Possibly Singing Along, Most Often Sweating
by Amelinda Burich
Photo by Christopher Brooks
Milwaukee's independent music scene seems alive and well when considering the brightly wallpapered windows and counters of local coffee shops touting a large variety of music events around the city. The majority of bills promote club and bar venues for the live music lover of legal drinking age. The underage have a choice of larger scale venues like The Rave and Pabst/Turner/Riverside theaters or D.I.Y. basement venues populating mainly the Riverwest neighborhood with a few others sprinkled around the city. To profile the state of the scene I chose musician and promoter Kelsey Kaufmann, at the helm of one such basement, temporarily hosting only laundry while she studies abroad in Cairo. I met Kelsey when my band performed in her venue and I found her passion deep and motivation refreshing. On the heels of her twenty-first birthday, I was curious to hear if she finds that Milwaukee concert-goers suffer an age barrier. I booked and promoted a long defunct, illegal, all-ages venue and am also a female musician, so the questions I culled up for her stem from past experiences of my own.
What is your view of the Milwaukee indie music scene?
Milwaukee is dynamic and close-knit. There is a lot of soul and longevity. With a limited number of venues, it is easy to rub shoulders with a lot of crowds. Not everyone is doing the same thing, but I think it is easy to know about what others are doing. That’s unique for such an active city. Spaces like the Cactus Club, Borg Ward, Frank’s Power Plant and Y Not III are staple spaces that regularly host great shows. Overwhelmingly [people] are supportive of most things Milwaukee, it is just a matter of taking the initiative to break up the routine.
Why do you book shows?
I am able to hook touring friends up while also sharing//exposing new music locally. The D.I.Y. network is a family of sorts. We’re capable of inspiring one another and always enabling another party.
When I was in seventh grade I first started organizing shows. It was before we even knew a Milwaukee music scene existed; we just thought it was what we should do. Since then I have toured a lot and met some of my best friends this way. I can’t really imagine not doing it. It constantly introduces me to new and exciting projects, music and otherwise.
Seventh grade is incredibly young to start booking shows. How did you figure that out?
Trial and error; pretending that I knew more than I did. People like having things to do. Suburban seventh graders don’t have a lot of things to do. Convincing classmates to watch our punk bands came surprisingly easy.
What has changed for you (live music-wise) since you recently turned 21?
I boarded a plane to Cairo on my 21st birthday. I’ll be back in May. The music scene here is quite odd/not existent as we know it. I do not anticipate changing my involvement with all-age shows when I return. Age, for me, has never really been a barrier to accessing shows… there has always been a back door or friend of a friend. There is something about all-age shows, the good and the bad, that can’t be captured in a bar.
Tell me what you mean by "the good and the bad that can't be captured in a bar."
Bar shows are easier to anticipate. Often there is a crowd and a vibe and a routine to them. Don’t get me wrong, there are always exceptions and sometimes the vibe is perfect. However, all-ages shows preserve the unpredictable elements. Who is going to show up? Where did they come from? What time is this really going to start? Framing it like this doesn’t make it sound all that promising, however, that’s when the riff-raff comes out. How many people can really fit in this basement? Did they really just drive three states to see this show? How did they hear about it? What are we getting into after? It keeps things fresh.
What is available for bands & concert goers under 21?
Beyond Turner, The Borg Ward is the most consistent venue for all-age music right now. December 3rd and 4th they hosted a 2-day benefit showcase with Busybodies, Protestant, All Tiny Creatures, Lines & Terminals, Ifihadahifi, Northless, Absolutely and more. The fellows in Protestant and Northless have always made an effort to stay active in the all-age scene. Basements and living rooms between Riverwest, the East Side and Walker’s Point will host shows at random. Even near Marquette University, my friend Vince Gaa from Parhessia has done some off the map shows. At a glance it is easy to think there isn’t a younger generation assuming the reigns, but there is... sorta. Eric Apnea (Holy Shit!, Quest for Fire, Uh-oh) is a Milwaukee wizard and keeps “Milwaukee Shows” on Facebook and MySpace regularly updated. There you can find everything. Also, keep in touch for Eagle’s Nest updates. We’re going through the steps of getting non-profit status and getting the renovations. It’s a bit mind-numbingly tedious, but we’ll get there. In the meantime, Jackpot continues to host rad art shows.
The indie art scene seems to share a community with the indie music scene in combination art/music spaces such as Borg Ward and Studio Deep End. There is the Jackpot Gallery above your own venue. Why do you think these joint venues exist? How do these two disciplines benefit from each other? What is your involvement in the Jackpot Gallery?
Shared interest. The folks involved in both spheres overlap to a certain extent. It’s about making the most of the space and providing support. I think the Lightning Bolt show at Studio Deep End was the first music show there. It was a last minute fluke that my old roommate and current MIAD student Dune Donnelly helped orchestrate. It brought a lot of attention and appreciation to the artist collective in addition to saving the day with hosting the show. In other circumstances it’s rad how visual art is exposed to show-attendees who otherwise wouldn’t go out of their way for a gallery opening. My involvement with the gallery has been limited to hyping events and lending a helping hand when I am in town. I have yet to curate a show.
To you, what is the importance of independent/basement venues?
I’ve had the hardest time answering this question; it’s hard to do it justice. I wrote an independent study proposal regarding cooperative management of D.I.Y. arts spaces and posted part of it here: www.takelittlebites.tumblr.com
There is magic to people crammed in an untraditional music space, listening to bands whose songs for whatever reason resonate. Possibly singing along, most often sweating. Basement venues and D.I.Y. projects, with all the loose ends and frayed edges, keep the heart in things. It is easy to get caught up in delusions of an industry wave, but that’s not why most of us started. What do we keep coming back to? I want to be excited and there is an excitement to bending rules and calling up friends. Independent venues are maintained by the community; they are accessible to everyone.
I want to hone in on your passion a little more. How did the Eagle's Nest come to be?
In the spring of 2009, Sean Heiser and Martha Johnson teamed up to open Jackpot Gallery. Sean gutted the basement with the vision of utilizing it for multimedia projects. That summer I needed a space to host a show for Native. I hollered at Sean and it was a hit. The next month we did a show with Call Me Lightning, Cloud Mouth, Cougar Den and Absolutely. Word of mouth did the rest. By September we were doing a couple of shows a week.
The city has a history of shutting down D.I.Y. venues. What is your response to that?
Many cities share that record. It’s really unfortunate. Noise and people don’t always equal trouble. We all know that there are matters more deserving of city/police attention.
Tell me about the ticket you received and Riverwest Fest. What was the community response?
We never actually received a ticket. In May of last year the fire marshal showed up while a show was being hung in the gallery. We were essentially issued a cease and desist. Our Facebook page and fliers at Fuel were used as evidence to substantiate their “investigation.” Police were informed that we were operating illegally/without permits (the Eagle’s Nest that is, not Jackpot). Prior to this, we had always had positive contact with the police. The neighborhood patrol acknowledged that we would host art/music events and were cool about stopping by and saying hello. That night, during the opening, officers came in and out, counting heads (for capacity) and threatening tickets. With that, we opted to move all scheduled Eagle’s Nest shows. We started looking into city codes and non-profit status. The technicalities of legality, particularly for a basement, are pretty daunting. We applied for and received a grant from UWM’s Community Design Solutions to help redesign the space to meet city code. Many proposals have been pitched; we are still tweaking ideas.
Anyway, Riverwest Fest was an idea we had prior to police problems. We wanted to do a community bash with multi-genre shows. Modeled on a pub-crawl, Riverwest Fest was a two-day Milwaukee music fest that included seven venues, all-ages spots & bars and about 30 musical acts. There were a few PA kinks, but it was a blast!! Three grand was raised. The proceeds are going to renovations. For the first year, the community response was amazing! It obviously wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the bands, sponsors, volunteers and attendees.
Recently, all of the papers for non-profit status were filed. Sean is holding it down, communicating with the designers and busy with the gallery. Once everything is set in stone, a re-opening show will be the buzz.
What is your advice/caution to current or aspiring basement venue organizers?
Do it up! Everything has a place. By no means do I think that all spaces should become "legal venues"… that’d get boring. Part of the excitement is making use of the unconventional. There is value in the sustaining, just as there is value in the temporary.
Milwaukee seems to have a gender neutrality when it comes to musicians. With your touring experience, is this unique?
I think it really varies by scene. The “riot grrrl” movement powerfully shaped certain scenes/genres, while others were barely exposed to it. On tour I was always assumed to be a girlfriend before we played. In my experiences, most people from the D.I.Y. woodwork came to expect and embrace ladies playing music. There is a unique acknowledgment and sort of thumbs-up among bands with a female presence. Gender only became an obnoxious talking point when we played the random pizza place in Ft. Collins or college bar at SXSW: I didn’t think girls could play drums. The same would probably be said if I ever played at G Daddy's BBC though? I guess it’s hard to say.
Tell me a little about your experience as a drummer and as a female drummer.
I’m not sure how to answer this. Drumming with Cougar Den allowed me to see the country many times over with my best friends. Palin' up with the Centipedes dudes has been a blast too. There are always skeptics or those who find it endearing that there is a girl drumming. I just do my thang.
Tell me about your first tour - how old were you, where did you go, what did it mean to you?
Woah, I was just catapulted back. 16. Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Sioux City to Milwaukee. The most nervous excitement! We learned how to play Tetris when loading equipment, Polaroids and Against Me! sing-a-longs. We didn’t know anyone in Minneapolis so there was a lot of timid chatter and sparks. We had booked the show through a series of contacts via myspace. It was the first show of the now defunct “O RLY” house. The show and enthusiasm was out of control. The next day we met up with our friends Swing By Seven in Iowa and had an equally amazing night. A few months later Bobby’s mom found a video of Swing By Seven rolling joints with bible pages. The parents were not impressed. Anyway, I think I came to realize or believe that there are few things better than being on tour.
[END of interview]
Even though at present I only book legal, 21+ club shows, it seems Kelsey Kaufmann and I both have the same reasons for playing music and booking/promoting concerts: the allure of sharing passion, sweat and experience with our community - not like anything else.