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David Ravel’s UNCOVERED finds a new home

By Joey Grihalva

Nostalgia is a powerful force, especially as it pertains to music. Tune in to many of our radio stations or check out the latest Summerfest lineup and you’ll notice that Wisconsinites particularly have a penchant for the “oldies.” Not to mention, cover bands. While that identity has suited us just fine for years, there are those pushing for more progressive and more local music.

In 2012, Alverno Presents artistic director David Ravel hatched an idea that married iconic songwriters with contemporary regional talent. The resulting Uncovered series presents reinterpretations of quintessential American music, curated and performed by homegrown artists.

Last year — after 56 years of Alverno Presents — the college shut down its renowned performing arts series in order to allocate more resources to student services. When the news broke, it was also announced that Ravel had formed a partnership with the Pabst Theater Group that would allow Uncovered to live on.

The first performances will be January 20 — Tribe UNCOVERED — and April 14 — Wonder UNCOVERED — at Turner Hall Ballroom.

I recently sat down with Ravel, Tribe curator Kellen “Klassik” Abston, and Wonder curators Dave Wake (De La Buena, Aluar Pearls) and Tarik Moody (88Nine Radio Milwaukee).

The genesis of Uncovered

David Ravel and his wife moved to Milwaukee in 1997 when she was hired as a theater professor at Marquette University. They had been in New York City, where they ran Brooklyn Playworks, producing work by new American playwrights. Ravel got his job with Alverno Presents in 2003.

“When I was hired we assessed what the series was doing and looked around and said, ‘What’s happening in Milwaukee? What’s not happening in Milwaukee? Let’s do the stuff that’s not happening.’ Initially that was world music, jazz, and contemporary dance. Over time that evolved and some things ended up getting more attention than others,” says Ravel.

As the head of Alverno Presents, Ravel brought world-class performers to the Pitman Theatre. During that time he also developed relationships with Milwaukee musicians. Ravel admired how the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Walker in Minneapolis worked with local artists in their series and he searched for interesting ways to do the same.

One morning, while in his car listening to a re-released demo by the McGarrigle sisters, a line from “The Work Song” sparked an idea. There was a direct reference to Stephen Foster — “the father of American popular music” — whose songs have been recorded by musicians in a variety of arrangements over the years. Ravel enlisted Juniper Tar’s Ryan Schleicher to curate a show that would present reinterpretations of Foster’s songs. It would be the prototype for Uncovered and was titled Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project.

Architect-turned-radio DJ Tarik Moody began his Unlooped series in 2010 as a way to highlight Milwaukee’s electronic music scene through collaborations with popular musicians from other genres. The performances operated in a complementary fashion to what Ravel and Schleicher did with the Stephen Foster show. Ravel and Moody teamed up for a Marvin Gaye show centered on his 1978 album Here, My Dear.

“We placed a lot of different interpretive lenses on that material and the show went really well. After that, the template revealed itself to us and the idea of calling it ‘Uncovered.’ Because we’re not doing covers of this material, we’re reinterpreting it,” says Ravel.

“It’s this question of what is the American songbook? What merits inclusion and why? We started playing around with the idea that we can tell the strength of a song by how many different ways it can be successfully reinterpreted,” he adds.

After Unlooped vs. Marvin Gaye, Ravel invited Betty Strigens of Testa Rosa to curate an Uncovered show. She chose the songs of Patti Smith. Next, Jordan “DJ Madhatter” Lee of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee decided to mine the work of legendary producer Quincy Jones. Later that year, Alverno Presents staged arguably the most intriguing Uncovered pairing — dark folk quartet Hello Death unraveling the music of Prince. This revelatory performance stuck with me for months. Upon hearing the news of Prince’s passing I immediately experienced a desire to relive the one night only event. 

The final Uncovered performance at the Pitman did not fall under the official moniker, but had a similar execution.

“The show that (Christopher) Porterfield did was really an Uncovered show, but with a musician no one had ever heard of,” says Ravel. “Charles K. Harris wrote a song that was the first to sell something like 10 million pieces of sheet music, and he wrote that in Milwaukee.”

Harris ended up moving to New York City, where he was one of the founders of Tin Pan Alley and had an active career from the late 1880s to the early 1930s. He wrote a book called How to Write a Popular Song, which Porterfield used as the foundation for his show. Musicians reinterpreted Harris’ songs and followed the book’s instructions to create their own song.

Blame it on the jazz — the roots of ‘Tribe UNCOVERED’

The first time my girlfriend and I visited the Pitman was for the Jones Uncovered show in April 2015. It was a special evening full of surprises and marvelous music. One of the standout moments was hip-hop artist Kellen “Klassik” Abston taking the lead on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”

Considering the popularity of that performance and the fact that Klassik’s biggest single — “Boogie” — samples The Jacksons’ “Blame it on the Boogie,” it seemed logical that he would eventually stage Jackson UNCOVERED. In fact, that was the initial idea when Ravel first sat down with Abston in the summer of 2015 to discuss an Uncovered show.

Kellen “Klassik” Abston

“This was an artist that I grew up with and have a lot of admiration for, but A Tribe Called Quest was always my second thought,” says Abston. “Doing an MJ show eventually started feeling like a cop out. Where is the challenge? What am I saying with this show?”

“With Tribe there are all these parallels between my own upbringing as far as musical growth with jazz and hip-hop. I started as a saxophone player and then was introduced to Tribe and classic ‘90s hip-hop growing up. And there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as hip-hop being a part of the American songbook,” adds Abston.

For Abston, Tribe UNCOVERED allows him to put a spotlight on the art of the sample. The lyrical content was actually the final piece of the puzzle. In effect, Tribe has become a vessel to make a larger point about sampling and where classic hip-hop albums stand among classic albums of all genres.

“Sampling is not just taking somebody else’s idea and copy and pasting it. It’s listening to hundreds of thousands of records and finding those two second snippets from this record and that record and making something completely new and beautiful,” says Abston.

“Tribe is the embodiment of this ever present, constantly progressing lineage of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. It’s my story, it’s their story, it’s hip-hop, it’s jazz,” adds Abston.

With Tribe member Phife Dawg’s passing last March and a new Tribe album released in November — their first in 18 years — Abston saw these as reassuring signs. While hip-hop had been used in Uncovered shows as an interpretive lens for existing material, Ravel originally had trouble wrapping his head around the idea of using hip-hop as the foundation.

“All the curators who are involved in the Uncovered shows have pushed me and my understanding of the American songbook into far deeper considerations than I would’ve had by myself. I think Kellen and the artists that he’s assembled are making a very compelling case for how that material gets reinterpreted and it’s place in the American songbook,” says Ravel.

‘The elusive perfect album’ — the roots of ‘Wonder UNCOVERED’

As the bandleader of Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz outfit De La Buena, Dave Wake first became involved with Alverno Presents by providing the marching band for a Trisha Brown contemporary dance piece. Later, Jordan Lee enlisted Wake to be the musical director for Jones Uncovered. After the show, Wake’s sister came up to him and exclaimed, “You know the next one needs to be Stevie Wonder, right?”

Dave Wake (at ‘Jones Uncovered’)

“Emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is just an album that reminds me of my youth,” says Wake. “It was on at our house almost constantly when I was growing up. And I think the night of the Jones show it came up in conversation between Tarik and I. Plus, I like that he’s into doing full albums.”

“It’s what I call the elusive perfect album,” says Moody. “Stevie was way ahead of his time on Songs in the Key of Life. It’s hard to repeat that kind of stuff. He had good albums, but I think that was his pinnacle.”

Wonder UNCOVERED is still a work-in-progress, but Moody and Wake have found a similar sensibility with artistic choices and arrangements.

“We’ve been thinking about the elements of the songs, stripping them down to the essential parts and then building up a total reinterpretation around that. We approach it like, ‘But what if we knock that out completely? What if we take this one thing and build the song up from a fringe element?’” says Wake.

Residual effects

Tribe UNCOVERED will be the fourth time Abston is involved in an Uncovered show. The first time he ever sang in front of an audience was at Unlooped vs. Marvin Gaye. Abston describes each show as a unique and transformative experience.

“I’ve witnessed myself and the artists involved in these shows grow exponentially as far as artistic maturity, being able to listen better, taking on different skill sets and challenging ourselves in new ways. They’ve opened up a whole world of possibilities and broadened my perspective of what I listen to and what I demand of myself as an artist and as a producer,” says Abston.

Moody and Wake have enlisted Thane and Q the Sun — two of Milwaukee’s top producers — to help brainstorm Wonder UNCOVERED.

A key component of the series is to gather together a group of musicians who would not normally work together. This was inherent in Moody’s Unlooped series and carried over into Uncovered. In the months after the Jones Uncovered, I noticed many of the same players from the house band hanging out and jamming with musicians both young and old at saxophonist Jay Anderson’s Riverwest home. Also, Prince Uncovered served as the introduction of Abston to Chris Rosenau, who will be playing guitar at Tribe UNCOVERED.

“When I was living in Minneapolis I was surrounded by collaboration,” says Moody. “It’s ridiculous how many musicians crossed genres naturally in that scene. If you want a strong and supportive scene, collaboration is very important. People tell me, ‘Oh Minneapolis just has more talent.’ No. Milwaukee probably has more talent. It’s just Minneapolis intermingles more.”

“The coolest thing for me from the Marvin Gaye show was that Porterfield and Barry Paul Clark met, Clark joined Field Report, and they started an improv group together. So I think what Uncovered is doing for the scene is really beautiful and I hope it inspires people,” adds Moody.

Purchase tickets for Tribe UNCOVERED and Wonder UNCOVERED here: http://pabsttheater.org/show/tribeuncovered2017

 

[ FULL-INTERVIEW ]

WiG
Tell me about the genesis of the Uncovered series?

RAVEL
It started in the parking lot of the Colectivo in the 5th Ward. I was in my car listening to the re-released demos of the first two McGarrigle sisters albums. So there was no production, just guitar, voice and piano. I knew both of those albums very well and loved them very much. As is often the case with something that you get to hear a second time in a stripped-down way, in a fresh way, I was really taken with “The Work Song.” It has the line, “Back before the blues were blues, when the good old songs were new, songs that may no longer please us, about the darkies about Jesus.”

It’s a very direct reference to Stephen Foster and parlor music. Also, it’s a reference to their family and how they shared music with each other. This got me thinking about how the American popular song developed. I started obsessing about this and talking about it with a lot of different people including Ryan Schleicher, who’s an old friend. Eventually I decided I wanted to do a show about Stephen Foster where his material gets reinterpreted.

WiG
Had you seen shows like that where the music is being reinterpreted? Did you ever experience that template?

RAVEL
No. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, but I wasn’t familiar with it.

WiG
About what time was this?

RAVEL
This was 2012. The Stephen Foster show went really well. And as that show was about to happen it was very clear that Alverno Presents needed to follow up on this idea. Tarik and I started talking. I wanted to do something about Marvin Gaye and I really wanted to do something about Here, My Dear, because it’s my favorite album. But Milan (Zori) said, “Don’t limit somebody like that, it’s such a great catalogue. Why do you want to limit them to one album?”  

Tarik and I started talking about Marvin Gaye and listening to a lot of it and then Tarik said, “You know what my favorite Marvin Gaye album is? Here, My Dear.” And I said “Yes.” So we focused on that and we did the whole album, placing a lot of different interpretive lenses on that material and that show went really well.  After that the template revealed itself to us and the idea of calling it “Uncovered.” Because we’re not doing covers of this material, we’re reinterpreting it. It’s this question of what is the American songbook? What merits inclusion and why? We started playing around with the idea that we can tell the strength of a song by how many different ways it can be successfully reinterpreted. And we went on from there.

WiG
How long had you been working with Alverno Presents prior to that?

RAVEL
I started there in 2003, so this was like 9 years later.

WiG
What was Alverno Presents known for at that point?

RAVEL
Well, over its 56 year history it was known for a lot of different things. When I was hired we assessed what the series was doing and looked around and said, “What’s happening in Milwaukee? What’s not happening in Milwaukee? Let’s do the stuff that’s not happening.” Initially that was world music, jazz, and contemporary dance. Over time that evolved and some things ended up getting more attention than others.

WiG
What were you doing previous to being hired by Alverno Presents?

RAVEL
I worked for Theater X for two years and prior to that my wife and I lived in New York for 14 years.

WiG
What precipitated the move to Milwaukee?

RAVEL
My wife got a job. She was chair of the Theater Department at Marquette University, so we came for that job and I did what I could.

WiG
So Tarik, tell me how you wrapped your head around the Marvin Gaye show?

TARIK
Well, Here, My Dear is a concept record. It’s basically a divorce settlement for his ex-wife. At first he didn’t really take it seriously, he was just going to do some BS. But then he thought back and decided to put all of his emotions in it. The album covers a range of emotions. So I approached first from the lyrics and then the music. Each song is almost a different genre. I wanted to have different ensembles for each song. To approach the song from a completely different way.

One of our favorites was Martha Cannon from Lady Cannon. She took the song “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” and turned it into a country song. My secondary goal besides putting on a good show was to connect different artists together that I like. It’s my selfish reason for doing these shows. It’s kind of what I did with the Unlooped series. I love Chris Porterfield and I like Kiings, so I want to put them together. A lot of people who worked on Unlooped had never met each other. That was the fun part of the show. That was kind of my ulterior motive to get different artists I appreciate and respect and see what happens when they come together.

WiG
Can you explain the Unlooped series?

TARIK
It started back in 2010. It was basically to highlight the electronic scene. Because since I felt that people in the city didn’t really appreciate electronic music. So the idea was basically to highlight electronic musicians and I felt the only way to do that was through collaborations with other musicians that people like. That’s how it started. Then I took a hiatus and I brought it back in the form of reinterpretation. So the first one was Dilla and the second one was Justin Vernon and the third one was the Marvin Gaye show.

WiG
So Dave, was the Jones Uncovered show the first one you became involved with?

DAVE
I had done…I don’t remember when we first met…

RAVEL
We had done that Trisha Brown thing. That was so wonderful.

WiG
What was that?

RAVEL
Trisha Brown is the foremost postmodern choreographer. She has a piece that involves a marching band happening around the building so you can hear the marching band not in the theater but around the theater. So we got De La Buena to be the marching band. The dance company was thrilled because they normally get high school marching bands. And so they had first of all somebody with a very good sense of rhythm, which the dancers really appreciated  and we marched them around the theater and through the orchestra pit. It was a lot of fun.

DAVE
We brought a bunch of percussion to it. David emailed me when they were asking for a marching band asking if we could do something. We started dialoguing via email and I said, “What about a Samba band type thing with a bunch of second line horns?”

RAVEL
Which is not the idea of their piece but they were open to it.

DAVE
So we got like New Orleans second line horns with a Samba group, just like sight unseen. There’s no part of the show where we’re seen. It’s just a point of reference where the sound was coming from and it ended up being amazing and then we played either at the break…

RAVEL
That piece was the end of the first set and when the audience went out of the theater De La Buena with outside playing. That was how many years ago?

DAVE
That was maybe 2013/2012. I remember we were backstage at the show and you said, “There’s this Marvin Gaye record, Here, My Dear.” So that was a really great experience working with David and then for the Jones show, Jordan Lee just called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to be the musical director for the show?” It was a little different in that Tarik is sort of into this…you know David was saying about not being limited to one album? But I do like the concept of taking one album and really dissecting it. So Jordan and I took on Quincy Jones. I mean his catalogue is insane. My wife was in India with Painted Caves and we sat at my kitchen table for like three or four hours listening to the Quincy Jones songbook. I think we narrowed it down to like 83 songs.

RAVEL
He has 50 years worth of work.

DAVE
We were like, “Okay, let’s just narrow it down a little,” and our list was like four pages long. Then we brought that down to like 13-14 songs at the end of it. It was really daunting, but it was an incredible experience. We took a little different approach with it because we did feature performers with a house band. And then we brought in Painted Caves to do some really different stuff.

RAVEL
Like the Lady Cannon piece where they took a Marvin Gaye song and turned it into a country song, Painted Caves took Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” which is kind of classic early ‘60s white girl pop, and turned it into something with a really intense Middle Eastern vibe. I don’t know the name of the male vocalist…

DAVE
Ali.

RAVEL
Ali took the lead vocal, which is the persona of the young girl. Ali took it and just cracked it open. And Holly was able to sort of jump into that sweet spot. It’s one of my most satisfying moments of the Uncovered shows.

DAVE
Yeah that show I think was like…it’s something we’ve been dialoguing about, those moments of having a clean house band and then bringing something totally out of left field. The counterpoint of that worked really well in that show. That’s one thing that in hindsight I would have liked to have done more with Jordan on that show. More of having these really nice tight arrangements with great singers, letting them do their thing and then all of a sudden something out of left field just comes in and knocks your socks off. That’s sort of been something for the Stevie Wonder show that we’re discussing. Using the device of sharp contrast and counterpoints.

WiG
So Kellen, I know you were involved in that show and Prince Uncovered. Were you involved in any others?

KELLEN
I was in the Marvin Gaye show.

WiG
So what was your experience like performing in all these shows?

KELLEN
My experiences with Uncovered up until the present day have all been very unique and transformative experiences. I’ve witnessed myself and the artists involved in these shows grow exponentially as far as artistic maturity, being able to listen better, taking on different skill sets and challenging ourselves in new ways. To take something that’s recognized on its own right and then turn it on its head is something special.

I’ve learned a lot about where I want to go as an artist, finding my strong suits. Find the things that are super new, that I’m not as sure of and tackling those kinds of things head on. Like the Marvin Gaye show, I had never sung in front of people before I did Marvin Gaye show. It’s still something that I’m coming to terms with. These shows, they’ve opened up a whole world of possibilities and broadened my perspective of what I listen to and what I demand of myself as an artist and as a producer.

WiG
So I’m familiar with the Jones Uncovered show, the Prince Uncovered, the Marvin Gaye show, what other Uncovered have there been in the series?

RAVEL
Stephen Foster, Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith, Quincy Jones, Prince, and the show that Porterfield did was really an Uncovered show, but with a musician that no one had ever heard of. So if we were to call it Charles K. Harris Uncovered people would have probably been scratching their heads. But it was in effect an Uncovered show. There were people reinterpreting Charles K. Harris and he wrote a song that was the first to sell something like 10 million pieces of sheet music, “After the Ball,”  and he wrote that in Milwaukee. Then he left Milwaukee and became in essence one of the founders of Tin Pan Alley in New York and had a very active career from the late 1880s to the early 1930s. And he wrote a book, a very strange book, called How to Write a Popular Song. What Chris did was invite a bunch of musicians to reinterpret Charles K. Harris’ songs and then follow Charles K. Harris’ instructions to write a popular song. So it was an Uncovered show, we just didn’t call it that.

WiG
Did you know that Alverno Presents was going to end before it was announced?

RAVEL
Yes, they gave me a heads up. One of the things that I wanted to do was that I had a number of projects in development that I wanted to find homes for including these two upcoming Uncovered shows. So I went to talk with Gary and Matt [at the Pabst Group] and they had a lot of enthusiasm for the Uncovered shows. So it was a very natural home for these things to go to. And I am told that we have a commitment to doing two Uncovered shows a year for the next three years. So this will go on.

WiG
So it’s not just a trial run?

RAVEL
I thought it was a trial run until I read in the Journal Sentinel that we’re doing two a year for the next three years. I suppose this could change, but for now this is my information.

WiG
Looking at the first one that’s coming up, how did A Tribe Called Quest get selected?

(Ravel and Kellen both laugh.)

RAVEL
Let me start with saying every curator I’ve ever worked with we started on one idea…

TARIK
Hey, I kept mine.

RAVEL
Okay, you kept yours.

DAVE
My sister walked up to me on stage after the Jones Uncovered show because my dad played Stevie Wonder growing up and she said, “You know the next one needs to be Stevie Wonder, right?” And it’s so funny because that same night the next conversation I had was with you (looking at Tarik) and you were like, “Stevie Wonder.”

RAVEL
Yeah, but Tarik was also saying after the Jones show that it would be a long time before he did another one of these things, which is another thing every curator has said. “It was great. I had a good time, but I need a break.” It’s a lot of work. But pretty much every curator changed their mind midstream. We started with one idea and went to another one. I’ve always gone with it because the work that the curator has to do it so intense. I mean, they’re living with this for like a year and a half, in some cases two years. It has to be something that you can live with for that amount of time. So Kellen was going to do a Michael Jackson show.

WiG
I had heard that…

KELLEN
This had to be summer 2015 I feel like when we first sat down and talked about this. My immediate thought was MJ. Of course, I’m gonna do a Michael Jackson show. Duh.

WiG
I feel like people were saying that after the Jones show…

KELLEN
I think that was kind of the inspiration. And there was this growth and that’d be like a challenge because we did this one song and what if I just really dug into his catalogue? Obviously, this is an artist I grew up with and have a lot of admiration for, but A Tribe Called Quest was always my second thought. It was, “MJ, but then I could also do Tribue…but I’m gonna do MJ.” And for sure like with Phife passing, it was right before then that I was really moving strongly towards changing it. Because MJ was just like equally…

RAVEL
I think we made that choice before Phife passed.

KELLEN
Yeah, but I think his passing was a sign…there were some things that happened since the change that were reassuring. It was like, “Alright, MJ is equally as difficult and easy. This could go one of two ways.” Doing an MJ show eventually started feeling like a cop out. I probably could do a really good MJ show, but where is the challenge? What am I saying with this show? What am I arguing besides the obvious?

With Tribe there are all these parallels between my own upbringing as far as musical growth with jazz and hip-hop. I started as a saxophone player and then was introduced to Tribe and classic ‘90s hip-hop growing up. The story kind of just unfolded and unveiled itself once we made that decision and immediately it was like, “Yeah, there’s a lot more to say with this, there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as hip-hop being a part of the American songbook. And there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as the art of the sample and what that takes and the type of ear.”

Sampling is not just taking somebody else’s idea and copy and pasting it. It’s listening to hundreds of thousands of records and finding those two second snippets from this record and that record and making something completely new and beautiful. So that’s what this show became.

RAVEL
All the curators who are involved in the Uncovered shows have pushed me and my understanding of the American songbook into far deeper considerations than I would’ve had by myself. Jordan’s idea of working with a producer rather than a songwriter, I didn’t understand it when he suggested the idea. But he made a really compelling case for it. And while past Uncovered shows have used hip-hop as an interpretive lens for existing material, we’ve never looked at hip-hop before. And the first question I had was, “How does this get reinterpreted?” I didn’t understand that. Then Kellen explained it to me. And I think Kellen and the artists that he’s assembled are making a very compelling case for how that material gets reinterpreted and it’s place in the American songbook.

WiG (to Kellen)
I think you kind of already answered this question, but what has Tribe meant to you?

KELLEN
Tribe is the embodiment of this ever present, constantly progressing lineage of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. When I started rapping it was because in high school and a little bit of college, I was making beats as a side thing, as a hobby. But my main thing was going to music class for five hours a day. I was a 50-year-old jazz guy who was actually 16. That was my life. Practicing every single day. The art of improvisation, as I started getting more into hip-hop, I saw very early on that jazz improv and freestyle rap are literally the exact same thing.

With jazz improv you learn certain licks and runs and then you learn them in every single key and eventually you build up this vocabulary. It’s a language in a very literal sense. You can better convey and more efficiently share ideas and emotions and thoughts if you have the vocabulary. You’re not thinking about it. Even speaking to you right now, I’m not thinking about every single word that’s coming out of my mouth per say. I’m thinking about the larger thought, and the rest just happens. So the greatest jazz improvisational players are the ones who sat in their rooms for like 12 hours a day and practiced the same pattern over and over and over again, until eventually they’re not thinking about it and they’re just “talking to you.”

Freestyle rap is even more literal than that because now I am talking to you with words, but I’m making them rhyme, and I’m keeping it in time. And I’m having complete thoughts with this level of self-awareness that there are patterns and phrases that if you know, they’re couplets and certain rhyme schemes that you can go in and out of. You get to a point where you’re so comfortable you’re not thinking about it, you’re just talking in a different way. If you’ve got a saxophone and you’re doing a solo, you’re not thinking about it, you’re just talking to the audience. If the DJ throws a beat on, I’m not sitting there in a corner thinking about what I want to say. No, it moves you to speak. And so what Tribe represents for me is the embodiment of that parallel. The marriage of jazz and hip-hop. The records that they sampled and the reasons that they sampled them and why they worked together. It’s my story, it’s their story, it’s hip-hop, it’s jazz.

WiG
And did the new Tribe album have any impact on the direction and vision of the show?

KELLEN
Actually no. All of this was in motion well before they announced the album. It was just another one of those reassurances. It was another sign. Didn’t really effect the show that I’ve constructed.

RAVEL
We won’t be looking at any material from the new album?

KELLEN
There may or may not be one song from it towards the end. But…without giving away too much…

WiG
It can be off the record.

KELLEN
No, it’s not super secret. But yeah overall the new album didn’t alter the course of the show.

WiG
It sounds like with the Stevie Wonder show, the roots of it go back a few years.

DAVE
Emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is just an album that reminds me of my youth. Again, my sister came up after the Quincy Jones show and said “Stevie Wonder!” It was on at our house almost constantly when I was growing up. And I think the night of the Jones show it came up in conversation between with Tarik and I. Plus I like that he’s into doing full albums. But I do think it’s a daunting task that we’re taking on the entire Songs in the Key of Life

TARIK
Which is a double album.

RAVEL
We’re investigating the idea of a dinner break.

TARIK
It’s what I call the elusive perfect album. I mean it’s everything you want in an album. It’s beautiful. When I first heard it, it was like…I’m more of a music guy, sonics and sounds, and I feel like Stevie was way ahead of his time on Songs in the Key of Life. It’s hard to repeat that kind of stuff. He had good albums, but I think that was his pinnacle.

DAVE
It takes you on such an emotional journey too, it’s such a story. Each song in it’s own stands alone and as a work of art it’s such an incredible journey. It’s such an incredible work.

WiG
So was that a pretty easy consensus?

DAVE
I think so. I think we sort of came to it a little bit individually as well and so when we started talking about it we were kind of already on the same page. It’s been really interesting with us combining our artistic sensibilities, because we’re coming from two different worlds. It’s been really cool. It’s just like feeling it out and starting to put the thread together in how we approach something like that and where we’re coming from as artists and musical minds. It’s really starting to develop nicely and again, we’ve had a couple great moments where we’ve individually come to a couple of conclusions then we’ve checked in with each other and been like, “This song would be great as that,” or “This person would be really great on this song.”

I think both of us have had individual revelations like that and when we check in we’re like, “Wow, I was thinking that too.” Some of the other collaborators we’re bringing in are really really bright and have great perspective. Like Thane, who put out a really great record this year and is young, he brought some really great, fresh ideas. He’s really thinking about it. And Kiran as well. Those are the two people we brought in really early to help brainstorm with us. And it just feels like there’s a really cool collaborative vision going on, which is important.

TARIK
And plus the album was released forty years ago.

WiG
This question can go to either of you guys. How do you start putting together a show like this?

TARIK
There’s bourbon first.

(Everybody laughs.)

DAVE
Yeah.

KELLEN
Why was I going to say the same thing? Buy a bottle of bourbon…

DAVE
Lubrication of some sort, in this case bourbon.

TARIK
For me, I go through the songs first. You just start listening to records. Have a drink. And hopefully ideas will spark. Like “Oh, I’d love to have that singer,” or “That drummer would kill on this song.” You start brainstorming while you listen to records. I listen to them over and over again. Try to think of other ways, what would be interesting. That’s how I approached Marvin Gaye and this next one.

DAVE
And in the spirit of the re-interpretative nature of it and personally, I consider myself first and foremost an arranger.We’ve been thinking about the elements of the songs, stripping them down to the essential parts and then building up a total reinterpretation around that. We approach it like, “But what if we knock that out completely? What if we take this one thing and build the song up from a fringe element?

We’re looking at different angles of arrangement and how a different pairing of artists might look at it. Getting people together that wouldn’t normally work together and seeing how they are going to interpret it. You give them the artistic freedom to do their thing and interpret it in their own way and sort of hold a place for them. Cuz I’m also thinking as an arranger, how does the show tie together? What are the common elements where you can get a thread throughout the show? Something that really makes it a complete show. So it’s like, “What are the things you can keep in place to keep it feeling like a real show that has a thread that flows with tons of room for interpretation between it?”

KELLEN
Same. Also, this is something that I’m like actively combating now, the beauty and the controversy of what I’m doing. Meaning I’ve had old heads, like die hard hip-hop fans, in public forums just basically question my credibility. Like, “Where is your knowledge of this?”

DAVE
Your authority.

KELLEN
“You were two years old when this happened, why are you doing this?” Well, first of all…

RAVEL
I’m a musician. Second of all, I have ears.

DAVE
And third, you’re bitter.

KELLEN
Right. And then the thing that I was able to eventually get across is that none of these are supposed to be cover shows. And this for sure, the way that we approached this, from de-constructing the samples themselves and replaying them, and recording those, and then re-sampling that. There’s so many layers. The lyrics are almost, ironically enough for this, gasp, all the hip-hop heads are going to hate this, but the lyrics are the last thing that are even a part of this Tribe show. Tribe has become more of a vessel for a larger point that I’m trying to get across about the art of the sample and the parallel of jazz and hip-hop. They just happened to be the fucking best to do it.

It’s not specifically about your favorite lines. It’s definitely more of a musical exploration as far as expectation, as far as records that were used and how that laid the foundation for a new iconic piece of work on top of that. And so taking that whole process and putting it on the stage for everyone to see, like, hear the original sample played by a live band and then watch this guy sample this record on stage. At least that’s what it’s going to look like to people. It’s really putting front and center the art of creating a classic hip-hop record and where classic hip-hop records stand amongst classic records of all genres.

(We then discuss the Tribe/Pharcyde mash-up album Bizarre Tribe and Dave recalls a Hieroglyphics show at Stonefly Brewing, which is now Company Brewing.)

WiG
I guess my last question, well I guess it’s more of a comment than a question, and I think we touched on it before, but one of the residual effects of these Uncovered shows is a community building effect in the Milwaukee music scene. Bringing together people who’ve never worked together to collaborate on something larger than themselves. I felt like being at the Jones Uncovered show and then seeing some of the house jams at Jay Anderson’s place with some of the same musicians coming in and mingling, a mix of older heads and younger players. You know, hats off for that aspect.

RAVEL
One of the things I was thinking about for a long time when I was at Alverno Presents was I always admired how the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Walker in Minneapolis worked with Chicago and Minneapolis based artists in their series. And I wanted to do that. And it took me a long time to figure out a meaningful way to do that.

It never made sense to me to book somebody who’s going to do their Cactus Club set at Alverno, because we can see that at Cactus Club. Why is this special? As this idea with Foster started to develop I realized this is how I’ll get to work with the artists in Milwaukee I want to work with and give them an opportunity to do something they haven’t done before and give audiences an opportunity to see them in a different light. That part has been especially meaningful and I’m glad it’s worked out.

TARIK
I mean with Unlooped that was basically the whole reason I wanted to do that. Because living in Minneapolis I was surrounded by collaboration. It’s ridiculous how many musicians cross genres naturally in that scene. There was this cross-pollination and I guess the idea sparked when the group Gayngs, which was started by a bunch of Minneapolis people as a joke, 26 people based on one funny concept, it was kind of a loose tribute to yacht rock and 10cc and they got all these different artists together, plus a couple people from North Carolina, and they put this album together and had this prom in Minneapolis at First Avenue. Prince was backstage.

I mean you see that kind of collaboration and local support in Minneapolis. A lot of local artists sell shows out at First Avenue and I wanted to see that here in Milwaukee. And I knew the only way I could get that done is that artists had to get out of their comfort zone and intermingle. If you want to have a strong scene and a scene that is supportive, collaboration is very important. Just seeing that and watching that and knowing those people when I was living there and watching them grow, now that I’m on the outside it’s just amazing. And the thing is people tell me, “Oh Minneapolis just has more talent.” No. Milwaukee probably has more talent. It’s just Minneapolis intermingles more.

DAVE
Amazingly insular talent, Milwaukee has.

WiG
And I would say Minneapolis has stronger leaders like Prince, Rhymesayers…

TARIK
Yeah, Prince was very supportive. And Rhymesayers helped out Doomtree and P.O.S. so much. They kind of brought each other up. Now Doomtree’s helping other people out. When you go to Eaux Claires you see all the Minneapolis people just hanging out and stuff in the back. That intermingling seems like such a natural thing. I don’t know why it happened, maybe because of the legacy of Prince, the legacy of The Replacements, the legacy of all those bands might have something to do with it. It’s a beautiful thing.

DAVE
Austin’s got that vibe too. I think they set it up with Austin City Limits and that festival is set up as such where the artists village is like, they specifically build it so that artists are hanging out and exchanging ideas. They have a bunch of different backstages but everyone goes in one area to eat. They’re basically like, “Here, all you artists eat together. You’re standing in line waiting for your food, start talking.” Not to knock Summerfest, so I won’t, but it’s a very different experience where you’re being shipped in a van and it’s like, “Don’t look at the other artists! Turn your head away.” But with Austin City Limits they’re like pushing you together. Which can really foster some cool ideas and bands forming out of it.

WiG
You see that at Eaux Claires, which is new but…

DAVE
Yeah, I haven’t been to that one yet, but I’ve heard that it’s really…

TARIK
Justin Vernon is basically inspired by Minneapolis.

WiG
I’m pretty sure he has an apartment there.

TARIK
He might be a Wisconsinite, but he takes a lot of cues from Minneapolis. And he sees that collaboration and he brought it to Eaux Claires. Jay’s doing his house parties. That’s a great start and I hope it continues. I’d like to see more local artists on each other’s albums. Maybe Klassik gets Tenement on his album. Or De La Buena gets Reyna on their album. That needs to start happening as well, not just performing live together, but starting to feature each other on albums. I think what Uncovered is doing is really beautiful and I hope it inspires people. The coolest thing for me from the Marvin Gaye show was that Porterfield and Barry Paul Clark met, Clark joined Field Report, and they started an improv group together. They had never met each other. That was the coolest thing ever.

Behind the curtain with the mysterious maestro Thane

By Joey Grihalva

At the end of the summer I noticed an article by Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee promoting a three-track EP Gravity by a producer named Thane. As soon as I heard Thane’s soulful blend of jazz, electronic, hip-hop and R&B I was in awe.

I immediately thought to myself, “Who the f*ck is Thane?” I like to think that I pay pretty close attention to the Wisconsin music scene, but Thane seemingly came out of nowhere.

Less than a month later the mysterious Thane released a debut full-length album, Topia. The exceptional 12-track record features guest appearances by local and national artists including Mick Jenkins, Amanda Huff, BJ the Chicago Kid, and one of 2016’s breakout stars, Anderson .Paak.

It is rare for a debut album from an unknown talent to be so fully formed, with such a distinct, assured and progressive sound, yet that is precisely what Thane has accomplished with Topia.

'Gravity' EP artwork
‘Gravity’ EP artwork

Determined to uncover the identity of this up-and-coming maestro, I searched for clues. I could only find one picture of Thane on the Internet and it is of a tall, young man whose eyes can’t be seen. Local jazz musician Jamie Breiwick appears on both the Gravity EP and Topia.

My first guess was that Thane is a former student of Breiwick’s. When I reached out to Breiwick he debunked my hunch and passed along a phone number for Thane’s manager. An interview was set up for a Friday night at Colectivo on the Lake.

Going into my interview with Thane and his manager Jake Kestly I was nervous. I had no frame of reference except for the music. Thane appeared to be nervous as well. It was one of his first in-person interviews.

SMALL-TOWN ESCAPISM

Thane grew up and still resides in the small town of Pewaukee about 20 minutes west of Milwaukee. He describes his home as having a “strong music environment.” As a child he took piano lessons and picked up a brass instrument called the euphonium, which is similar to the baritone but with an additional valve. In middle school he played in the jazz band and kept it up in high school for a few years. Thane continues to play the euphonium and incorporates the instrument in his production.

Like many young musical minds, Thane was aided by an older sibling with good taste. His brother Jake, who is two years his elder and now his manager, turned Thane on to hip-hop and electronic artists like Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. Jake initially bought production equipment for himself, but according to Thane, “he kind of sucked.” Thane first tried digital production at age 15 within a couple of years he had crafted over 600 beats.

“For the first two or three years I would go home and make music until the late hours of the night, almost every single night,” says Thane. “It was kind of an escape from reality.”

thanephoto_2
Thane

While Thane and Jake’s parents didn’t quite understand the boys mission, they were always supportive, allowing them to work into the wee hours of the night, despite the loud, often repetitive sounds coming from Thane’s room.

The brothers attended private, Christian schools throughout their childhood. It was difficult to find like-minded people. Listening to and discovering music was their primary means of entertainment.

“There was nothing else to do. There weren’t any parties or anything to go to in our town. We had a few friends that were really into it. So we’d talk about music and get really excited and go to shows at Turner Hall and in Chicago,” says Jake.

Topia is an expression of how the Kestly brothers navigated their adolescence. Rather than an overtly positive (utopia) or negative (dystopia) existence, “Topia” is about a neutral understanding of your reality it is what you make it.

The concept is also a commentary on the individual versus their environment. The first words heard on Topia are actually a clip from a Ted Talk by a neuroscientist who is discussing how the brain works that suggests we have more power over our fate than we might think.  

NATIONAL AMBITIONS

As Thane’s production skills developed, Jake approached him about putting together an album. Thane was only 17 at the time. The logical first step for a producer would be to create a SoundCloud or YouTube page and put up a few beats. Maybe reach out to a local rapper/singer to collaborate on a track.

But from the beginning, the Kestly brothers aimed to create a conceptual album that featured national talent. With no direct connections to the Milwaukee music scene, the Kestly brothers set their sights outside of the city for potential Topia collaborations.

Jake who worked as an intern at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee during the early stages of Topia reached out to artists all over the globe. The artists who ended up on the album were people who vibed with both the concept of the album and the music Thane created.

'Topia' artwork
‘Topia’ artwork

The beat for “Responsibilities,” a stand out track featuring BJ the Chicago Kid and Anderson .Paak, was not originally intended for the album, but an impromptu selection when BJ wasn’t feeling the groove of the initial beat.

When my girlfriend and I first heard the recorded version of “Responsibilities” we looked at each other and she said, “I’ve heard this before.” We are almost certain Anderson .Paak performed the song at the Soundset Music Festival in Minnesota this May. When I told the Kestly brothers this their eyes lit up.  

“I wouldn’t be surprised, because he really loved the track. His manager contacted us and said he was jumping up and down when he finished recording it,” says Thane.

The other featured artists on Topia include Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, LA singer Low Leaf, London poet/rapper Kojey Radical, Boston ambient musician Solei, plus a few “SoundCloud artists,” meaning musicians similar to Thane, who have music online but not much presence elsewhere. They include Memphis-based Jay Stones and Milwaukee singer Marxus. Instrumentation is provided by Thane (keys, guitar, euphonium), Jamie Breiwick (trumpet), Earl Turner (saxophone) and Aubrey Ellickson (violin).

‘STREETS OF MILWAUKEE’

On my favorite Topia track “Metropolis” we first hear dramatic strings, the sounds of cars driving by, then Amanda Huff’s voice. Next a beat drops and then disappears before haunting synths come in and a vocal sample says, “These are the streets of Milwaukee, something many of you have never seen.”

Later on “Metropolis” a frenzied drum beat drops and we hear Kanye West say, “That’s the main thing people are controlled by, their perception of themselves. They’re slowed down by their perception of themselves.”

Thane confirmed my suspicion that “Metropolis” is commenting on how Milwaukeeans tend to have a chip on their shoulder. Kanye — a Chicago-native — was an interesting choice to convey the message, considering the Kestly brothers have followed the Chicago hip-hop scene closer than Milwaukee’s. They admit that the Milwaukee music scene is becoming more receptive to collaboration than when they started. Jake cites the Strange Fruit Festival that took place in August as a successful example of the Milwaukee hip-hop, jazz, soul, and R&B scenes blending.

“I’m pretty familiar with everybody in the Milwaukee scene at this point,” says Thane. “I like Milo a lot, I like King Courteen, and Kiings are pretty good. Melvv is a big producer in Madison right now. Trapo and IshDARR are dope too.”

Thane
Thane

Since the release of Topia the Kestly brothers have been contacted about potential collaborations. Thane is being selective about who he works with. He is also not ready for a live performance just yet. Thane has an introverted nature and at 20-years-old he is entering the public eye after years of isolation in his bedroom studio.

When the time comes for a live performance, the Kestly brothers hope to create something visually dynamic and possibly interactive. They are inspired by Flying Lotus’ live show and the LA/Philly artist Ryat. They also have a lot of ideas for music videos but don’t want to rush the process.

A shroud of mystery still hangs over Thane. I was never given his real first name. A few things came up in conversation that they wouldn’t go into detail about. Jake is working on the next step in their business, but wouldn’t reveal what it was. I do know that Thane is currently a student at Carroll College and they’ve come up with a concept for the next album.

We’ll have to wait and see what the next moves are for this small-town Wisconsin music prodigy.

Click here to listen to/purchase Topia.

FULL-INTERVIEW

I met with Thane and his manager/brother Jake Kestly at the Colectivo on the Lake one Friday night a few weeks back. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

WiG
First of all, I’m a big fan. Love the record. And to be honest it kind of came out of nowhere. So the obvious question is, where did you come from?

THANE
I’m from Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Kind of near Pewaukee Beach.

WiG
Growing up what were you listening to? What were you influenced by?

THANE
I’ve always had a strong music environment. I started piano lessons when I was little and then I picked up this brass instrument called the euphonium and I’ve been playing that for a long time. Since maybe third or fourth grade. I really started getting into “good music” per say around eighth grade or so, my brother was getting into it so I did too.

WiG
Older brother?

THANE
Yeah. [Points to Jake.] He was listening to Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and stuff like that. I used to listen to more rock, and there’s still a little bit of influence from that…

WiG
What kind of rock?

THANE
Like bad stuff. Nothing terrible…stuff like Train. Pop rock stuff. But then my brother started listening to good stuff and I’d always be driving around in the car with him going to school so he was always playing that. I didn’t like it at first but he kept on playing it and then I got into it. That’s how I started to expand my tastes.

As far as electronically producing, I started that when I was 15 going on 16. I’m 20 now, so I’ve been working on it for a little while. Jake actually tried his hand at it first with FL Studio and he kind of sucked.

[Jake and Thane laugh.]

And he bought this cheaper MIDI keyboard and a machine micro and so we had all that stuff in the house and a year later I picked it up. I gave it a try and I really liked it. I’m more tech oriented too so I was having fun with it. As I advanced I got some monitors and got a better set up.

WiG
Are you primarily doing everything digitally at this point or playing instruments yourself?

THANE
The thing with my music is that I usually make a building block, maybe a bassline that I like, then I’ll create a beat around that on the digital workstation. Then I add keys, then either I record instruments I play or if I can’t I’ll bring someone in. Like how we brought in Jamie Breiwick. He’s a phenomenal trumpet player in the Milwaukee jazz scene. I remember my brother showed me him one time and we contacted him and asked him if he would like to be on a song and he was into it. So yeah, I like to combine electronic with different jazz elements and strings.

WiG
In high school were you coming to Milwaukee to see shows? Or down to Chicago?

THANE
Me and my brother went to Chicago a lot. I haven’t recently just because I’ve been super busy, but we would go to the Metro quite a bit. We went to see a lot of local hip-hop shows.

JAKE
Were you at the Mick Jenkins and Earl Sweatshirt one?

THANE
Yeah.

JAKE
Yeah we’d see a lot of the Chicago hip-hop acts there. More importantly we would see the energy in the scene that was going on there and we were inspired by that. Vic Mensa’s homecoming show was a big one.

WiG
Is Pewaukee closer to Chicago than Milwaukee?

JAKE
No it’s about 20 minutes west from here. It’s kind of out in the country but it’s a very quick trip to Milwaukee.

WiG
You said you were a piano student Thane. Did you play music in high school, like in band?

THANE
I didn’t do it all four years but I did band with the euphonium. Do you know what a baritone is?

WiG
Yeah.

THANE
It’s like a smaller tuba. The difference between the euphonium and baritone is that the baritone has three valves on top that you play and the euphonium has an extra one on the side, that’s the only difference.

WiG
Are you familiar with a guy who was in the Milwaukee music scene but has since moved up north, he was a pretty heavy electronic producer named Lorn?

JAKE
Brainfeeder?

WiG
Yeah.

THANE
Oh yeah. I like his music a lot.

WiG
He moved out to the woods by Eau Claire. I know he’s made music for videos games. Could you see yourself getting into that? Are you a gamer yourself?

THANE
I used to be, but I haven’t in like three years. Maybe, but I don’t think it would be as cinematic. Do you know who Jon Brion is?

WiG
Yeah, the producer.

THANE
I like him a lot. Lorn’s style is a little different, I don’t know how to describe it.

WiG
It’s really dark, more minimal. Your stuff has the strings and horns and uptempo keys.

THANE
For sure, I like the minimal stuff though.

WiG
The production on Topia is really polished and clean. How did you get it mixed and mastered? What was the process like?

THANE
It was a really long process. We actually started the development when I was like 17. I had been making beats and getting better and my brother was like, why don’t we make an album?

WiG
Had you put anything out prior to the EP?

THANE
No.

WiG
So you were just making music for you?

THANE
Yeah. We came up with the concept. It was originally called “Utopia,” but we cut it to “Topia” because conceptually we wanted it to be an environment that you’re not trying to break out of. It’s not a utopia or dystopia…

WiG
So not overtly positive or overtly negative?

THANE
Yeah. You kind of make what you want out of the environment that you’re put into. I’ve made over six hundred beats and we went through and picked maybe five. The other ones were added on later. The ones that we started with kind of fit a certain sound we were going for. Then we built on those.

The guy who mixed the record, he’s not our engineer anymore, but he was a friend of my brothers, a friend of a friend. He did it in his mom’s basement. We had a pretty limited budget at the time so it seemed like a pretty good deal. And then we slowly built it as more ideas came.

WiG
How did you link up or land the features? Because you’ve got some big names including Anderson .Paak, Mick Jenkins and BJ the Chicago Kid.

THANE
We reached out to them before they got big but Jake did more of that on his end, so I think he can explain that.

Jake Kestly and Earl Turner with Kendrick Lamar backstage at The Rave in 2012.
Jake Kestly and Earl Turner with Kendrick Lamar backstage at The Rave in 2012.

JAKE
Basically we kind of operate and always have like A&Rs to an extent, I like to think. I was on to Kendrick years before he blew up and I was telling people he’d be huge. So I kind of have an ear for stuff like that. We reached out to a lot of people that we vibed with, people we thought were really talented and would make a good addition to our project. We hit up a ton of different possibilities and the ones that came through are people that vibed with our concept. It was a really long process of going through who would fit and who wouldn’t.

THANE
And it was figuring out the music business as we went along and how complicated it is. The funny thing too about the “Responsibilities” track is that one initially had another beat. It was almost too electronic-y so BJ didn’t like it as much because he wasn’t feeling the groove, so I was quickly trying to find one that worked with the sound of the album and had more of a soul influence to it. Then I quickly sent over that one and it turned out great. So that beat wasn’t intended to be on the album. It’s kind of funny how that worked out.

WiG
I saw Anderson .Paak at the Soundset music festival in Minnesota this past Memorial Day and my girlfriend and I are almost certain he performed “Responsibilities.”

[Both of their eyes light up.]

THANE
Really?

JAKE
That would be sweet.

WiG
Did you hear any reports?

JAKE
No. But I wouldn’t be surprised because he really loved that track.

THANE
His manager contacted us and said that he was jumping up and down when he recorded it.

JAKE
Since that time it took a while to get all the materials ready for release and come up with a plan. That took longer than expected and during that time Anderson .Paak inked a deal with Aftermath and I think there’s something within that contract that didn’t allow him to promote it on his social media at the point when we released our record, unfortunately. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he performed it because he did really vibe with the end product.

WiG
And it was done by Memorial Day?

JAKE
Oh yeah.

WiG
I’m almost positive. Because the first time we listened to “Responsibilities” my girlfriend and I looked at each other and she was like, “I’ve heard this song.”

JAKE
That would be super cool.

THANE
That’s very cool.

JAKE
Him and BJ have a really good chemistry. That was something that was cool too, we were one of the first people to get them on a track together. That was before they met and before they were on Compton, we put them together. There was a piece about those two in The Source a couple months ago.

WiG
Did they record together for that?

JAKE
Nah, we got BJ in February of 2014. We’ve worked on this project for a long time. But then we got Anderson in April of 2015. We had the BJ hook and we knew we wanted something soulful. At first we were trying to get GoldLink because we thought that would be dope. We were really vibing with The God Complex, but that didn’t pan out. And then we said what about Anderson .Paak? I heard him first on the Watsky album. He did production and had some vocals on it and I was really impressed. Then I heard “Suede” which came out later that year. That’s the first single on the new NxWorries, which just came out today. I was super impressed with that and I knew he was something special and I convinced Thane that we try and pursue him.

WiG
Who are some of the other people? I’m not familiar with Jay Stones…

JAKE
Thane found him.

THANE
I found him on SoundCloud. I really liked his voice and delivery and thought he’d fit well over my type of beat. He’s one of those SoundCloud artists that doesn’t have a really big presence in any scene but he was totally down with it. I really like how it turned out, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album.

JAKE

This is a weird comparison but for some reason his style reminds me of Jamiroquai. He’s got that type of futuristic funk vibe.

WiG
It’s interesting that the genre designation on Apple music is “Funk” for the album.

JAKE
We gave them a bunch of stuff to choose from and that’s what they ended up going with.

WiG
Do you feel good about that?

JAKE
I mean it’s kind of a blend, we had no genre in mind. When he was making it we never said, “Oh, we’re going to make an R&B album.” We just took a bunch of elements and put them together. I guess funk is appropriate…

THANE
I definitely didn’t set out to make a funk record, but there are funk elements. It’s just kind of all the stuff that I like Modge Podged together.

WiG
Do you listen to Rhythm Lab Radio on 88Nine?

THANE
Yeah.

WiG
Because I feel like the album fits perfectly in the myriad genres and sounds that Tarik plays. And he’s been a supporter of the album, right?

JAKE
Yeah he played “Responsibilities” a couple weeks ago, which is pretty dope.

THANE
Jake actually used to intern at 88Nine.

JAKE
Yeah, we played Topia for a few of the DJs early on and they were rocking with it.

THANE
Him and Barney…

JAKE
Justin and Tarik were the main ones listening and then Jordan just came in.

WiG
So you were an intern at 88nine?

JAKE
I did a couple years ago.

WiG
So is that kind of the goal, to work in the music industry?

JAKE
Yeah we were just discussing this project that we’re working on. I don’t really want to talk too much about it. It’s not really a label, but we do want to get further in the music and do something bigger with it.

WiG
Topia is all you production-wise. And there aren’t any other tracks that you’ve produced for other artists,  but do you see yourself starting to do that? Have you been contacted by other artists to make beats for them?

THANE
Yes. I’m trying to be pretty selective right now. I haven’t done anything yet. Should I tell him about the remix thing?

JAKE
Don’t tell him too many details.

THANE
You can just tell him.

JAKE
Okay, so we got contacted by a fairly respectable label out of Los Angeles to do a remix on spec for one of their artists. They seemed interested in Thane to an extent. We just submitted it and have yet to hear back. What were we talking about? Labels…oh yeah, collaborations. So when stuff like that comes up it’s a just matter of whether Thane vibes with the artist. It’s about natural collaborations.

THANE
I’m pretty familiar at this point with everybody in the Milwaukee scene. I’ve listened to a lot of local music. If there’s an artist that I really like in the local scene that reaches out I would probably collaborate.

WiG
Who are your favorite musicians in the local scene?

THANE
Any genre?

WiG
Sure.

THANE
I like Milo a lot. I like King Courteen. I like Kiings, they’re pretty good. I don’t know if you know who Melvv is?

WiG
How do you spell it?

THANE
Melvv. He’s in Madison. He’s a pretty big producer.

JAKE
I personally fuck with Trapo.

THANE
Trapo and IshDARR are pretty dope. Most of NAN to a certain extent.

JAKE
Gotta shout Jamie out.

THANE
Of course Jamie. I found Marxus too…

WiG
Where is he from?

JAKE
He’s from Milwaukee. He hasn’t released any material yet. You can explain how you found him.

THANE
I always search the “Milwaukee” tag on Bandcamp. That’s how I find new music. I listened to his one track “X” and thought this guy had some really sick pipes. We emailed him and asked if he wanted to vocally contribute. Initially he just did backing vocals but we dug it so much that we featured him on “Summer in Paris.” Now we’re collaborating on more stuff. He’s going to be on some new material. He was backing on a lot of the other tracks like “The Arrival” and “Gravity.” You can hear some of his ad libs on those tracks.

WiG
Yeah, it seems like when you have official featured artist on the track I can still hear other artists adding little elements.

THANE
The main two backing on “Gravity” are Marxus and Amanda Huff. I remember hearing her on some compilation tape and I thought she was really cool.

WiG
I think one of my favorite tracks on the album is “Metropolis.”

THANE
Oh really?

JAKE
That’s one of mine too.

WiG
Yeah I love that one and you use some interesting samples. There’s an audio clip about “the streets of Milwaukee” and then you hear Kanye talking about people being slowed down by their perception of themselves. I’m wondering if that’s sort of a commentary about Milwaukee and how people here tend to have a chip on their shoulder?

THANE
That’s exactly it and that’s kind of what Topia is about. You see Chicago and you see how collaborative  everyone is there. And then you see Milwaukee, and it’s getting better, but especially when we started it felt very separate. Some people were doing their thing and some people were doing another thing over there. People have a chip on their shoulder and don’t want to collaborate as much. I think it’s one of the reasons why scenes like Chicago and LA are thriving more than a scene like Milwaukee. But Milwaukee is doing much better than it has in the past.

WiG
And the intro track “The Arrival,” who is speaking in that clip about neurons?

THANE
My brother actually found that, it’s from a Ted Talk.

JAKE
I helped out with the concept of the album. I remember hearing that back in a psychology class my freshman year of college. I was really fascinated by this neuroscientist talking about how we are more in control and we’re more powerful in regards to our fate than we allow ourselves to be. It’s a lot about positive thought. A lot of what Topia is about is taking your environment and the stuff that we may perceive as really positive or really negative, and just realizing that it’s this neutral thing that is for your making. That was kind of the whole idea of Topia. Individual versus environment. A lot of those things are there throughout, examining the idea of how in control are we when it comes to our goals and dreams.

THANE
If you can tell he’s more articulate with this stuff. He’s the communications major. I’m more of the introvert hermit. Sorry if I’m coming off in a certain way, that’s just how I am.

WiG
No no. I mean the music is introspective and I feel like it’s geared towards putting it in the headphones and vibing out.

THANE
Especially the first two or three years that I was working on it I literally went home almost every day and made music until the late hours of the night. It was kind of an escape from reality.

WiG
Does that sort of speak to how I haven’t seen your name on any shows? Is it because of your introverted nature?

THANE
I don’t really want to do shows, at least not yet.

JAKE
I’m trying to get him to.

WiG
Have you done any?

THANE
No.

JAKE
We want to do some cool audio visual stuff for it too, but that’s not ready at this point.

WiG
In terms of a music video?

JAKE
Well, I help serve as creative director and I get really inspired by what Flying Lotus is doing with three screen layers and making electronic based performances a little more interactive. We’d also like to bring in some live instrumentation and he’s honing in on some other instruments. We want to wait until he feels more comfortable and then we get some concepts together for a live show.

WiG
So having it be not just a concert, but like an experience?

JAKE
Yeah. That’s kind of how we approach creating records and that’s what we’d like to translate into the live setting.

WiG
You familiar with Video Villains?

JAKE
Yeah I just had a meeting with Adam the other day about something that I can’t really talk about. But yeah, they’re tight.

WiG
Are you familiar with this audio movie art installation that came out I want to say 2010. It was originally an installation in New York where the artist/producer had multiple speakers in a space and you would stand there and listen to this audio film happening. It was narrated by an actor and it was a movie told through the music of New York rappers like Ghostface Killah, Nas, and Biggie. It was super cool and the way you incorporate audio clips, I feel like it would be really cool if you did something like that.

[NOTE: The project I was refering to but couldn’t remember details about is called “City of God’s Son” by Kenzo Digital. You can listen to it by clicking here.]

JAKE
We’re totally into the idea of performance art. I’m really into what is happening in LA with Ryat. They blend a lot of film and incorporate it into the music making it this whole art experience. They’re doing some of the best stuff in terms of visuals.

WiG
I’m not familiar, I’ll have to check them out.

THANE
They’re Brainfeeder right?

JAKE
Yeah.

WiG
Who else are you inspired by and listening to right now?

THANE
I like electronic artists like Flying Lotus and James Blake that have more of a barrier breaking sound.  This probably doesn’t make any sense but I listen to a lot of like chill music.

WiG
Ambient sort of stuff?

THANE
No, no. Like Norah Jones, Nick Drake. Jordan Rakei, Nick Hakim. Those are some of the artists I listen to the most right now.

JAKE
Nick Hakim has one of the best EPs out. We tried to get him too, but he’s not really a collaborator. He’s out of DC, really good.

THANE
His voice kind of sounds like Jason Mraz, vocally. But the beats are more neo-soul.

JAKE
Dwele almost. Jill Scott kind of.

THANE
It’s really dope.

WiG
All the strings and keys and horns on the album, is that people you brought in?

THANE
Yeah mostly.

WiG
So you’re moreso the composer?

THANE
Yeah me and my brother. They’ll be the basic beat that I make and then we add live instruments, which either I’ll play or we bring a collaborator and they add stuff. I’m trying to learn more instruments to add to my arsenal. I’m honing in more on the guitar, piano, and I’m getting better at the euphonium,  expanding my sound more. As far as trumpet and violin I think we’ll still be collaborating with Jamie Breiwick. The violinist is someone from Carroll College, Aubrey Ellickson.

JAKE
You should mention Earl too.

THANE
Oh yeah. The saxophonist is a high school friend that we’ve known for a while. He just comes over and lays some sax down.

WiG
What’s his last name?

JAKE
Turner.

THANE
He has no music presence  in terms of putting anything out.

JAKE
We’re trying to get him to get on the jazz scene here but he’s pretty busy right now.

WiG
It seems like you’ve contributed a lot of ideas with the production…

JAKE
Yeah I executive produced Topia…

THANE
When I make a beat he’s always the one who’ll tell me if it’s garbage or not. He’s really critical of my stuff. The rare times that he says, “It’s pretty tight” or whatever, then I know I have a good one.

WiG
That got me thinking, if you’re contributing so much why isn’t this like a duo, sort of like Kiings?

JAKE
I don’t want my role to be that. I enjoy being behind-the-scenes. I like being able to have the creative and conceptual control and contribute the way I do. My role as manager I enjoy as well. It’s not really a big thing for me. He’s the talented one as far as the music itself goes.

WiG
Are you the only siblings?

JAKE
Yeah.

WiG
What high school did you go to?

JAKE
We went to private Christian schools all throughout.

[Thane groans.]

JAKE
That was interesting because there weren’t really like minded people around us. I remember trying to get jam sessions going, trying to find like-minded people when it came to music, but it was really difficult to do. Topia too is somewhat about how we were never in an environment with like-minded people, so how do we create that? It’s this multi-layered idea that both describes the process itself,  like a commentary on the things that we see, and a general commentary on the individual versus their environment in an abstract, conceptual way.

WiG
So was music sort of an escape for you guys?

THANE
Oh yeah definitely.

JAKE
For sure.

THANE
It still is.

JAKE
I would go on the Internet and Bandcamp and stuff like that and just search because there was nothing else to do. There weren’t parties or anything to go to. So music was the fun shit that we did. We had a few friends that were really into it too. We’d talk about it and get really excited and go to shows at Turner Hall and in Chicago. That’s kind of what we did.

WiG
Did you go to that Flying Lotus show when he played the Miltown Beat Down final?

JAKE

I don’t know if I was at that one, but it was after he released Until the Quiet Comes and Thundercat was there.

WiG
How old are you?

JAKE
22. I just graduated college.

WiG
Cool. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JAKE
He’s working on the next project.

THANE
Yeah. I’m like one song deep with a friend of mine from high school actually.

JAKE
I wouldn’t even say that she’s included in the project just yet…

THANE
Probably don’t want me to share too much of it…

JAKE
Yeah no, because we’re figuring out the sound. But it’s in the works.

WiG
So you’ve already moved on to the next thing?

JAKE
It’s going to be different though.

THANE
It’s going to be really cool. We came up with a very unique idea. I’m pretty excited to start flushing it out.

WiG
And how has the reception been for a Topia so far?

JAKE
It’s been expected but unexpected. We planned and we were doing it in a proper way, trying to execute it in a very orderly way. And so we would have expected it to have a good reception. We were grinding for a minute to try and get all the press spots beforehand, but we only got a few. But then just how the other blogs caught on, the way it built the way it did was kind of unexpected. The ripple effects of who’s been contacting us has been unexpected.

WiG
You feel like you want to keep pushing that project or move on to the next thing?

JAKE
Since he’s not ready to do shows we are still working on promoting it in the ways that we can. We’re a very small team. I have a few friends that kind of help with the social media stuff. But we’re ready to push ahead and focus on the concept for the next record. When opportunities like this come up we do them. We have a bigger thing coming up in a month or so that we’re doing. We have a music video too that we’re not sure if we should do or not.

WiG
For a song from Topia?

JAKE
Yeah yeah.

THANE
For the song “Minor Movements.”

JAKE
We may shoot if the time is right. But there’s a bunch of ideas in terms of putting visuals to a lot of the tracks. So it’s just a matter of us finding the time to do it and the right videographer. We’re not going to close any doors but right now we’re kind of off Topia.

WiG
Gotcha.

JAKE
Again, I really dig that jazz piece that you wrote. It was interesting as hell. As a huge jazz fan it was cool to read. I had no idea that Milwaukee had that type of presence at one point.

WiG
Yeah and I feel like it’s getting better.

JAKE
Yeah it is. That’s the one thing I got kind of irritated with, that Milwaukee is mad talented when it comes to jazz but you wouldn’t know it. Me and my ex-girlfriend would go to Mason Street Grill every weekend and watch these guys play and shit was just crazy. You would have never thought because it doesn’t really get promoted. It would be really cool if all these hip-hop and jazz scenes melded even more. I went to Jay Anderson’s Strange Fruit Festival and that was a super cool curation. I definitely hope the Milwaukee scene keeps doing more stuff like that, keeps blending and collaborating.

WiG
I feel like that’s what Topia is sonically. It’s such a blend of jazz and hip-hop and soul. The second article in my jazz series is coming out in two weeks and it’s about the present and I’m sure I’ll end up mentioning Topia in terms of Jamie being featured on it.

JAKE
I’ve been a fan of Jamie’s since I heard of him on Bandcamp [CHECK] back like my sophomore year of high school. I reached out to him at one point when we were making the album and he responded and was enthusiastic about collaborating. To me he’s like the essence of what jazz is supposed to be in terms of the freedom and soul.

THANE
You see a lot of electronic stuff that they call jazz, but it’s a lot of watered down stuff. I used to be in the jazz band in middle school and I thought it was really cool to be a part of that. I’ve always liked jazz, my brother even more so than me. So it just made sense to have a strong jazz element and presence on the album.

WiG
Do you guys know BADBADNOTGOOD?

THANE
Yeah.

JAKE
I dig them too. I feel like jazz is slowly becoming trendy again. You have the Kamasi Washington thing, ever since Kendrick dropped To Pimp A Butterfly I was very excited about that. It’s not just jazz samples, it’s legitimate jazz musicians playing on there.

WiG
Yeah I feel like that was a turning point.

JAKE
And then Chance the Rapper has his own variation. On Acid Rap it was more like a ragtime influence, like on “Juice.” On Coloring Book it’s more of like that southern, Louie Armstrong vibe. It’s cool how hip-hop is incorporating real jazz.

WiG
Do you go to college now?

THANE
Yeah. Working and going to college at Carroll. I was at school all day and he just picked me up from there before we came here.

WiG
What are you studying?

THANE
Business marketing and a web design minor. Staying busy.

WiG
Alright, cool.

Wisconsin Sound #2

Wisconsin music makers have been busy these last few weeks. Appleton’s Mile of Music pulled off their fourth festival. One of the most anticipated Wisconsin albums of the yearNosebleeds by Soul Lowwas released on August 5. For more on Soul Low see my upcoming feature in WiG.

The attention of the international media will be on Eau Claire this weekend, as Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and friends host the second Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. I will bring you my report in the next issue of WiG. Now I offer my rundown of Mile of Music, the Milwaukee Public Library’s inaugural “Library Loud Days,” a couple Company Brewing shows, and the latest addition to Milwaukee’s impressive roster of festivals.

Synth Fest MKE

A new Milwaukee festival debuted last month in the Bay View neighborhood. Produced by the people at Acme Recordsa music store on S. Kinnickinnic Avethe inaugural Synth Fest MKE put the spotlight on electronic music. Barry Paul Clark, bassist in several Wisconsin bands including Field Report and the mind behind adoptahighway, told me that what made the festival unique is it provided an outlet to artists who don’t often perform live.

Synth Fest MKE

The experimental, electronic music scene in Milwaukee can be very introverted. It is usually one person spending a lot of time working with different recording technologies and machines in isolation. The festival was really special because it showed us that we’re all kind of speaking the same language and living in the same universe, so there can be a community around it.”

One of those people who rarely plays out is John Goezler, who performed as BTS.WRKNG on the second night of the festival. Clark was happy to see Goezler, as he was one of the first people Clark met in the electronic scene after moving back to Milwaukee from New York City. Synth Fest MKE comprised two nights of music at Cactus Club and two days at Acme Records on July 23 and July 24.

I caught Clark as adoptahighway on the first night and he delivered a powerfully haunting set. On my way out of Cactus Club I ran into a guy who looked like but was not Nick Schubert of GGOOLLDD, which made me sad he wasn’t playing the festival as his Holy Visions side project. Maybe next year.

“Library Loud Days” inaugural event

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In an attempt to redefine Milwaukee’s concept of their library, the Central Branch became a lively, interactive destination on July 28. Out front on Wisconsin Avenue there was a block party with V100 DJs, food and beer vendors. Inside there was an instrument station, a music video display, free popcorn, a photo booth, spoken word, and a headlining performance from New Age Narcissism (NAN), Milwaukee’s premier hip-hop collective. The stage was set up inside the Schoenleber Reading Room. The packed audience, from toddlers to senior citizens, gave NAN a warm reception, feeding off their infectious energy. It was a beautiful night of music in a place where I never thought I’d get the chance to chant, dance, sing and stomp.

The Lion’s Ball and Strange Fruit

Company Brewing in Milwaukee is usually closed on Monday, but when Milwaukee saxophonist Jay Anderson requested that his birthday party fall on his actual birthdayMonday July 25owner George Bregar gladly complied. After all, Anderson helps book Company’s Wednesday night jazz supper club series. “The Lion’s Ball” also honored Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. It was quite the social affair, with some good music thrown in.

The Lion's Ball poster by Rachel Hughes.
The Lion’s Ball poster by Rachel Hughes.

D’Amato turned in an inspired set with a smaller backing band than usual and dedicated a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “I Heard Love Is Blind” to Anderson, who is a huge fan of Winehouse. The headlining band featured Fred Boswell Jr., arguably the best drummer in town, and Angie Swan, an accomplished guitarist from Milwaukee who is spending some time back home before another high profile gig elsewhere. They jammed along with Quentin Farr, Alan Harris, Terry Harris, and B-Free.

This weekend (August 12 – 14) Anderson has co-curated the Strange Fruit music festival, which seeks to “explore the thoughts and emotions of local musicians, regarding the current climate of racial relations both in Milwaukee and the country as a whole.” It was inspired by a community dinner that included Anderson, Chauntee Ross (SistaStrings) and others. It is co-produced by Tarik Moody and David Ravel (former director of Alverno Presents), will be held at the Hotel Foster, Company Brewing, and Cactus Club, and features a very strong lineup of hip-hop, jazz, folk, rock and poetry performances.

Siamese and the new Nightgown lineup

Company Brewing hosted another special event on Tuesday August 2, as Dallas, TX glam rock band Siamese visited Milwaukee. This weeknight show also saw the debut of Nightgown’s new lineup, Milwaukee singer Gina Barrington’s latest project. She was joined by Amelinda Burich, Thomas Gilbert (GGOOLLDD) and Erin Wolf (Hello Death, WMSE). Local artist Kristina Rolander created her fourth custom, hand painted backdrop for the Company stage. (Full disclosure, Rolander is my girlfriend.)

Nightgown at Company Brewing. (Photo by Joe Kirschling)
Nightgown at Company Brewing. (Photo by Joe Kirschling)

The glittery, neon, geological rock inspired backdrop flowed seamlessly with Siamese’s outfits and face paint, elevating the young band’s gorgeous, groovy sound. Milwaukee’s Marielle Allschwang, who made one of the best Wisconsin records of 2015Dead Not Donefinished the night with a spirited set. At one point she improvised a song with fellow Hello Death member Nathaniel Heuer in which she sang, “I want to be the dirt.” The sentiment seemed morbid until she followed it up with, “I want to help it grow.” It was a magical midsummer evening with an excellently curated lineup.

Cory Chisel and Mile Of Music 4

Appleton-native Cory Chisel has carved himself a nice place in the music industry, splitting time between his hometown and Nashville, TN. On July 29, his “World Tour of Wisconsin” stopped at the newly-opened MobCraft Brewery in Milwaukee. The sound wasn’t great as it reverberated between the brewing tanks, but Chisel and his band had an enthusiastic crowd. The vocal talents of J-Council were a highlight of the performance, part of a nine-city tour sponsored by USA Today that takes Chisel and his band to non-traditional venues representing what they love most about our state: breweries, barns, bookstores, supper clubs and riverboats.

Four years ago Chisel founded Mile of Music, an Americana/roots festival that has attracted thousands of visitors to downtown Appleton. The 2016 installment featured over 800 performances by more than 200 acts at 70 venues over four days on one mile. I visited “Mile 4” on Saturday August 6, staying at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel right in the heart of the action on College Avenue.

The festival can be overwhelming, with so many performances in bars, storefronts, alleys and outdoor stages. During my time I discovered the sweet, nervy indie-folk rock of Idle Empress (Eau Claire), the saintly-voiced Paul Otteson (Madison), and the derivative electro-hop of Oh My Love (Madison). It was no magic trick when Milwaukee favorites GGOOLLDD got Houdini Plaza dancing and debuted an uncharacteristically dark new song (working title “Undercovers.”)

The highlight of “Mile 4” for me was the festival’s first hip-hop showcase, curated by Milwaukee’s Lex Allen of New Age Narcissism. His collective headlined the five-hour block, which also included Milwaukeeans Fivy, Queen Tut, Mic Kellogg, AUTOmatic, Chakara Blu, Zed Kenzo, Rahn Harper, Cree Myles, Bo and Airo, and Chicago’s Ric Wilson.

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The showcase was held at Lawrence University’s Stansbury Theatre, which was somewhat hard to find on the east end of the mile and had no beverage service. Even so, it was a success in that it exposed interested festival-goers to an underrepresented and often misunderstood genre of music, and some of its most talented local creators. After his show at MobCraft Brewery I spoke with Chisel about the hip-hop showcase.

“I’ve loved Lex for about two years. We played Summerfest and he was on the stage across from me. When I saw him I was like, “Who the hell is that?” So I tracked him down and we’ve become really good friends. He comes up to Appleton and visits. When I had the opportunity to expand the mind of our town with some new programming I immediately thought of Lex. The singer-songwriters are great but I think the festival needs what he brings.”

New videos by NO/NO, The Fatty Acids, and Airo Kwil

The last couple of weeks saw the debut of videos from one of the best Wisconsin albums of the year (NO/NO’s “Television” off Sound and Light), one of the best Wisconsin albums of the last 20 years (The Fatty Acids’ “Little Brother Syndrome” off Boléro), and the first single, “Run Away Now,” from Airo Kwil‘s upcoming album Best Served Cold.