Crystal says.
The next step in spreading the band’s message is a split EP that will be released Dec. 2. The EP is a partnership between Social Caterpillar and fellow Milwaukee Screamo outfit Snag, a group that has been spreading a message of their own on protecting the environment from careless large corporations.
The EP will be available online, with cassette tapes also available at a release show that evening at High Dive in Riverwest, where Social Caterpillar and Snag perform with hip-hop artist Zed Kenzo.
The EP will feature “We’ve Got Bad Electricity in Our Heads,” as well as Social Caterpillar’s rendition of a protest song, “Make America Disappear Again.” For that tune, Social Caterpillar gathered 25 friends in a compact practice space to record the choral section.
“All things are political,” Whisper Crystal says of the recording. “Generally, the way people live in the world is political, and music has had a tie to politics since folk music in the U.S.”
Social Caterpillar will perform at an EP release show at 9 p.m. Dec. 2 at High Dive, 701 E. Center St., Milwaukee.
Follow the band’s Instagram account @socialcaterpillarmke for goofy videos of the band and photographs of plastic dinosaurs with uplifting captions. Listen at socialcaterpillar.bandcamp.com/releases.