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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 18, 2014

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In Music

Couch Flambeau retrospective: better late than never!


Couch Flambeau guitarist/vocalist Jay Tiller, donning a t-shirt and jeans on this cold winter's evening, sits across from his songwriting partner, bassist Neil Socol, in the swanky Hi-Hat Lounge. Socol, dressed in an outfit appropriate for a casual Friday at the office, just stares as Tiller, the Bullwinkle to Socol's Rocky, starts talking about what he finds funny about rock music.

"Everything," he simply states, "'(This is) Spinal Tap' was the end-all serious movie on rock music, and they haven't topped it yet."

What about Tenacious D?

"I think some of it would warp Neil's mind. They probably say that they came up with everything themselves. We come right out with what our influences are. Some people aren't that bold and brave. They want to pretend that they sat in a cave and made up everything themselves like some rock alchemist."

Comparing Socol and Tiller to Rocky and Bullwinkle isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. The badly drawn moose and squirrel team's unique brand of humor has remained timeless for decades. Couch Flambeau's songs, like the cartoon, consist of sharp and quick-witted humor wrapped in a low-fi, post-punk package that is a little rough around the edges.

Each tune carries the band's deep love of the Beatles, Black Sabbath, Frank Zappa and the Looney Tunes on their sleeves. Even their first album "Curiosity Rocks," which was cut when the band was still known as the Couch Potatoes, was only available on the roughest of all music playback formats: cassette.

Twenty-two years later, modern technology has afforded die-hard Couch Flambeau fans to finally throw out their cassette decks and fire up their CD players.

The group has finally caved into the public's demand for a collection of their back catalog and has unleashed "I Did a Power Slide in the Taco Stand," a digitally mastered 37-track anthology of studio, live and rare recordings that contains everything from "You Must Be From Cudahy" to live recordings of songs from their self-titled 1998 CD.

The new compilation shatters the belief for a whole new generation that the Violent Femmes were the only band in Milwaukee in the early 1980s.

Tiller says, "It really exists because a lot of that stuff should be heard. It should be out there, documented and readily available. A lot of people don't have cassette decks anymore, so there's no way they can hear our first tape."

A lot of the ideas on that tape began to take shape when Socol and Tiller met in grade school. They both listened to a lot of different types of music. Tiller had a deep love for the Fab Four while Socol's tastes ventured out a little further into the works of King Crimson and Frank Zappa. A few years later, Tiller's musical ears began to open even further when he attended the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music to study percussion.

"It was pretty improv," he recalls, "pretty out there."

Thoughts and ideas began to take musical shape in the basement and one-minute punk songs about mobile homes, Picasso's mailman, and Cudahy were formed. Tiller explains, "Someone told us dumb people came from (Cudahy), so we believed them. We really do like Cudahy though." Finding humor in everything from stalkers ("Psycho in the House"), drunk-driving accidents ("We'll Go Through the Windshield Together), and cruising down Highway 100 (appropriately titled "Hwy 100"), Tiller and Socol's songs started getting a strong following in a time when venues like Zak's and the Starship began to draw out music fans with a taste for something more interesting that Journey or Judas Priest.

"It was great," recalls Tiller, "We never took anyone's advice. We never had a manager, so that takes care of 80 percent of the bulls---."

More releases from the band, who take their name from a Canadian fire safety video, followed, including the ultra-rare "Mammal Insect Marriage," which is now considered a collectors item.

"The Day the Music Died," the group's third release, was recognized by writer Byron Coley in Spin Magazine as one of the top 80 albums of the 1980s.

Others began to take notice of the band's work as well, including famed producer Steve Albini (with whom Tiller played with in the short-lived band Army), Trouser Press co-founder and critic Ira Robbins, and Conflict Magazine publisher Gerard Cosloy. However, it was with 1989's "Ghostride" that many Couch Flambeau fans claim to be the group's finest work.

"(The music) became longer and more complicated," says Socol.

"It's kind of a detriment that we've become more proficient at playing," Tiller quips.

Then the group began to fall of the radar. Live performances became less frequent. Months turned into years as fans anxiously waited for another Couch Flambeau release. The music had taken a back seat to the reality and pressures of the real world.

"We were never serious about it," Tiller says, "We did it just to amuse ourselves. It was never the 'tour for life' thing. We were just being realistic whereas some people said, 'Maybe you should have tried harder.'

"It's been a while since we have even rehearsed, literally, because of our jobs and just being busy. The real world takes over. It was great when we were in our 20s, but now we have to work around our lives."

Couch Flambeau re-emerged in 1998 with a new drummer, simply named Rusty, and an acclaimed self-titled release, but the Milwaukee musical scene that they had once been a large part of had disappeared while they were taking care of their responsibilities in the real world. Zak's and Starship had been replaced by coffee shops and dive bars.

"You always come off sounding like 'Grandpa Punk' or 'Grandpa Music Scene,' but there was a time when there would be five bands playing on the same night and every one was good and you had to actually decide (which one to see)," remembers Tiller, "Now, it may be once in a couple months where there will be a show I'm interested in seeing. It seemed like a pretty creative heyday in the early and mid-'80s."

Socol adds, "Any band that can't book a gig in Milwaukee isn't trying hard enough! It wasn't any better or any worse 20 years ago. Back then, many bands would rent halls, VFW posts or youth centers. Most live music clubs come and go in a few years anyway. However, clubs these days usually don't smell as bad as they used to."

Socol and Tiller, now both in their early 40s, look back at their over 20 years making music together with little regret and a wealth of memories. It's pretty easy for them since they never took anyone's advice. Socol says, "I think creating and releasing our catalog by ourselves without "label" help was pretty good. Our only constraints were our own budgets. However, we've done a lousy job of distributing our catalog. Hopefully we can do better in the digital distribution era."

Tiller recalls receiving a letter from Capitol Records asking for some of the material. He was thrilled that the same label that his favorite band The Beatles were on were interested in the group's material. Then another letter on the same sacred Capitol Records stationary came in the mail telling them that their work was rejected by the label. It was that brief recognition, and the later rejection, that Tiller feels one of the band's finest achievements.

Both Socol and Tiller hope that their old fans, and some new ones, will add "I Did a Power Slide in the Taco Stand" to their collections.

"(The album) seems to make a lot of household chores seem to fly by," Tiller says, "Just look at the volume of material. There are 37 songs on the thing."

Socol warns, "When you are in your car, you've got to watch your speed. Before you know it, you're flying by."

Tiller adds, "The album will cause you to go over the posted speed limit, which we don't advise."

"I Did a Power Slide in the Taco Stand" is available at selected record stores and online at CDBaby.com. A CD release party is in the works. For updates, please check www.couchflambeau.com.

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