In the mid 2000s, I bought a Sony Walkman MP3 Player.
This device boasted more than 40 hours of battery life, a lightweight and durable frame, an FM transistor, internal speakers and a microphone. It's traveled with me all over the globe.
Since becoming a writer, I’ve used my Walkman to record countless interviews. The microphone is a wonder. It can capture conversations in the loudest environments.
A couple months ago, I thought I lost my Walkman. I hadn’t seen it for a week. One night I freaked out, turning our apartment upside down in a search. In the process, I got a sliver so deep under a fingernail I almost went to urgent care.
I was devastated. It wasn’t just that the product was discontinued and a unopened model was going to run me more than $150 online (five times what I paid), but there was an interview I did with Amos Pitsch on that device that I had yet to transcribe.
Pitsch is the leader of Tenement, an Appleton band that Rolling Stone included on its 2016 list of “10 Great Modern Punk Bands.” Pitsch may be the most dedicated Wisconsin musician I’ve ever met. And, like an idiot, I lost our conversation.
Or so I thought. Weeks after accepting the Walkman and interview were gone forever, I dreamt of finding the device behind our bed. Sure enough, I woke up, pulled the mattress from the wall and there it was, like buried treasure.
A singular focus
Amos Pitsch grew up on the outskirts of Neenah, Wisconsin. He hung out with a lot of farmers’ kids. His mother loved Aerosmith and was divorced from his father, who lived in Winchester, a town near the northern border.
Pitsch picked up the drums as a wee child and fondly recalls jamming with his cousins.
“I think that’s what kids need if they’re going to learn to play instruments,” says Pitsch. “They need other kids that are into it too, otherwise you can get disinterested super quick.”
Transfixed by the rock ‘n’ roll bands he saw on TV, Pitsch decided he would become a musician before finishing elementary school.
“I’ve never really had other ambitions. I figured if all these bands can do it, then I can probably do it too.”
A handful of local acts played a key role in Pitsch’s musical development, including the Obsoletes, Yesterday’s Kids and Modern Machines.
“They sounded so much different than anything I had ever heard. Almost like rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form. It had a specific energy to it that you didn’t hear from bands on fancy labels or on the radio.
“They represented a simplicity of the Fox Valley, what it was like growing up in rural and sort of suburban areas. I suppose it kind of dictated what I felt was important about music from then on.”
After high school, Pitsch moved to Appleton and bought an old family home with some friends. They turned it into a punk house that had on average five shows a week for seven years.
“The BFG” was internationally renowned, hosting bands from all over the USA, Europe, Japan and Mexico.
“As I get older I feel like I have less in common with punk. But when we started we were really involved in that scene. It’s got a tight-knit community that you can lean back on,” Pitsch says.
When Pitsch isn’t writing, recording and performing, chances are he’s digging in crates at dusty record stores and antique shops.
“If I wasn’t always looking for music to discover it would make it harder to be interested in making music itself.
“It always takes me down a wormhole,” he says. “Like Dinah Washington. It probably started with Aretha Franklin, then I read about all the other people singing in that style around that period and realized Aretha was influenced by Dinah Washington, so much so that she made a tribute record.
“I got really into honky tonk country last year, and it probably started with a Gene Watson record.
“I like music that has some kind of perversion sometimes. Even though I don’t really drink or do that kind of stuff, I can relate to this feeling of hopelessness that honky tonk country has — these songs about getting drunk in bars and being sad.”
While the road affords Pitsch the opportunity to dig through new crates, he’s grown tired of the pressure to be social. As a kid, Pitsch spent more time with his drums, an organ and a guitar than with his peers.
Outside of his roommates and collaborators, Pitsch doesn’t have much of a social life and prefers it that way.
“It’s hard to find places that you can go back to and be alone,” Pitsch says of the road.
The fear of burning out is a concern for Pitsch, but he’s also hesitant to take his foot off the gas.
“As time goes on we keep getting more and more opportunities to shows that would be exciting to most people. It’s hard to turn those down because someday that might not be the case for us.”
Last November, I found myself hanging out in the lobby of the Panther Arena in downtown Milwaukee. While folks filed in for a motorcycle race they were treated to some free rock ‘n’ roll.
“You’re about to see America’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band … in the lobby of the Panther Arena,” said Joe Kirschling, a photographer and the drummer of the band SIN BAD.
It was my first time seeing Tenement live. Kirschling’s words proved to be far less outlandish than they initially sounded.
“Some bands write great songs but they’re not consistent with their performance. Others are consistent with their performance but their songs or recordings aren’t great. Tenement is the total package,” says Kirschling.
Tenement’s records — particularly 2015’s double album Predatory Headlights— explore various non-punk realms. However, their live show sticks to high-energy rock ‘n’ roll. Their sets rarely clock in at more than 20 minutes.
Pitsch likes to leave an audience wanting more. It’s also a bit of a “F*ck you” to concertgoers who insist on showing up late.
Earlier this year, I caught Tenement at Cactus Club opening for the L.A. band Redd Kross. I spotted Pitsch near the side of the stage a while before they went on, guitar slung over his shoulder in anticipation.
When they took the stage, Pitsch and his bandmates — Jesse Ponkamo and Eric Mayer — delivered an incredibly tight set that never let up.
“We don’t sell out big clubs or anything,” says Pitsch.
“But these respected artists will ask us to go on tour. People don’t really know who we are and it doesn’t seem like a lot of them care to remember who we are either, but regardless, we just keep getting asked to do these types of things.”
In this way, Tenement can be understood as a “band’s band.” They may have been written about in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, but they aren’t being asked for autographs at the grocery store.
Another reason for their relative anonymity may be the fact that Pitsch has never left Appleton.
“The BFG” was condemned a few years ago. Pitsch now lives with friends in a five-bedroom house. The new residence came with a built-in storefront, which Pitsch converted into a recording space. Rent is identical to what my brother and his wife pay for a small one-bedroom in Chicago.
SIN BAD recently recorded at Pitsch’s home studio in Appleton.
“Amos has the perfect recording style, in that you want somebody that’s going to have an opinion. But you also don’t want somebody that’s too forceful with their opinion where it might change your sound,” says Kirschling.
Pitsch uses a mix of digital editing software and vintage outboard gear he’s cobbled together over the years.
“I like that there’s a physical process to older analog equipment. There’s either an electrical current going through some kind of circuit or something physical is happening and sound is vibrating. That’s really cool to me,” says Pitsch.
With the recording studio and Pitsch’s continuous output of new music — he also plays in the band Dusk and has a second soundtrack score due out — Tenement embodies the DIY spirit.
It has been a privilege to write for WiG about artists like Tenement, who create compelling work despite the absence of a traditional music industry in Wisconsin.
When I saw the Violent Femmes for the first times a couple weeks ago, I could see a through line from Wisconsin’s best known band to Tenement.
Throughout the years, the Femmes have explored new sounds and instruments not heard on their initial offerings.
With no established regional sound, Wisconsin musicians have been free to mix and cross genres.
I look forward to reading about the evolution of the Wisconsin music scene in the pages of WiG and beyond. Thank you for your readership. And special thanks to the editors and publisher of WiG for allowing me to lend my voice to this publication.
ON STAGE - Tenement play at 10 p.m. on Friday, August 4, outside Emmett’s Bar & Grill as part of Appleton’s 5th annual Mile of Music festival.