Dummerfest 2k15 is almost here and we know you're crazy excited. To get you even more stoked Dummerfest organizer and Direct Hit! frontman, Nick Woods, sat down with another band who will be performing at the festival, Tenement. Check it out below and also scope out his recent interview with Juiceboxxx right here. Dummerfest will take place June 20 in Milwaukee, WI at the Metal Grill.
If thereâ€™s a band in punk who get the â€œToughest To Pin Downâ€ award, it would probably be Tenement. Thatâ€™s likely a by-design distinction, coming from a group of relatively rural musicians, led by perhaps the most focused songwriter in the genre that this writerâ€™s had a chance to pick over.
Calling the Wisconsin natives â€œdedicatedâ€ would be an understatement. Theyâ€™ve spent more than their fair share of time on the road, touring with Screaming Females, Night Birds, and dozens of other, lesser-known, but no-less-awesome groups who exist on the fringe between art and pop. Theyâ€™ve released a dizzying number of records since 2008, including 10 singles in multiple versions, 2011â€™s criminally-underappreciated LP Napalm Dream , compilations, original and re-released songs on cassette, and more, pieced together mostly at singer Amos Pitschâ€™s hand-assembled home studio. Their collective knowledge of recorded music is encyclopedic. Their live sets often last less than 15 minutes before exploding into feedback and wrecked equipment. And, of course, they proudly deliver proverbial middle fingers to many of the standbys that have come to define â€œpunk rockâ€ in 2015.
This was an intimidating interview for yours truly. From a distance, the band seems unapproachable and wild, and difficult to measure. But I was surprised by how interesting it was to chat with Pitsch, bassist Jesse Ponkamo, and drummer Eric Mayer over email, discussing their thoughtful approach to crafting what this writer considers to be one of the freshest, most interesting approaches to DIY music in 2015. Theyâ€™re also playing this writerâ€™s Dummerfest event on June 20 in Milwaukee, and have a new double LP out right now from Don Giovanni Records â€“ Predatory Headlights . You should come experience it for yourself.
Nick: So, you dudes are all in Tenement. What do you all play? And what's your role in the band? Tell me a little bit about yourselves and what you do. AP: In the live setting, I sing and I play guitar. It's the natural place for me in this band. In the studio, I do a little of everything. Including placing microphones and pushing buttons. My main role in this band up to this point, however, has been as composer. I write almost everything. I wouldn't say that guitar is written as an after thought in Tenement, but I'm much more interested in making sure the rhythm section twists and turns in all the right places. Guitar is placed in afterward as a brick wall of sound. Kind of just a dump truck of glue that keeps the drums and bass together. Like Duke Ellington and his piano, in that he was usually playing what NEEDED to be played while his band was executing his big creative ideas. Like that.
EM: I can play guitar at an elementary level and can also play drums fairly decent. I play drums in Tenement, I mostly collect 80's hardcore records â€“ you know, the expensive ones! â€“ but lately I've been collecting more soul and R&B stuff. I also work for a tofu company known as "The Simple Soyman."
JP: I'm Jesse and I play bass and like the rest of us we all do a bunch of stuff in the band: screen printing shirts, dubbing tapes, collecting records etc. I'm from Wisconsin though my parents are from Finland and I grew up in Neenah. I went to university in Madison then wound up here in Milwaukee. I'm an avid B&W photographer and record collector.
Can you tell me a little bit about the band's history? You've released a lot of music in a lot of different formats - Has the lineup stayed the same or changed a lot? How did it start, and where do you see yourselves going? AP: We started playing together in 2006 and the lineup has gone through many changes. Jesse and I met in high school. We were both interested in punk music. Jesse played drums in a grindcore band called Satan's Army. I played guitar in a punk band called Social Classics. Eric was a mutual acquaintance for many years before he joined our ranks as he played in bands as well. It's difficult to see where we might be going as a band, as we're a stubborn creative unit that does not conform to passing trends - and a constantly evolving one at that. The public isn't often kind to something that it can't wrap around its big fat finger and lick like a lollipop at will. The general music buying public wants a sound that's en vogue, or it wants something that it can compare to a group of its nostalgic past. It's a boring story and it's a vicious cycle, and we'll just do whatever we please one hundred percent of the time.
JP: The lineup right now is the primary live band at the moment. After a really unfortunate incident with our steady second drummer we ended up approaching Eric about playing a tour that was fast approaching at the time and after that he was in the band. Really the band is what it needs to be to suit the situation. I think the future will roughly be more of the same on one level and very different on others. I think we just take it one step at a time. I think we've managed to weather time quite well and we'll just keep doing what we think we should be doing next… whatever that might be. I think Tenement is a reflection of us collectively and our interests in art and music.
EM: I joined in August of 2009, we've had a few stunt doubles due to real life shit since then, I don't know where the hell I see ourselves going, on tour a lot, thatâ€™s it.
Your live show's a different experience than listening to your music on record - much more chaotic, with a more hardcore edge to it than what comes across as a more power pop/pop punk sound on your albums and singles. When you started Tenement, did you always plan for the live show to contrast like that? Or did it come about that way gradually? AP: I grew up listening to The Beatles. I was interested in melody and harmony and how it all fit together from the first time I touched a piano or plucked a guitar. When I was six or seven years of age, I started playing music with a couple of my cousins with a bunch of old instruments abandoned in the attic of their house. If I remember right, it was a guitar, a trombone, and an old blue sparkly 60's Rogers drum kit. We played together for many years. We learned how to interpret other band's songs; doing our own versions of Creedance songs, Aerosmith songs, Beatles songs. We learned how to write music together and how to record it multi-track onto a cheap karaoke machine. When I discovered punk music as a teenager, what struck me in a live setting was the aesthetic, the feeling, the emotion of hardcore punk. I spent my high school years frequenting local hardcore punk shows. Holy Shit! from Milwaukee was a big influence on our musical minds once we discovered punk. As well as a lot of the crust and punk groups from the Fox Valley of Wisconsin. We cut our teeth with these bands and these people, while still retaining the influences we developed earlier on in life. So you see, it was a natural progression.
EM: The record version of a song is basically the fake version. I think we've always been more interested in bands that destroy everything in their paths rather than stand around like a buncha lumps, maybe thatâ€™s where it comes from, I really donâ€™t know.
JP: We all love the visceral and direct power of expression that hardcore punk has, which is really what brought the three of us together a long time ago before Eric joined the band. I think we just had a lot of energy and loved to have that energy brought forth, and really at first I don't think we had that wild feeling in us yet when we were just getting our music together. But year after year I think itâ€™s come out as we became more competent. Also, there's only so much you can do in a trio setting live which makes recordings a prime avenue for doing something different that benefits a song and sometimes you need noises to fill in the other stuff thatâ€™s lost when you try to do that same thing as a trio.
"Improvisation" is a word that pops up around your music a lot, and I know you tend to list jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane as big influences. Do you feel like improvised music influences the way you write songs, the actual melodies you play? Or is it more a way to describe your performances, which tend to have noisier, seemingly out-of-control elements? AP: Improvisation is something that we've incorporated into our live performance many times. I'm personally more influenced by structured music when writing my own music but I am a nerd about jazz music and I'm sure many ideas from free jazz records have influenced us often. Perhaps more on a spiritual level than anything else.
I guess I should clarify that question a bit: Tenement has a reputation of ending sets quickly, with a lot of smashed-up gear, a lot of noise and feedback. Do you see that element of your live show - traditionally viewed as incongruous with pop or (non-free-)jazz music - as a form of musical improvisation? Or do you see it as a nod to the punk scene and music you've been influenced by? AP: Aah, yes - that element of our performance is definitely an improvisation of sorts. I guess whether or not it's musical is defined by the listener, but I prefer to think it is.
JP: Punk music is what I know totally and completely to be the music that I, myself, can play truly, and it's also the scene in which we've cultivated ourselves. But we listen to a variety of music, and the music of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane caught my attention in my early twenties and it was a short digression from their music to stuff like Albert Ayler, Peter BrÃ¶tzmann, and Sun Ra â€“ to name but a few â€“ that really affected me and how I play. There are certain parts of our music when we play live that are totally freely improvised, and then there are parts that are improvised around a melody or simply in a particular key. When we record music we might add some improvised elements too. I think the noisy stuff is linked to our thoughts on improvisation, and we often might play certain parts differently depending on how we feel.
You guys also tend to shift between very different recording environments. When you were working on Napalm Dream, for example, you took a long time shifting between self-recording and the now-shuttered Smart Studio in Madison. (Correct me if I'm wrong, obviously.) What advantages does a commercial studio provide your band over your own gear and technique, and vice-versa? AP: The advantage of recording at a very well stocked professional studio is obviously the equipment at your disposal, and perhaps an engineer that's focused entirely on recording rather than songwriting and performance. The advantage of recording at home is that time is no matter and every single creative idea that comes to mind can be explored at will. If only we were The Beatles; we could have the best of both worlds.
Can you give me an example or two of why you've made the decision to head into a studio instead of using your own recording setup? Do you favor particular pieces of gear you haven't been able to find or afford, or are there other reasons? AP: I think the most important reason or tool is having a professional engineer at your disposal that understands sound and the science of sound in a way that you might not be able to personally comprehend. I've got a natural understanding of melody and rhythm, and not as much of an understanding of equalization of frequencies, etc… though it's something that I'm working on understanding more all the time. There's also the issue of physical equipment. I've got a nice studio at home, but it's not great. Accumulating recording equipment takes a lot of time. I just bought a fairly nice vintage compressor for 800 dollars. A DBX 165A. That took a lot of time to find and to set aside cash to purchase. I'm hoping to get a few more of those, as I build the studio into something more professional. My personal income isn't great, so those kinds of things take time. That's not to say I'm not satisfied. Money has never satisfied me. Time and what I've done with it is what really matters.
Given that you've done a fair amount of recording yourself, how do you and your regular engineer Justin Perkins work together? Do you come to him with a particular vision? Or do you send demos or something and solicit advice on how to make them sound better or different? AP: I usually send demos to Justin before any kind of recording or production really begins. I'm not sure what, if anything, he does with them. Justin often engineers portions of the record that I would like to sound vibrant and large and clear. He's very good at making drums sound big. He's great at adding subtle creative additions without being overbearing so at times I've allowed him to overdub something himself (he played a piano part and sang backups on a couple of our early songs). Shane Olivo also engineered portions of the new record and he did a great job as well. With Predatory Headlights, we mixed it by sending mixes back and forth over the internet between Milwaukee and Appleton, adding overdubs and revisions until it was eventually ironed out. Justin Perkins is one of my favorite current producers; he has a really tasteful touch to what he does. My desire to push things into an experimental realm and his desire for everything to sound very clear and tight and right I think makes for an interesting collaboration.
How have your roles changed in the studio from release to release? As "band honcho" for lack of a better term, does Amos end up playing most of the parts? How do you guys makes decisions about your lineup? Or do you prefer to keep that a secret? AP: That's something I generally like to keep secret.
Considering there's at least one seeming perfectionist in your group, at least in the studio, how do you come to decide that a piece of music is complete? Is it just a feeling you get, or do you have some kind of objective standard? AP: Everything's a feeling. There's never really a definitive objective standard. Almost 100% of the time, the mixing of a record is a long series of mixing, overdubbing, erasing, tweaking, overdubbing, rerecording, etc… It's much like visual collage is made. We record the very basic tracks and those are a solid background. Then we go from there in twisting lines until we reach a point that the recording gives us a very distinct feeling. I never model a production after a certain band's record or a certain group's sound. It's strictly a feeling. I like to think that this is one of the things that gives Tenement its own unique quality despite having obvious influences.
What makes new music exciting for you? Do you tend to connect with a group after seeing them live? Or can new records still turn you on to something you feel is important, musically? Can you comment at all on records you've been getting into lately? AP: For some reason I have a hard time focusing on a lot of modern recorded material. I feel like there's still so much to learn from records that were being produced in an age when less digital technology was available and a lot of improvisation had to happen in the studio on the engineer's part. There are recent hardcore punk records that I get infatuated with when they hit a certain sweet spot, production-wise. The Ooze 7â€ is one of them. I can listen to that record over and over again because they really hit the nail on the head, whatever they did - no matter how much or how little they did. Two records I've been very obsessed with that were released in the past few years are Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel… and D'Angelo's recent masterpiece, Black Messiah. There are so many things happening that keep the wheels in my mind turning and thrill me to such a degree that I feel I may never get sick of them. I think they both utilize breathing room well. There's a lot going on, but there's a lot of not much going on sometimes too and that's an important thing. Tenement has always used digital technology while recording to our advantage, but I do try to reach farther than ProTools plug-ins, etc. when I can and we've always tried to utilize the physical properties of our studio and home to our advantage as well. There's something about an organic or mechanical process to get a sound that sends my mind into a dream.
Do you guys consciously push to evolve as artists and musicians? Or do you trust that your attitude of doing what you want 100% of the time will ensure that outcome? Or are you happy to keep your sound and live performance the way it is? AP: I think our undying interest in music and creation will always take us where we need to go.