“They’re America’s greatest rock and roll band,” Joe Kirschling told me as we stood in the lobby of the UWM Panther Arena in downtown Milwaukee. The photographer and SIN BAD drummer was referring to Tenement, a cult punk band from Appleton. “I used to think I was the only one saying that, but they’ve been written about in The New York Times and Grantland.”
Indeed, Kirschling’s words weren’t mere hyperbole. And yet there we were, hanging out in the lobby of the UWM Panther Arena before a motorcycle race, waiting to see “America’s greatest rock and roll band.” It was an odd affair to be sure, with (free) music starting at 5:30 p.m. from Platinum Boys, Milwaukee’s premier power-pop party band.
Arena employees were seen complaining about the volume being too loud. Luckily most kids came prepared with ear muffs for the motorcycles. There wasn’t a big crowd hanging around to see the bands. Most people just walked on by. But for about 15 minutes or so that lobby got an unanticipated performance from one of the best bands in Wisconsin, if not America.
The traditional Tenement trio was joined by an endearing tambourine/vocal duo for a fiery three-song set. Frontman Amos Pitsch is a fantastic guitar player, even when tucked into what my girlfriend described as “a public bathroom.” Tenement’s brief set made us regret missing the band at Eaux Claires and Mile of Music.
Milwaukee hardcore group Midwives finished off the lobby lineup, eliciting some “rock on” hands and air drumming from the crowd making their way to the motorcycle event. Free pre-game lobby rock (or rap/folk/jazz/electronic/etc) would be more than welcome during the Admirals debut season in the Arena.
THE ECLECTIC BACK ROOM @ COLECTIVO
The Pabst Theater Group began revitalizing Milwaukee’s live music scene in 2002. Renowned artists who once skipped Milwaukee on tour now find themselves playing sold-out shows at The Riverside, The Pabst, and Turner Hall Ballroom. Last year the Pabst Group extended their reach by adding The Back Room at the Colectivo on Prospect to their roster of venues.
The Back Room debuted last summer and in just over a year has established itself as one of the best (albeit only) intimate all-ages venues in town for national touring acts. While it has stuck mostly to folk and acoustic-leaning indie rock acts, The Back Room has expanded its jazz programming and began featuring harder rocking bands.
Local bands have been added to a few Back Room shows, but on October 7, Detroit’s electro-rock duo Gosh Pith were joined by three of the finest and most eclectic local artists. The lineup was curated by Sam Ahmed—better known as experimental hip-hop artist WebsterX—and included his New Age Narcissism collaborator Siren, synth wave rockers NO/NO, and electronic artist Liquid City Motors.
While you might not think the back room of a coffeehouse can fit that many people, the capacity in The Back Room is 297. It’s a warm space with wood floors, plants, brick, and a quality sound and lighting system. The Gosh Pith show did not reach capacity, but those who made it out were attentive and engaged. It was an early start and early finish, ideal for the all-ages crowd. It was also my first time seeing Gosh Pith and they impressed with a unique blend of electronic, rock, and hip-hop.
HALLOWEEN CONCERT PREVIEW
The highlight of my one semester at UW-Madison was the chaotic, riotous, entertaining, and momentarily scary Halloween. The night did not become frightening because of some spooky holiday vibes, but because riot police eventually marched down State Street, blanketing the thoroughfare with pepper spray and making mass arrests.
After bar close State Street got out of control, with huge piles of costumes set ablaze, storefront windows being broken, and all kinds of drunken revelry. I went to visit Madison for Halloween the next year and the situation got worse. That year police used sound bombs, rubber bullets, floodlights, pepper spray and a brigade of police horses. That was 2005.
In 2006 the City of Madison decided to finally do something to curtail the violence and vandalism associated with Halloween. They began charging a small admission fee to enter State Street, which was gated and contained. Arrests were cut in half. In 2007 the city partnered with Frank Productions to bring live music to what is now called Freakfest. The event has grown into the region’s largest Halloween party and music festival, having featured headliners such as OK GO, Matt and Kim, Mac Miller, and Atmosphere. The city reported only 9 arrests in 2015, down from 334 in 2005.
The 2016 edition of Freakfest has arguably the best lineup to date, with one of hip-hop’s hottest stars headlining. Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals delivered my favorite set at the Soundset music festival this year and that was early in the afternoon. The rest of the State Street mainstage lineup includes Minneapolis dance-pop rocker Har Mar Superstar, ex-Foxygen drummer Shaun Fleming’s solo project Diane Coffee, Sweet Spirit, and St. Paul and The Broken Bones.
Freakfest 2016 will also have a country stage on Gilman Street headlined by Kip Moore, plus Jon Pardi, Wheelhouse, Greta Van Fleet, and Adam Bartels Band. There will be a third stage on Frances Street featuring regional talent including Madison’s own rap phenom Trapo, Milwaukee-based/Madison-born hip-hop producer/rapper Mic Kellog, Chicago indie rockers The Kickback, Minneapolis rapper Lucien Parker, and Chicago rapper Rich Robbins.
Milwaukee will have a number of options for Halloween weekend concerts. Gloss Records is hosting a two-night Spooktacular. Friday will feature Sex Scenes, Surgeons in Heat, Rio Turbo, and Soul Low at Cactus Club. Saturday will feature Moon Rats, Piles, Soup Moat, and NO/NO at Riverwest Public House.
In 2015 Company Brewing held their first annual Nightmare on Center Street, which was a sold-out affair featuring Chicago’s Kweku Collins, Minneapolis’ MaLLy, Soul Low (in full KISS costume), Klassik, Foreign Goods, and New Age Narcissism. This year the event has expanded to include nearby Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts (all-ages), Club Timbuktu and High Dive. You can buy a $15 wristband for entry to all venues and gets you a free beer at High Dive.
There will be a wide array of musical talent at this year’s Nightmare on Center Street. Carl Nichols (guitar player for New Age Narcissism, De La Buena, Painted Caves, RAS Movement) will debut a new hardcore punk band at the Jazz Gallery that includes Bo Triplex, Taj Raiden, and Jake Diaz. Funky reggae, hip-hop influenced jam band Recalcitrant will headline Club Timbuktu, while High Dive will feature the No Stress DJs and performances by Kyndal J. and Chakara Blu.
Company Brewing will host a “Dinner and a Movie” at 7 p.m. featuring the Joshua Backes (New Boyz Club) led DIY Chamber Music ensemble accompanying the 1915 silent film Alice in Wonderland with a soundtrack written by four local composers. Beloved local psych-pop rockers The Fatty Acids will headline Company Brewing. There will be a special late night menu and drummer/dancer extraordinaire Christopher Gilbert will host a costume contest.
NEW MUSIC FROM SEX SCENES, FIVY, AR WESLEY, CHAKARA BLU, AND ZED KENZO.
Back in the fourth installment of this column I mentioned running into Connor LaMue of Bad Wig at High Dive in Milwaukee. He told me about a new hardcore band he was in with Harrison Colby (Gloss Records, NO/NO), Zach Otto, and Chelsea Hayes. It didn’t take long for the band to release a fast and dirty demo, which you can listen to by clicking here. They hope to put out a record before the year is up.
Our friends at Explain News premiered a new EP from Milwaukee songstress Fivy last week. The 5-track release is entitled “Dreamscape” and is definitely worth a listen. For more head over to Explain News.
Explain News also wrote up the new release from Milwaukee rapper AR Wesley. Check that out by clicking here.
Two Milwaukee femcees, Chakara Blu and Zed Kenzo, each put out a new track recently. Chakara’s is a woozy, bass-heavy track produced by Mr. Kou that you can listen by clicking here. In anticipation of her first project since moving back home to Milwaukee from Los Angeles, Zed Kenzo has released a single, “Scary Spice.” Listen to it by clicking here.
NEW VIDEOS FROM HEAR HERE PRESENTS
Last night Hear Here Presents celebrated one year of capturing live music performances from Wisconsin and touring musicians by doing what they do best, video recording new performances by the Rusty P’s and Klassik. In the fourth installment of this column I wrote about an experience attending a Hear Here Presents shoot in their new studio space. In the last month they’ve released four new videos from Lex Allen, King Courteen, New Boyz Club, and Chicago’s Grood. Watch them all below.
On a recent Saturday night my girlfriend and I pulled up outside of a nondescript house-turned-dance club in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood. A steady beat could be heard coming from Studio 200. Once inside I was transported to a smoky club in Prague where I first “got” techno music.
When I lived in Europe in the late 2000s this style of dance music dominated the radio waves and nightclubs. Those sweaty, liberating nights altered my perspective on what a dance club could be. They were a far cry from the hyper-sexualized, overpriced atmosphere of American nightclubs.
The event we walked into at Studio 200 was called “Can’t Get No Sleep,” co-produced by the Milwaukee-based collective/web label Close Up of the Serene, which includes Max Holiday, Liquid City Motors (Will Mitchell) and MS 115 (Bobby Garvey). It was their first time organizing a night at Studio 200 and the turnout was relatively low. Still, there was an enthusiastic core of people on the dance floor and PJ Moody was projecting cool visuals.
As Close Up approaches its one-year anniversary as a label and producer of club nights, I spoke with the trio, who are in their mid 20s, about their backstories, their approach to dance music, their forebearers in the underground, and building their movement “from the outside in.”
“CLUB KIDS WITH GUITARS”
Max Holiday grew up in Albuquerque, NM, for the first 12 years of his life. An aspiring ballet dancer, Holiday hung up his slippers after moving to Appleton. His parents instilled in the young Holiday an intense love of music, which he turned to after dance. As a child Holiday was involved in punk and metal bands, which eventually led him to electronic music. He cites Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers as early influences.
Though Bobby Garvey is also from Appleton, he didn’t meet Holiday until the two were living in Milwaukee. Garvey was first introduced to electronic dance music by his R.A. at UW-Lacrosse, a Milwaukee-native who was friends with the DJs behind Sticky Records. Unlike Holiday and Mitchell, Garvey does not come from a musical background and began DJing in 2014.
During Halloween 2012 Holiday and Garvey stumbled upon a dance night at Quarters Rock N Roll Palace. It was the closest thing to a club experience either of them had been to.
“When we came home we looked at each other and said, ‘Gotta throw a party at Quarters someday.’ For the past four years or so that’s been the goal. Because with dance music what you do is start a night that is your vision,” says Holiday.
Earlier that summer Holiday went back to Appleton and recorded a fuzzy pop EP under the moniker Young Holidays. It quickly gained traction and Holiday put a band together. After a year he became bored with the project and abandoned it. For two years Holiday exclusively DJ’d. It’s important to note that by DJ we’re referring to “an autonomous selector with an artistic agenda, not a jukebox.”
Holiday returned to live music in 2015 and is now the frontman for Athletic Supply, which also includes Mitchell, Garvey, Margaret Wilson and Mark Stewart (GGOOLLDD, Pharo).
“Athletic Supply exists sort of as our foot in the general Milwaukee music scene. It’s cool because we can play shows with our friends in town, but it’s frustrating because we get lumped in with the garage rock, lo-fi pop stuff, and that’s not really what we’re trying to do,” says Holiday.
FROM HIP-HOP BEATS TO SOLDERING AND SYNTHS
Will Charles Mitchell grew up “in the sticks” outside of Stevens Point. He attended college in Los Angeles and often went to Low End Theory, a recurring hip-hop night. Mitchell started making hip-hop beats and became known as Riley Lake. During this time Rory Ferreira (Milo) came across Mitchell’s music online and reached out to him. The two put out a project together (Things That Happen at Day) and went on tour.
“I specifically remember in Boone, NC, we got some sounds on his 404 and hooked it up to his computer and I was like, ‘Okay, this is how I would go about producing a beat.’ I took a lot away from working with Rory. And I was very fortunate for meeting him because I don’t think I would’ve ended up in Milwaukee otherwise,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell met Holiday and Garvey shortly after moving to Milwaukee in the summer of 2014. He acquired a studio space in the Shampoo Horn building, which is located in a secluded industrial area adjacent to the Kinnickinnic River. This is where I met them for our interview.
The small studio is full of Mitchell’s various synthesizers, keyboards, and speakers. Some of the modulated synthesizers are borrowed from Jason Nanna, one of the people who built out the 6th floor and turned Mitchell onto soldering. In addition to Mitchell’s various endeavours, Close Up uses the studio for mixing and mastering.
BUILDING “FROM THE OUTSIDE IN”
“I use the term ‘underground’ a lot and what it really means is a catch all for doing something that you’re not concerned with whether it will be popular or not,” says Holiday. “You’re doing it as part of a lineage of people doing weird shit that may not have been listened to at the time they were doing it.”
For the Close Up boys a major part of that lineage is the “Madchester” scene in the U.K. circa 1988 to 1992. Another formative wave of electronic music was the more recent “post-dubstep spiral” of 2010-2011, sometimes referred to as “FWD” because of its connection to a club night called FWD at Plastic People in London.
A number of local DJs and club nights have also influenced Close Up, including the Chalice in the Palace Soundsystem crew, DJ Avets, Marcus Doucette, Richard Galling, and their “godfather” Asher Gray. During the Hotel Foster’s heyday Gray ran a club night called Le Freak, which Holiday and Garvey attended religiously.
Precognition, their monthly DJ night at Quarters, is the signature Close Up event; the party they always wanted to throw.
“Precognition is where the dimension and depth really exists. Where it becomes something with a singular quality that only happens in one place with one group of people,” says Mitchell.
As a label they have put out digital releases from Athletic Supply, Liquid City Motors, Mercury Drums (Holiday’s club music alias), and Pharo. They have also played on Radar Radio out of London, a breeding ground for modern experimental electronic music.
With the Internet’s “ability to consolidate a disparate geographical niche into a close community,” Close Up has already established an audience outside of Wisconsin. Where most bands build from the inside out, Close Up is doing something of the opposite.
“I think it’s important to have one foot firmly planted in what’s literally geographically happening around us. Then with the other see how far we can reach,” says Mitchell.
Close Up of the Serene is constantly seeking out new music, drawing elements from other genres back into their underground sound. They hope to make connections with the punk, queer, hip-hop, drum and bass, and experimental noise communities. As they build upon their small yet passionate local fan base, Close Up club nights will continue to be a safe space to enjoy forward-thinking electronic dance music.
The next Precognition is September 29, with the one-year anniversary on November 19.
Athletic Supply play September 8, at High Dive in Milwaukee with Iron Pizza, Apollo Vermouth, and Proud Parents (Madison).
Liquid City Motors plays October 7, at Colectivo Backroom with Siren, NO/NO, and Gosh Pith (Detroit).
Below is my full interview with Close Up of the Serene, conducted in Will’s studio on August 28, 2016.
In November of last year I put out my first Athletic Supply single and my Mercury Drums EP, which is what I make club music as. The idea had been brewing for a couple of months to put out everything we were doing all together. And we’ve wanted to do a club night forever and so everything kind of came to be at the right time.
We were all doing different projects and we needed an umbrella. It’s always been something I’ve been interested in doing, curate a label. Starting a label in 2016 is as easy as creating a Bandcamp account and cataloging things, but you definitely take it quite a bit more seriously than that. That’s how it started in November of last year.
That was the first Precognition at Quarters. It feels very strange. It definitely feels like it was yesterday.
I moved here in the summer of 2014 and right away met Max. Shortly after that I met Bobby and I think from the first night we all hung out together we started talking about doing a club night. Because that was immediately a mutual interest that all of us had and we had a vision for something that didn’t necessarily exist.
There was a lot of talking about it and talking about it and talking about it for ages, and then Precognition November of last year. That’s when we finally up and did that. I think the whole label as we want people to see it and be able to take it in is with both recorded material and stuff happening on the ground, you know actual nights.
It’s important that both of those started at the same time, so this is the one year of not just Close Up of the Serene as a web label, but also Close Up of the Serene as something that puts together parties and events and nights.
Every night we’ve done, and we have to have done about 40-50 shows over the year, has been under Close Up of the Serene. Whereas everything before that, and we were doing tons and tons of shows before that, there was nothing to branch it all together. It feels good to have a year solid of a cohesive sort of movement.
Even though it’s just now been a year Max and I have been friends for 6 or 7 years. We’ve been talking about music and doing this sort of thing. But it takes time to go back and figure out for yourselves what you’re trying to do? Thinking about what is this rooted in? What are we really trying to say with this? What are we trying to do with this?
It simply takes time with both the music we choose to play and our goals with the label in general. Building that base structure takes time. So despite it being a year, it’s been in the works for quite a while. It’s really exciting to finally have these ideas and have a place to put them.
Me and Bobby went to a night at Quarters probably right around Halloween 2012, when we were really starting to go crazy with the dance music and electronic music and everything. I’ll never know exactly who was DJing but it was probably Joey Peterson. We had never been to Quarters before and there was a line out the door. It was completely packed, playing super cool, more underground type music so loud. No one turns the volume up louder than Quarters. Nothing is as abrasively loud as Quarters can be.
We spend about an hour before every set making sure the system is tuned up so we can be as loud as possible without setting the speakers on fire.
It was just crazy. You go out when you’re 21 and it’s like bar, bar, bar, whatever. But that was pretty close to a club experience. Really early on when we were going out. When we came home we looked at each other and said, ‘Gotta throw a party at Quarters someday.’ For the past four years or so that’s been the goal. Because with dance music what you do is start a night that is your vision.
We’ve always known that’s what it was going to be. And we always knew it was going to be at Quarters. It took not a week longer than it should have. Not a day longer than it should have. Precognition just felt like perfect timing.
WiG (To Will)
Where did you move here from?
I grew up outside of Stevens Point, in the sticks actually. I went to college in Southern California. That’s where I had been directly previous to this, but I’m certainly not a Los Angeleno by any stretch of the imagination.
Let’s go back a little bit, tell me about how you got into DJing and playing music.
I approached dance music by way of hip hop first. That is what my focus was when I first sat down to make beats. It was definitely all that I was familiar with. I won’t pretend that I’ve been listening to dance music religiously since I was an early teenager or whatever. I came across dance music relativity late in life. Kind of the same sort of way that I think really caught the two of you…
I think an entire generation of people our age got caught up in 2010-2011 post-dubstep, future based English type stuff. When it was all bubbling it just sounded like the absolutely craziest thing and if you caught it…
[In a Facebook message after our interview I asked Max for examples of that era. He wrote, “Labels like Hessle Audio, Night Slugs, Hyperdub, and Hemlock. Artists like Joy Orbison, Pearson Sound, Kode9, Bok Bok, and Peverelist. Safe to say this one changed our life: Objekt – Cactus.”]
Absolutely. I think there was a whole era, people specifically of our generation who are now in their early twenties, that became acquainted with these sounds. They were so fresh and so different. For me it’s just been kind of slowly finding that, when I sit down to make something with a beat I’ve been naturally gravitating to the tempos of the stuff that we play.
Stylistically I’ve become more and more focused on specifically making dance stuff. I’m finding DJing to be an increasingly satisfying means of performing. I both DJ and do a live electronic set where I’m actually making stuff on stage. The DJ sets have been as much, if not more satisfying.
I think no matter how long you’re into dance music you’ll continue to find stuff that’s fresh and kind of amazes you. Either digging back or looking more at the constant deluge of stuff that’s being made nowadays.
To answer your question, I started making more experimental hip-hop beats and it was natural to segway into the stuff that was really catching my attention, which was the dance stuff.
I know Rory Ferreira had mentioned you as a sort of mentor, showing him some stuff. Were you guys friends in LA?
We met according to a particularly Internet-age specific thing. He just came across my music. We had never met in real life when we did Things That Happen at Day, the record together. Then we went on tour together and I specifically remember in Boone, North Carolina, we got some sounds on his 404 and hooked it up to his computer and I was like, ‘Okay, this is how I would go about producing a beat.’
Now he’s got the whole Scallops Hotel thing and the last tape is a testament to how developed of a musician he is. But yeah, I’m pretty proud to say I’m one of the first people that kind of showed Rory how to put a beat together.
That was a really fruitful artistic relationship that was kind of my main focus for a couple of years when I was a bit younger. Then I found dance music as just a really compelling outlet to do stuff from the ground up. I definitely took a lot away from working with Rory.
He was much earlier than I was focused on an artistic concept. He had the vision to make something that was longer form and I was fortunate enough to be dub-tailed into that. It was definitely a period of growth. And I was very fortunate to meet him because I don’t think I would have ended up in Milwaukee otherwise. I knew people who were working here like Wes Tank because I met Rory. I actually met Jason Nanna, who I’m kind of borrowing most of his things to make music with – (points to all the machines and synthesizers behind him) – I met him through Rory.
But yeah, that’s an interesting key to this whole thing. That was almost by happenstance I met him, like he just saw my shit on the Internet. That’s a super important part of the narrative for me.
You said Jason…
Jason Nanna is one of the people who built out this 6th floor. Him and Heather and this one dude Nick. Jason has been basically building and doing cool shit with electronic audio and visuals for a decade. He’s been like a super mentor for me when it comes to my other current focus, which is the more techy sort of workbench stuff, the soldering and what not.
That for me just sort of plays into electronic music and dance music because there’s a huge history of people being gear fanatics and studio weirdos and experimenting with stuff. Doing stuff with synthesizers and electronic instruments that maybe weren’t meant for music. Some of the kind of early groundbreaking dance stuff just came from people with gear doing shit with it in new ways.
Pawn shops. There was gear that no one else wanted. So many of the drum machines were flops on the market and people got rid of them at pawn shops. And people bought them and just did it, it was like punk rock.
Jason really facilitates my instinct to grab whatever makes sounds and then try to make stuff with it. He has been working so consistently for so long that the stuff in here that I use, like this whole rack of stuff behind me, this is shit that he built from components in the past and then moved on from.
But he’s not capitalist minded, he’s not flipping all this stuff that he’s made on eBay. He’s much more just like, “Yeah, do something with it.” I’m pretty fortunate to have fallen into the niche here in this studio space, because I’ve had the studio since I moved here. For Close Up related stuff we use this as a space for mixing and some mastering work.
How would you describe some of that stuff?
This is just like a big synthesizer turned outwards basically. Where you can connect the different modules together however you want, instead of having something like this – (points to a traditional synthesizer keyboard) – where all of the controls are in the front and all the connections are made inside the machine. It’s got a particular architecture to it. This is stuff that I get kind of carried away with.
Honestly, on my last record, easily the most productive instrument in the whole thing was the Korg Triton I got from my neighbor Kenny Spears secondhand. I was walking to my house and he was like, “Do you want to buy a keyboard?” I thought, “What kind of crap keyboard is it?” And it turns out it’s this iconic workstation that…
One of the most coveted.
… is responsible for most of the synths and instruments that the Neptunes used. And U.K. grime music was basically made on one of those. So I don’t discriminate when it comes to synthesizers, I like them in all different forms and sizes.
What about you Bobby?
I went to UW-Lacrosse for two years…
Did you grow up in that part of the state?
No I’m from Appleton. Actually, me and Max are both from Appleton. My R.A. at UW-Lacrosse put me on to this kind of music. He’s from Milwaukee and he was good friends with the dudes behind the Sticky Records movement back in the day. But there was like three or four of them that were really pushing electronic music, specifically dance music. At that time it was very wobbly stuff, kind of the EDM stuff. When you’re starting out that’s really cool. I had never heard that kind of stuff. We had a block party and it turned me on to the whole sound of it. Then when I moved here and got to know Max a little bit more it went from there.
You take pieces from every genre that you hear. When we went to that Halloween party at Quarters I’ll never forget how the bass sounded, how the sub sounded on “6 Foot 7 Foot” by Lil Wayne. It changed how I think about things. As we continued to progress we got into Dubstep Allstars and it slowly shifted to the U.K. sound. That’s where our tastes led us. There were a few Dubstep Allstars tracks that were so wavy and pummeling, that again, your mindset shifts.
I think part of the reason that it’s continued to evolve is that the three of us are good at being open and considering new ideas. We’re not always listening to dance music. There’s things in any genre of music that you can tie back, stuff that can push dance music forward.
As far as Close Up goes, that’s one of the proudest things for me. The continued push for newness and the continued push to try to tie things from outside back into dance music.
I kind of had a very straightforward introduction into it. I think everyone sort of starts somewhere and then slowly evolves. I started DJing in 2014, so it’s been two years now. It was just my outlet to get into it. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to have something to contribute.
I went to school for film but I wasn’t necessarily interested in doing visuals or jumping onto music videos. I wanted to be a part of the music. The music is what interested me more. So that was my in. I bought a controller and taught myself how to. I don’t do any producing at this point and I’m okay with that. I have some production software that I have been tinkering around with. If I do get the bug to produce I think it’ll be cool because I will have evolved my tastes enough to know exactly what I want to make. It gives me a baseline structure with Close Up in general. We needed that baseline structure in order to have something to say.
I think it’s important to note that Max and I, as he will probably talk about this, come from pretty extensive musical backgrounds, whereas Bobby never played an instrument before you started DJing, right? (Bobby nods his head.) And so whereas both Max and I were producers first, studio work first, DJing second, Bobby DJ’d first. That lens adds an extra kind of focus to what you do as a DJ that I’ve always admired.
Did you play an instrument growing up Max?
I started playing drums when I was like five. My parents bought me my kindergarten teacher’s son’s drum set. It was like a 14-piece metal drum set. My grandpa was a piano player, so quickly after that I started playing piano.
Were you in bands in high school?
In middle school. My friend and I in 7th grade. I got into punk rock really, really, really early. I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the first 12 years of my life. There’s no professional sports team there and there’s no sports mentality. Art is really big there and at the time new metal and sort of those weirder strains of metal and heavy metal were huge for kids in Albuquerque. I don’t know if you know that type of music, but it just makes you crazy. I was huge into that. I was always into music. My parents instilled a crazy, crazy love of music in me. Neither of them played an instrument, but both of them were crazy into music. Especially now that I see how most parents are.
Your mom is on the pulse of music. She posts some cool music on Facebook.
Seriously, my mom and dad listen to cool music and forever told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. They’re really, really supportive. So I was playing drums and piano and I did pretty well with those. I did dance for like ten years too. I wanted to be a dancer and then slowly the music kind of took over and then when we moved to Appleton. We couldn’t find a good professional ballet studio that had any boys. There were no boys in the classes. You can’t be the only boy in a ballet class because then you’ll learn like a girl.
So I stopped doing dance and I started taking music more seriously. I was crazy into punk, street punk. We had a band called The Trollz with a “z” and we recorded in our bass player’s basement. His dad was like a Christian musician and we recorded this very political, very angry punk music in his basement. We played a battle of the bands and got absolutely last place with the worst notes on it. (Will pumps his fist.)
But I’ve never been good at playing in a band. I don’t know how to jam with people. I’m an only child and so music to me is always a solo thing. It’s always been a very solitary thing. That’s what I would do with my time growing up. I would just go in my room and listen to music. From metal I then got into industrial. More electronic forms of metal, and then like big beat, like Prodigy and Chemical Brothers. I was really into that in like 5th and 6th grade.
In high school I was in a death metal band, I sang for them at like one show. I was trying different things. I was really into punk and hardcore for a long time, but that all kind of phases out hopefully at a younger age. Then I started playing guitar and bass through middle school. By the time I moved here in 2010 I had an 8-track Tascam recorder that I was trying to play everything on and I was writing stuff that was sort of alternative pop. I was listening to everything.
The summer of 2012 I went home to Appleton for a couple months and recorded an EP, playing everything myself. I called it Young Holidays. I came back and uploaded that to Bandcamp. Two days later Matt Wild wrote about it in what was the AV Club at the time. That puts you on at a certain level. We played at WMSE a month later. I put a band together of all my friends, some of them play in Athletic Supply like Maggie who plays keyboards. She played keyboards in Young Holidays.
We played together and did some cool stuff. Our last show together was at the after party at the Milwaukee Film Festival in 2013 at the Hotel Foster. I just got kind of tired of it. I get really bored with stuff really fast. A year later I was like, “I hate these songs.” So we stopped doing that and I started DJing.
The first DJ night I played was at Mad Planet with the dudes from Canopies. TJ’s idea was for it to be a synth pop night. We played our stuff and no one came and it was fine.
When I moved here in 2010 I remember that I wanted to call our house “Grime House” because I was so obsessed with grime. But like we said, it takes time to come into that stuff.
We had to really filter ideas out.
Then I started DJing really heavy and didn’t do any live shows. Around that time I stumbled into Le Freak when it was at Hotel Foster, Asher’s night with Michael Britton for a while, and that totally changed my life. That was like the closest thing to a proper club experience here at the time. Asher totally caught on and kind of took me under his wing. He started putting me on all their nights.
Asher is the godfather.
Yeah. Asher is totally our forefather in all of this kind of stuff. So we started going to Le Freak every single month religiously, like planning our month around it.
We didn’t miss it for probably a year.
I didn’t miss a single Le Freak from the very first one I went to until the very last one. That was a huge formative thing. Hearing music on a sound system every month. Hearing Asher not ever once clang a mix. I have not ever once heard him mess up the mix.
Infuriatingly technically good DJ.
Not once. So they started booking me for all their nights and I played the Video Villains nights and at the Miramar. From there I DJ’d super extensively for like two years straight. Then Bobby started DJing. The more you DJ the more you get a feel for what you want to be playing and what your tastes are. I think it’s one of the best things you can do as a musician, DJ.
In March of last year I put out the “California Future” single as Bleach Athletixx, so that was the first real music I had put out since the Young Holidays thing two years before. DJing all the time super extensively in between, which was the best thing I could have done to then re-approach music from that standpoint.
You’ve brought up the post-dubstep U.K. movement of the early 2010s. I’m curious about another era you mentioned Max on social media, the Manchester scene from 1988 to 1992.
That’s a huge template for how I see everything we’re doing. I’m a genre and subgenre freak. On allmusic.com they have hundreds of subgenres and they have a whole expansive thing. I used to go on there and that’s what I would do at night. I was into like Stone Roses and slowly over the years you’re doing stuff and you’re doing stuff and then something clicks and you realize this has been done before.
Nothing is exactly the newest thing in the world. Like the Factory Records and Happy Mondays especially. These were like club people playing dance music and acid house. Everybody was like taking ecstasy and going to the clubs, but britpop was still a thing. They were just club kids with guitars. So that’s a huge template for how I see close up and especially Athletic Supply.
We get lumped in with the garage rock, lo-fi pop stuff, but I really don’t listen to that stuff. I used to in high school. But it’s frustrating because for Athletic Supply there’s nowhere to go other than the garage rock scene, and that’s not really what we’re trying to do.
We’re club kids with guitars.
To me it’s like our version of Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, with Factory Records and the Hacienda Club. That was super influential reading about that. The music is incredible. It really clicks in a certain sort of way in my brain and makes a ton of sense. I feel a sense of comfort when I find a link of something that has been done before. I think we’re continuing a lineage of something.
I’m super into the culture of everything. I was a rivethead in like 6th grade. I was a goth kid. I’ve always been drawn to subculture underground stuff. Things can feel new, like the stuff we’re doing, but everything is rooted in a long history of people doing weird shit that may not have been listened to when they were doing it.
We try to avoid worrying about buzz or hype, 88Nine airplay or whatever. We do our shows, we do our thing every single month. I don’t think we over promote it. We’re not yelling at people to come to our shows. Just quietly going about our business and trying to do the best thing that we can do. Quietly trying to explore our own interests and trying to push things forward in a way that hopefully stands out from everything. But yeah, I love the “Madchester” movement.
What you just brought up speaks the idea of building the audience. What you’re doing is progressive and doesn’t necessarily fit into what’s popular in Milwaukee at the moment. So how do you find that audience in Milwaukee? Or is that even important to you?
Athletic Supply exists sort of as our foot in the general Milwaukee music scene. We can do shows at Public House. We can play with different friends in town. But other than that I would say the three of us feel very disconnected from most things happening in Milwaukee. It becomes less about building hype. Our press releases have become shorter and shorter for every record. I don’t have the energy at this point to bill our stuff. I feel very comfortable with where we sit right now in terms of the Milwaukee music scene.
I’ve always seen what we do and what I do as a template of “the band’s band,” or “the DJ’s DJ,” or “the musician’s label.” That has always been more appealing to me. I don’t care what someone walking down the street thinks about music. I don’t know what they listen to or where they’re coming from. But in terms of respect from our peers and people who are doing things that I respect. People like Asher, like Joey Peterson, he has been incredibly supportive.
A lot of people have been really supportive and that’s what really matters to us. To have people who, I hate to say it, but who “get” it, and respect it. That’s really what we’re concerned about and that’s what we’re concerned about building. We’re mainly concerned about building cool products; high quality music and art.
If people listen to it, that’s great. If people come out to the night, that’s awesome. If there is a dance floor at Precognition, that’s fine. If there’s not, if those two kids that you saw sitting on the stage with their heads down, if it’s just them, that’s fine too. They come out to every single show that we do. Their names are Kendall and Liam. They run their own record label called Big Croc Records. It’s super experimental stuff. One release is Kendall’s insanely experimental rock record and another one is Liam’s acid techno thing.
They completely understand this whole world. I think that’s really what it’s about for us. Continuing to push boundaries. Do things that other people aren’t doing that feel natural for us. Nothing that we do is overly planned out and trying to be subversive. This is what we do. This is what we’ve been doing. And this is what we will continue to do. There’s just no thought of hype or buzz or exposure or publicity.
And with the Bandcamp label you’re able to reach people all over the world.
A big thing we talk about now with people like Asher who are very familiar with doing things that people in their city aren’t listening to, is that you’re building from the outside in. Most bands build from the inside out. They start in a basement, they get shows, they rally their friends, they build in the city and then they want to build outwards and tour.
We played on Radar Radio in London, which is a breeding ground for modern experimental electronic music. It’s what we listen to…
It’s one of three big stations.
We’ve done that already, yet there was only a dozen people at Precognition last night. There’s a huge disconnect with people around the world who are into dance music relating to what we’re doing and appreciating what we’re doing, and the people in Milwaukee and it kind of falling on deaf ears, which is not good or bad. I’m not trying to say anything about the people in Milwaukee or what they listen to, it’s just what it is.
There’s almost a calming realization that this it is, all the music that we love, all the music that affects us so deeply, is not made in a studio for everybody. We make music for weirdo people. Even if it’s for no one, we’re making it to make it. I think we take comfort and pride in being a part of something and continuing to do something that is underground.
I use that term a lot and all it really means is a catch-all for doing something that you’re not concerned with whether it will be popular or not. You’re doing it as part of a lineage of people doing things that are out there.
A couple things to add to the last two points. We’re fortunate enough to have a couple people like Kendall and Liam and our friend Jed who are mad supportive and literally give us their time. Who come out to the night and stay from start to finish. I am happy to play to three people if I know that they’re with me.
There are people who come out and support our shit and I don’t care how many people that is right now. These are people that I respect and I’m happy to try to slowly build off that little kernel. And the other thing is that with the Internet, it has the distinct power to consolidate what is a disparate geographical niche into a close community. We also have that working in our favor. That’s another way of putting what Max was talking about with playing on Radar Radio, which is something that creates a community out of a geographically disparate group of people.
It’s kind of like a two-faceted thing, doing the releases and doing stuff and being able to present it as a web label. Like you said, we can blast it out all over the world. That’s one plane that we’re able to work on.
Then like I said, building off the kernel of people who have come out and showed interest and provided that communal energy for the dance floor. And those moments when Precognition has been actually going the fuck off. Playing stuff and literally hearing it and pushing it in and hearing it on the sound system, watching people react to that. People have given us. It’s building off of that, which allows us to not make any compromises.
And Peter opening up his venue to us and not sweating us for a quota of people coming through the door. He’s not telling us that we should tailor it more to what people expect or want. He’s fucking down and he lets us do what we want to do.
That’s who we relate to, people like Peter. Essentially Quarters is a DIY space with a bar. Peter has never once told us what to do. He’s been a supporter of stuff that I’ve been doing for a while. He understands. He gets it. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely have a really great, thriving, passionate little scene around us of people who are extremely supportive of what we’re doing. Without them what we are doing would feel a lot different.
Like our homie Julio came out last night at just the right time.
I definitely don’t think we’re falling on deaf ears. You’re here doing this interview. It’s just an interesting disconnect to build from the outside in. And what Will was talking about being on the Internet and everything. Even though we’re on the Internet in various forms, for me it’s always been super important to be on a street level doing physical things.
I’ve never seen the appeal of doing things strictly for the Internet. I’m not saying I want to put out vinyl necessarily, but it’s extremely important to me that some people here in the city are feeling what we’re doing. Essentially precognition is our label showcase every month. We play mostly things that are not on our label, but it is the sound and ideology of what we’re doing with the label in a physical form.
And it informs the music that we release as well. It means that we’re not just making Internet age stuff rooted in and specifically for the Internet. The tunes that I made, those all got tested out on dance floors here well in advance of the actual release and that informed the way I eventually made them sound. I think that’s very important too and definitely something that we’re striving for.
It’s very easy for people who are heavily involved in Internet music communities to be like, “The local scene is dead. Local stuff doesn’t matter anymore. The only stuff that matters happens on the Internet, yada yada yada.” That line of thinking. That is taking something new and running too far with it. I think it’s important to have one foot firmly planted in what’s literally geographically happening around us. Then with the other see how far we can reach. How far out can our feelers get?
Going back to turnout at Precognition and looking back on the lineage of the music especially in the U.K.. DMZ, which was like a huge night for dubstep…
The Digital Mystikz dudes ran that.
…and then FWD, a night that happened at Plastic People in London, you never hear them talk about who was there in terms of the turnout. All you hear about is the music and how it changed so many people. The people that were there are now people that are worldwide names.
I have seen people who are struggling with the right name for the whole post-dubstep spiral thing calling it FWD, “F-W-D,” named after one particular club night.
Look at any U.K. artist that has ever done a Red Bull Music Academy interview. They were at FWD at some point or DMZ, and not once will you hear them talk about how there weren’t that many people or it was super packed. They’re talking about the sound, because nothing else sounded as fresh as that.
Playing to DJ’s, playing to producers, playing two musicians, playing to people who are there to hear the music. It’s less about the dance party. Club nights go back farther than just dance music.
Speakeasies and shit.
And punk and everything. There’s always formative nights. For the people that are there it changes the way they think about music. Those people go home and it changes what they’re going to do. Precognition wasn’t started to change Milwaukee. It wasn’t started to change people’s mind and stuff. But that is sort of where we’re coming from in terms of how we don’t think about turnout, we don’t charge a cover, we don’t make any money on it.
We throw a party that we would be excited to walk into. That Halloween night was such a formative experience and we didn’t know what to expect that night.
We see a gap with the sound in terms of what people are doing in Milwaukee, and that’s what we do.
And you’re planting those seeds. The people who come and are into it could be the future…
Kendall and Liam! They come to every single Precognition, every single Athletic Supply show.
You’re talking about some of the biggest supporters of Milwaukee music.
I saw Kendall at Cactus Club and he tells me he goes to 4-5 shows a week. It’s just what he does. That is so rare and you can just tell when the only thing they like, the only thing they care about, the only thing that keeps them up, is music. When you see Kendall and Liam sitting on the stage with their heads down it’s real and you can feel it. They’re not taking pictures of themselves. They’re not not Snapchatting or on Instagram. I don’t even know if they have Instagram. And Kendall will come to shit alone.
That’s something that I always talk about. You have to go to things alone. Don’t wait for your friends. Go to something alone. Go to something you don’t know. See a flyer on the street and go to it. I walked into Chalice in the Palace a few years ago, the reggae dudes from Riverwest, Selector Max and Marcus Doucette and Steven Watkins. I randomly walked into their night alone and it completely changed my life.
I’ve always been a huge Jamaican music fan but I have never ever heard people so intensely just shutting it down like they do. Now I’m a religious supporter of their night. They have a night at Thurman’s on the East Side, which is a tiny little jam band bar with Grateful Dead stuff all over the walls. You could not pay me to walk into there if it wasn’t for Chalice in the Palace. I hate jam bands more than anything. It’s the first Friday of every month and they play strictly vinyl, the most hardcore Jamaican music, dub and everything like that. It’s this little hidden gem of a night. They’re not promoting it, it’s just like if you know then you know.
Talk to select Selector Max and talk to Steven Watkins about DJing and music and what it means to them to get a sense of the spirit that we’re talking about.
Richard Galling. There are people in town who have been doing this shit forever. When there is an older generation of people who are used to doing things, when they see what we’re doing and they nod their head it’s very reaffirming. It’s cool to be a part of that.
This is a totally interesting different lineage of stuff, but I for a while was regularly going to Low End Theory in Los Angeles, which is kind of like in a parallel universe the nexus of the Los Angeles beat scene. And absolutely the sound of that would change every week based on what the residents were playing. That’s a big enough thing, that’s a big enough community with enough people coming to it that you could hear that then influencing the sound of people that I know where producers who were at those nights because I saw them there. You could actually see and hear this progression happening at the ground level.
This was like when people started picking up on the Lex Luger south side style Southern trap beats and making them with weird electronic sounds. And that was just starting to become a thing and they were breaking the experimental trap sound there. I saw it happening.
It was this idea of people coming out to a party that happened every week. They would make friends from that party. That is one example of many. It’s just one that I had first-hand experience with. Almost any dance scene is based around a seminal night. It serves a very important purpose that I think is very specific to DJ music that is made by producers. Before the Internet it’s where people got their ideas from. Record stores and clubs.
We were talking about how Factory Records opened up Hacienda in Manchester. That’s where all the bands and the DJs were. It’s the idea of a “scene,” as disgusting as that word can be. It’s very real and it’s very tangible. CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City in New York. This is where people would meet and where people would hear new music from DJs who don’t take requests and are pushing things forward.
That’s where we’re coming from. We wouldn’t have the same outlook if it wouldn’t be for Chalice in the Palace, Le Freak, DJ Avets. Another big night that we attend pretty often is Sound Travels on Sunday nights at The Nomad with Marcus Doucette. It’s so exciting to go there and not know what you’re going to here. Music from all over the world. If you get somebody in particular like DJ Avets he’s playing stuff that we have never heard, but he’s been about that life for so long. He knows these things.
And Marcus too. Get him off the radio and on the decks at Nomad and he takes it out of control. He listens to everything. It’s his job, that’s all he does. And if it wasn’t his job, he’s the type of dude you can tell all he wants to do all day is listen to music and find new music. It’s a mentality.
You can read these articles now like on BuzzFeed and whatever about how millennials don’t listen to new music; all millennials want to do is listen to the music they grew up with in high school. I see that and I see people like that, they just want to listen to the same old music, and it just baffles me, because we have a driving, insane thirst for new music and new things. And old music that is new to us and that sounds like it is 20 years ahead of its time. That’s that timeless quality of dance music that was being made in the ‘80s and ‘90s that still sounds fresh.
We are squeamish about playing tracks that we’ve played before at our night. Because we’re like, “This is starting to feel a little stale.” When it’s probably the first time that whoever we were going to play it for is going to hear it. But it’s just like, “I don’t want to do that. I want to do something new.”
There is an unfathomable body of work out there for us to pick and choose from. What we’re doing is far from unprecedented. But there’s room for people, whoever you are, to be forward thinking and find new stuff.
New and forward-thinking and unprecedented are three very different things that aren’t mutually exclusive. We’re working within a storied lineage, that’s a big point that we’re trying to get across. And within that inherently there’s room to be doing your own thing.
Going to your night last night brought me back to when I was living in Scotland and traveled around Europe. What you guys are doing now and what other DJs in town are doing is building this strong foundation where eventually there could be an audience for this kind of dance music like I experienced overseas.
Since Le Freak ended Asher has a new night called Rhythm Axis that he does at High Dive and a couple different places with Danny George, and Saul and Jack Carpenter and Sam. There were also guys that you might have seen at studio 200 who had their own night called Bremenhain at Bremen Cafe, before the capacity issues they had there, but now it’s back up and running again.
It’s really important for those three nights to be happening every month to put each other in context. Precognition, Rhythm Axis, and Bremenhain make so much sense alone, but the three of them running sometimes in the same weekend, sometimes a weekend apart, I feel like makes more sense and puts it all into the context of a like-minded scene. To me, yeah absolutely the numbers could be better, but it just takes time.
There’s something like Synth Fest that happened a couple weekends ago. Our really good friend Erik who is down the hall, him and Ken Sabbar is another person who’s just as dedicated and into it as you could possibly be, also an incredible musician, them and Jim Schoenecker who is super involved and pushing sort of more the modular stuff and weird more experimental stuff, they did this big sprawling weekend festival and it went out. It went off. People were there, people were into it.
We’re trying to get this idea in people’s heads that there’s not that many degrees of separation between what we’re doing and stuff like that. There are people in town who want to listen to cool stuff, but there’s a stigma to what a DJ is.
I think there’s a disconnect in what people think the role of a DJ should be. Between like an autonomous selector who has an artistic agenda and who gets to have an artistic agenda, verses a Pandora station and the jukebox mentality. We’re not jukeboxes. You’re not going to get your tune if you put a quarter in us.
I’m trying to say something. I don’t think that you can just snap your fingers and everyone understands what we’re doing and we’ll all be speaking the same language. That’s why the repetition and the regular stuff is important. And being active in trying to give people opportunities to make sense of what we’re doing. Patience and knowing that that’s not something that’s going to happen immediately are two important things.
In terms of Precognition and Close Up in General, I want to see the experimental people relate to it and connect with it. I want to see punks, you know I cannot even believe how sort of stagnant the mindset can be in the punk scene. I want to see the queer community relate to it. The hip-hop community, people into drum and bass. To me it’s very much like a middle ground for a lot of things like that. But yeah, there’s a disconnect between what people think a DJ night will be.
And people might think the environment is something else. Like if you’re a girl, you don’t have to put on a skimpy cocktail dress to come to our night. There is no fucking bottle service at Quarters. We specifically don’t want this to be a hetero-sexualized space. I think that there are large factions of what flies as “dance music,” especially in the U.S., but all over the world too, that are really tied into the grossness we have in our society. Like sex sells. There are detestable factions of dance music, that’s for sure.
We have nothing to do with Oak. Nothing to do with SITE 1A. Nothing to do with the Miramar. That’s a huge point I try to make too and I’m not afraid to say it. What we do is something inherently from the ground up different then all that kind of EDM stuff that is coming from a mentality and a culture that I don’t have any tie to.
And it was stolen too. It’s coming from a stolen place.
That was the biggest difference I noticed when I first went to a club in London. It wasn’t like a fashion show, it wasn’t a meat market. It was just people dancing and having a good time.
It’s an escape. It’s always been a place for people to go and feel safe being themselves. And you really want to push that because that’s the root of it.
Just do your thing, do your own thing. There’s no rules.
Precognition is where the dimension really exists. That’s where I really think the depth of the whole thing exists. Where it becomes something with a singular quality about it that only happens in one place with one group of people.