Trying Somehow to Catch Up
Making winners out of What Made Milwaukee Famous
"Is there beer yet?"
Michael Kingcaid is nothing if not a gracious host. On the afternoon of What Made Milwaukee Famous' recent performance at Waterloo Records the day after the band's return from a month on the road the frontman's primary concern is whether the overheated audience has been rewarded with the customary in-store libation, which is MIA today.
Also a bit of a surprise, although it shouldn't be, is discovering that there's absolutely no elbow room in Waterloo this sweltering Friday afternoon. The homegrown audience is a diverse one, of course. There are the requisite hipsters, as well as middle-aged office drones, moms with babes in strollers, and an incredibly vocal superfan screeching and dancing at the front of the stage. WMMF has come a long way, baby.
In 2004, the Austin quartet self-released an initial pressing of 3,000 copies of their debut LP, Trying to Never Catch Up, started playing out, and cultivated a loyal Central Texas fan base in the process. During SXSW 05, just weeks after an initial interview with the Chronicle (March 4, 2005), Barsuk Records, Seattle's home of Death Cab for Cutie, approached the band.
"We were tossing a contract and ideas back and forth about releasing an album," Kingcaid recalls. "There was talk of releasing an EP, re-recording some other songs."
Speculation about the band's "gentleman's agreement" with Barsuk remained just that at this year's SXSW, but soon thereafter, a deal was finalized, and the label re-released a tighter, shinier Trying to Never Catch Up, which includes four new songs recorded with Spoon drummer and producer extraordinaire Jim Eno.
The new songs are, on the whole, a solid choice for the continued life of the album. Where "Next to Him" floundered on the initial release, "Sweet Lady" bounces toward the LP's conclusion; the same holds true on the "Short on Shields"/"Judas" swap. With the weaker songs jettisoned and stronger material in place, Trying is ready for the world, or at least North America. Here's hoping the band can keep up.
Creative endeavors are often rife with tension. Success can rend the personal bonds in any band, while messy record label business has a well-documented way of splintering promising groups. Within the indie realm, an act's evolution is often a struggle between building a larger audience and acknowledging the existing fan base and its expectations.
Unsigned groups have the gift of time, the wise ones cultivating an audience on a grassroots level while allowing space for their natural creative growth. If the right album proves itself locally, then the money people start paying attention. The problem arises when pen touches paper and dotted lines are signed. It's at this point in the process that the clock starts ticking and the dual goals of developing a career and honoring creativity either compete, synergize, or both. It's the new normal for the way careers get built, but it's often at odds with artists whose sole existences are based on the urge to create.
When asked about doing time in service of an album that should, by rights, be in the rearview mirror as a second disc is birthed, Kingcaid is weary and guarded, wanting to bitch but holding himself back lest he appear ungrateful.
"We've established that we want to do this as our career, and there are much worse things to be doing with your life than playing two-year-old songs to new people or people who've heard them and are singing along," he insists. "We hope that Austin understands because they've heard these songs plenty of times, but this is our duty to the rest of the world, to try to get them to hear the album. It's not a bad situation to be in."
"I think a lot of people don't understand all the steps it takes to get to that release date," interjects guitarist/keyboardist Drew Patrizi. "All the business stuff that comes up really bogs you down, and we wanted to keep that chance alive to get the record out to everyone outside of Austin. After that, we're off and running. We can start releasing records as fast as the label will let us."
"We wanted people to hear these songs," continues Kingcaid. "We feel these songs are worthy of being played out there, not just in Texas."
What Made Milwaukee Famous is now entrenched in that delicate balancing act of needing to please (the label, their fans, themselves), caught between a desire to keep creating, while gaining a wider audience by working a two-year-old album for the next 18 months. They're living their ascendancy now, and as such, triumphs like a successful slot at Lollapalooza this summer are often overtaken by humbling moments, such as being the scrub support act on tour with the French Kicks.
Consider, though, the continuum of career trajectories of local indie bands. Okkervil River built up quietly on the Jagjaguwar label until exploding in 2005 with its third LP. Zykos, meanwhile, made a splash two years ago, then foundered after Ben Dickey cut and ran on his Post-Parlo label. What Made Milwaukee Famous got the best of both worlds: Ears perked up locally almost immediately, they enjoyed a comfortable groundswell on the home front, and then had the good fortune to get picked up by a well-respected label. Things could definitely be worse.
"Who said mo' money, mo' problems?" quips drummer Jeremy Bruch.
He and the Notorious B.I.G. are right: Proliferation is tricky.
"We're all putting aside everything else to make this work," insists Patrizi. "I think it will get harder before it gets easier. To the outside world, we're achieving stuff, and we are, but we're also facing new struggles that weren't there before. The progress pre-empts new struggles we've got to get through."
Had WMMF the luxury to languish for years at the local level, they'd have it easy, half-in and half-out of a musical career. Bassist John Farmer, currently couch surfing, would have a job and home of his own. Kingcaid wouldn't have to spend four- and six-week stretches away from his wife. Long-term benefits are potentially enormous, but the short term is a killer. What gets them through this difficult growth spurt is the memory of a trip to the Barsuk warehouses while the label was courting them.
"They were showing us where they keep all the merchandise for all their bands," Farmer recounts, smiling. "One warehouse is for all the T-shirts and CDs. The other warehouse is for Death Cab for Cutie."
The four of them laugh. In that moment, the collective vision of What Made Milwaukee Famous becomes clear: to have a warehouse of their own.
What Made Milwaukee Famous plays the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 6:30pm on the Austin Ventures stage and Emo's Sept. 17 with TV on the Radio. They then leave for a six-week tour with the Long Winters.