Houston Calling

Free Press Summer Fest preview: What Made Milwaukee Famous

August 8th, 2009 · 1 Comment

What Made Milwaukee Famous, photo credit: Cambria Harkey

What Made Milwaukee Famous, photo credit: Cambria Harkey

Austin’s What Made Milwaukee Famous released its first album long before many people outside of Texas took notice. But once well-known indie label Barsuk got its hands on the band, things really took off quickly. After re-releasing Trying To Never Catch Up, the band toured around the country and then went to work on its second album, 2008’s What Doesn’t Kill Us. The album showed an accomplished, tight band that easily avoided both the “sophomore slump” and being pigeonholed into a single genre.

In 2008, the band also released The Sugar Hill Sessions, an EP of songs recorded at Houston’s own Sugar Hill Studios.

Watch the video for the band’s catchy “Idecide”:

Houston Calling featured an interview with What Made Milwaukee Famous in 2005 (before Barsuk came a-courtin’), so it was good for another chance to ask frontman Michael Kingkaid some questions in advance of this weekend’s Free Press Summer Fest.

Houston Calling: How do you feel being on a well-respected indie label as opposed to doing it your own way before? Obviously, the band has gotten a bit more exposure than before…

Michael Kingkaid: Barsuk has released some of our favorite music and it was so exciting when we finally landed on their label. Going it on your own has always been such a gamble and it’s so hard for indie bands to forge substantial connections in this industry without an established intermediary acting on their behalf. And to find a patient one that understands and believes in what you do is definitely the best that you could ever hope for. We’ve definitely benefited from Barsuk’s name and reputation and I believe that we’ve reached a greater audience than we could have ever been presented to doing this on our own. It’s so important to be able to focus your attention on what you do best, writing music. I’m probably a bad businessman. Maybe. Probably.

HC: Similarly, I have been a long-time fan and supporter of the band and have been pleased to watch the progress. Are you pleased with the direction the band’s career has taken since the first release?

MK: With the first (self-released) album, we were just crossing our fingers that SOMETHING would happen. And luckily, we had a ton of doors open up for us that were infinitely more than what we ever could have expected. Last year was the culmination of all of the efforts that we had put in up until now and it was really amazing to be able to play most of the big festivals last year. I like to believe that it was because we put out the best sophomore album that we could have released at the time, considering the circumstances. I’ve never wanted this band to be anything but as big as it could possibly be. We’d like to reach as many people as possible. And it’s kind of a blessing and a curse to have those kind of high hopes, paired with an overall insatiability for progress. But I’d be lying if I said that I expected us to make it even this far. We’ve been really blessed compared to a lot of other, great, hard-working bands in this industry.

HC: I’ve noticed a few solo gigs now and then, including an upcoming gig in Austin. Is this a way for you to test out some new WMMF material before recording with the band?

MK: It’s definitely a way for me to test drive new material to see what can work and what might not. Writing for me is something that I have to take as it comes. Sometimes it won’t come for weeks or months, so when a song finally does show up, I like to try to record it and finish it up while it’s fresh, so it stays that way. I’ve finally hit a pretty, prolific period with my songwriting as of late. And presenting those songs to audiences allows me to sort out what will or won’t work for Milwaukee, and which ones I would use for other projects.

HC: I felt that What Doesn’t Kill Us was a large departure from the sound of Trying To Never Catch Up. More accomplished, I guess, would be the stereotypical music critic’s term for it. Do you agree? Why or why not? Did you set out to make a drastically different record from the first one?

MK: When we finished What Doesn’t Kill Us, I finally felt at ease with the final product. And I think that the sound of WDKU us is a direct reflection of how I wanted the second WMMF record to sound. It can be so easy to get caught up in the vex of the sophomore slump thing. So, we basically just set out to make a record of good songs in hopes that it would sound just as good in ten years as it does now. I felt like if we tried to get caught up in the du jour and fickle tastes of whatever the in-style fashion of music was at the time, then we would be trapping ourselves into making more of a flash in the pan record. I think that because we focused our energy on making the songs as solid as possible, WDKU translates better than the first album. It’s more organic because it’s more about the message, which normally gets lost in translation with our ADD generation. We’re always looking to expand our horizons and those of our fans with our music. What Doesn’t Kill Us definitely made me feel like we took the right next step with our music. And hopefully, the next one will be a leap or a hop or something. HC: What band are you most looking forward to at the Free Press Summer Fest? Are you guys going to be able to catch some of the Houston bands at all?

MK: I really always love seeing Explosions in the Sky. Their music has always had such a cathartic effect on me. I can’t miss Broken Social Scene. I have so much respect for them as artists. Really want to see Devin the Dude, I Am Mesmer, Prince Paul and The Sword, too.

I really haven’t had much of a chance to check out as many bands in Houston as I’ve wanted to since I’ve moved down here. So, I’m really looking forward to just floating around and checking out Houston bands at the festival and seeing what’s going on out there. Conroe’s enough of a drive that I don’t really head downtown except for the occasional shows at Continental, Walter’s or Warehouse. But I’m absolutely willing to have my arm twisted.

HC: Do you think bands get unfairly stereotyped being from Texas? It seems to me a lot of people have preconceived notions of how people are supposed to be or how bands are supposed to sound if they’re from Texas (or even Austin, Houston, or Dallas, for that matter). Do you agree?

MK: I’m not sure. It’s kind of hard to say. It’s kind of different than it was back in the 70’s. You expected a Willie or Townes kind of sound from Texas. Now things are a lot different. As far as I’m concerned, the best band from Texas is Spoon. And I really don’t peg their sound as very indicative of Texas. I do believe that Austin, Houston, and Dallas do have their own particular “sounds,” none of which coincide enough to be able to lump them all into one sound of Texas. From my experience, Texas bands still kind of run the gamut of all of the genres out there. There are great bands from Texas for every kind of sound. If THAT’S they stereotype that people want to slap on our state, I’d say that’s more than fair.

HC: What’s next for What Made Milwaukee Famous?

MK: We’re going to be playing a couple new tunes at the Free Press Summer Fest and a few other new ones at our next show in Austin in September. Then, I think that we’re going to drop off the map for a while so we can start work on writing and recording the next record. Unless, of course, any band like Coldplay or Pearl Jam that we could never, ever refuse to play with chooses to ask us to open up for them. Chris, call me. Eddie, return my e-mail(s).

HC: What have you been listening to lately? Anything to recommend?

MK: Man, I’ve really stumbled on to some of my favorite albums ever in the past year. Elvis Perkins in Dearland is immaculate. Dawes is amazing. Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is breathtaking. Still haven’t stopped listening to Bon Iver’s first one (though I haven’t yet checked out the EP). Other Lives are a gift. Listened to the new St. Vincent last night for the first time and was pretty overwhelmed. Can’t wait to hear the new Brendan Benson and David Bazan records. It really feels like we could be living the new renaissance with the ridiculously, wonderful music that’s coming out these days. I recommend — listening.

Thanks to Michael Kingkaid of What Made Milwaukee Famous for taking the time out to answer these questions.

What the video for the band’s single, “Sultan”:

You can see What Made Milwaukee Famous perform live in Houston this Sunday, 8.9.09, at 6:30pm at the Free Press Summer Fest in Eleanor Tinsley Park in downtown. More information and coverage may be found  at www.freepresssummerfest.com. Tickets are available at the gate.

The band’s albums–Trying To Never Catch Up and What Doesn’t Kill Us–are available everywhere, including amazon.com, emusic, and iTunes.

Tags: Interviews · Music · Show listings

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