Smartphone app: UW Journey

UW Journey is a new smartphone app UW HELP developed and launched in 2017. It helps high school students discover which University of Wisconsin campuses fit them best using criteria such as fields of study that interest them most, student organizations they hope to join, and their preferred distance from Mom and Dad.

I wrote the copy for the app and its sister website, which gives users a similar experience from a computer. I also created copy to market this new resource, including blog posts and press releases.

Explore the UW Journey app

Fueling the Economy with Green Jobs, New Ideas

Green jobs have been a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan since the early days of his campaign. It’s a concept that’s gotten people roaring with energy, ideas and an appetite for progress.

But what, exactly, does this term mean? “Green jobs” seems to be so vague that it can be applied to everything from launching wind farms to building hybrid vehicles or selling secondhand clothing.

But the goal of each green job is to reduce our nation’s carbon footprint while boosting the economy. What’s more, it involves something that’s often overlooked in all of the buzz about greening the economy—changing the way we think about consumption, not just using cleaner energy sources.

In other words, those engineering the green economy in Milwaukee and beyond need to promote a cultural shift that involves less driving, more reuse and a philosophy that less is more when it comes to material goods and energy use. Supporters argue that green-jobs initiatives should benefit both blue-collar and white-collar workers, people early in their careers and people who are further along and who’ve lost their jobs due to the economic downturn.

Jobs with Environmental Benefits

Some people assume that green jobs are confined to industries that develop technologies that reduce pollution, decrease fossil fuels use or in some way reduce many people’s carbon footprints at once. Others stress sustainability-enhancing efforts of individual people at individual organizations, regardless of types of goods or services the organization offers.

While the city doesn’t have a specific definition of “green jobs,” it has a few ideas about what they might look like. These ideas tend to focus on large companies and well-established institutions such as universities, which pioneer measurable green technologies and turn them into products and services that help many people, as well as the environment.

“In general, ‘green jobs’ are those associated with products, services and technologies that have environmental benefits,” says Ann Beier, director of Milwaukee’s Office of Sustainability.

Beier notes that jobs involving the design, construction and maintenance of renewable energy sources—from wind turbines to solar panels—are obvious examples, but that jobs involving storm-water and wastewater management may also be key for greening the region’s economy. “Manufacturing done by Milwaukee’s water cluster—Badger Meter and A.O. Smith, for example—creates products that may improve water quality and lead to water conservation or energy efficiency,” she says.

However, the word “green” gets a lot of flak because it “sounds a bit tie-dyed,” says Ryan Thompson, the founder of Greener Milwaukee, a local consortium of more than 200 different stakeholders, including civic organizations, research institutions and small businesses. “What we’re really trying to communicate here is optimization,” he says. “The optimization of resources, technology, cutting-edge everything.”

Green jobs, by extension, stress innovation and economical, sustainable use of resources. Equating cost savings with Earth-saving is a paradigm shift, but it’s essential to making the movement work, Thompson says.

While the idea of dismantling our consume-and-dispose culture has only recently begun to gain momentum, green jobs aren’t as shiny and new as you might think. You may have one and not even know it, says Dan Kohler, director of the citizen advocacy group Wisconsin Environment.

“Green jobs really end up being a lot of the same types of jobs people have now, but we’ve moved to a clean-energy economy where we’re doing more with energy efficiency and better, cleaner transportation options,” he says.

The options are many: research, agriculture, manufacturing and construction, to name a few. And southeastern Wisconsin has most of the necessary building blocks: universities, farmland, factories and buildings aching for retrofits.

It’s also got a lot of folks who work in offices, restaurants and hotels—people who drive to their jobs, get takeout for lunch and work in buildings that could use less energy and make less waste.

While the latter type of job retrofit simply involves greening existing jobs, the Milwaukee region is an ideal incubator for new blue-collar and white-collar jobs in emerging environmental-technology industries, Kohler says. “For blue-collar green jobs, there’s construction and retrofitting of buildings, weatherizing homes and businesses, and manufacturing renewable-energy components such as batteries—and developing the technology that goes along with these components,” he says.

A number of area companies are already leaders in green technologies. Kohler points to Johnson Controls, which just won a contract to make batteries for Ford’s hybrid vehicles. He also stresses that the region’s researchand-development resources, both at universities and in the private sector, are strong in areas such as bioenergy and next-generation biofuels, wind and solar power, and water technologies.

Then there are all of the other white-collar jobs—from marketing to legal services—that surround the new products that are being developed in the labs and emerging opportunities such as local and regional light rail, Kohler says.

Kohler assures that the demand for these products and services is real, as does Joe Jacobsen, associate dean of the environmental studies program at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

“People are really thirsty for this stuff: They want to learn how to make their buildings more energy-efficient, use more post-consumer materials and get LEED-certified—and they want to get their employees excited about these things,” he says. “It’s just a matter of learning how.”

But energy savings isn’t the only motivation: Replacing older workers is also a factor. Jacobsen says that many local companies are seeking employees to manage energy-efficiency projects simply because their current supervisors are retiring. “[Local renewable-energy implementation firm] Franklin Energy needs 30 people today, and they’re going to need 150 next year,” he says. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Greening the Economy

Obama set a campaign goal of developing 5 million green-collar jobs as a way to promote energy efficiency and self-reliance. The cratering of the global economy hasn’t deterred him from pushing forward with this pledge. In fact, the economic downturn may have given him an opportunity to spur green-collar job creation on a large scale.

The $787 billion federal economic stimulus package, signed into law on Feb. 17, provides $32.8 billion for clean energy, $26.9 billion for energy efficiency and $19 billion for green transportation. Of this money, $3.1 billion will fund the State Energy Program and $3.2 billion will bolster local governments’ energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects via block grants.

The package also includes a renewable energy manufacturing credit and $500 million for the Green Jobs Act—and the 70,000 renewable-energy workers it’s expected to train—and numerous other measures to create green jobs.

Meanwhile, for Milwaukee business and community leaders, green jobs mean fuel for the local economy. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett partnered with Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Tim Sheehy of Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce to launch Metro-Milwaukee Green, a countywide initiative to promote and support businesses’ efforts to adopt sustainable practices such as building retrofits, cutting-edge recycling programs and green office-cleaning programs.

Participating businesses met in January to share ideas and are currently developing energy-saving strategies custom-tailored to their offices, which they’ll present at a summit on Earth Day.

The city’s Office of Sustainability— the brainchild of an 11-member “Green Team” of local development, planning and environmental experts—has also been instrumental in bringing together the parties necessary to get several local green initiatives running.

The sustainability office and the Green Team have provided recommendations for existing job-creation efforts at the Menomonee Valley development venture, the 30th Street industrial corridor project and the Milwaukee 7 Water Council. It’s also working to make sure that southeastern Wisconsin gets a healthy piece of the Green Jobs Act cash, Beier says.

That, however, will involve tightening up the region’s definition of “green job” and showing the feds that Milwaukee-area jobs are among the greenest—and most beneficial—in the country.

Six tales of improbability in six days

Tony Trout doesn’t believe in fate. Despite this, the impresario of Are We Delicious? Ensemble Theatre chose to helm a production about magic and the uncanny ability to defy human logic. It’s called Musical Fantasy, and its concept sounds slightly nuts: Six actors who can write and sing team up with six musicians who can compose and teach, and together they create a half-dozen mini-musicals in less than a week. Writing began on April 24, and performances take place at the Brink Lounge on May 1 and 2.

The thing is, Trout does believe in trust and the power of the creative process. Along with a team of associates, he hand-picks the stars of Delicious shows, creating a who’s who of local talent for each cast. Though he’s led about 10 of these whirlwind productions since 2012, music has never been part of the mix until now. But he revels in the dance with danger, the possibility of failure that drives these shows to be great.

“We’re trying to perfect the process,” Trout explains. “We believe we can make a great show in a week, or that people can. We want to be those people.”

Epic stories

Creating an entire production in a few days is an enormous challenge, so it makes sense that the creators have epic stories on their minds when they enter Central Library for the first writing session. There’s talk about fairy tales and fables, and sci-fi adventures like Star Wars, a series that’s changed the lives of many cast members.

Several of the writer-actors, including Matt Sloan, Brad Knight and Karen Moeller, have ties to Blame Society Productions, best known for the web video series Chad Vader. Its comic tales about Darth Vader’s less-famous brother helped Sloan become the voice of Darth for Disney. In addition to appearing on Chad Vader, Knight leads local improv troupe Monkey Business Institute and Moeller serves as an artistic associate for Forward Theater Company. Other familiar faces include Kelly Maxwell, who starred in Mercury Players and OUT!Cast Theatre’s Xanadu; Dave Durbin from Strollers’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and Sarah Streich, the leading lady from Four Seasons’ My Fair Lady.

Writing begins in a glass-walled room nestled in the back of the library, after Trout delivers a motivational speech about risk-taking.

“I believe in you,” he says earnestly. “Let’s go for it.”

The six playwrights gather around a table with a few other collaborators, such as assistant producer Autumn Shiley and music director Andrew Rohn. Two stage managers linger nearby. Surrounding the group are props and costumes, which remain cloaked until the writers have completed their warmup activities. Each writer has contributed one costume and one prop to the collection, whose contents range from faux chain mail to a small, squeezable orb aptly named “the blue boobie.” But in the beginning, all the writers have is the thing they dread most: a blank page.

Giving good prompts is essential to guiding the writers toward their five-minute tales. Trout clearly adores being a story sherpa. He and Shiley pose questions, the type one might hear in a creative writing class or improv workshop. Some are whimsical (What’s a real place you found magical?), and some are inspirational (What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done?). Some encourage the group to ponder personal shortcomings (What’s one thing about yourself you wish you could change?), while others explore morality and social justice (What is standing in the way of the world’s growth and freedom? What’s a curse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy?).

Lists of answers are passed around the room. The richest story seeds are then plucked from them and distributed to the writers. Through an elaborate card game of sorts, each actor gets cast in the lead role of another writer’s play. One writer gets to star in her own play.

“This is so confusing and crazy!” Shiley squeals, grinning. She’s helping Trout keep track of the details. Though his idea-generation process is meticulously organized, things feel chaotic at the moment.

Several writers giggle at an answer to the curse question: “It must be a play about Vietnam.” This comes from Moeller, who acted in such a play with Trout, her husband, when they both lived in New York City.

Then the props and costumes are unveiled, adding more constraints to the writing process. Each item comes with a backstory. A sword is “endowed with an indomitable will and a desire to sing.” The chain mail once helped a gardener save his neighbors from vicious birds. A flowered raincoat “makes its wearer impossible to overlook.” It can help a shy person face her fear of standing out in a crowd, but it can also be used to drive her insane. Add to this a chimera statue, an olive-oil sprayer that teleports its user, and a wish catcher resembling a deep-fryer basket, and the writers have plenty of material for crafting fantastical tales.

With one source of anxiety out of the way, the writers start worrying how the music will fit into their plays. Should they pen lyrics or propose spots in the script for songs?

“No,” Trout says. “Think of the musicians as magical people who show up and give your play another dimension.”

He compares the composers to characters in a cartoon he watched as a kid. Elves snuck into a home late one night and cobbled shoes for the family living there. Everyone laughs. This kind of image would be a blast to bring to life onstage.

Now for the music

As the playwrights work their way through a few drafts of their scripts, the musicians begin their writing process. Each composer gets paired with one script. Any style of music is acceptable, from ballads with bawdy lyrics to something more subtle, like an ambient soundtrack. But the inspiration must come from the writers’ words. After receiving their assignments, the musicians disperse to tackle their tasks as they see fit.

For Meghan Rose, the best route leads home, where she can concentrate quietly. Serendipitously, she’s been paired with Maxwell, her bandmate in local rock act Little Red Wolf.

“In Delicious, a lot of people err toward comedy, but Kelly chose to do a serious piece, which provides a nice change of pace,” Rose says. “It’s about a sorceress…who needs to sacrifice herself, so I knew I needed to add a tragic song at a moment of high emotion. I had to try to make people cry.”

A pianist since age 4, Rose has long loved grand melodies from Broadway hits like Phantom of the Opera. She used Andrew Lloyd Webber as inspiration for her piece, “I Have To,” an orchestral work featuring Gomers frontman Biff Blumfumgagnge on violin and composer Scott Lamps on upright bass.

Sean Michael Dargan also looked to Broadway when putting together a song called “Unicorn Love.” He doesn’t often write about mythical creatures, but composing music for a play about mermaids seemed to call for something out of the ordinary.

“It’s sort of a cross between West Side Story and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with a little bit of Little Shop of Horrors,” he says.

He had to indulge his love of jangly pop, too.

“A bit of Crowded House or the Smiths usually sneaks into my songs,” he says.

Lamps, meanwhile, wrote a Celtic-sounding war hymn called “Overcoming Family” for Brad Knight’s play, which features the singing sword.

“The sword is asked for advice in certain situations, so I started by thinking, ‘What’s the character of the sword?’ Since it’s an ancient weapon, I’m using battle music that’s very rhythmic and drum-heavy and exciting,” he says.

Excitement is also at the heart of a fable written by Streich. As she explains how a witch has banished music from the kingdom, the rest of the cast acts out the story with exaggerated expressions. Though their lips move, no sounds emerge. But Blumfumgagnge’s gospel-tinged “Sing for Your Supper” helps tell the story as Streich belts out the vocals.

Down to the wire

Trout admits that the plays were in relatively rough shape on Saturday. But within 24 hours, they evolved in miraculous ways. The musicians convinced him the production was on the right track.

“They were just sitting around a table with keyboards and guitars. The music was absolutely beautiful, and the lyrics were hilarious. It brought tears to my eyes,” he says. “Usually I trust we’re going to make it to the finish line, but that morning I wasn’t so sure. That moment with the musicians is when I stopped doubting.”

Now it’s down to the wire to polish each play as much as possible. Sunday was filled with rehearsals in the basement of First United Methodist Church, with the actors in one room and the musicians in another. Since then, the group has completed “tech day,” in which the cast and composers gather to run each play three times — in three hours, if possible.

The musicians have sounded more confident with each rehearsal, and now that all of the songs have names, they seem more real. For instance, Stephanie Rearick’s catchy ditty is named “Salty Demon,” and Rohn’s hard-rocking number is “Scream at the Silence.” And the actors have learned their lines so well that they can seek out opportunities for extra fun. Moeller hams up her role as a maiden who rebuffs a king’s marriage proposal, and Maxwell wants to choreograph a dance for the forest creatures in the fable. Durbin, the forest’s snowy owl, realizes he needs an instrument to play during a song. The blue boobie becomes a tambourine he thwacks against his hip.

With just a little more time until the curtain rises, anything seems possible.

Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country

At the start of In Another Country, the newest dramedy by Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo, we meet a Korean film student distraught about a situation involving her uncle.

“He’s not even a human being,” she insists to her mother, who, in turn, pledges to fix the problem.

This promise does not satisfy the young woman. To calm her nerves, she must write a script. It seems the only way to dull the pain and start processing her emotions. It’s also a way for Sang-soo to examine some of the illusions filmmakers create on the screen.

The script isn’t one story but a trio of 30-minute episodes set in the same Korean town. Each episode stars the same actors, but some of them play different characters in every go-round. French arthouse luminary Isabelle Huppert portrays three French visitors named Anne. Determining who is playing whom – and what makes each Anne unique – can take some time and patience. The anxiety and confusion that result are useful, though. They approximate how many people feel when they arrive in a country where they know almost no one and barely speak the language. They also help the audience empathize with Anne, whether she’s in South Korea for work, sex or spiritual healing.

Huppert serves as the film’s anchor. Charming and gorgeous, she’s hard to look away from as she smokes cigarettes on balconies and strolls down long roads with eye-catching props – a bold red dress, a delicate umbrella. At the rooming house where she’s staying, her hosts make painfully polite conversation in English, then rail at one another in Korean. Anne can sense the tension that surrounds her, but hardly anyone will acknowledge it, even when she’s committed an infraction, presumably because she’s a guest.

An obsession with beauty also complicates matters. Male characters compliment Anne’s looks almost constantly, while she claims, unconvincingly, that the dreary seaside village is stunning. All three Annes search for one of the town’s few scenic landmarks, a small lighthouse, which leads them into awkward, humorous situations. The best of these moments involve a lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang), who, in one scene, produces a “small lighthouse” that is actually a camping lantern. And when the second Anne – a nervous married woman on a weekend fling with her boyfriend – finds the real lighthouse, she utters “beautiful” over and over again. The word seems like a sigh of relief for both her and the screenwriter from the opening scene.

Throughout In Another Country, Sang-soo reminds us how cameras can enhance beauty or diminish it, and how editing is just as important to storytelling as creating. Though the acting and visuals emanate naturalism, abrupt zoom-ins shatter the illusion of reality. Likewise, repetition of certain elements from story to story – a broken soju bottle, an impromptu shopping trip – emphasize filmmakers’ power to remix, recycle and reinvent. Anne doesn’t control her own destiny; the person who created her does. Another recurring image – Anne walking down the yellow line that bisects the main road – hints at the boundaries filmmakers construct between their characters and the audience.

While these concepts aren’t groundbreaking, they’re enjoyable to watch if you can tolerate feeling disoriented, anxious and perhaps a bit suspicious of filmmakers’ intentions.

Richard Ayoade’s The Double

I feel for Simon James, protagonist of The Double. A meek fellow prone to anxiety and self-doubt, he’s adrift in a bleak dystopian world. People constantly forget his name. Sometimes they forget he exists. He throws himself into his job, as if to justify his existence, but he’s mired in the role of worker bee. It’s a predicament that would drive many people mad, and it gets a whole lot worse.

The film is an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s excellent 1866 novella, modernized and stylized by Richard Ayoade, star of the devastatingly funny British sitcoms The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Like his previous film, the 2010 coming-of-age tale Submarine, The Double has been marketed as a drama, but it’s also a blacker-than-black comedy. As the story unfolds, the misfortunes plaguing Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) become increasingly absurd. It’s both infuriating and intoxicating to watch.

The weirdness begins when Simon’s briefcase gets caught in the door of a train, which absconds with his employee ID. He asks a security guard to let him into the government agency where he works. Though he’s had the same job for seven years, the guard doesn’t recognize him and a struggle ensues. Simon spends his days pining for Hannah (Mia Waskikowska), a coworker who lives in the building across the street from his apartment, but she barely acknowledges his presence. And no matter how hard he works, he can’t get his boss to realize his name’s not Stanley.

When Simon notices that a new employee looks just like him, he can’t believe his eyes. The resemblance is purely physical, though. The look-alike, James Simon (also Eisenberg), is a charismatic chick magnet. He oozes confidence, so much that people ascribe success to him instantly, even if he hasn’t earned it. Before long, James has Simon doing all of his work as he rolls in the hay with Hannah, the boss’ daughter and others. Meanwhile, Simon’s on the verge of a meltdown, not that anyone would notice.

You will notice, of course, but you are not part of Simon’s reality, which Ayoade casts in the yellows, browns and grays of Nighthawks, Edward Hopper’s famous painting of four strangers avoiding each other in a diner. Dim, buzzing lights and a hazy psych-pop soundtrack make the proceedings seem antique and somewhat artificial, like a half-remembered dream.

Ayoade has clearly studied the shadowy aesthetics of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, but he also seems taken with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. Certain details, like the telescope Simon uses to peer into Hannah’s apartment and the book he lovingly makes from her torn-up drawings, are very similar to those in Jeunet’s tale of a shy Frenchwoman. But Amélie gains whimsy from its subject’s colorful imagination, whereas The Double focuses on the dark side of Simon’s identity crisis. Even if you identify with Simon’s plight, you may glimpse your inner James as you chuckle at Simon’s troubles.

The Handsome Family’s gothic country gets romantic

Few bands have been able to infuse Americana music with a sense of the sublime quite like the husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family. Channeling the witty verve of Edward Gorey, Rennie Sparks’ story-poems, set to Brett Sparks’ melodies and baritone voice, speak of burying the dead, reveries in psychiatric wards and mysterious signs of comfort from nature.

The Handsome Family

Isthmus recently spoke with Rennie Sparks about the band’s enigmatic moniker, its new album, Honey Moon, and Santa Claus’ evil twin.

What are the origins of the band’s name?

We used to be in this other guy’s band, and he’d call Brett handsome all the time. Then, Brett’s parents, when we got married, got us this subscription to Reader’s Digest, and when it arrived, the name on the label said “Handsome Spjinki.” Everyone started calling him that, and the band grew out of it.

Many of your songs tap into the fantastic tradition of English and Scandinavian murder ballads, and you’ve mentioned in interviews that you were brought up believing Santa is a pretty evil guy. Has this led to any songs about the Krampus, the demonic Santa?

I have a friend from Finland who says Santa’s clothing is made out of reindeer skins soaked in blood, and I’ve heard that in Holland he’s got black slaves carrying the presents instead of reindeer, so he’s definitely got a dark side.

My parents were brought up as religious Jews in a time where kids their age were being thrown into the oven for being Jewish, so they tried to keep us blissfully ignorant of holidays and things like Santa. My mother once told me that Santa Claus started World War II, and though I don’t think he’s a bad person anymore, I haven’t written about him.

There’s a death theme running through many of your lyrics, but not so much on Honey Moon. What’s up with that?

This record is more about love. I’ve always wanted to write a whole record of love songs, but it’s trickier to write about the transcendent rather than the abyss. When you hear a great love song — not a sappy, trite one — it can change you a little bit. We’d been listening to a lot of Platters and Mills Brothers, so that got us thinking about romanticism even more than love, and all the heightened emotions and connections to nature that go along with it.

Joe Pug went from playwright to tunesmith

Joe Pug

Considering how many 20-somethings still live under their parents’ roofs, it’s easy to laugh at the notion of a quarter-life crisis. However, for 23-year-old folk musician Joe Pug, existential angst is no joke. Plus, it struck before he was old enough to work it out over a beer.

“I remember sitting down for a cup of coffee and thinking, ‘I am profoundly unhappy here,'” he says of his experience at the University of North Carolina, where, until recently, he was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in playwriting. Within weeks of this realization, he made his way to Chicago, got work as a carpenter and began composing songs.

By nearly all accounts, the shift from playwriting to songwriting has been a success: Pug’s lyrics have garnered praise for getting audiences to slow down and think — really think — amidst the hyperactive multitasking that’s so difficult to avoid if you have an iPhone, a Blackberry or even a simple e-mail account. This quality stems in part from a commitment to old-fashioned, pen-and-paper songwriting techniques and a focus on human problems that are pretty timeless: greed, loneliness and the passage of time.

Pug says playwriting allowed him to explore these themes, but the medium didn’t fit his message the way he’d hoped.

“I looked at some of the plays the people around me were writing and felt that I could never write those kinds of plays. Eventually I realized that what I was doing should take a different form,” he says.

To start, Pug took an outline for a play he was writing and restructured its ideas into lyrical stories much like those that launched the careers of John Prine and Bob Dylan. He set these poems to music, added a minimalist guitar track, and an EP called Nation of Heat soon emerged.

With lyrics like “I say the more I buy, the more I’m bought / And the more I’m bought, the less I cost,” the EP quickly caught the attention of the Chicago’s roots-music community, as well as the producers of NPR’s Second Stage program, who featured his song “Hymn #101” in October.

Meanwhile, Pug’s been touring the country, opening for Rhett Miller’s East Coast gigs earlier this month and the BoDeans’ Dec. 26 show at the Barrymore.

He’s also turned an unfortunate twist of fate — a pink slip at the carpentry job — into a music-making opportunity, using his time between shows to prepare material for a new full-length album.

In fact, realizing how many people have been laid off of late, he’s decided to offer free copies of three of his songs on his website, as well as a sampler disc to those who e-mail

“It’s been great getting the word out,” he says. “I hope I can stay laid off for the rest of my life.”

Justin Townes Earle loves George Michael

Though he’s named after outlaw country legend Townes Van Zandt and is the son of the genre’s current torchbearer Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle doesn’t lurk in their shadows. His new album, Midnight at the Movies, a melancholy journey from one corner of the Americana landscape to another, might be the most critically praised album of 2009, earning near-perfect marks from Paste, Mojo and Rolling Stone.

I spoke with him last week as he geared up for Bloodshot Records’ Beer-B-Q. The sold-out show sizzles the High Noon’s stage Aug. 22.

Justin Townes Earle

What are you looking forward to most about the Beer-B-Q?

Getting together with some good folks and catching my breath. I tour so much that I don’t get to see a lot of other Bloodshot artists, so this’ll be a good chance to catch up.

Are you a big barbecue fan offstage?

Not really. I do like barbecue, but I don’t like being behind the barbecue. I know so many people who are better at it than me.

Tell me about the process of making Midnight at the Movies.

It had only been seven months since I released The Good Life, and I had been on tour all year, so we blew through this one like a whirlwind. I played a show the night before we started recording it and had to leave twice during recording to play shows, so it was a huge relief to sit on my ass for a little while.

You’ve been pretty open about having your own fall from grace — a drug habit — when you were younger. How has getting clean shaped your approach to music making?

I was a raging heroin addict for most of my life, but there’s something so personal about it that even as someone who’s admittedly a “personal” songwriter, it’s not for the whole world to know about. I did my best to make sure the process of getting clean didn’t have an impact on my music.

You list the Pogues as an influence. What do you like best about them?

Shane MacGowan is one of the best songwriters around: His use of imagery is fantastic, and I’ve liked If I Should Fall From Grace With God for a really long time.

What’s another musician you consider an influence but that your fans might not expect?

George Michael. His Faith record is one of the best there is, and “Faith” is an amazing rock song.

Matthew Dear is a musical shape-shifter

In the world of electronic music, Matthew Dear is known for making sharp-edged Detroit house and other dance-floor dazzle under three monikers: Audion, False and Jabberjaw.

Yet when Dear records under his real name, anything goes. While his first full-length album, 2003’s Leave Luck to Heaven, revolved around minimalist techno masterpieces, he’s been emphasizing his songwriting skills over his DJing and production talents as of late. Black City, his newest release, ranges from funky, synthy, vocal-driven pop to dark, house-inspired dance-rock. Plus, he performs it with a live band, not a computer.

I recently spoke with Dear about the album, the live show and his curious collection of appellations.

How do you keep your many identities straight?

In the past, having different names and identities was just a way to get music out there. The identity I used was a reflection of what I was feeling that day in the studio. If I was feeling like a weird, minimal techno song, I’d have that come out under an alias. It was a way of organizing the many different types of music flooding out of me at that time.

I think you surprised a lot of fans by starting a band and becoming its front man. Why did you decide to go that direction with your live act?

I didn’t want to go onstage with a laptop and microphone and rehash the synthetics of an album. A live performance deserves more in terms of presentation, so now I have a trumpet player and a synthesizer player. [A band] gives the music more life onstage, and it’s more engaging for me to have to remix and rethink what the songs can be.

What surprised you most about Black City after you finished it?

When I compared it to [2007’s] Asa Breed, I was like, “Wow, this is so much darker and slower. Why did everything get so dark all of a sudden?” I was pretty happy with that, and I think it became darker and slower because I was concentrating a bit more on the nuances than before.

Miguel Gomes’ Tabu

In Tabu, a haunting new film by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, a human-rights activist named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) prays to Anthony of Lisbon, the patron saint of lost items and lost spirits. She’s trying to help her elderly neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), who has just lost all of her money at a casino and seems be losing her mind as well.

The old woman recounts a dream starring a crocodile, some angry monkeys, a train-ticket machine that turns into a slot machine, and someone muttering, “Lucky at gambling, unlucky at love.” This story sounds bonkers, but it turns out to be rooted in reality. The real question involves who – or what – has truly been lost.

Gomes divides Tabu into two main sections, one set in present-day Lisbon and the other in one of Portugal’s African colonies, about 50 years earlier. The former, titled “Paradise Lost,” illustrates Pilar’s banal routine, which involves going to the movies and slogging through dates with a man she doesn’t love. At one point, Pilar’s companion gets so bored that he falls asleep at the cinema, causing her to cry.

“Paradise,” Tabu‘s latter section, brims with danger, beauty and romance. Aurora, then a gorgeous young newlywed (Ana Moreira), hunts big game amid jungle plants and tall savannah grasses. While pregnant, she has a love affair with a handsome adventurer named Ventura (Carloto Cotta). Meanwhile, tensions mount between the colonists and natives, portending what will soon become the Portuguese Colonial War. Aurora sports a fearless, almost masculine personality, which is palpable even though there’s no dialogue in this section.

While the characters are silent, sounds such as pebbles landing in a pool and a Portuguese version of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” give the narrative a dreamlike quality. But, as the elder Aurora notes early in the film, dreams cannot be controlled. They’re inherently risky. They can be playgrounds for guilt, which, in Aurora’s case, stretches far beyond the borders of adultery.

Tabu‘s stunning black-and-white images reference both the silent-film era and the French New Wave movement, and a fairy tale of sorts emerges from the poetic anecdotes present-day Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) shares with Pilar in a cafe flanked by tropical plants and a children’s ride that looks like a crocodile.

But Tabu isn’t just any fairy tale; it’s more of an allegory. This becomes clear in its film-within-a-film prologue, in which an explorer dives into the jaws of a crocodile, despite his culture’s disapproval of suicide, because he can’t bear losing his beloved. Aurora is like the explorer, hunting for riches. She ventures boldly into wild, unknown places but virtually ignores the native people who tend to her needs. And despite her strength, she’s irreparably damaged when her lover vanishes. The crocodile, which appears throughout the film, seems to represent her downfall, or her decision to break a taboo at her own peril. As the prologue’s narrator intimates, the bravest soul can’t escape an aching heart, even if he can stomach a guilty conscience.

A gift from The Giver’s Lois Lowry

“You’re lucky you don’t have braces,” Lois Lowry remarks when I tell her I’m calling from Isthmus. She says the newspaper’s name is a tongue-twister.

We both chuckle. I remember being a metal-mouth when I was 13, about the same age as Jonas, the protagonist of her Newberry-winning young-adult novel The Giver. It’s hard enough to speak eloquently as an adult, without any dental hardware. I’m thankful I’m not one of the kids in the book, who are punished when they misspeak, whether mispronouncing a word or choosing the “wrong” term for what they’re trying to describe.

This problem is especially troublesome for Jonas, who is chosen to become the Receiver in his orderly dystopian community. No one remembers the distant past, except for the person chosen to “contain” all of the pleasures and horrors of history. This person, the Receiver, is the only one who knows of foreign things like color, animals and even snow. He must experience them, and the feelings they generate, all by himself. Not a soul — except for the few others who’ve held the title — has the slightest notion of what he’s going through.

Jonas often wonders how he’d try to describe the memories of the past he’s begun to contain. They’re transmitted through the touch of the outgoing Receiver, who has grown old and weary. To Jonas, this man is known as the Giver. Through this mentor, Jonas receives his first sled ride and his first rays of sunshine.

“What words could you use that would give another the experience of sunshine?” Jonas wonders. Not that he’s allowed to speak of the memories he’s receiving. Or that anyone would understand or believe him. But he can’t help but ponder.

This question is similar to the ones facing Children’s Theater of Madison as it prepares The Giver for the stage. Lowry will visit Madison on Jan. 31, sharing insights on the book’s transition from the page to the stage to the silver screen in a free presentation at the Central Library. She recently traveled to South Africa, where parts of a movie based on the book were being filmed. Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and other Hollywood heavyweights, it’s sure to cause a stir when it debuts in August. So is CTM’s stage production, which hits Overture Center’s Playhouse Feb. 15-23. After all, the story is one of the most controversial in Y.A. literature. Parents have tried to ban the book from the curriculum in school districts across the country, often in response to a scene involving euthanasia.

Still, The Giver is a popular novel among teens and tweens. Ask a group of them what they think of the book’s ending, and you’re bound to spark a debate. It’s open to interpretation, to say the least. It’s also incredibly moving, which should help imprint the story on theatergoers’ minds. That’s just how Lowry wants it to be.

Comfort vs. security

I first experienced Lowry’s writing through her series of Anastasia books, which follow the trials and tribulations of a girl “just trying to grow up.” They’re funny and poignant, and I see hints of them in the film Ghost World, the TV show Daria and the comedy of Aubrey Plaza. Lowry gets awkwardness and the angst that often comes with it. These qualities also apply to Jonas in The Giver, but the story is much more chilling.

At first, Jonas’ community seems like a utopia, but it soon becomes clear that much has been sacrificed to prevent risk and pain. Individual differences are frowned upon, for the most part, and sometimes result in death. Adults apply to receive a marriage partner chosen by the town’s leaders, and approved couples can adopt up to two kids, a boy and a girl, rather than creating them the old-fashioned way. Though families must share their feelings with each other daily, in a setting that resembles a support group, they do not experience intense emotions like love and grief. Not unless they’re the Receiver. Elements of Jonas’ community have an Iron Curtain feel, but by and large, the tale’s themes apply just as much today as when the book was released in 1993.

“Teachers love using the book, mostly in grades 7 and 8,” Lowry notes. “It describes a future time in which people have achieved comfort and security by making terrible compromises. Kids can think about questions like ‘What would you give up in order to have something else that matters to you?’ That’s important, because these are the kids who are going to create our future. They’ll be the politicians and the voters and so much more.”

The theme of control appears in many forms in The Giver. Lowry knows that making her story available for theatrical adaptations means diminishing, even relinquishing, much of her control over the story. Fortunately, she’s satisfied with the adaptation playwright Eric Coble debuted in 2006. It has been performed by children’s theater troupes in Milwaukee, Nashville and several other cities.

“I adapted one of my other books for the stage, which is something I’d never done before. I put in all these stage directions, and the director of the theater had to gently tell me, ‘We have other people who take care of that,'” she says with a laugh. “A play depends not only on the script but the other people who have input, like the director and the set designer. It’s always fascinating to see what they do with the story.”

In other words, Lowry knew to keep her distance when she released The Giver‘s film rights more than 15 years ago. Several big movie studios have expressed interest since then, and Bridges spent years advocating for the story, but nothing materialized until 2012, when Australian director Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Rabbit-Proof Fence) picked up the story and ran with it. Lowry was surprised how many times he and the producers asked for her advice.

“I’ve given my suggestions, and they’ve often taken them and just as often ignored them, as they should,” she says. “I’ve never made or written a movie, and I’m not conversant enough with the changes that are necessary to make The Giver into a film.”

Lowry says one of the biggest adaptation challenges is turning thoughts into actions. She’s likely to discuss this topic at the Jan. 31 event, where she’ll read a portion of the book and then invite actors from the CTM production to read lines from the same scenes in the play.

“This is an introspective book. The dialogue is relatively unimportant, and there’s not a lot of action,” she says. “There need to be visually exciting things to watch, and I would be too locked into what I put in the book. I’ve been excited to see how meticulously directors and designers create the visuals.”

‘The Dude of CTM’

So how will CTM bring Jonas’ thoughts to life on stage? Artistic director Roseann Sheridan says the troupe’s approach centers on “essential experiences” Jonas has in the book.

“The playwright sets up Jonas’ family relationship and the ceremony where Jonas becomes the Receiver and then the experience of going to the Giver for training,” she says. “It’s not embellished with a lot of narration or asides to the audience. It’s more about how the two main actors are reacting visually and emotionally to the events that happen as the story unfolds.”

While CTM hasn’t unveiled the entire cast list, Sheridan knew from the start that she wanted American Players Theatre’s Paul Bentzen to play the Giver.

Though he hadn’t read the book, Bentzen fell in love with the character while reading the script.

“There’s nothing histrionic about the part, and there’s almost a cinematic quality to it,” he says. “Jeff Bridges is playing the role in the movie, so I’m basically the Dude of CTM.”

But the story’s biggest appeal is its humanity, Bentzen says.

“Sometimes you can only appreciate a thing by embracing its opposite, like how it takes pain to know pleasure or death to experience life more fully,” he says. “The overarching theme is love, and how life, love and humanity can be swept away in favor of ideals that turn out not to be so ideal. These are important lessons for everybody.”

Communicating these ideals — and their shortcomings — is one of the production’s steepest hurdles. Jonas realizes his community discourages choices when he discovers color. Though people can no longer experience rainbows, they no longer start wars over racial differences. Sheridan points to a key scene from the book, in which Jonas sees red for the first time, when tossing an apple to a friend.

“You have to figure out how to deal with an apple that’s gray one minute, and then red, and then gray again,” she says. “Sometimes we’re able to do that with an effect like lighting, and other times, we just say, ‘This is Jonas’ story, and everything on stage is seen through his eyes, so how do we get that across?'”

Sheridan and director Patrick Holland discussed adding projected images to the production but ultimately decided on a simpler mode of storytelling. She describes designer Mike Lawler’s set as “a lot of monolithic and dark” elements, with a few familiar objects such as bicycles.

“It has an architecture that suggests the type of future you read about in the book, where there’s not much in the way of colors and defined shapes,” she says. “It’s not decorative, but it’s functional.”

Bentzen is curious to see how the play’s setting differs from the ways young readers have imagined the setting of the book. He and Sheridan are also eager to watch them ask questions about the story’s most difficult and controversial moments.

Fielding such questions has become a way of life for Lowry, who writes letters to readers who assume The Giver‘s depiction of euthanasia is an endorsement of the practice.

“This interpretation has always puzzled me,” she says. “I think of The Giver as a highly moral book. My protagonists always come to my imagination with a name attached, along with a few defining characteristics. It’s almost always a kid who’s introspective and who has great integrity. That’s what I value most in a character, and I also value that in real people. You develop these qualities by reading and thinking through problems, and by imagining what might make the world a better place.”

Press release: Wisconsin Regional Art Program announces winners of more than 40 awards

The Wisconsin Regional Art Program (WRAP) has announced the winners of 42 prestigious awards as part of its juried state exhibition, which runs through Sept. 23 at the Center for the Visual Arts in Wausau. The painting pictured at the top of this story is “Night at Machu Picchu” by Judy Buzzell of Delevan. See the gallery below for photos of nine more award-winning pieces.

WRAP is a University of Wisconsin–Madison program that encourages adults to create visual art, share it with their communities, and connect with fellow nonprofessional artists. Participants show their work at regional exhibitions, where they receive feedback from experts and build their art knowledge at workshops and presentations. Professional artists give state awards to outstanding work from these events. Artists who win these awards may show their work at the state exhibition, where they compete for nearly $5,000 in prize money.

“These awards recognizes artistic excellence and gives nonprofessional artists a statewide audience for their work,” says WRAP Director Liese Pfeifer. “These artists also have their work judged by Margaret LeMay, a nationally renowned artist, consultant, and gallery director, when they exhibit at the state level.”

The state exhibition culminates in a conference that kicks off Friday, September 22, at 6 p.m., with a fundraising gala at the Center for the Visual Arts. The evening’s highlight is Tiny Treasures, an exhibition featuring works that measure 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches. Attendees may purchase these slight delights, with proceeds going to WRAP and the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association (WRAA). Selected artists win cash prizes and see their work reproduced in a calendar. The conference also includes award ceremonies, learning opportunities, and a speech by LeMay.

WRAP began as the Wisconsin Rural Art Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1940. Its first director, painter John Steuart Curry, founded it to foster creativity in rural areas. Now part of UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, WRAP hosts its annual exhibition and conference with WRAA, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to supporting nonprofessional artists.

Digital campaign copy: Five tips for making your grad school application stand out

First-rate graduate programs are competitive, so it’s critical that you make an impression at the admissions office. Here are five ways to separate your app from the pack:

  • 1. Follow instructions: You’d be surprised how many applicants write the essays they want to write, not the ones admissions officers request. Tailor your personal statement and other essays to the questions asked, and prove you know your audience by showing awareness of the school’s mission. Demonstrating interest in the faculty’s research can score you a few brownie points.
  • 2. Show why you’re a great fit: Highlighting how you’re different from other applicants is smart, but illustrating how your unique qualities might benefit others–and further the school’s goals–is smarter. Maybe growing up with a stutter has made you a skilled listener, or perhaps living abroad has instilled an important lesson about cultural differences.
  • 3. Ace entrance tests: Everyone isn’t a stellar test taker, but do everything you can to put your best foot forward, whether it’s hiring a tutor, taking a prep course, or simply getting enough rest before your exams. Strong test scores increase your chance of an acceptance letter, as well as scholarships and fellowships.
  • 4. Screen references: Do your references know you well? Are they prepared to talk up the strengths you’d like admissions officers to remember most? Do they answer questions directly and succinctly, or do they tend to ramble? Ask references if they’d like you to craft a short list of talking points to consider.
  • 5. Review your work: Tempting as it may be, don’t wait until the eleventh hour to file your applications. Reread every piece you intend to submit, and consider having a colleague or mentor give you feedback. Root out awkward sentences and spelling errors, and then polish each app until it shines.

Digital campaign copy: Seven tips for balancing work, family, and grad school

Like it or not, there are only 24 hours in a day. Using them wisely is essential if you’re a grad student with kids and a demanding job. Here are seven ways to make the most of your time:

  • 1. Get organized: Gather school supplies and finalize childcare arrangements well before the semester begins. Less stress means more productivity when school is in session.
  • 2. Schedule smart: Avoid booking work commitments near school commitments. Request a few days off around biggies like exams and dissertation defense days, and ask colleagues for help if school and work deadlines are too close for comfort. Be sure to keep your loved ones in the loop as your calendar evolves.
  • 3. Study strategically: Save time and impress your boss by turning a work project into a school project, whether it’s a social work case study or a website redesign. Use smaller chunks of time (think bus rides and lunch breaks) to read assigned articles and outline short papers.
  • 4. Create a distraction-free study space: Find a quiet nook for hunkering down with your books. Minimize interruptions by placing your phone out of reach and using an app that blocks social media sites for a specified time period.
  • 5. Take care of yourself: Prioritize sleep, no matter how busy you get. You’ll retain more information and think more clearly. Plus, rest helps prevent illness and grouchiness.
  • 6. Lean on loved ones: Ask a spouse, parent, or neighbor to make dinner or watch the kids when you need time to focus — or recharge your batteries. Have your children help, too, even if it’s just sharpening your pencils.
  • 7. Communicate: Connect with classmates to study and vent about school, and find strength in friends by sharing the triumphs and frustrations of your juggling act.

Digital campaign copy: How to choose the right graduate school

An advanced degree can unlock many doors to career advancement, but those doors won’t spring open spontaneously. Choosing the right school matters. Ask these questions when comparing grad programs.

How does your industry regard the school and program?

Rankings are just one piece of the big picture. You need to know if a grad program will increase your value in your industry. Ask colleagues which programs have the most clout in your area of specialty, and research the day-to-day work of professionals in positions you’d like to hold one day. Also find out what alumni are up to. Are they content with their careers? How soon did they find work after graduation?

What’s required of you?

It’s essential to know how much time you’ll spend meeting prerequisites, and which aspects of your program you get to design. For instance, some programs require mastery of a foreign language. Contact an academic adviser for details.

How much will it cost?

What sort of financial aid package can you expect to receive? Are scholarships and fellowships available? Speak with financial aid officers, and determine how much student loan debt you can shoulder safely.

What are the instructors’ credentials, research interests, and teaching styles?

Your teachers should hold advanced degrees from well-regarded institutions, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Have they worked in the field, and do they know how it has grown and changed recently? Do their research interests complement yours? Can you handle their teaching styles? View course syllabi for clues and, if possible, observe some classes.

Will the program expand your professional network?

You’ll have a leg up on job opportunities if you use grad school to grow your professional network. Is there an alumni group with members in cities where you’d like to work? How helpful is the school’s career office?

Digital campaign copy: Five ways an advanced degree can move your career forward

In many industries, an advanced degree is a reliable way to jumpstart your career. That’s because the process of earning the degree is just as important as the degree itself. Here are five career boosters you’re likely to gain along the way:

  • 1. New skills: Concrete skills, such as fluency in a programming language, can beef up your resume. Harder-to-quantify ones, like group facilitation and public speaking, may prepare you for new roles by polishing your professional demeanor.


  • 2. Helpful mentors: There’s no substitute for experience, and mentors typically have it. Even if you’ve been working in your industry for a while, a good mentor can provide useful advice and help you navigate tough situations with aplomb. Mentors who inspire you are worth their weight in gold, whether you’re seeking employment in a difficult market or craving confidence during the interview process.


  • 3. Bigger, better network: Grad school is an ideal place to meet and learn from your industry’s current leaders. It’s also a great venue for finding its next superstars. Even if you don’t nab your dream job immediately, a classmate might race up the career ladder and then want you as a colleague — or business partner — a few years later.


  • 4. More job opportunities: Getting to know professionals at a broader set of organizations can lead to more job offers. So can connecting with more people in decision-making roles. Grad schools host mixers, lectures, and other events that make it easy to exchange ideas — and business cards  — with numerous industry leaders.


  • 5. Enhanced perspective: Taking time to reflect upon your professional experiences can help you strengthen your weaker areas and develop your leadership potential. Dissecting thorny professional issues with others is an excellent teamwork exercise, plus a chance to tone your problem-solving muscles.


Groupon copywriting: Fist of Detroit Apparel

$48 for Detroit-Themed Track Jacket and Long-Sleeved Thermal Shirt from Fist of Detroit Apparel ($96 Value)

Shopping for clothing can be like finding a needle in a haystack: even when you think you’ve found what you’re looking for, you’ve actually only found a really shiny piece of hay. Today’s Groupon tilts the odds of a successful fashion quest in your favor: for $48, you get a track jacket and a long-sleeved thermal shirt from Fist of Detroit Apparel (a $96 value).

Fist of Detroit’s urban apparel celebrates the city’s 8,000-pound sculpture of boxer Joe Louis’s fist and the fighting spirit the piece represents. Today’s Groupon outfits buyers in a unisex La Brea track jacket and a thermal shirt comfier than slippers lined with warm, fuzzy compliments. Available in red, black, or navy, the jacket swathes bodies in 100% combed ring-spun cotton, contrast piping, side-welt pockets, and an easy-to-locate center-front zipper. The garment has been preshrunk and prelaundered, preventing it from sizing down in the dryer or painting rainbows on skivvies in the washing machine. The long-sleeved thermal hugs physiques with a 60/40 cotton-poly blend trimmed with contrast reverse coverstitch on the neck, sleeves, and bottom hem.

With a waffle-weave knit in sun-luring navy or black, the shirt helps lock in heat on cold winter days. A fist graphic with a choice of two statements—the city motto in Latin graffiti or a saucy “This is what we do”—emblazons the front of each jacket and shirt, inspiring wearers to flaunt their Detroit pride and sucker-punch the mayors of rival cities.

Blog post: New app helps students discover UW System campuses that fit them best

Researching colleges is a journey filled with decisions, challenges, and at least a little anxiety. UW Journey, a new smartphone app from UW HELP, aims to make this process as smooth and positive as possible. Designed to show students which UW System campuses are best suited to their needs, it gives them confidence that they will thrive at the school they choose. It’s also a great tool for school counselors working with college-bound students.

The experience begins with questions about the student’s academic and extracurricular interests. Students also indicate the campus size they prefer, the type of community they’d like to live in, the housing options they’re seeking, and whether they want to attend for two years or four. UW Journey then reveals which of the 26 UW System campuses best match these preferences. Students “find their fit” as they compare campus details side by side.

In addition to personalizing the college-search process, UW Journey introduces students to UW System campuses they might not have considered. It helps them determine their next steps as well. Campus-tour information pushes them to visit schools that interest them. A “pay for college” section encourages them to explore the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), make note of financial aid preferred filing dates, and learn about loans, scholarships, and campus employment. There’s even an interactive college-application checklist filled with information about personal statements, school transcripts, ACT and SAT test scores, application fees, and important dates and deadlines.

The UW Journey app can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store or Google Play. However, a smartphone is not required to take advantage of this resource. The UW Journey website offers the same experience on a computer or tablet.

Blog post: Executive MBA grad finds creative solution with charitable foundation

Randy Brandner had a problem. The Merrill Chamber of Commerce had outgrown its office space, and people were looking to him, its president, for answers. Luckily, he found a solution with the help of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Executive MBA program.  His story recently appeared in Project 72, part of the university’s All Ways Forward fundraising campaign.

During his Executive MBA studies, Brandner learned that charitable organizations can receive gifts such as donated property. He knew of a local building that was eligible for donation and would meet the chamber’s needs, so he proposed creating the Merrill Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“Without my UW-Madison experience, I never would have suggested setting up the foundation,” he says.

Before long the foundation came to fruition, and Brandner served as its inaugural president. It has since become a pillar of the Merrill community. In addition to participating in civic beautification programs and local parks initiatives on a regular basis, the organization helped victims of a tornado that struck Lincoln County in 2011.

Brandner says the Executive MBA program also helped him advance his career at Church Mutual Insurance Company, where he serves as vice president of product management. The program was particularly useful in fostering “new awareness related to business and the interconnectivity of business organizations throughout the world,” he says.

Recently named to The Economist’s list of top Executive MBA offerings, the UW-Madison program features internationally recognized faculty and a close-knit community of experienced business professionals eager to enhance their leadership skills. In addition to studying management theories and current issues affecting the business world, students grow their networks at classes that meet every other weekend. Upon graduation nearly 80% of Executive MBA alumni say they’ve received a promotion or grown their own company, and two years later their salaries have increased an average of 71%.

For more information about the Executive MBA program, see here.

Blog post: Best vacation ever—thanks to Continuing Studies Italian classes

When Continuing Studies’ Barbara Nehls-Lowe learned Tagalog, she was living in the Philippines, serving in the Peace Corps. Then she returned to the U.S., where learning a language was much harder. For years she studied Spanish, which is useful for her work with the Wisconsin HIV Outreach Project, but she never found her way. Things changed when she signed up for Continuing Studies language courses.

Nehls-Lowe and several family members wanted to see her daughter Amanda, who lives in Sicily with her husband. When they planned the trip, they had no idea they’d become honorary members of another family, that of Luisa Gregori.

“Amanda’s husband, Oliver, is an attorney in the Navy’s JAG Corps. Since he’s stationed in Sicily for three years, I thought, ‘Now’s the time to learn some Italian. I told my husband, Henry, and we decided to take a class together through Continuing Studies,” she says.

That’s when the couple met Gregori, their teacher. She showed them how to say hello and goodbye, introduce each other, and order wine. She also got them excited about learning more Italian. Nehls-Lowe has taken additional classes since.

“Luisa understands adult learning, and she made her class very fun and comfortable. It was a fabulous experience,” Nehls-Lowe says.

Adult-centered language learning

Sage Goellner knows it can be intimidating to learn a language as an adult. That’s one reason the French professor joined Continuing Studies, where she directs a set of the language programs.

“We strive to make our courses as gracious and convivial as possible, and there’s generally a lot of repetition and humor,” she says. “There are no exams and homework is minimal. Whatever effort students put into the class will be equal to what they get out of it, no matter if they want to travel or simply practice a new skill.”

Semester-long courses for beginners teach skills that can vastly improve an international trip: understanding basic directions, deciphering a weather report, and reserving a hotel room, to name a few. Students also develop cultural competency by reading news, discussing customs, and exploring art, history, and music.

In Italian 1, for example, students get acquainted with Italian coffee culture.

“In cafés, most Italians drink their coffee (always espresso unless you specify otherwise) standing up at the counter (al banco). It can cost a lot more if you have it while seated at a table. Italians also only drink cappuccino in the morning and frown upon drinking milk after a meal. Knowing little things like these can mitigate that ‘fish out of water’ feeling while traveling,” Goellner says.

A different way of life

Class was just the beginning of Nehls-Lowe’s introduction to Italian culture. When she and her husband invited their teacher to dinner, the next leg of the adventure began.

“We took Luisa out to dinner to get to know her better,” Nehls-Lowe recalls. “When she heard we were going to Italy this summer, she said, ‘I’ll be home. You have to stay with me!’”

After convincing the couple her offer was serious, Gregori met up with their group in Tuscany and took them to her family’s home.

“Tuscany was the highlight of our trip: being at Luisa’s house, meeting her parents, being surrounded by all sorts of fruit trees—lemons, limes, nectarines, olives. Spending time with these wonderful people in such a beautiful place enriched our experience of Italy. They have such a different way of life, so peaceful and quiet and connected to the land,” Nehls-Lowe says.

Though Gregori’s parents speak little English, they made the group feel at home among the fruit trees, where the family make their own olive oil and farm-to-table means “See that nectarine tree? Pick some fruit, then enjoy it right here in our backyard.”

Gregori also took the group to several of her favorite Tuscan towns and Cinque Terre, a collection of centuries-old villages on the Italian Riviera.

“We crammed ourselves into a car stuffed with nectarines, prosciutto, cheese, olives, and other treats from Luisa’s family and then drove to Cinque Terre on some very curvy roads with no guardrails,” Nehls-Lowe says. “It was terrifying and beautiful. The cliffs are really steep, and you can see the sea below.”

During their four-day sojourn by the sea, Nehls-Lowe’s younger daughter, Abby, mentioned she had an appointment with a tattoo artist in Milan.

“She told me she was getting a tattoo. I said, ‘I’m in,” without a second thought, even though I had zero tattoos.”

In addition to visiting Tuscany and Cinque Terre, Nehls-Lowe’s group explored Florence and Venice. On the way to Milan, they glimpsed George Clooney’s villa on Lake Como, and when they reached the city, Nehls-Lowe kept her promise. She now has a permanent souvenir on her ankle: an olive-branch tattoo.

To learn more about Continuing Studies’ language programs, see here or contact Goellner at

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings rule a musical revival

Sharon Jones

Belting out such lyrics as “I can’t have my cake and eat it too, so I gonna get up and walk out on you,” funk-soul luminary Sharon Jones sounds like anything but a goody two-shoes. But like many divas before her, she was an angel when she discovered her pipes.

“I was somewhere between 5 and 8 years old when I played an angel at church, an itty-bitty angel with wings and a halo over my head,” she recalls. “One time we did ‘Silent Night,’ and a lady at church said, ‘Ooh-ooh, that little girl can sing.’ That’s where it all began.”

After struggling for recognition for years, Jones traded in the halo for a crown in her late 30s. While doing a set of background vocals for ’70s soul superstar Lee Fields about 13 years ago, she recorded a rap on top of a song called “Switchblade,” which became a favorite among deep-funk DJs in the United Kingdom. Though her voice on the track was slowed down to sound like a man’s, music industry bigwigs found out who she was and she soon found herself opening for Maceo Parker in London.

“So here I am, singing in London, and the next thing you know, someone asks me if I know who the Queen of Funk is,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know, who?’ and they were like, ‘It’s you!’ Turns out a magazine there called Big Daddy had gone and given me the name.”

Jones’ career blossomed after joining forces with The Dap-Kings, the house band for the Daptone Records label. The band’s old-school funk and soul sounds recall James Brown and Otis Redding and are the secret weapon on recent albums by Amy Winehouse and Kanye West.

Meanwhile, with Jones, The Dap-Kings have revamped Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” as a ’60s-style funk jam and brought life to classics such as “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” and “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?” The group’s latest recording, 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights, burrows deep into the tradition of late-’60s soul, especially Motown.

Jones says the soulful U-turn doesn’t make her or the band any less funky; if anything, it makes them more true to their roots — and their musical gifts.

“We’ve made it this far because we stuck with what we believe in, whether it’s James Brown, Tina Turner, Aretha or Otis,” she says. “I’ve always been able to imitate these people, but no one had to teach me how to sing soul. That was all me.”

Digital campaign copy: Five smart strategies for financing your master’s degree

A master’s can boost your earnings in the long term, but what about paying the bills in the short term? Here are five tips for funding your degree:

    • Choose loans wisely: With low interest rates, federal Stafford and Perkins loans are the building blocks of many financial aid packages, but they might not cover all of your expenses. Private loans are a convenient way to fill the gap but have fewer safeguards than federal PLUS loans, which are designed to pay for grad student necessities like housing and books. When loan shopping, compare origination fees and repayment terms as well as interest rates, and consider all of your financial responsibilities. A private loan might make sense for a renter with a lucrative job offer tied to a master’s, but not someone with kids, a mortgage, and a fuzzier picture of post-degree employment.
    • Claim credit: Trim up to $2,000 from your federal tax bill each year you’re in school with the Lifetime Learning Credit. See if you qualify for this credit or the Tuition and Fees Deduction with the Internal Revenue Service’s education app.
    • Scour scholarship databases: Fastweb and Peterson’s have searchable databases brimming with scholarship opportunities for grad students. Increase your chances of success by applying for scholarships tailored to your career path and distinctive aspects of your personal history.


  • Ask your employer to help: Some employers offer tuition assistance or scholarships, but they don’t always advertise them. Ask your human resources department if these perks are available. If the answer is no, show how similar employers use them to recruit and retain top talent.


  • Turn expertise into cash: Have strong Spanish skills or a killer SAT score? Find tutoring jobs online or at a local test-prep center. The hours are flexible, and the work can be lucrative. Subject-matter knowledge may also lead to paid mentoring opportunities, writing gigs, and expert witness appearances.

Sole & DJ Pain 1’s Death Drive

Underground artists have helped smash some of hip-hop’s most pernicious stereotypes, showing how the genre can be intellectual, socially conscious, and even gently seductive. Sole is more of a fighter than a lover, but he wields his belligerence in noble ways, using clever rhymes to call bullshit on the Man.

But what would happen if he joined forces with a more mainstream success, someone who tends to collaborate with the likes of Young Jeezy and 2 Chainz? Something spectacular if that artist happens to be DJ Pain 1, Sole’s partner on Death Drive.

The duo examines the concept of heroism through beats and wordplay, taking aim at idols like Steve Jobs and Sigmund Freud in the process. Sole introduces himself as “too underground for the underground” in the title track, warning listeners not to peg him as a rapping Woody Guthrie. Pain 1 bolsters this statement with blistering guitar licks that loop through the song with palpable aggression.

Sole sees Guthrie as an artist beloved by people whom he just can’t get behind: liberals blinded by privilege. He spends an entire track (“Hey, Liberals”) taking this group to task. Protesting in pretty, peaceful ways doesn’t suit him; Sole needs to express anger and fear, the two emotions that remind him he’s alive.

Political arguments are filtered through a party jam in the excellent “Baghdad Shake,” which combines the heightened emotion of an Occupy rally with the rebellious spirit of a dance club willfully violating a noise ordinance. Here Pain 1 shows off his trap talents, mixing in a juicy bass and highly infectious beats.

It’s unclear what’s more memorable, the urgency of the groove or Sole’s two-pronged attack on mindless EDM and military conquest: “We on the dance floor, but it’s looking like a board game / And the party ain’t over ’til every roof is fucking bombed in.”

A New Wave of Rave

In October 1992, nearly 1,000 music fans were arrested at a rave in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, sparking a controversy about electronic dance music and its purported influence on young people. In those days, DJs spun records imported from Europe as crowds in warehouses danced until sunrise, glow sticks raised.

After the raid, promotional word about raves spread quietly. Flyers led to a hotline number, then a recorded message, then a secret meeting spot, where you’d get a map to a far-flung barn or campsite. The stealth gave the movement a thrilling quality. But as the media hyped the dangers — designer drugs and fire hazards — musical trends changed, sending EDM deep into the underground.

Twenty years later, you can still attend a “rave” in Wisconsin, but it will be easy to find. A promoter will tweet about it, and it will take place at a public venue like the Alliant Energy Center, where on April 13, the electronic artist Bassnectar will crank out party bangers and inventive remixes of tunes by dance-pop darling Ellie Goulding and gypsy punks Gogol Bordello.

Many of the genre’s visual elements are the same as they were in the 1990s, but they’re bigger and brighter, with laser lights, fog and projected images that make mouths gape as thousands of bodies writhe to the rhythms of dubstep, electro house and other varieties of EDM. If you go to the Bassnectar show, look for a crowd writhing ecstatically in a stew of bleeps and bloops, waving their hands amid a miasma of confetti.

Dance till dawn

EDM’s popularity is booming. After performing mash-ups at UW-Madison’s student union five years ago, Girl Talk now fills the Alliant Energy Center’s 6,000-capacity Exhibition Hall. Bassnectar will likely do the same. He played the tiny King Club in 2007 and the Majestic Theatre in 2009.

Some fans who’ve experienced both rave scenes swear they’re similar. Matt Fanale, a local music fan who DJs under the name Eurotic, says a new generation of concertgoers wants to dress in neon and dance till dawn. To him, this is evidence that music trends come in 20-year cycles, and that the motivation to party is the same as it ever was.

“At rock shows, you’re singing and screaming along, but you’re not necessarily dancing,” he says. “With a DJ, you don’t have to watch what’s onstage. You can pay more attention to the other people who are there and feel a real connection to them for a few hours.”

Fanale suspects that the sluggish economy has fueled attendance at live electronic shows. “With the world as depressing as it has been lately, people want to lose themselves with thousands of others. It’s more fun to be happy than angry,” he says.

The paradoxically isolating nature of social media also plays a role, according to DJ Nick Nice, who helped launch the Midwest rave scene in the early 1990s after spinning records at Queen, a Paris club where David Guetta curated the music. “Facebook is such a solitary experience. It’s basic human nature to want to be social, and listening to music with thousands of other people reminds you that you’re not alone, even when the world seems to be falling apart,” he says.

Though these concerts can draw huge crowds and kindle a sense of connection, they can also create rifts. Madison resident Vinnie Toma loves to DJ. He’s built a career around it since 1998. But when he thinks about nuevo-raves, his heart sinks. Though many who attend these shows crave connection, this quest, for some, spirals into escapism.

“In this country, during times of economic downturn, you see the younger generation turn to music that’s a little less thoughtful,” he says. “Kids who are in college right now, or even several years out, there aren’t as many opportunities, and they’ve racked up tons of school debt. It can fuel a lifestyle that’s all about partying and pushing [difficult] emotions away.”

Local DJ Wyatt Agard says these big shows sometimes don’t feel like raves at all. In the early days, raves revolved around ideals like unity and respect. Partygoers hoped to find themselves as they swam through rooms of trance, house and techno — or at least that’s how they remember it.

“A lot of the [current] shows feel like concerts, not parties,” he says. “At raves, not everyone faced forward. There was this cyclical feeling as people moved around the room. Many of the shows now, people face forward, toward a stage, and stay put for hours.”

In other words, people tend to surround themselves with friends rather than explore. That can lend a rock vibe to events, especially at shows that incorporate rock sounds. “The Rusko show at the Orpheum [on Feb. 25] was a lot like a rock concert,” Agard says. “People were moving on beat but not dancing, and if you examine the music theory behind it, dubstep looks a lot like rock, except with electronic instruments.”

EDM goes mainstream

Despite EDM’s popularity, it didn’t gain much mainstream acceptance in the 1990s. Its sounds filtered into the public consciousness from underground. Nowadays, though, its key elements — synths, samples, sequencers — drive songs by Top 40 artists like Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Ke$ha, as Jay-Z raps atop Daft Punk tracks.

Daft Punk’s influence can’t be understated. The French duo, whose songs include “One More Time” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” have transformed disco beats into music that sounds thoroughly modern, and their music can be found in the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy, videogames like Just Dance 3 and nearly every corner of the web. The group played one of their first live performances at a Wisconsin rave in 1994, notes Chris Vrakas, a Milwaukee-based DJ and event coordinator for Chicago-based concert promoter React Presents.

Daft Punk also proved that live EDM could be more than a DJ spinning records or tickling a computer keyboard. The group donned space-ready helmets on their 1997 tour, which spurred other EDM artists to bust out the theatrics. Glitch-hop act Pretty Lights crafts visual spectacles incorporating colorful lights and 3-D images, and Deadmau5 has designed his own whimsical headgear with the help of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

Deadmau5 Performance

Ryan Parks, a local EDM fan who hosts WORT’s “Something Wonderful” on Monday Nights, says Deadmau5’s live show is particularly buzzworthy.

“He blew me away, and I’ve seen hundreds of concerts: Paul Oakenfold, the Chemical Brothers, you name it,” Parks says. “It was a multi-sensory experience, where the visual aspect worked in tandem with the sound. The cube he was sitting in would broadcast these 3-D images on the walls, more and more of them as the night went on. Pretty soon, they were popping up everywhere and reflecting off his mask as they pulsed along with the beat.”

These abstract effects attract various kinds of fans, from music-loving Gen X-ers like Parks to kids barely old enough to drive. The under-30 set tends to dominate, though. According to UW-Madison seniors Azaria Posik and TJ Matzen, who book, blog and promote for Wisconsin Union Directorate’s music committee, EDM’s popularity among college students relates to the scene’s inclusiveness. There’s no need to memorize lyrics or wow others with band trivia, which makes it easy to invite large groups of friends to the show.

“My girlfriend and her roommate, if they hear that an act is good to dance to, they’ll go to the show in a big group,” Matzen says. “The electronic scene is more welcoming and more about letting loose than the indie rock scene.”

Adds Posik: “Word of mouth can be really powerful for these shows. People text their friends, who text their friends, and then party buses are showing up at the Bassnectar show.”

Recession-friendly jams

DJ and promoter Agard says live EDM’s popularity stems from booking decisions clubs made to weather the recession. “The downfall of the economy made it expensive to book bands, so clubs started booking more DJs because DJs have a higher draw per dollar spent,” he says.

Some club owners got acquainted with EDM artists at festivals like Bonnaroo and 10,000 Lakes. “Artists like Bassnectar performed at these festivals back in 2005 or 2006, but they weren’t headlining then,” Agard explains. “They were playing the afterparties, which is how a lot of promoters got hooked on them — and trends like dubstep.”

Take Majestic Theatre co-owner Matt Gerding. Despite being a rock enthusiast, he couldn’t help but notice that Deadmau5 and Bassnectar were climbing the ranks at Lollapalooza.

Now Gerding books many of the area’s big EDM shows, including 18-and-up performances at the Orpheum and the Alliant. Riding the EDM wave has been exciting, he says, because it’s uncharted territory for the Majestic team. Booking the shows has meant making some potentially costly decisions about bumping acts like Deadmau5 and Bassnectar to the Alliant.

“Moving a show to a larger venue, that’s a decision made mostly by the artist’s agent, manager or record label, when tickets are moving at a speedy clip,” he says.

The risk has paid off, and several EDM artists now visit Madison twice a year rather than once. This is good news for venue owners, but it can mean slow nights for local performers who draw some of the same crowd.

Still, fans miss out when they trade local events for the lasers and costumes of touring acts, according to local DJ Josh Landowski, a.k.a. Landology. It is, he notes, impossible for an artist to tailor a set to a crowd of thousands. “At somewhere like the Alliant, you know your set ahead of time,” he says. “You’re feeding off the crowd’s energy, but it’s more about you than them. You almost have to be over-the-top, so people will pay to see you again.”

So fans seeking to lose themselves in a sea of revelers can go to one of the giant arena dance parties. But they should hit up a local event for some personal attention. If you’re a DJ playing a club or restaurant around town, says Landowski, “you focus on even the smallest reactions from the crowd.”

Alash and the art of Tuvan throat singing

Tuva is a Siberian republic surrounded by two majestic mountain ranges and peppered with tiny deserts, lush valleys, and more than 9,000 rivers. Population-wise, it’s about the size of Iceland and shares a similar history of being isolated from much of the world for thousands of years due to its location and chilly temperatures. Music-wise, it’s one of the most amazing places you’re likely to discover.

Much like the home of Björk and Sigur Rós, Tuva is immersed in a musical tradition that’s deeper than its permafrost. This tradition revolves around throat singing, an art form in which multiple voices seem to spring from one vocalist thanks to the magic of harmonics and overtones.

Scientifically speaking, a singer can amplify different parts of a sound wave by changing the shape of various cavities of the mouth, voice box, and throat, allowing sounds that are subdued in most vocal performances to take center-stage. The result is a sound that’s been described as a “one-man quartet” and even a “bullfrog swallowing a whistle,” as the 1999 documentary film Genghis Blues puts it.

The Alash ensemble, a quartet composed of Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, Ayan Shirizhik, and Nachyn Choodu — four twenty-somethings trained in this ancient art by their parents, grandparents, and a healthy dose of intuition — serves as Tuva’s musical ambassador to the United States.


“Things like Jimi Hendrix and the [Sun Ra] Arkestra are slowly but surely having an effect on our music; it’s not so much about directly mixing these artists’ sounds with throat singing but how it affects the way their music feels.”

Over the past three years, the group has performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra, recorded a Christmas album (Jingle All The Way) with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and introduced numerous students to a style of music that sounds like a mix between Tom Waits and a flock of swallows.

The band’s flagship song, “Alash,” with its bouncy melody, could be a tune from the Appalachian Mountains or the hills of Ireland. At other times, the group’s sound is more abstract, reminiscent of distant trains, or the yip-yipping martians from Sesame Street.

The music inspires comparisons to nature and the great beyond. Alash is named after one of the most majestic rivers in Tuva, symbolizing the band’s connection to the water from which its ancestors drank thousands of years ago. And just like the movement of water from clouds to streams to lips and back again, Tuvan songs pass from the spirits of nature to the souls of humans, released back into nature via the lips of throat singers.

Though many of Alash’s melodies have cycled through Tuva for centuries, the way the group presents them to the cosmos is very new.

“Things like Jimi Hendrix and the [Sun Ra] Arkestra are slowly but surely having an effect on our music; it’s not so much about directly mixing these artists’ sounds with throat singing, but how it affects the way their music feels,” the band says, via manager and translator Sean Quirk. “We have a new song about reindeer herding. Even though the piece focuses on this practice that’s very much about Tuva, you can sense these other influences if you’re listening closely.”

This is a huge breakthrough for a musical tradition that still considers stringed and woodwind instruments new additions. These instruments include the igil, a two-stringed instrument that’s played like a cello; the doshpuluur, a three-stringed instrument that’s plucked or strummed like a banjo; the byzaanchy, which has four strings that represent the udders of a cow and are “milked” to create a sound; the chadagan, which resembles a zither or a koto; a jaw harp known as a xomus; the murgu and limpi, two types of flutes; and a large drum called a kengirge, which often comes with a set of reindeer bells.

Alash uses all of these instruments and a few others to create a sound that’s lush and layered, with rhythms that duel one moment and collaborate the next. And unlike most bands, Alash will even teach you how to play the instruments — as well as how to build a yurt and cook up some Tuvan snacks — at its concerts, if you have the time and the money. It’s all part of an effort to welcome people from other cultures — especially Americans — into the fold.

“The touring is all about creating a good impression of Tuva and conveying something about the lives of people who live there,” Quirk says, “and maybe attracting a few visitors. Tuva loves guests.”

It’s also a way of bringing bits of the West back to Tuva, which still shows relatively few signs of capitalism. Though many Tuvans descended from nomadic tribes, they are not immune to pangs of homesickness.

When traveling the roads of Texas and Oklahoma, the lonesome cowboy is one American figure Alash can relate to, but not for his cigarettes. It’s because he also feels incomplete without his trusty steed. To keep spirits high, the band adopted a wrangler look — ten-gallon hats and all — when traveling through Texas, stopping in Fort Worth to ride a mechanical bull and visit some friends with a horse ranch.

“Like many people from Tuva, they feel most at home when riding their horses,” Quirk says.

Randomness Unites in Cage and Cunningham

Composer John Cage, the man responsible for the world’s first song that consisted entirely of a man sitting idly in front of a piano, adored randomness in its many forms. So did choreographer Merce Cunningham, one of Cage’s most important collaborators and his longtime boyfriend. Though both men were pioneers of avant-garde art and teachers at the super-experimental Black Mountain College (also the home of artists Josef and Anni Albers, Willem De Kooning, and Robert Motherwell), neither focused on visual art. It’s their shared love of randomness that unites the visual works the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art has assembled in Cage And Cunningham: Chance, Time, And Concept In The Visual Arts, on display through May 9.

A lack of structure and formality becomes the show’s common thread, forging connections among pieces from the Bauhaus school, the conceptual art movement, and the ’60s “happenings” of the New York City counterculture. It’s not always clear how exactly the works should be associated with Cage or Cunningham (with some exceptions); perhaps the show’s curator wanted it that way.

Sol LeWitt’s 1991 etching “Vertical Not Straight Lines Not Touching On Color” consists—surprise, surprise—of a smattering of white vertical lines, some more squiggly than straight, on a black rectangle of background. Each line is pencil-thin and hairlike, and several of them veer so close to one another that they appear to touch, despite what the museum’s notes about the piece say. As the title suggests, this piece is more about absence than presence. LeWitt’s idea becomes more important than the execution of his idea, illustrating what conceptual art is about.

Cage And Cunninghan also offers a roadmap for understanding how things such as noise and found sounds have become the musical staples they are today. Two pieces by George Maciunas show how the multimedia Fluxus movement of the ’60s, a precursor to the modern noise-music craze, among other things, used games and chance to create a new set of rules for art and music. “Single Card Flux Deck” displays a deck of 52 cards, all of which are spades. Three sets of four tens are turned up, as if to illustrate a winning hand in a game from another culture—or another dimension. It’s as simple as it is mind-boggling.

“Fluxshop Sheet,” on the other hand, is both a game and an advertisement for one. A poster made of black ink on old, yellowing paper that gives it an old-timey feel, like a wanted poster in a saloon, it contains two blocks of text, one horizontal and the other vertical, that spell out a manifesto (or something like one) for such Fluxus artists as Yoko Ono, Ay-O and George Brecht. It spouts activist terms like “nonprofit” and “nonparasitic” while an old-timey cartoon character entices viewers with “games, gags, jokes, kits.” Sixteen faces at the bottom of the piece hold letters on their tongues (or perhaps their chins) that spell “flux orchestra.” It’s yet another example of how Cage and his followers blurred the lines that separate literature, visual art, and music.

“Weather-ed II,” a color photoetching by Cage himself, ventures into the territory of meteorology. With abstract lines rendered in grays, blues and purples, he doesn’t examine the raindrops and lightning but the randomness of weather patterns, from the way they take shape to the way we interpret them. These lines are framed by two boxes that function as windows for watching one storm happen and another one brew. At the same time, they’re a bit like music players as well, with Cage’s lines forming shapes that look suspiciously similar to sound waves. Perhaps this is a chance resemblance, but if so, it’s one he would probably have appreciated.

Merch mania

It was one of the coldest nights of winter 2009, but the Wisco was sweltering with rock ‘n’ roll. The Goodnight Loving were in from Milwaukee, Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & the Pons were in top form, and the Midwest Beat’s Matt Joyce did a scorching solo set. The only band I’d missed was the Hussy. I’d caught the tail end of their set on three different occasions and was hoping this night would be different.

Shane Shane merch by Jessica Steinhoff

Frustrated, I stomped down the steps, ready to kick the nearest snow bank. That’s when I saw it: a Hussy T-shirt, just my size, drenched in sweat. I almost needed an ice pick to remove it from the sidewalk, but after that, the shirt became my most treasured item of clothing. I wrote in it. I slept in it. I lent it to my friends. The shirt made people laugh, and it started conversations. It got me talking, too, no small feat for someone prone to shyness. Plus, it reminded me to catch the Hussy’s next show — and buy another one of their shirts.

For local musicians, merchandise works magic. Not only does it help fans find one another and show off their taste, it allows Madison bands to take their shows on the road. For groups like All Tiny Creatures and the Pons, merch has funded trips to South by Southwest. For others, it has funded recording time in Seattle and tours of Europe.

Kurt Baker, the Madison native who fronts the Portland, Maine, pop-punk band the Leftovers, says that merch — as it’s universally called — means food, fuel and other necessities to get from one town to the next.

“A lot of bands getting out on the road for the first few times don’t get a door deal or much money from the clubs they’re playing,” he explains. “This is especially true for unsigned bands and those on smaller indie labels. They depend on people buying their merch to pay for gas money, food and motel rooms.”

But that’s just the beginning. More and more bands, it seems, are financing their careers with merch rather than mp3s. Irving Azoff, the artist-management magnate who represents Jimmy Buffett and Neil Diamond, explained in a recent New Yorker article that merch sales and third-party sponsorship have virtually replaced record sales in the music industry’s moneymaking model.

This shift has benefited bands such as Massachusetts’ Dropkick Murphys, who reportedly make more from merchandise than recordings. Mike Krol, who drums for Whatfor and Time Since Western and until recently worked for the Madison-based design firm Planet Propaganda, says he’s figured out the secret. He did it by observing one of his best friends, the Murphys’ merch buyer.

“I hung out with him when the Murphys played the Majestic last year, and he literally set up a shopping mall for a merch table,” Krol says. “He does an amazing job with getting the most random merch items: golf balls, bottle openers, Trapper Keepers, key chains, beer koozies, baby bibs, grocery bags.”

Another Madison-bred band Krol sometimes drums for, Sleeping in the Aviary, have adopted an even wackier approach. They’ve been known to peddle clippings of their hair in Ziploc bags and thrift-store coffee mugs decorated with their faces. Krol’s favorite was a huge pair of pink, one-piece pajamas.

Other local groups are upping the ante for creativity and craziness. Masked surf-rockers Knuckel Drager have been making merch awesomeness for years. Darwin Sampson, owner of the Frequency and bassist for Helliphant and Ladybeard, says he’s proud to own one the band’s signature action figures — or fingers, as the case may be. “[It’s] the ‘El Diablo Action Figure,’ which is merely a plastic hand flipping the bird,” he says.

Then there’s the gumball dispenser Knuckel Drager’s Matt Villand unveiled at last month’s Melt-Banana show. “It gave out random objects like vampire teeth and plastic rings,” recalls Knuckel Drager bassist Bill Borowski, who helped open the show with his other band, United Sons of Toil.

More creations by Villand and his bandmates are available through the Black Cat Printing Company, which creates merch items like posters, T-shirts and, yes, gumball machines for other musicians.

Other designers from the area are also using band merch to show off their creative powers. Krol has made baseball jerseys for Icarus Himself, while artists from the recently shuttered art collective Firecracker Studios made hundreds of gig posters over the course of five years. In September, the Project Lodge even hosted an art show of posters custom-made for the Forward Music Festival, submitted by designers from here to Philadelphia.

While a designer can spruce up a band’s merch offerings, lots of bands without design pros are trying their hand at creating stuff, too.

For Shane O’Neill of the Pons, his electro-meets-comedy venture Shane Shane doubles as an outlet for his craft projects. He even runs an Etsy store when he’s not working on lyrics and dance moves.

At Shane Shane shows, O’Neill dresses up as a giant soft-serve cone, then heads to his merch table to distribute free, ice-cream-themed buttons and stickers. This gets people interested in buying his T-shirts, and it gets them talking about the show.

“I treat stickers, CDs, patches and buttons as promotional materials and only charge money for shirts,” he says. “It’s nice to poor people, and I’m hoping it provides free advertising.”

Even venues are getting involved. At the Frequency, a slew of gig posters, most for local bands, covers the stage room from floor to ceiling. Band stickers, ticket stubs and guitar picks adorn the bar.

Sampson says these decorations have provided an instant conversation piece for customers and have given his staff and bandmates a chance to reminisce. Plus, when bands play there, they have a way to leave their mark.

Near the Frequency’s jukebox and Arkanoid machine are glass cases filled with all sorts of kitschy oddities: a can of “meat” sold by the band Human Aftertaste, an autographed photo of Britney Spears a Frequency employee found during Hippie Christmas, a Mozart action figure and much more. These items pay tribute to Madison showgoers’ merch-buying obsessions while mocking them with a smile and a wink.

For fans, there’s fun to be had in building their own shrines of merch. The process breaks down the wall between performer and audience, especially when a merch-table visit leads to a conversation.

Think of a purchase as a way of thanking a band for rocking, says Jake Shut of the local Crustacean music label.

“When a band that was not on my radar leaves my jaw on the ground with an incredible set, I feel the need to buy some merch from them out of gratitude,” he explains. “And when a band like this can give me an experience that’s a vivid reminder of why I’m so obsessed with music, they deserve some more of my money, sort of akin to getting exceptional service at a restaurant and leaving a fatter tip as a result.”

On the flip side, merch tables are a place for musicians to thank fans for coming out to the show. For Jess Northup of Gold and Shooter Grey Suede, two Chicago bands that play Madison regularly, merch tables have taken the form of a bake sale, with brownies and coffee from bandmate Mike McSherry’s bean-roasting business.

There’s an added benefit as well: The more enticing the merch table, the less isolated the band feels, especially if it’s far from home.

“On tour, Gold will put anything on the merch table that seems remotely interesting, like sunglasses from gas stations,” he says. “We also have a fake fur we use as a backdrop. It encourages people to come over and hang out. Touring gets lonely, after all.”

While the fur and snacks give Gold’s table a twisted Cub Scout vibe, Shane O’Neill says his merch peddling is more like going on a date. “You want to treat someone buying your merch as you would someone buying you a drink,” he says. “They’re also buying your time, so be nice to them and make small talk.”

The Leftovers’ Kurt Baker even suggests that bands bring cameras to their merch tables to keep the conversation going after the show’s over.

“Take a picture with your new fans buying your stuff, then post it online and make them feel special,” he says. “It’s all about connecting with people at the shows and being on a personal level with the audience.”

zebras merch by jessica steinhoff

Dressing up the merch is key. Local bands like Zebras and Underculture have used Christmas lights to add flash to their T-shirts and recordings, even in the middle of summer.

Underculture drummer/vocalist Nate Onsrud says the lights aren’t about holiday cheer. They’re about drawing people’s eyes across a crowded room and into a suitcase packed with their newest offerings.

Meanwhile, All Tiny Creatures offer this tip for bands in the merchandising business: Go minimal. “A great merch table isn’t crowded, and everything is clearly labeled,” says Andrew Fitzpatrick, the band’s guitarist.

The right attitude is probably the most important thing, says multi-instrumentalist Thomas Wincek, who’s also a member of Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees.

“In the best-case scenario, merchandise can be used to further a connection people may have with a band. In the worst case, it’s used to cash in on an image and seen as almost more important than the experience of the music,” he argues.

No matter what, merch can help musicians express their sense of humor, which helps them with the all-important human touch.

“Why should corporations, banks and dentists have all the fun?” asks Whatfor drummer Mike Krol. “Why can’t a band have their logo on a pencil sharpener?”

Imagination Installation

It’s easy to equate the term “paper arts” with grade-school crafts such as paper dolls and papier-mâché piñatas. Thankfully, Aries Tjhin’s new exhibition at the Project Lodge, on display through Feb. 20, is designed to put these images through the shredder, both literally and figuratively.

Tjhin, a 2008 graduate of UW-Madison’s printmaking MFA program and a member of the Milwaukee-based White Whale Collective, carves miniature murals out of paper and cardboard. The process is a meticulous one that involves a steady kitchen table and some impressive skill with an X-Acto knife. From afar, many of the pieces resemble collages of paper doilies and snowflakes, but up close the dark truth comes out: They’re hacked-apart pieces of fairy tales and children’s storybooks, deconstructed, rearranged, and butched up with spray paint.

“The show is about stories—and different kinds of stories—especially stories I’ve read throughout childhood and that flash through my head at these really random times,” says Tjhin. “The way the pieces are made forces you to look at the stories in detail and study the nuances of how they’re made.”

The centerpiece of the installation—a long, horizontal piece called “Hieroglyphics”—fills the gallery’s west wall with glimpses of African folk tales. Familiar figures such as jungle monkeys and a guy who just might be Anansi The Trickster peek out from from a lattice of carved leaves and feathers, vanish into a haze of geometric abstraction, then re-appear in different forms throughout the piece. Some areas of the composition are made entirely of black paper, while others incorporate layers of cardboard and paint, suggesting the many voices and layers that go into the telling and retelling of a story.

Across the room, a piece titled “Door” acts as a portal to an imaginary landscape of horses, clouds, and ninja-like figures that are strung together with a vine straight out of Jack And The Beanstalk. A more abstract piece called “Untitled Yellow” seems like the introduction to a storytelling session—the kind that begins with the incantation “It was a dark and stormy night.” A sky of precisely carved shapes, dusted with tiny yellow paint drops, seems to be breaking apart on a misty evening. Whether it’s a hopeful or ominous story is up for debate: The clouds and stars have been sliced apart and collaged, as if the world is taking a new shape—or history is caving in on itself.


Union Cab Is Driven to Create

Jazz is playing, the sky is dark, and a bright yellow taxi pulls up outside Parthenon Gyros on State Street. “Y’know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is that we just need a good, hard rain to wash the scum off the streets,” says the man behind the wheel.

It’s not the beginning of Taxi Driver. The man uttering those words isn’t Robert De Niro. He’s Fred Schepartz, local writer by day and driver with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative by night. And the scene is from “You Talkin’ to Me?” — Commie Taxi Drivers in Wisconsin, a DVD extra for Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story.

While Commie Taxi Drivers sprang from Moore’s imagination, there’s plenty of creativity inside those yellow cabs. Schepartz is a great example. When he’s not writing books, such as his 2007 novel Vampire Cabbie, he’s taking photographs and editing Mobius, a journal dedicated to literature, poetry and social change.

Without Union, this trifecta of creative output might not be possible. It’s hard to survive as a novelist if you’ve never published a book, and this was Schepartz’s situation for two decades. To pay the rent after college, Schepartz tried secretarial work and furniture sales, only to find himself with a pink slip — not a book deal — a few years later.

Then he heard about Union, a local, worker-owned cooperative brimming with artists, musicians and writers. Twenty-two years and several novels later, he’s still driving for Union. Like many fellow drivers, he’s discovered that you don’t need an MFA degree to make art, and that creativity and cab driving go hand in hand.

Of course, this combination doesn’t work for everyone. Cab driving in Madison requires a high tolerance for drunk people and the ability to stay cool when other drivers are texting and tailgating on the Beltline.

Plus, not every cab company offers a structure or vision like Union’s. Its mission statement includes a commitment to paying workers a living wage, whether they drive cabs, crunch numbers or clean toilets. For drivers, pay is based on a commission that’s a percentage of customer fees. The more hours drivers log, the bigger cut they get.

“Over the last 30 years or so, median wages for most working Americans have dropped, but the way Union Cab is set up, your real wage actually increases. And this helps the artistic life if you don’t have to work 60, 80 or 100 hours a week just to eke out a living,” Schepartz says. “And when you leave your shift, you don’t take your work home with you. To make art, you need a lot of time to think.”

Culture club

For Union Cab drivers, contemplation can even happen on the job, while waiting at an airport or a stoplight. For Mark Adkins, leader of Subvocal, a psych-folk band formed at Union Cab, an epiphany at the corner of State and Gilman streets led to one of his most memorable songs, “11303.”

“I saw this student walking by who was very pretty, except her nose was missing. I wondered how she dealt with her lot in life, and I began thinking about how people wear these different masks,” he recalls. “I came up with the song’s first line, ‘I see nothing but sorrow walking down the street,’ and I realized I was writing down feelings about my brother, who’d recently committed suicide. It was a real turning point.”

The album containing “11303,” Nikkis Room, was a turning point as well, winning Subvocal the 2005 Madison Area Music Award for best CD.

Good pay and ample downtime aren’t the only reasons creative people flock to Union. The co-op takes pride in its nontraditional philosophy about work. As a result, its culture isn’t typical.

“People are exactly who they say they are there, and it’s a very comfortable place to work because you don’t have to worry about what other people think,” says Jai Ingersoll, Union alum and vocalist for local goth-tronica group Sensuous Enemy. “I have tattoos and piercings and red hair, but it didn’t matter there. A lot of other places it would.”

Plus, if you talk to Union drivers at length, you’re likely to hear them refer to fellow worker-owners as family, not coworkers. As Adkins puts it, “We’re all writers and musicians and politicos, rebels and radicals and misfits. But even those of us with crappy attitudes will still get out of the car to fix your flat on a snowy day.”

This isn’t because Union workers are more compassionate than others; it’s a function of an environment that eschews competition and promotes empowerment, Adkins says. This type of atmosphere can also help talented people truly pursue their gifts, whether it’s music, metalworking or mime.

John McNamara, the co-op’s marketing manager, says a humane work environment simply encourages people to do their very best, whether it’s in the office, in a cab or at their after-work pursuits.

“We want people to like coming to work, not feel chewed up and spit out, which is the case at many companies. And because of the camaraderie that exists here, there’s a natural tendency to share and collaborate,” he says. “We work on teams and solve problems together. There’s not a lot of selfishness here, and that way of doing things spills over into other parts of people’s lives.”

McNamara credits much of this outlook to the zeitgeist of the 1970s, when Madison flexed its creative muscles in unprecedented ways. “People were really questioning the status quo and coming up with positive ways of changing the world,” he says. “The Union Cab people were part of this, along with WORT, the Willy Street Co-op, the Mifflin Street Co-op and Commonwealth Development.”

Problems plaguing the cab industry were troubling for drivers and consumers alike, he adds.

“Everything was being done on the cheap back then. Vehicles were unsafe, and drivers were very poorly paid. That translated into poor morale and poor customer service.” And that’s one thing Union’s founders set out to change.

Creative folks soon caught wind of the co-op’s flexible schedules, which could easily accommodate a band’s cross-country tour or a two-month writing sabbatical, and began to fill the Union’s ranks. Pretty soon, Butch Vig, who would go on to found Smart Studios and the band Garbage, was driving a Union cab. So was Michael Feldman, who now hosts the comedy and quiz show Whad’Ya Know?, which is heard on public radio stations across the country. Local author and historian Stu Levitan and Latin-jazz icon Tony Castañeda followed, along with many others.

Feldman, who drove for Union from 1981 to 1983, after quitting his first radio show, says unemployment led him to the co-op, along with its reputation for hiring creative individuals.

“They were hiring people like actor cab drivers and writer cab drivers, and they took me because I was a minor celebrity. They thought it would be good for business, but I was a terrible cab driver.”

Though Feldman doubted his cabbie skills, the gig led to something useful: a new public radio show. “We taped radio bits in the cabs and called it The Dispatcher,” he says. As a dispatcher wrangled cabs, “I’d be trying to break in with a question, like ‘What caused the extinction of the dinosaurs?’ We’d tape that and put it on the air.”

Rearview visionaries

Since Union has more than 200 employees, chances are good that an artsy new hire will already know a few other workers from gallery night or the local concert scene. Once these folks find each other, collaboration ensues.

Take longtime cabbie Kelly Burns Gray. A visual artist, she made sure a new CD of music by Union employees past and present came to be. Some of this do-good spirit stems from her personality, but another motivation is thanking Castañeda, who mentored her on some of her first drives.

“One of the things he trained me on was how to hold a coffee cup between my legs and use my lap as a plate. That experience sealed the deal,” she recalls.

Gray had watched Adkins put together Rearview Visionaries, a disc of Union cabbies’ original music, in 2002, so she knew the project could be done if she connected with the right people. With songs by Model Citizen, Wayside, Subvocal and others, the album’s still talked about among cabbies, and many seemed eager to create a follow-up. According to Steve Pingry, cellist for Subvocal and the Getaway Drivers, the original idea was to create a Rearview Visionaries boxed set, so a second CD would mean that the project was two-thirds complete.

After soliciting submissions on Facebook and through the grapevine, Gray got in touch with local musician and fellow cabbie Lonnie Wild, who paid for duplication of the new CD. Meanwhile, Smart Studios’ Mike Zirkel volunteered to master it. The final product debuted in January, featuring tracks by Sensuous Enemy, the Stellanovas, the Getaway Drivers, Castañeda and many others. In addition to spinning in many cabbies’ cars, it won a Madison Area Music Award this spring.

Union Cab Art Show

Meanwhile, Kristin Forde, a visual artist, theater person and Union cabbie of six years, has been organizing art shows with a purpose similar to the CDs’: to highlight the co-op’s creative talent. The first show, featuring political posters, photography, blown-glass mixed-media pieces and more by 10 Union Cab artists, took place last summer at the Gallery at Yahara Bay Distillery. Another will take place at the gallery July 29 through Sept. 24 of this year, with an opening reception July 30.

Forde, a former middle school teacher, credits cab driving for sparking a personal artistic awakening, so organizing a show is the least she can do to give back.

“Cab driving has opened up my creative life tremendously,” she says. “There’s something about being in constant motion, with the scenery always changing, that’s important to the photographs I take.”

And this sense of moving forward, making progress toward destinations physical, political, psychological and spiritual, is crucial to what Union stands for. It’s only natural that cabbies show off the values they’ve taught and learned at the co-op.

“The co-op model attracts people who are interested in an alternative way of life, one that’s very participatory and has a strong creative element,” Forde says. “Those of us who work at Union own it, too, so it’s up to us to make sure it remains this unique place that nurtures things the greater society doesn’t always value: individuality, creative expression and, of course, union.”

Lewis Koch: Touchless Automatic Wonder

Pieces of text often come disguised as debris–candy wrappers, discarded receipts, fading patches of graffiti–but they’re still saying something. It’s just a question of what. For photographer Lewis Koch (who speaks this Saturday afternoon at Rainbow Bookstore Co-Op), these letters, numbers, and symbols spell out poems. They might not form tidy stanzas or couplets, and they might not rhyme, but they share the spirit of Surrealism that has fascinated poets such as John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg and free-jazz musicians like Sun Ra. They speak to us in a language that’s alien to our sense of reason, but familiar to our emotions and even our memories.


Koch’s new book, Touchless Automatic Wonder, a collection of what he calls “found text photographs from the real world,” creates a poem that’s both miniature and epic. Though these images contain just a handful of words, they say a lot and ask even more. They also represent nearly three decades of observation and creation by the Madison-based artist, whose work has made its way into the permanent collections of the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and appeared in exhibitions in New York, London, Seoul, and beyond.

The book begins with a black-and-white print of a window, viewed from the inside of a building. Plastered on the glass is the word “yes,” which appears to float above the street outside. A few pages later is a long-division problem, spelled out in sticks–or pretzel sticks, perhaps–on a table peppered with napkins and coffee cups. Other words and letters pop up like guests at a surprise party: The word “dream” (emblazoned on some large, decaying object) hides behind a chalkboard of children’s drawings; a broken record surfaces in a field, among the unruly leaves and flowers. A painting of a lady revealing her garter points at the word “almost,” while a television with a man waving his finger reminds everyone to “wear suspenders,” as if neglecting to do so is a very serious transgression. Meanwhile, a deserted car lot sprouts four signs from its cracked concrete, all of which say “OK,” even though business clearly isn’t booming.

What’s most fascinating about these photos, however, is that they’ll likely mean something different to each person who sees them, dredging up a unique combination of memories and associations. In the introduction to the book, Koch says it’s the images’ fragmented nature that creates a “sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental account of one’s life.” But rather than reading them like a novel, they can be read like a diary, a riddle, or even a dream.

Korralreven: An Album by Korralreven

album cover

If the debut LP by Swedish dream-pop duo Korralreven were a dessert, it would be a molecular gastronomist’s version of cotton candy: flash-frozen wisps of spun sugar. The album is the kind of crisp confection that conjures a sense of comfort. Part of the magic stems from the place that inspired it: Samoa, the tropical getaway where Korralreven’s Marcus Joons had a spiritual awakening. An Album is the soundtrack to his epiphany, not just an invitation to chill out.

Guest singer Victoria Bergsman sets the stage with album opener “As Young as Yesterday,” which teems with whispered vocals. The sonic breeze of “Sa Sa Samoa” incorporates joyful noise from an island choir and rattles an assortment of percussion instruments. Throughout the album, the band basks in the power of musical hypnotism, nodding to transcendent 1980s tracks like Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” on “The Truest Faith.” There are also hints of the early 1990s’ ambient scene in the mesmerizing electronic waves of “A Surf on Endorphins.”

Carolina Chocolate Drops give new life to old-time string music

Carolina Chocolate Drops knows a thing or two about blending in. On the cover of the trio’s 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, Rhiannon Giddens makes camouflage out of a bright-red dress. Draped on the sofa like a blanket, she matches her surroundings (a red velvet curtain and Oriental rug) so well that she almost disappears. That’s no small feat.

Maybe she’s remembering the old days of the band’s home base of Durham, North Carolina, where until the ’60s, black faces occupied the backs of buses and the margins of their local community, even though they’d created a thriving center of industry, culture, and especially music.

Or maybe she’s channeling the spirit of writer Mary Mebane, who likened her 1930s Durham childhood to an elaborate game of dress-up. Mebane described this Durham as a place where “black skin was to be disguised at all costs” and where those with the darkest faces drowned their insecurities in makeup and whiskey.

Though Appalachian tunes have become the music of all Americans, there’s another truth lurking in the shadows: the story behind the music has been whitewashed.

So perhaps standing out is an even larger feat for Giddens and her bandmates, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. They can’t help it, given their musical chops, but they don’t just accept it. They embrace it. And they get their gusto from the ghosts of North Carolina’s past, the black folks who pioneered much of the Appalachian music that launched the careers of white guys like Bela Fleck, the New Lost Ramblers, and the Avett Brothers.

Surprisingly, it was Fleck and the Ramblers who helped Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson find one another at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC. The three expected to learn about the instrument’s African and African-American roots, not come away with a globetrotting ensemble and a record deal.

The timing must have been just right. Fleck had recently returned from an African tour, and Mike Seeger of the Ramblers had left New York for a southern sojourn. Flemons traveled all the way from Phoenix just to learn from them. But it was an 86-year-old fiddler named Joe Thompson who sealed the deal, transforming three wandering souls into a tight-knit ensemble.

Now 91, Thompson is thought to be the last living performer from the golden age of Piedmont string bands. In the early 20th Century, he and his family were playing socials and square dances for black and white families alike. At the time, it was one of the rare instances where the racial divide softened, if only for a few hours.

Many people are familiar with the white fiddle-and-banjo music of the southern Appalachian region, but the Piedmont tradition is slightly different. Unlike other Appalachian music, it gives the leading role to the banjo, which sets the tone and tempo of the tunes. The fiddle tends to come second, providing backup along with instruments such as the jug and spoons. This unique combination was pioneered by families of black musicians. Although the banjo was created in the USA, it was inspired by a few lute-like West African instruments. Banjo music was often passed from one black family to the next, and it eventually made its way to other ethnic groups. Until the early 20th Century, young white musicians usually befriended an older black musician if they wanted to learn it.

Learning the banjo also helped the Drops find its identity as a band. Though the group is an old-time string band steeped in Piedmont’s unique blend of folk and blues, it’s a melting pot of other influences as well: some hip hop here, some bluegrass there, with rock and jazz essences filling the gaps. But the three musicians didn’t meld together until Thompson entered the picture.

Somebody had to figure out how to integrate the styles of Giddens, an opera singer with a soft spot for Irish jigs and jazz, with those of Robinson, a classically trained violinist, and Flemons, an Arizona native with a background in folk, jug bands, and old-fashioned country and blues. A Piedmont fiddler through and through, Thompson decided that the best way was to teach them to accompany each other in music and in life.

“We’d go down to his house on Thursday nights and learn how to back him up,” Flemons says. “He’d tell us about some of the older ways of [Southern] living, things like tobacco auctions and frolics, which are square dances in the black community. We really learned about the social functions of the music.”

Pretty soon the band was swapping melodies and instruments, do-si-do style. Now Robinson takes the lead on fiddle, adding banjo, autoharp, and jug as needed, while Flemons lends his skills on various banjos, plus the jug, quills, and harmonica. Giddens plays fiddle, banjo, and kazoo when she’s not wowing the crowd with her vocals.

The audience has added instruments to the lineup too. One fan gave Flemons a set of bones, which also spice up the rhythm of minstrel songs, zydeco, and bluegrass.

“She insisted that I learn how to use them, then showed me how to play them,” he says. “There have been a lot of interesting and wonderful experiences where people have shared songs, instruments, and memories with us. For some reason, our music has opened that up inside of them. Being able to do that is truly amazing.”

Though the group’s goal is to make great music and build a bit of community, it comes with a side of history, especially at its live shows, where Carolina Chocolate Drops is interested in telling the history that history books left out. The trio isn’t breaking out Howard Zinn’s books on stage, but it’s telling it like it is: black people pioneered much of the traditional folk music that spawned country songs. And the banjo wasn’t invented by Bo Duke and The Balladeer. It evolved from several types of African lutes, thanks to the ingenuity of slaves — a fact that banjo players themselves often are surprised to learn.

In other words, though Appalachian tunes have become the music of all Americans, there’s another truth lurking in the shadows: the story behind the music has been whitewashed. We tend to remember the white banjo students but not their black teachers. As a result, much of tradition’s richness is buried, along with the bones of those who played the minstrel shows of the 1880s and the hoedowns of the 1920s and ’30s.

Carolina Chocolate Drops makes music that breaks down cultural barriers and brings together people from various walks of life, but it’s making those black musicians and teachers stick out — in a good way. It’s also helping them gain their rightful place in history and in the imaginations of those listening to the music today.

This theme of rewriting history is heavy one moment and lighthearted the next, much like the songs of Genuine Negro Jig. At least half of the album is good, old-fashioned hoedown fare. There’s hooting and hollering and crazy kazoo solos. There’s more banjo than the Dukes of Hazzard theme song and plenty of material for stomping, swinging, and square dancing.

The other half has some frank messages: advice on how to treat a cheatin’ man and exorcise one’s inner demons. It’s the kind of stuff that gets you talking after passing out from moonshine and dancing. You can’t help but get to know your neighbor.

This is a novel concept for people who spend most of their time on Facebook and iPhones. Yes, the Internet is great at bringing people together, but you can’t dance with it. That’s why Carolina Chocolate Drops blends the whimsy of eras past with the stuff that makes people human today: getting drunk, making out, showing off, and screwing up.

Flemons says that the group marries old and new with the West African concept of Sankofa, which means “go back and fetch it.” It takes good ideas from the past, brings them to the present, and gives them new life.

“We’re not trying to bring the old times back, but we’re using them to help people enjoy themselves,” he says. “Building community by getting people to sing and dance together at a concert makes sense in the modern world.”

But there’s more to it than that. They’re creating something new as well.

Most recently, the music opened the doors of Nonesuch Records, the label that the Magnetic Fields, Brian Wilson, and David Byrne call home. This, in turn, unlocked a Pasadena mansion that once belonged to President Garfield’s widow — and where producer Joe Henry now lives. It was the perfect place to record an album built upon American history.

These sessions led to a haunting rendition of Tom Waits‘ “Trampled Rose” and a fiddle-hop take on Blu Cantrell‘s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” On the latter, Giddens’ vocals create shivers as she alternately sets the track on fire with her fiddle. Underneath, Flemons’ beat boxing conjures the streets better than a cranked-up bass and a set of chrome rims. Then on the old Charlie Jackson tune “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” the band traces the blues back to its roots and gives them a Vaudevillian twist, while the Carolinian standard “Trouble in Your Mind” creates the insanity of which it warns with an out-and-out hootenanny. It’s hardly the way to blend in with the crowd.

Flemons says that the album is more of a genre-bender than the band’s earlier releases, but don’t expect Carolina Chocolate Drops to change its tune anytime soon.

“We’re proud to be who we are: an old-time black string band,” he says. “We don’t need to turn into a ’60s girl group or a hair band to stand out.”

Safety in Numbers

Notes From Places, L.A. artist James Boulton’s show of mixed-media collages on display at Project Lodge through July 9, doesn’t include any written notes whatsoever. There’s nary a title or price in sight, and certainly not an artist’s statement. It’s a refreshing dismissal of the gallery world’s attempt to turn artistic works into retail merchandise that can be compartmentalized and explained.

Boulton uses collage as a code for the tension between order and disorder. His works using paper, many of which were created onsite, are chaotic: sheets of paper splattered with oil paints and images clipped from old magazines and what appear to be found photographs. Yet they are arranged in a precise grid on the Project Lodge’s east and west walls, giving visitors the illusion of safety when they first enter the space.

On closer inspection, it’s clear all this tidy geometry is misleading. In one panel of the grid, a photo of a naked woman splayed on a dirty-looking bed in an even dirtier-looking room floats on a black background, like a character in a video game. Around her are angular shapes that resemble gemstones, rendered in primary colors, along with softer, flower-shaped scribbles. Whether the shapes are out to destroy the woman or help her is debatable.

In another collage (an excerpt is pictured above), Boulton’s scissors have decapitated a photographed woman in a sleeveless dress. A messy square of white paint covers the space where her head should be, and a photo of a mountain—perhaps her last pleasant thought—lingers next to it. An even more puzzling panel features a black-and-white grid within the grid, on top of which orange shapes converge into what looks like a cartoon map. Below, a man in orange hazmat gear is being mauled by a wild animal with a flame bursting from its head. This strange beast isn’t just torturing a human figure, though; it’s also biting the butt of another animal, which is perched atop a huge magazine image of a young girl. Even though this child is the most peaceful character in the scene, she’s also the queen bee since she’s the largest. Underneath her hovers a cutout of children’s underpants and an image of a screaming monkey, adding an extra-absurd twist to the madness. Whatever place this composition is recalling isn’t one you’ll want to visit alone.

Even household objects get twisted and collaged in a collection of cardboard sculptures in the center of the gallery. Each displays a picture of an item you might find at the local Dig ’N Save outlet: a thermos; a broken coffee cup that says “Big Hug Mug”; a creepy, legless Bratz doll; and an upside-down bicycle. Beyond the surface, however, the items from the pictures hide inside the cardboard, as if they’ve transformed from tangible objects into imaginary ones. You could be next.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s absurdist art rock

Many children dream of running off and joining the circus, but only a few brave souls pursue fire eating and tightrope walking as adults. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum has done something even wilder: it has invented its own freak show, something more bizarre and beautiful than any clown-filled big-top.

The fearless five-piece performs one musical stunt after another, bleeding into performance-art territory as it carves genres such as metal, prog, and avant rock into strange new shapes. But this is no novelty act: the group has some substantial — even shocking — things to say about the nature of human life and 21st Century culture.

Most recently, Sleepytime has explored the theme of human extinction, which it began to dissect on its 2004 LP, Of Natural History. Described as a debate between Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, the album seems to boil down to a central question, phrased as a song title: “What shall we do without us?” This question leads to another too: “What might those last days be like?”

“I realized pretty quickly that one of the most direct ways to have a unique, original sound is to play instruments no one else is playing.”

The group’s Fall 2005 tour provided a few answers via Shinichi Iova-Koga, a movement artist who specializes in Butoh, an avant-garde dance form that grew out of student riots and cultural taboos in 1950s Japan. After hanging beneath a sheet, upside down, for the first half of each Sleepytime show, he would emerge as “The Last Human Being,” painted head to toe in white, writhing like a demon-possessed corpse as his shadows danced upon the wall.

These days, the band — clad in tattered tutus, bad-ass boots, and braids — provides a soundtrack for these eerie encounters whether or not Iova-Koga is part of the act. But to take a closer look at this theme of extinction, Sleepytime will soon release a short film called The Last Human Being that explores Iova-Koga’s character while presenting a few new songs.

“During the [2005 tour], we would talk about the human being and what had happened to them, how they used to be all over the place,” says Nils Frykdahl, Sleepytime’s guitar- and flute-playing vocalist. “The film takes that idea even further. It looks like that 1970s TV show In Search of… where Leonard Nimoy was the host and would ‘investigate’ something. We have actors playing a panel of scientists on a talk show. The human is the mysterious creature being ‘investigated.’ It’s fairly comic at its roots.”

Frykdahl says that the film and its music were also inspired, in part, by the story of Ishi, the last of California’s indigenous Yana people. After crossing paths with a group of cattle butchers in 1911, Ishi was quickly put on display at the University of California-Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology. Though Ishi helped scholars learn about his tribe’s rapidly dying customs and language, he also functioned much like a circus attraction, entertaining guests by making crafts and arrowheads.

“He’s this touching, tragic character,” Frykdahl says. “His life went from a tribal world that was decimated, where he’d seen only a few dozen humans in his entire life and survived, in isolation, in very rough terrain, to suddenly being exposed to Ocean Beach, with thousands of people. He probably stood there with his mouth open, shocked that there were so many human beings in the world.”

Sleepytime taps into this sense of wonder mixed with horror in many of its songs, especially newer offerings like “Salamander.” A mix of apocalyptic sonics — machine-gun drumming, theatrical vocals, commanding rhythms, and loads of distortion — illustrates the struggle to survive in a hostile environment while the band’s absurdist humor seems to mirror the cosmos, laughing at each tiny creature’s fragile existence.

A few tracks from past albums may find their way onto the film’s soundtrack as well. One possibility is “Phthisis,” a song from Of Natural History that imbues Sleepytime’s live act with the essence of an ancient death rite. Beginning with a dose of wailing vocals and metaphorical lyrics from violinist Carla Kihlstedt, the song descends into a primordial ooze of passionate melodies and precise, pounding rhythms. And it’s one of the group’s more straightforward compositions.

Another contender is “The Greenless Wreath,” from the band’s 2007 release, In Glorious Times. Frykdahl’s voice scrapes and scratches like Tom Waits‘ as custom-made instruments create a jungle of futuristic sounds. Built by bassist Dan Rathbun, these instruments create a new lexicon of sounds with which the band can communicate its vision. (Examples include the Pedal-Action Wiggler, a pedal-powered version of the Brazilian berimbau, and the Electric Pancreas, a set of thin metal slices that make a crunching sound when whacked with a stick.)

Then there’s a metal spring, inspired by the one that Einstürzende Neubauten plays in “Selbstportrait mit Kater.” Sleepytime uses it as a percussive instrument and a zany stage prop, along with a bicycle wheel, a kitchen sink, and other found objects.

“Bands like Einstürzende Neubauten — just the number of different things they would make into instruments is inspiring,” Rathbun says. “I realized pretty quickly that one of the most direct ways to have a unique, original sound is to play instruments no one else is playing.”

Frykdahl admits that it’s hard for the band to stick to simple musical concepts — or traditional instrumentation — in its recordings because it has mastered so many daring feats onstage. “Our natural tendency as composers is to fill the space with notes and harmony and melody, which means not leaving room for listening to the noise,” he says. “What we often wish we could do is make beautiful, simple music with a focus on the sound itself, but we like playing notes too much to do that. It seems like the people who do that best are non-musicians who don’t really practice their instruments.”

In other words, Sleepytime isn’t just another prog band with death-metal growls and guitars; it’s an ensemble of classical musicians making high art from unconventional sources. Frykdahl is more likely to gush about modern classical greats Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti than experimental contemporaries Meshuggah and Melt-Banana — when he’s not wrapped up in fairy tales, that is.

Frykdahl, his baby daughter, and Dawn McCarthy—his wife and bandmate in psych-folk project Faun Fables — recently traveled to Idyllwild, California to take in the scenery and make a “fairy-tale rock musical” with a bunch of high-school musicians. Like The Last Human Being, it’s a tale of being left behind. It’s also the perfect story for a tiny hamlet that’s mile high in mountains.

“We arrived with the idea of doing something with the Pied Piper story, where there’s a town that’s infested with rats and the piper leads the rats away,” Frykdahl says. “When the town doesn’t pay the piper, he leads all the children away too, except for this one kid who has a bad foot. That kid doesn’t reach the mountains with the other kids, so he spends his life haunted by what he missed. So, of course, we decided to focus on him.”

The updated fable begins 30 years later than the original, with the bum-footed kid as town mayor. One day, his childhood playmates begin to reappear, as young as the day that they left. Pretty soon the village is filled with orphans, and he must decide what to do with them. According to Frykdahl, using lots of orphan characters makes for lots of acting roles, which allows all of the kids to play themselves—or wilder, more mythical versions of themselves—as they write original songs for the project.

“Right now, we’re madly finishing up parts they can sight-read on French horn and cello, and we may need to do a polyrhythms workshop,” he says, swept up in a flurry of creativity. “But hey, we get to indulge our obsession with fairy tales and mythology, which is really where it all started for us as performers—with cool stories.”

Birthday Suits’ The Minnesota: Mouth to Mouth

Since forming five years ago, the Minneapolis guitar-and-drums duo Birthday Suits have played hundreds of explosive shows, many in Madison. But until recently, they’d only recorded one other full-length, a mere 15 minutes’ worth of material.

The good news is that their new album is almost 50% longer. This means 50% more fun, lightning-speed rock that bounces from garage to surf to punk-flavored noise and back again. The bad news is that the whole thing’s only 22 minutes long.

“Lost Weekends” shows the band at their spazzy, snazzy best, nodding to the Ramones one moment and No Age the next, while “Kinnickinnic” sounds like a messed-up military march, saluting how fun it is to say the song’s title to the beat of a snare drum. “Miracle Brothers II” throws a wrench into the party, alternating slow-and-sassy thuds with possessed pummeling. And “Rock ‘n Roll Emergency” isn’t just a song but a self-fulfilling prophecy: You’re ridiculously revved up, but the CD’s about to end. It’s your choice: Hit repeat or catch them live, at their brief and beautiful best.

Dan Deacon Is a Nerd’s Nerd

With gargantuan, Steve Urkel-style glasses and an obsession with the bleeps and bloops of computers, Dan Deacon could be the second coming of Revenge of the Nerds’ violin-toting Arnold Poindexter.
dan deacon by josh sisk
Deacon, 27, grew up in the midst of the Long Island ska explosion, performing songs like “Bionic Man Hands” with his band Channel 59. He then went to the local art-nerd institution of choice, SUNY Purchase, to study computer music composition and electro-acoustic instruments. Though Deacon mastered a number of traditional instruments, from guitar to tuba (which he’s played with fellow Purchase alum Langhorne Slim), he chose to record collages of random sounds and sine waves from a Wavetek 180 signal generator.

While his early efforts were more sound art than popular song, Deacon found a fan-friendly formula in his 2007 album Spiderman of the Rings. He mixed goofy-yet-nostalgic lyrics such as “My dad is the coolest dad in dad school / He does not break any dad-rules” with layers of melody that recall Philip Glass. His brand-new album, Bromst, has pleased critics and fans alike, showcasing both his sense of humor and collages of samples that are a bit more grown-up, like a mind-bending round made from a Native American chant.

However, it’s Deacon’s live performances that have made him a household name — if your house is anywhere near an art school or a hipster enclave — by getting disaffected-looking concertgoers to smile genuinely, spill Coke on their vintage pants and abandon their posturing for an entire evening.

How? Deacon’s personality has a lot to do with it. Hooking himself up to a grid of musical machines, he plants himself in the audience and leads fans on a trip that’s as much a spiritual journey as it is a return to grade-school recess. At his Forward Music Fest performance last fall, Deacon invited concertgoers to take part in a Grease-style dance-off to a soundtrack of his tunes. Then the lights went out, Deacon’s LEDs began to blink, and the crowd became a writhing amoeba of sweaty fans simultaneously shouting out lyrics and immersed in their own imaginations. It was as close to a rave as one can get these days, but something else as well.

Viewed from afar — or from above at the Majestic, where he performs May 4 — the scene is performance art, with the audience unaware of its role as performer. That’s the kind of engineering that someone who’s both a math nerd and an art dork could achieve.

Rupa & the April Fishes bridge cultural divides with pranks

“I used to dream of a pirate ship that would take me away from here / out to the open sea, into the biggest blue / complete with a cast of unsavory crew who’d show me things that I shouldn’t do,” sings Rupa Marya, ringleader of Rupa & The April Fishes, on “Wishful Thinking,” the closing track on the band’s 2008 release, eXtraOrdinary rendition.

Rupa & the April Fishes

It’s a fitting manifesto for a band that incorporates all sorts of renegade performance arts — from painting demonstrations to stilt walking — into its live shows, especially in its home base of San Francisco. “We live in an amazing community of artists where someone will just call up the night before a show and say, ‘Hey, do you mind if I play my accordion on the street outside?’” Marya says. “Each show ends up being different from the next based on the cast of characters.”

It’s a formula — or lack of formula — that helps Rupa & the April Fishes’ core members tap into their juiciest layers of creativity and helps the audience lose its preconceptions of what a concert can be. “For me, [live shows] are about everyone coming together to create something beautiful and otherworldly, to take you somewhere unrecognizable and discombobulate you so you can see things from a fresh perspective again,” Marya says. “Having a bunch of pranksters around to help you do that is really helpful.”

The central set of pranksters includes trumpet, accordion, percussion, and upright bass along with Marya on guitar and lead vocals, sung in Spanish, French, Hindi, and a bit of English. Though each of the Fishes is an accomplished solo musician, they sound their mightiest as a school, shifting seamlessly from an Argentine tango to a French chanson, tied together with vocals that are part Edith Piaf, part Hope Sandoval. This sound, which the band describes as “boundary-smashing global agit-pop,” makes mincemeat out of the artificial divides that maps, languages, and political regimes create.

The Fishes succeed in this mission in part because they know how these boundaries look, smell, taste, and sound. For Marya in particular, much of this knowledge comes from growing up in the midst of cultural collision. Born to Indian parents, she divided her childhood years among California, India, and the south of France. Marya was never able to blend in, whether due to her accent, the color of her skin, or her colorful personality, but she was able to carve out an extremely strong sense of self.

“The lessons I’ve learned from practicing medicine, from the amazing people I care for and work with, cross over into what I’m trying to accomplish with music, and vice versa.”

This process of identity building propelled the group’s 2009 recording, Este Mundo, which is sung almost entirely in Spanish. “All the motion in my life has led me to have more of a sense of home than homeland; I don’t have a strong national identity, but I do have a strong self-identity, with bridges to the many different aspects of who I am,” Marya says. “So the idea of home — what it is and where it’s found — has been a major theme in the music.”

Este Mundo frames these ideas not only as political questions but spiritual ones. And unlike eXtraOrdinary rendition, which has a carnival-meets-cabaret vibe and is sung almost entirely in French, it puts a Latin American spin on this quest for meaning.

Several of the album’s songs draw inspiration from brothel-bred tangos and cumbia, a style that began as a courtship dance among Colombian slaves and evolved into a form of political protest, spreading to Panama, Peru, Mexico, El Salvador, and Argentina, where it was adopted by both slum dwellers and orchestra leaders.

On Este Mundo, these dance rhythms create a mood that’s both romantic and rebellious, fit for dinner, dancing, and a hot-and-heavy discussion about Ché Guevara. Marya likens playing the album to looking through a microscope and a telescope at the same time. “It feels broad yet focused, with more abstract elements and more details at the same time,” she says.

The key to combining these apparent contradictions lies in Marya’s “other” job as a doctor at a San Francisco hospital, where she cares for many undocumented immigrants. Marya’s found that her work as a physician has moved her to help marginalized people find not only a voice but a place to call home.

It has also helped her discover music’s power to incite social change. “I’ll be walking down the hall in the hospital, checking in on each of my patients, and I’ll have a prostitute, a CEO, a law assistant, a student, and an immigrant mother, all within a few feet of each other — something that hardly ever happens outside hospitals,” she says.

“It has fueled something in me that’s constantly asking, ‘What kind of world do we live in?’ and ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’ The purpose of art, I think, isn’t just to expose what’s there but to look at what you wish the world could be.”

One of those wishes involves healthcare, something that many of her musician colleagues and immigrant patients lack. Marya’s quick to point out that the healthcare system, which is supposed to take care of sick people and prevent healthy people from becoming sick, should not be driven by the rules of the free market.

“People who stand to profit from others’ sickness — the insurance companies, the drug companies — shouldn’t get to decide who gets to have an important operation or an MRI or medication, and they certainly shouldn’t be in the same room where decisions about healthcare reform are being made,” she says.

“America is a very wealthy country that has many resources, but its values are out of whack. Reform has to start with some very basic questions about morals and ethics, especially concerning who gets to allocate resources.”

If power can be shifted away from profit seekers, she says, the picture would look very different — and more people might be able to pursue creative careers such as music.

It’s these “what if” questions that link her own two careers as well. Whereas “what if” can lead to an unforgettable chorus or a mind-bending jam session in music, it can lead to a diagnosis or even the cure to a deadly disease in medicine. And “what if” encapsulates the potential of both fields to improve other people’s lives through caring, dedication, and creativity.

Marya admits that most people wouldn’t attempt to be both a doctor and a full-fledged musician, but she’s made it work by challenging the flack she’s received from both professions and highlighting the common ground they share.

“Both are very much focused on compassion and trying to create something that can help people, whether it’s just expressing hope or giving someone something to hold onto in a difficult period,” she says. “The lessons I’ve learned from practicing medicine, from the amazing people I care for and work with, cross over into what I’m trying to accomplish with music, and vice versa.”

Logistically speaking, Marya’s landed a pretty sweet position that lets her spend large chunks of time away from the hospital, touring and recording. She says that this setup isn’t so much a product of luck but knowing who she is.

“When I got my job at the hospital, I explained to them that I wouldn’t be happy without being able to be a musician too,” she says. “They agreed to let me try it, and they saw that it worked, that I’m invigorated and excited to care for my patients when I return from the road. Without music, I wouldn’t be nearly as good of a doctor, and without medicine, I wouldn’t be nearly as good of a musician.”

It’s possible, of course, that Marya’s some kind of superhuman with endless supplies of energy, patience, and passion — plus a sense of optimism bordering on lunacy. The truth is that she’s not crazy at all. Like many artists, she’s fascinated with the fate that no one can escape: death. The difference is that death motivates her rather than making her want to smoke or drink or shudder beneath a cozy pile of blankets.

“When you see a lot of people die, it gives you a very strong appreciation for life,” she says. “You know that time is going to come when you’re too sick to get out of bed, and for me this means making the most out of the time when I am alive and healthy.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s also a tribute to my patients who have passed,” she explains. “That energy and hunger for life is probably the best thing I can give both my fans and my patients who are fighting to get well.”

What’s Your Function?

The Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art’s Return To Function show, on display through Aug. 23, raises a question that many folks unfamiliar with art-gazing ask: Shouldn’t these so-called works of art do something?

In other words, the show encourages viewers to wonder whether art should move beyond its usual functions—decorating a space and promoting high culture, to name a few—and offer us a tangible service other than simply making us think more (or making other people think that we think more, deeper, and better).

Of course, this is all a bit of a sham, because the aim of these pieces is still to oil people’s mental and psychological axles: While a lamp make out of old kiwi containers can, in fact, light a room, its main function is arguably to make viewers consider the nature of consumption and the many possibilities for recycling and reuse.

You’re not likely to wear Lucy Orta’s “Refuge Wear Habitent” unless you’re shaped like a bloated pyramid: The piece begins as an REI-style windbreaker, complete with a drawstring hood, but takes on the shape of a pup tent rather than a human being. Pockets form the windows and the front zipper is an invitation to explore, perhaps, the wearer’s innards or to take shelter in a space that resembles a womb—one that not only keeps you warm, but repels various forms of precipitation.


Ralph Borland’s “Suited For Subversion” repels not only wind and rain but also Tasers and police clubs. The large red object, which resembles a supersized, heart-shaped life jacket, has enough padding to shield the wearer’s own heart from spills on city streets, multitudes of sharp objects, and the myriad forms of brutality that might occur during a protest. A picture of how to wear it, featuring a man (presumably the artist) in a sporty pose by a brick wall, mocks the culture of catalog shopping while a sound recording mimics a heartbeat with eerie urgency.

Joe Scanlan’s “DIY” boasts a functional theme that’s both a death wish and a sales pitch: “How to Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $399,” printed in a book that overlooks the rest of the piece from the safety of a simple wooden frame. The museum staff actually had to build this Return To Function selection according to the artist’s instructions, using a bookcase from IKEA to form a coffin. Fake plastic flowers and a cheap pillow provide the finishing touches on the statement, making The A.V. Club wonder if there’s anything the Swedish home-goods retailer wouldn’t try to sell you by exploiting your desires to be self-reliant and thrifty.

Undocumented immigrants’ desires for self-reliance, as well as respect and upward mobility, are examined in Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga’s “Vagamundo: A Migrant’s Tale,” a video game housed in an old-fashioned ice-cream cart. Each level of the game reflects a move toward the questionable goal of assimilation. The character must transcend violence and heavy drinking in the first level, Culture of Poverty; he works as a grocery-store bagger, fending off giant cockroaches and tricky English grammar rules, in the second level, Culture of Assimilation; and in the third level, Culture of Prosperity, he must satisfy the whims of wealthy patrons at the restaurant where he waits tables. “Your English is much improved,” the game says sarcastically, “but someday you might be able to buy a home in Jersey.”

While, in theory, you can touch this game, its function is still to grab you by the heartstrings, the synapses and, rather disturbingly, the funnybone.

Ahleuchatistas Deconstruct Rock ’n’ Roll

Most bands rely on the pipes and charisma of their lead singers to tell a story. Sometimes, though, it’s the voiceless, abstract messages of our surroundings — flickering streetlamps, wrinkles on faces, magnetic fields — that have the greatest impact on our actions and memories.


In the case of Ahleuchatistas, an instrumental avant-rock trio from Asheville, North Carolina, the band’s music, in many cases, is as stunning for what it isn’t as for what it is. Forget vocals, forget distortion, forget the whole concept of studio effects.

This is instrumental performance at its purest, captured and bottled like a cloud of frenzied fireflies. But unlike a jarful of lightning bugs, Ahleuchatistas’ sound doesn’t wilt inside its packaging. It thrives in the space between past and present that recordings generate, gaining a new layer of meaning each time it’s played.

Ahleuchatistas was started in 2003 by bassist Derek Poteat and guitarist Shane Perlowin. Poteat and Perlowin were friends from a short-lived improvisational jazz and rock group that did the club circuit in Asheville, but they had bigger ambitions for their new project. When original drummer Sean Dail was brought in, the trinity was complete.

Poteat says that Ahleuchatistas has never consciously sought to impress. “I think we’re more focused on creating mood and feeling rather than trying to blow the listener away,” he says. “There’s a big technical aspect to the music too, but it’s never technical just for the sake of being technical.”

“There are some elements of what we do that are similar to math rock, but math rock is more about riffs and repeating. What we’re trying to do, especially with the newer songs, is push the boundaries of what people would perceive to be rock ’n’ roll.”

More than anything, the music is about getting people to think. As Poteat puts it, “People really don’t think enough about things before taking them in, so we try to get them to pause and figure out what they’re hearing, what they’re consuming, before they swallow it.”

The band does this by using unexpected sounds and, more importantly, by breaking the silence at unexpected times. The resultant songs pull you in with their emotion but demand careful listening due to their complexity — and the element of surprise. They don’t just invite you to deconstruct them; they require it.

It’s tempting to call Ahleuchatistas’ sound math rock due to its complex rhythms and technical precision and because, like calculus, it can require some cerebral calisthenics to fully comprehend. “There are some elements of what we do that are similar to math rock, but math rock is more about riffs and repeating,” Poteat says. “What we’re trying to do, especially with the newer songs, is push the boundaries of what people would perceive to be rock ’n’ roll.”

For Ahleuchatistas, this self-exploration has involved burrowing into the nooks of jazz and the crannies of avant-garde classical compositions, such as those of John Zorn. Poteat and Perlowin have been listening to Zorn’s music for longer than they’ve been playing together. What they didn’t know was that Zorn was listening to their songs too.

Two years ago, when the band was trying to re-release its second album, Perlowin sent some tracks to Zorn on a whim. A few weeks later, Zorn was on the phone, expressing his admiration for the band’s work and volunteering to put out the disc on his own label, Tzadik. Things were quiet on the Zorn front as Ahleuchatistas toured and wrote new material in 2009, but once it composed enough songs for an album, there Zorn was again, volunteering to record them.

It all has felt a bit strange, Poteat admits, because each of these collaborations has happened over the phone or in cyberspace. “People will ask what he’s like, and I’m always saying, ‘He seems like this really nice guy, but I don’t really know him,’” Poteat says. “I know I really like his work and how he handled the production of our work, but he’s still sort of a mystery to us.”

A similar sort of mystery shaped the group’s recent search for a new drummer. Before Ryan Oslance joined Ahleuchatistas’ ranks in 2008, the band notified its MySpace friends that it was looking for a new member, a move that’s typical of a band just finding its bearings but unusual for one with an established fan base and a sound that requires some serious talent to create.

“We parted ways with [Dail] and had five weeks until our next tour, so we were trying to think of ways to find somebody good pretty fast,” Poteat says. “A lot of people replied and said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ But then we got these audio tracks from Ryan, he flew down from Chicago, and it came together like puzzle pieces.”

Since adding Oslance to the lineup, the band has veered away from the overtly political messages of earlier albums, which included tracks called “Al Jazeera,” “Post-Colonial Nausea,” and “Remember Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib.” The tracks on its new album, Of the Body Prone, released in September of 2009, tackle similar topics but with oblique, sometimes humorous titles.

“Dancing with the Stars” starts with spacey guitar transmissions and wiggly bass lines that sound like muted alien conversations. Swiftly shifting time signatures create a sense of being drawn off course by a very strong magnet. When drums burst into the song, it’s as if you’ve been sucked into the wormhole.

Meanwhile, on “Why Can’t We Be in Jamaica?”, a solo of percussive popcorn gives way to a drum-and-bass duet that begins in perfect unison, then unravels into an explosive juggling act in which fiery drum beats, bass barbs, and bombshells of guitar somersault and ricochet off one another.

Watching this chaos unfold slowly, carefully controlled by the musicians, is perhaps even more exciting — and shocking — than seeing it self-destruct at warp speed. Not only is this level of control difficult to pull off, but it reveals the details and precision that go into creating anarchy, building anticipation in the process.

Though a marketing executive might call it mood music for the post-9/11 era, for Ahleuchatistas, Of the Body Prone is more of a psychology experiment, one that ventures into the realm of mad science.

“We really tried to say, ‘Let’s work within these parameters and see what we come up with,’ and do things like adjust the timbre of the song to see how it affects listeners’ emotions,” Poteat says. “We’re not just using the changes between the parts of the song to do that anymore, so I think the album shows how much our songwriting has progressed.”

Poteat also hopes that artistic progress will sow the seeds of social progress — or at least a bit more social criticism. Whether this happens isn’t up to the band, however, but through the listeners’ ears and lovely, languishing brains.

Title Tracks: In Blank

John Davis’ sophomore release as Title Tracks proves he’s a force to be reckoned with in the crowded field of power-pop. The former member of post-hardcore outfit Q and Not U recruited a band for this disc, dressing his punkish troubadour tunes in rhythmic guitars and fast-paced drums.

Davis uses Elvis Costello’s vocals as a model throughout the album, infusing them with Ted Leo’s vigor. Opening track “Shaking Hands” takes a Ramones-meets-Rubinoos approach to popcraft, punctuated by the occasional shouted vocal but driven by solid hooks. Adrenaline flows as guitars race and drums thunder, leading into a fist-pumping second track, “Turn Your Face.” The melody’s simple enough for sing-along moments but rarely gets boring, soaring when you expect it to dive and exploring minor-key moments when a ray of sunshine seems just around the corner.

“I Can’t Hide” warms up with fuzzy guitars, then finds a kernel of joy in its rich, major-key chords. Meanwhile, the guitars take on a Velvet Underground-style timbre, hinting at a sped-up “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” However, the penultimate tune, “It’s Wrong,” is where things really get interesting, with a Shins-style nod to the Honeycombs’ 1964 hit “Have I the Right.”

So long, Smart Studios

When you’re barreling down East Washington Avenue, it’s easy to speed past the brick building on the northwest corner of Baldwin Street. There are no signs, few parked cars and a handful of boarded-up windows. It seems ripe for a haunting, not a historic happening.

But that building, the legendary Smart Studios, is one of the liveliest places in town. It has been for more than 25 years, even when it was just two guys, an eight-track tape recorder and a tiny collection of microphones. Over the years, Smart was a rock ‘n’ roll refuge for more than 1,000 bands who recorded there.

The studio just announced that it will close its doors this spring amid a dramatic downturn in the music industry. The tentative closing date is March 1.

Smart Studios got started on the south side of East Wash in 1983, when Butch Vig and Steve Marker moved their gear into a dusty old factory space. It was a step up from recording on a four-track in Marker’s basement, which they’d been doing since their student days at UW-Madison.

“We started Smart because we wanted a place to hang out and make music, like a clubhouse,” Vig explains. “I’ve always looked at it as a sanctuary.”

Although the studio is closing, Vig says there’s cause for celebration.

“We rocked Smart for 25 years, and we rocked Madison, too,” he says. “Two-thirds of our client list was local and regional bands, and Steve and [chief engineer] Mike [Zirkel] and I are probably even prouder of those projects than the [Smashing] Pumpkins and Sparklehorse and Freedy Johnston. We tried to help as many local bands and labels as we could.”

Gimme shelter

Early on, helping the local music scene meant recording punk bands on the eight-track for five bucks an hour, when Milwaukee and Chicago studios told Vig and Marker to charge 20 times more. Ironically, inexpensive recording technology is now driving musicians away from professional studios and back into their basements.

“You can look at the closing of Smart as a direct reflection of what’s been happening in the music business and the technology changes that have happened over the last 10 years,” says Vig. “Now anyone can get a laptop and make recordings in their basement for next to nothing. I know Grammy-winning engineers in L.A. who are struggling to find work.”

Plus, the labels that normally would pay for studio time have slashed their budgets to half or a third of their usual size, Vig says. It seemed like the right time to throw in the towel.

“We were never in this to make money,” he says. “In fact, it’s a miracle that Smart stayed open as long as it did considering it was run by two guys with almost no business sense.”

For Vig and Marker, treating other musicians like family, whether they were from Sun Prairie or Sunset Boulevard, was the key to their happiness and success.

Isaac Schulze, singer/guitarist for local cowpunk trio Mad Trucker Gone Mad, says being able to barbecue a turkey on Smart’s deck and play videogames at the studios made him feel at home — and perhaps led to a better record.

Meanwhile, Keith Brammer, bassist for Milwaukee hardcore and alt-rock torchbearers Die Kreuzen, recalls Smart as a place that didn’t cop a ‘tude, no matter what.

“You were never made to feel like a second-class citizen if you weren’t on Warner Brothers, and there was none of the ‘You gotta get out of here because such-and-so is coming in’ crap,” he says. “It was ‘You’re here, that’s what matters, and we’re gonna take care of you.’ You always felt comfortable there, and you knew those guys were in it for the right reasons.”

Smart’s all-in-the-family approach also meant working with local bands’ budgets. Eric Hartz, drummer for Hum Machine, a local alt-rock band whose album The Trance Voltage Solution ruled college radio in the late 1990s, remembers just how far the Smart staff could stretch a dollar.

“You got this really high-quality recording service and access to a lot of expensive equipment most people never even get a chance to use. And besides the recording, you got access to this great network of people who would share tips, including some pretty big-name musicians. Those people aren’t going to be coming around now that Smart is closing.”

Naked singers

It was the combination of comfy and crazy that drew many famous artists to Smart.

Members of L7, the all-girl grunge-and-punk band that paved the way for the riot grrrl movement, loved Smart for its geeky charm and the giant tubs of ice cream it supplied. They also loved the superb sound of Bricks Are Heavy, the album Vig produced during their 1991 Madison visit, shortly after working on Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Singer/guitarist Donita Sparks laughs when she recalls meeting Smart’s engineers. “At first I thought the guys were a little shy or terrified of us, one of the two. They’d be polite and say hello but not make a lot of eye contact.”

The Smart staff got over their dorky crushes before the end of L7’s studio sessions, but Vig kicked his geek factor up a notch when a local TV show decided to stop by. Though the band members were taking a breather amid 12 hours of recording, they decided to make it look like they were blowing the place to smithereens.

“We staged a little scene,” says Sparks. “Butch was at the board looking very serious, and [singer/guitarist] Suzi [Gardner] and I were behind the microphone. I smeared makeup all over my face like I’d just had a nervous breakdown. We looked like complete terrors; it was hilarious.”

Engineer Beau Sorenson says there are plenty of other stories where this one came from, especially tales about naked people.

“One time, the lead singer of this band called Kilroy was having trouble hitting one of his notes,” he recalls. “We convinced him that the only way he was going to hit this note was by stripping down to nothing. It had worked for other people, so we figured it might work for him, too.”

Then there was Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic, who’d stopped by to record some keyboard licks for Monday Night Football.

“He wore these purple velvet gloves, and when he took them off, he’d blow on his hands and say, ‘C’mon babies, don’t let me down!’ He was far out,” Sorenson recalls.

Vig also recalls moments of pure nuttiness. Once, he found engineer Doug Olson staring maniacally at 200 pieces of tape he’d recorded in a single session. Another time, he had to explain to the Edgewater’s manager how Kansas rockers Paw had destroyed the walls of their hotel room in a BB-shooting contest.

But Michael Gerald, singer and bassist for local noise-rock legends Killdozer, may have the best story of all. In the early days, the band would try to replicate sounds such as guns firing and heads being bashed with baseball bats. For their first album, 1984’s Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite, they set off firecrackers inside a walk-in safe at the original Smart site.

“It sounded too wimpy when we blew it up in the hallway, so Butch and Steve were like, ‘Well, how ’bout that safe in the basement?’ There had been a great amount of drinking involved, so we couldn’t be talked out of it. It was completely stupid and completely fun.”

Improvised genius

Many times, bands simply arrived at Smart with an idea, then came up with the rest off the cuff. Killdozer made at least two of their albums this way, says Gerald.

“There was one album, [1988’s] For Ladies Only, where we only knew we wanted to do cover songs, not even what the songs would be,” he recalls. “We were eager to have input from Butch and Steve, who’d do things like say ‘You know, this would be good with an accordion’ or call up their friends. Whoever answered the phone would come in and help out with the chorus, which is what we did in our version of ‘American Pie.'”

Another time, Vig called up Madison string players Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines to sit in with a then-unknown band called Smashing Pumpkins. So as Smart brought national and international recording artists to Madison, it also introduced Madison musicians to the world.

This was especially true when Vig and Marker’s band Garbage hit the big time in 1995, after joining forces with Scottish vocalist Shirley Manson. There was a period when Rolling Stone followed the band around town, speculating that Madison would be the site of the next musical revolution.

Zirkel, who started at the studio around the time Garbage formed, remembers when Manson came to town to audition. When the iconic singer took up residence here, the city seemed poised for a glamorous makeover.

While Madison didn’t morph into a flashy, star-studded metropolis, Smart’s influence continued to grow in ways never anticipated. Sometimes the musicians who recorded there took home more than a great album. New Yorker Freedy Johnston adopted Madison as his second hometown in 1994 as he recorded his pensive power-pop album This Perfect World here.

Pretty soon Johnston found himself returning to Madison every few months to lay down tracks and play in Vig’s cover band the Know-It-All Boyfriends. He was even at Smart last week when news of the studio’s closing broke.

“Smart reminds me of my first days living here, when I hung out at Genna’s and got to know the friends I’m still hanging out with 15 years later,” Johnston says.

When the studio closes, those who’ve passed through Smart’s doors will also hang onto the stories behind their songs like old friends.

The Madison sound
A selection of albums recorded, or mixed, or both at Smart Studios

Tar Babies: Honey Bubble (1989)
Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck (1989)
Nirvana: Nevermind (1990)
King Snake Roost: Ground Into the Dirt (1990)
Laughing Hyenas: Life of Crime (1990)
Smashing Pumpkins: Gish (1991)
The Young Fresh Fellows: Electric Bird Digest (1991)
L7: Bricks Are Heavy (1992)
Freedy Johnston: This Perfect World (1994)
Everclear: Sparkle and Fade (1994)
Soul Asylum: Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995)
Garbage: Garbage (1995)
The Promise Ring: 30° Everywhere (1996)
Fall Out Boy: Take This to Your Grave (2003)
Death Cab for Cutie: Plans (2005)
Sparklehorse: Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006)
Jimmy Eat World: Chase This Light (2007)
Hotel Lights: Firecracker People (2007)

Chief engineer Mike Zirkel encourages those with photos,
video and other memories of Smart Studios to share them via a Facebook group
called the Smart Studios Appreciation Society, and Vig may green-light a
documentary project later this year. Stay tuned to Isthmus and
for details.

Stopping Time with Design

It’s no surprise that “design” has become synonymous with “web design” in many people’s minds as the influence of the Internet grows. While the aesthetics and functionality of websites are certainly important, the folks at UW-Madison’s School Of Human Ecology (SoHE) realize that they’re only the tip of the design iceberg—and that some works of art can’t be reproduced online without losing something vital.

The Design 2009 show, on display at the school’s Design Gallery through April 26, is a prime example. Showcasing student projects from apparel, textile, and interior design studio classes each year since 1992, SoHE’s watched technology evolve while providing viewers a chance to experience design through tangible objects such as handcrafted scarves, couture-style gowns, miniature models of buildings, and sculptures.

While many of the objects on display were clearly created with the help of computers, they are also tied to the physical (read: non-virtual) space in which they live and function. They’re also tied to an analog history—that mythical, pre-computer age that so many try to channel through crafting, vintage clothing, and hobbies like record-collecting and burlesque dancing.

“Half Metal Jacket” by Amanda Larson, the winner of the best-in-show prize for textiles and apparel, merges this longing for the future and yearning for the past. A small military-style jacket, constructed from industrial mesh, hovers in the space, ghostlike. Tangles of wire, like unkempt vines, crawl up the front of the garment, budding with faux pearls. While the jacket appears minimalist and almost robotic at first glance, it’s more of a testament to knights’ armor and ornate Victorian gardens than cyborgs and IKEA.

Elsewhere in the gallery are garments made of Hefty cinch sacks (“Garbage Bag Evening Dress” by Ariel Arnson), surgical gloves (“Glove Dress” by Rebecca Schafer) and the strange stuff that undergirds wooden floorboards (“Underlayment Dress” by Kate Flood), highlighting the tension between the extravagance of high fashion and the fashionable status of recycling.

The best-in-show award for interior design went to Julie Foote’s concept for a Japanese restaurant, Nousatsu Peppanyaki Buffet. Instead of veering toward computer-generated anime, Foote fused traditional Asian design elements with Japanese fairy tales and bits of gothic gloom. Abstract cranes, filled with light, float from an ink-black ceiling while glowing orange carp slink through a shadowy koi pond. The result feels modern due to its sleekness, but is more of a tribute to the color of the past and a looming uncertainty about the future.

South by Southwest’s Addictive Allure

Festival Junkies

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart once likened his legendary jam band to a mode of transportation. He meant the band’s knack for moving audience members from one spiritual plane to another, but the Dead was also famous for fans who loved a road trip.

Something of the Deadhead spirit endures at today’s popular music festivals, even events like just-concluded South by Southwest, the Austin, Texas, confab that seems far removed from lazy, hazy days of tie-dyeing T-shirts and listening to “China Cat Sunflower.” Yes, admission prices have climbed to the heavens, along with the level of corporate sponsorship, but the thrill of traveling to a distant place for a quasi-religious experience continues to transform levelheaded music lovers into festival junkies.

Of course, between stagnant salaries and high unemployment rates, it’s hard to imagine fest-goers affording a sandwich, let alone a ride home. But Madison-based festival frequenters insist that traveling to Texas, Tennessee or California for giant, multi-day music events like SXSW, Bonnaroo and Coachella is preferable to front-row tickets closer to home — and perhaps more affordable.

Kenneth LaBarre, owner of Roll It! Take It! Media, a Madison-based company that produces live video of music festivals for television and the web, is one of these people.

“People used to follow the Dead or Dave Matthews, but now they go to fests because they can see more music, find out about new bands and get more bang for their buck,” he says. “They’re being savvy consumers. It makes sense to travel to one location, camp for a couple of days, listen to lots of music, then go home and work, work, work until the next one.”

Then again, being a festival junkie isn’t really about being sensible. It’s about getting a little crazy, whether that means staying up all night, dancing like MC Hammer or stuffing your last dollar into Courtney Love’s bustier.

Jamie Quam, the UW student who handles promotion for Memorial Union Terrace and Rathskeller concerts through the Wisconsin Union Directorate music committee, says SXSW 2010 was so important that she was willing to sacrifice food and sleep to attend. Attending the festival helps the committee predict trends among college-age music listeners and book shows that will draw larger crowds — and more business — to the Union.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something I may never get to do again, so I’m willing to have a smaller food fund for a few weeks and stay up until the wee hours of the morning doing my homework,” she says.

Quam is a textbook case of how this obsession unfolds: with exhaustion, hunger and overstimulation of the eardrums.

Peter Truby, a self-professed festival junkie who books concerts at the Project Lodge and volunteers for Madison’s Forward Music Festival, says fests appeal to many people because they offer an entertainment experience that’s more holistic and ritualistic than attending a single concert.

“You’re part of something much larger than yourself,” he says of South by Southwest, which he attended last week. “You’re surrounded by thousands of people, but you can carve out your own experience. You can’t re-create what you’ve seen there” — he cites a memorable performance by South Carolina’s Band of Horses — “but you want to go again.”

Truby says this feeling of being part of something big and historic is fairly uncommon at traditional concerts. And while the magic happens at Midwestern fests like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, where 20,000 sweaty fans cram themselves into a park and ogle their favorite performers, he says SXSW is the most transcendent.

The festival, which takes place in downtown Austin each March, promotes diversity of experience with a “choose your own adventure” format. Events take place at dozens of bars, restaurants and music halls rather than a single park or amphitheater. So many of the city’s businesses have joined the party that what was once a small meeting for the music industry has become one of Austin’s biggest sources of tourists and revenue, according to a 2008 analysis by the Austin Chronicle.

“You walk down Sixth Street, and literally every nook and cranny where you can shove a guitar amp has one,” says Tom Wincek of Madison bands Volcano Choir, All Tiny Creatures and Collections of Colonies of Bees.

There’s another reason for Austin’s hefty revenue stream: South by Southwest is expensive. In 2010, badges for admission to concerts, music-industry panels and other music events sold for $750, and wristbands for access to music showcases were $180. Badges for all three parts of the festival — music, film and social-media events — ranged from $920 for early buyers to $1,225 for those who purchased them at the last minute.

Local lo-fi musician Zola Jesus, who just attended SXSW for a third year and is poised for big things thanks to recent raves from The New York Times, Pitchfork and eMusic, believes festivals are fine and dandy. But, she says, they’re hardly a spiritual experience when you’re working your ass off.

“Festivals…are really hectic, and in the case of SXSW, like summer camp,” she says. “The culture is really overwhelming and extreme. Everyone is ready to have a party, whereas I’m more focused on making this week productive and beneficial to my career.”

Bessie Cherry, co-founder and executive director of the Forward Music Festival, admits she’s also not the biggest fan of fest-junkie culture or South by Southwest prices.

“Honestly, when it comes to music, I appreciate single concerts so much more than festivals at this point in my life,” she says. “I think I’d rather spend $100 on four or five really great shows in Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago than go to a fest featuring the same bands. But festival-going is really more about the traveling experience, the friends who go with you and those you make along the way.”

Festivals can provide more value, she says, if they focus less on the hottest artists of the moment and more on the real-life needs of fans. Caitlin McCabe, owner of White Label Media, a local company that helps businesses develop branding strategies and online communities, agrees. While attending the “interactive” portion of SXSW 2010, which focused on the digital media industry but featured music events as well, McCabe noticed that many of the event’s sponsors weren’t tailoring their offerings to their audience.

“It’s more than picking up a media kit and buying a booth,” she explains. “Sponsors need to take a close look at the types of problems their audience might be having at a festival, like transportation, and solve those problems.”

Tapping into other festival-goers’ knowledge can help you save money should you choose to attend South by Southwest, Coachella or another major event.

Tim McCarty, who works in a local accounting department, says lacking the right traveling companions may be the biggest impediment for would-be festival-goers.

“A good group or travel partner is essential because the economies of scale shift and things become much cheaper,” he says. “Not everyone can fly to a festival, rent a car, then fly back to their job, so it pays to be creative.”

Creativity is especially essential if you find yourself in a bind. McCarty recalls running out of money while traveling through Europe in 2001. To make ends meet — and to experience the Love Parade, an enormous, three-day-long techno fest in Berlin — he spent his last few dollars on 48 cans of Beck’s beer, which he sold from his backpack at the event.

While McCarty doesn’t recommend that everyone become a beer peddler, he does suggest sticking to a daily budget. “If you have limited funds, make it a game to find ways to save money, whether it’s walking around and people-watching or going to the museum when it’s free.”

When it came to this year’s South by Southwest, taking in daytime events was key for those looking to conserve cash. Most concerts that started before 6 p.m. were free — and these were prime venues for seeing cutting-edge acts. “You definitely don’t need a badge or wristband to see the bands you probably want to see, but you do want to pay attention to what’s going on online,” says Andrew Berry, a first-time SXSW attendee from Madison. “There are several different Twitter accounts that just list free events.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Matteson, founder of the Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago music blog and a four-time SXSW attendee, says the showcase of Wisconsin musicians he organized this year wouldn’t have been possible without diligent planning and saving. After booking a cheap flight months before the fest began, he teamed up with a few friends from high school to share the cost of a hotel.

However, Matteson’s biggest penny-pinching tip also involves getting to know South by Southwest’s daytime schedule. “Free food and drinks are everywhere at the day parties,” he says. “You can get at least one free meal a day. There’s tons of competition, so people go all-out. For ours, we had enough breakfast burritos for 200 people.”

Knowing when not to attend a festival is also important, Matteson says.

“I’ve been to Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, too, and they’ve all been great. It’s really about choosing the fest with the most acts you want to see, not necessarily the one that’s the cheapest or the trendiest. Consider seeing the bands that might not come to your city.”

Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice, even for the fest-obsessed, is to make like a Boy Scout and be prepared — with an extra cell phone battery, Band-Aids and a backup plan. And if that fails, think like a Deadhead: Don’t freak out.

McCarty says he learned this lesson on the Phish tour, the latter-day equivalent of the Deadhead experience. “I left [Wisconsin] with a VW bus, $500 and a blanket, and I got to Colorado with a blanket,” he says. “You have to be ready to go with the flow and enjoy the whole experience, even if something goes totally wrong.”

SuperBug Buzzes with Hypochondria


During flu season, it’s easy to develop a touch of germ-inspired obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even if you’ve invested in a gallon of hand sanitizer, SuperBug, on display at the Overture Center’s James Watrous Gallery through March 8, is likely to transform your anxiety into full-blown hypochondria—in the name of art, of course. The installation’s creators, UW-Madison professors Jennifer Angus and John Hitchcock, use both text and textiles to exploit those fears of infection and contamination that bubble just below the surface. The show begins with an essay that portends a viral pandemic more deadly than the 1918 influenza outbreak—the one that killed more than 25 million people—then makes your skin crawl by juxtaposing screen-printed patterns of virus-ravaged cells with creepy images of locusts. All 36 of these prints are downright soothing, though, compared to the sculptures that surround them: real specimens of freak-bugs—long-legged moths, supersized beetles, and mutant butterflies with vampire fangs—plucked from nature and preserved in glass domes that seem to be on the verge of shattering. It’s enough to make you sprint to the local exterminator—or to the drug store for a glue trap and a flu shot.

The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Stephin Merritt must have sonar. Whether helming The Magnetic Fields or penning songs for films and musicals, he finds depth in even the shallowest of topics and creates meaning by exploring meaninglessness. The title of his new, self-produced album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, hints at this process as it summons daydreams about mermaids, pirates, and amorous octopi.

Synthesizers power this emotional bathysphere, recalling the sound that the band debuted on Distant Plastic Trees in 1991 and refined on 69 Love Songs in ’99. Hints of ’80s synth-pop pepper the recording as well, nodding to artists such as Gary Numan and earlier versions of the Merritt that fans know and love.

The album’s sonic textures aren’t entirely retro, however. Many of the electronic gadgets that shaped this disc didn’t exist in the ’90s, and after making three synth-less albums — i, Distortion, and Realism — the band was eager to test-drive the instruments that the past decade has spawned. The result is a vintage, back-to-the-future Magnetic Fields.