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Author/musician Peter Roller explains how Milwaukee rocks

Peter Roller, an associate professor of music at Alverno College, is the author of “Milwaukee Garage Bands: Generations of Grassroots Rock.” Spanning more than 50 years of music in Milwaukee, the book features local rock heroes such as The Mustard Men (led by Warren Wiegratz), as well as bands who broke out on a national level, including Milwaukee’s Violent Femmes. Written in a style that’s appealing to both musical novices and aficionados, “Milwaukee Garage Bands” should inspire readers to track down recordings by the bands mentioned in the book – or even to start their own garage bands to perpetuate Milwaukee’s contribution to the genre.

I spoke with Peter Roller prior to his book’s publication. 

Peter, as an East Coast native, what brought you to Milwaukee?

I grew up in the New Jersey suburb of Summit. My wife grew up in Milwaukee, and even though we met in the Twin Cities and lived in various places, by the time we had our first kid we felt like coming back to her home … in the mid-1980s. 

How did “Milwaukee Garage Bands” come about?

I studied in the field of ethnomusicology, which is often called “world music.” I went from a lot of knowledge about American music styles – my own origins, like a lot of Baby Boomers, (was) in a garage band – to learning about all these different world music styles. After years of that came time for my own Ph.D. dissertation, and I did what Dorothy did and I decided it was time to go back home to where I started. I was shocked to find that no one in rock writing had written about absolutely amateur groups. They’d always written about people who had one-hit-wonder records or star careers. I did an oral history of the Milwaukee area to basically prove that there have always been low-level beginning garage bands – and not just in the ’60s, which gets all the attention.

What was involved in the process of selecting and tracking down the bands you wrote about?

It was over many years. It was challenging. Rather than just take the 1960s and try to do every band I possibly could in the Milwaukee area from that time, I was doing samplings so I could represent different time periods and different areas in the region. 

Something that really stands out in the book is the enthusiasm of your interview subjects. 

Most definitely! They (were) excited about my basic thesis, which is being in garage bands is not a vain first step in trying to be a star. It’s something that you do with your peers or even your closest buddies. It just feels good to be down in the basement, doing it, making those loud sounds together. Proving to yourself that you can make music when, really, people don’t know anything (about music) and they teach themselves in most cases. 

Were you surprised about the intersection of garage bands and LGBT culture? 

I was pleased and impressed by it, because it’s just another dimension of teens making their own statement on various fronts and on their own turf. This basement show, like a number of them, was right in the basement space where Half Fare, Jake Cohen’s band, would always practice. Basically it was a space for teens, by teens and one dimension of it was he was collaborating with his younger sister Zoe Cohen, who is credited with helping me find some of the pictures in the book. … Zoe was probably by the door with a little table with various things on it, including a flier in support of gay rights and National Coming Out Day. 

Why didn’t you cover well-known bands from outside of Madison, such as Violent Femmes, the BoDeans and FireTown (with Butch Vig) fitting into the garage rock spectrum?

I had to define my turf, because there are so many garage bands, and I did not include Waukesha. The two guys from the BoDeans are very much from Waukesha. It was just a turf matter. I would’ve covered them, probably, if they had been more from the east or south side of Milwaukee or something, but they weren’t. Butch Vig is from the Madison area, and that wasn’t going to be part of my Milwaukee turf. But I’ll just say bands that are rooted in a place like Wisconsin and then sometimes … go beyond their original area – (they) sometimes carry with them parts of their localness. I would say with the BoDeans, they made their band name when they were still amateurs, out of an inside joke about Jethro Bodean, a character on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” My inference is that they were basically making fun of the fact that they were hicks from the hinterlands of Wisconsin, and they were being proud of that at the same time. With Butch Vig, and where he’s gone with his career, I was very proud of the fact that he could run this whole recording studio scene and still play in bands before he went national out of Madison. 

Warren Wiegratz, one of the performers you write about in the book, is performing on Valentine’s Day in Milwaukee. What do you think that says about his staying power?

I tried to put as much as possible (in the book) in people’s words and he said probably the best statement about that. He said, “I formed my band with a bunch of guys from this particular neighborhood in Elm Grove, which was kind of the last working-class corner of what would be a much more wealthy Brookfield suburban area. In addition to us having this sort of common coming-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks feeling when we went to high school together, we also were really into music and crossed both school music and being in a band with being into rock and soul music.” Basically they set a really high bar trying to achieve a lot with their garage band. They were doing really complex Motown and soul songs as well as Beach Boys songs (which are pretty hard to sing), as well as simpler garage rock songs. At the time of the interview, (Warren) was the bandleader for the Milwaukee Bucks house band, playing everything from contemporary R&B to oldies. He was basically able to become who he is at age 16. I think he was really thankful for that. So when he goes into The Domes, he’ll be playing an enjoyable variety repertoire, just like he started doing back in Elm Grove in the early ’60s.

To purchase the book from Amazon, click here.

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