Koester's Firefall jones leads to great Maplewood disc
It's no longer a crime to admit a taste for America's "Greatest Hits." In fact, everyone's rocking to "Ventura Highway" these days. But the 12-string acoustic guitar wash and three-part harmonies are even better when infused with a rock and roll spirit.
Take Maplewood for example. The Brooklyn-based band, with members of Nada Surf and Champale, recently issued its self-titled debut disc on Tee Pee Records, and it's loaded with sunny So-Cal vocals, nifty melodies and lots of jangly guitars, both acoustic and electric.
The band is co-fronted by Steve Koester, who Milwaukee music fans will remember from his bands here, Punchdrunk and Koester. And the disc includes a guest appearance by another Milwaukeean, Alan Weatherhead, who has performed with Sparklehorse and produced and/or engineered recordings by Cracker, Clem Snide and others. (Weatherhead moved to Virginia with a group of Milwaukee musicians, including Tim Buckley, John Daniels and Mickey Rodriguez, more than a decade ago.)
We recently roused Koester to find out what's going on with him and with Maplewood, which performs at the Cactus Club on Friday, Jan. 14 with Milwaukee's The Mustn'ts.
OMC: What have you been up to since the demise of Punchdrunk. Is Koester still together?
SK: Koester is still cooking. We just finished our third album down in Richmond, Va. at Sound of Music Studios with Alan Weatherhead producing. Same cast of Maki characters: Tim Buckley, John Daniels, Miguel Urbiztondo, Al and me. It's called "Losers, Weepers." We've tried to make a record that's really direct, both lyrically and musically. We're pretty amped on it; it should be out next year. It's kind of dark and stormy like the other ones, but it sounds real purtty. We'll post some mp3 tasters at http://www.koesterrock.com. We did a bunch of touring after the "The High Highs, The Low Lows" came out, and then I've been involved with Maplewood for the past year. But Koester will be back soon.
OMC: Tell us about Maplewood's Milwaukee connection (that is yourself and I see Al Weatherhead plays on the record, too).
SK: I grew up in Whitefish Bay with the other Punchdrunk guys. The first show I ever went to was at Summerfest: Firefall opening for the Steve Miller Band. Can't say I remember much, I think I was about 2-years-old. My real claim to Milwaukee musical history is, however, that I was at Ludwig Van Ear (aka Atomic) for the Violent Femmes first record release in-store. I was in sixth grade and it was my Damascus moment. I saw the light and decided what I wanted to do then and there. Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie in a dashiki, that weird garbage can drum thing? It blew my mind. I ended up seeing the Femmes about 50 times over the next several years. Got into punk, etc. Went to a lot of hardcore shows at Yano's (three bands/three bucks). And then started playing in bands at all the clubs, too: Stone Toad and Cafe Voltaire and The Unicorn and all those RIP places.
I met all the Maki guys when I was in Punchdrunk and they were in Wobble Test and Tweaker and Lost Toothbrushes. Then Punchdrunk moved to the Twin Cities and onto NYC. But I always kept up with those guys because their bands were great and also because, frankly, they were fun to drink with. So, when Punchdrunk broke up, I decided to go down to Sound of Music and make a solo record with Al at knobs and all those guys chipped in. It kind of moved from a solo project to a band over the three records. Even though I write all the tunes, it's pretty collaborative at this point. Al has really become a fantastic producer. Great ear for tones, great arrangement ideas.
OMC: Are you pleased that the musical environment is now so inclusive that bands can freely admit to adoring "Sister Golden Hair" without fear of blacklisting by the hipsters?
SK: Oh, you wouldn't believe some of the reviews Maplewood has got. A lot of folks are completely into what we're doing but there's a certain "indier-than-thou" element that doesn't get us. One of them said that "Gemini On The Way" should be used on a douche commercial. That was my favorite slag. To me, the punk concept -- for lack of a better word -- has had such a stranglehold on indie rock thought for the past 25 years that it almost seems more radical to play acoustic 12-strings and sing really pretty harmonies. Plus, it's fun as hell.
We'd all done some of the punk/noise/art thing and this stuff -- America, Bread, Gordon Lightfoot -- all of sudden really appealed to us. To sort of reconnect with this music that everybody kind of hazily remembers from AM radio or their pot-smoking uncles or whatever, seemed really interesting. Both Mark Rozzo and I, a few months after 9/11, started talking about how we were weirdly digging Bob Welch and America and The Stone Canyon Band and the likes and wouldn't it be hilarious if we got together and started writing songs along those lines. He even had some of the titles even before we'd written them, like "Indian Summer" and "Morning Star." When we started recording them in our Brooklyn studio with Craig Schoen and Ira Elliot and started playing them for people and it really seemed to resonate. I hate it when people bring up 9/11 in reference to art stuff because it seems like such a cliche, but I do think, at least this first batch of songs, is sort of like "comfort" music in response to the complete weirdness -- especially in New York City -- that was going on in 2001 and 2002 when we were recording it. We were definitely retreating, a little bit, to safer psychological territory.
OMC: Maplewood recorded the disc in Brooklyn. Wouldn't Southern California have better set the mood?
SK: Maplewood exists in a California of the mind. We're trying to zone in on the sound without being a period piece band. Just trying to filter that Burrito Brothers/Poco stuff through our own normal tendencies and see what comes out.
This is probably kind of a stretch but I like to think of it like Tom Waits. The first time you hear Tom Waits, you're like, "Man, this really reminds me of some music that happened a while ago in the other part of last century." But then you try to pinpoint it and you think, "Well, it's kind of '30s tin pan alley. But it's also kind of earlier Delta blues. And it's kind of Memphis '50s, and Downtown avant '60s etc..." You can't really pinpoint it. He's created this sort of mythical musical America that's somewhat nostalgic but not pointedly so. My grand hope is that we're doing the same sort of thing with a different sort of American music. You know, "Wow, these guys kind of sound like So-Cal Soft Rock from the early '70s. But there's also some '60s singing group stuff in there and some '80s jangle stuff and some mid-'70s pop-rock and some '90s indie vibe." The band is not just an exercise in influences and I think the more we play together, especially in a live setting, the more it becomes it's own thing. I'm very excited about the live show and about the music we're writing right now.
OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much and keep in touch with the music scene here?
SK: I get back to Milwaukee a couple times a year mostly because I have family and friends here. Plus, it's a Great Place on a Great Lake. I feel slightly out of touch with the scene but I keep tabs on Chris Rosenau and Pele and whatnot. I think he's fantastic and his projects are usually really interesting. Plus, I still keep in touch with Peder Hedman (formerly of Tweaker and Liquid Pink). I think that guy is a true rock 'n' roll original and someday everybody will wake up and know it. Plus, Chris Tischler and the Hudson crew (aka Five Card Studs gang) are old friends. We're playing with Damian's (Stringens, bassist and graphic designer) new band The Mustn'ts at Cactus. I'm excited to hear them. We did a tour recently with Cub Country. I was talking to Jeremy, their singer who used to be in Jets to Brazil, about Milwaukee, because he's tight with the whole Promise Ring crew. We were commenting on what a cool place it was and how many great musicians we know there. Plus, the beer. The beer is pretty rad.
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