How many ways can you serve sausage?
I don’t know. How many ways can you mix up the same three or four chords?
These are the questions in my mind as I’m hanging out at The Vanguard in Bay View, waiting for Nick and Ryan from Milwaukee’s Midwest Death Rattle to join me. Looking over the menu at the Vanguard, it seems they’ve discovered immeasurable ways to serve the almighty sausage. It’s kind of like if sausage were a pop song, the sausage itself would be the chorus, and the ingredients surrounding it would be the verses and the bridge. The side of fries has to be the guitar solo.
Can you sing along with a sausage? Don’t answer that.
In pop song craft, as in sausage serving, there are infinite ways to mix up the ingredients. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus song construction may be the most malleable formula in all of art. There are only so many chords and so many instruments. And you have to find a way to make the music your own. It’s something Midwest Death Rattle has figured out.
Just ask MDR singer/guitarist Nick Perow: “I have authenticity alerts when something isn’t going right – it’s a feel thing and hard to put your finger on. The best music doesn’t have to be complicated; it doesn’t have to be great. You just have to believe it.”
Yeah, you have to believe it.
I was listening to their new song Square Wave on repeat over the last few weeks. Square Wave is a jolt of energy, melody, and beautiful simplicity. It’s like what it would sound like if Spoon and Cake and the B-52's had a baby. It’s fun. Danceable. Infectious. It’s main lyric may be kind of a definition of pop music in itself: “You don’t really have to think about it, you don’t even have to think at all. You don’t have to believe … but it helps.”
The song is a melting pot mix of influences, which is exactly the essence of Midwest Death Rattle. Each member comes form a different musical place and the band writes as a unit. “The drummer [Derek Mantz] wrote most of Square Wave,” bassist Ryan Peters told me. The “fun” in Square Wave is no accident but more like the culmination of a process that every good band goes through. “We started going down a serious road – we’ve been playing together a long time – it initially started as my project, I was doing the writing – it can’t be just that it means something to me – you can’t force meaningful on the rest of the band,” Nick says.
Ryan continued: “We were trying to write what we thought we should be writing –we had a talk and then we lit the whole model on fire.”
The sense of rock band togetherness here at Vanguard is as refreshing as the IPA I’m drinking.
I guess that’s what draws me to Midwest Death Rattle; they’re a rock band in which you can sense they’re having fun. Nick echoes that sentiment – “One of the weird problems with rock is that it forgets to have fun.” Ryan agrees, then chimes in, “Or it just have to be so fucking serious it’s just like, wow.”
As we’re sitting there, hanging out and talking music it strikes me how busy and how loud it is at Vanguard on a Wednesday night. There’s a scene happening here, people out and about – there’s a striking sense of community and art and sausage here. Knit hats. Boots. Beer. Beards. This is “big small town Milwaukee. Everyone knows everybody, in some way or another. The music scene is no different.
Nick ponders that for a moment. “A lot of people know people in bands – that’s why you have to work to feel valuable. The level of the bands in this city has gone up dramatically – [people coming out of] Milwaukee School of the Arts has something to do with it and 88Nine has been very validating too. They’re incredibly supportive.”
Speaking of that tight knit community, Graham Hunt, a brilliant musician and songwriter in his own right (Midnight Reruns, Sundial Mottos, Soda Road), happens to be bartending at The Vanguard that night. He knows Nick and Ryan, and created the artwork for the Square Wave EP. During one of his breaks he sat down with us. At the risk of dating myself, his clear plastic glasses remind me of the pair I had in 1987.
It recently came out that Gibson Guitars was declaring bankruptcy. And I thought maybe the idea of the “rock band” was becoming less of a thing. Swagger and attitude are relics of a musical past. And let’s face it; the world right now could use a few well-placed power chords. Graham assured me that’s not the case – but had an interesting spin on it.
“I think you’re talking about masculinity,” he said. “Gibson makes over-priced guitars marketed against beginners – Fender is totally marketing towards women – more and more women are playing guitar – Gibson feels like the past.” Again, so true. Female led bands like Waxahatchee and Charly Bliss, Margaret Glaspy, Angel Olsen – they are kicking ass. And their songs are great. Masculinity be damned.
One of the things I loved about being in bands was the hang, the sitting around talking about music, sharing tracks you like. Having a few beers. And like most music conversations, we end the where we all share common ground: Our immense affinity for Weezer. Hell yeah. Now that’s some good sausage.
I listened to Pinkerton all the way home.
Visit Midwest Death Rattle here.
Buy Midwest Death Rattle music here.
Follow Graham Hunt on Instagram.
Buy Graham Hunt music here.
Check out The Vanguard here.
Visit Kelly Bolter Photography here.