For the most part, writing about music is a thankless job. I’m not complaining, getting to formulate opinions about albums and bands is what I do in the real world so it’s probably healthy to get them on figurative paper (ah, the internet). One upside is that every now and then I get to talk to some of my favorite artists and this last week I got to have a quick email-interview with one of my favorite bands, Tenement, and I’m proud of myself for not being a fan-boy about it. Tenement are a three piece punk band with an unlikely sound based out of an unlikely place, Wisconsin. Starting in 2006, the band has had a blistering rise to their current state of touring and recording. So much energy has been put into the band that a studio was built so that Tenement, along with their cohorts in DUSK and Black Thumb, can continue their streak of generation-defining music. the following interview took place over the last week and is a great glimpse into the powers behind Tenement.
1. First off, how are you doing today?
Jesse Ponkamo: I’ve had better.
Amos Pitsch: I woke up this morning with a sore on the back of my tongue. It hurts like hell, but I’m going alright; winter is stepping down. It’s been like… 50 degrees outside here in Wisconsin, which means my bones don’t hurt anymore when I’m just sitting still.
2. Where are you guys physically and where are you mentally at the moment? Are they two different places or are you more grounded?
J: I’m in my parents’ basement at the moment, and I’m in a strange place mentally but I’m trying to find a path forward. I think your surroundings influence your state of mind. I suppose it depends on your mental fortitude. Right now I’m living in a place I have not spent any extended amount of time in in almost 10 years.
A: I’m in the control room at Crutch of Memory, listening to Supergrass and answering these questions. Mentally, I’m always in a million places at once- thinking about recording sessions that will be happening in the following months and tour dates that will be happening next year. Thinking about what I’ll eat later and where I’ve got to go to find some record I just discovered. Right now my mind is split between the intricacies of the Dusk LP that I’m mixing, the Obleeks album that I’ve been commissioned to do artwork for, the show we’re playing with Redd Kross in Milwaukee in a couple days, an interview that I’ve got to drive to Milwaukee for a few days later, a couple dates that we’re doing in Hawaii in two weeks, a festival we’re playing in Toronto the week after that, a few records I’m engineering and mixing for other bands this summer, and five different tours we’ve been approached about being a part of this fall. I’m always thinking about what I need to do to make the logistics of these things work together- money-wise and time-wise (and energy-wise). It’s a big complicated composition in and of itself.
3. Are you working on any new recordings at the moment or are you more focused on playing shows?
A: We just finished composing music for two films by a young filmmaker from NYC named Eric Schuman and touring Mexico and the Midwestern United States. That’s been the bulk of our year so far. Right now I’m focused mainly on finishing up the debut record for my other band, Dusk.
J: We should be thinking about a new album pretty soon since we’ve had one on the back burner for a while now, we need the bestest songs though so I suppose I need to conquer my fear of writing more songs. I hope we get more opportunities to work in producing and scoring music for stage and screen.
4. Is traditional punk music something the three of you take into consideration when writing?
J: In some aspects yes others no. I think our music takes on many facets that at the end it may have nothing to do musically with punk and using that term only serves to limit the focus and the scope of our art form. I believe punk only serves to describe the community and culture we came from and have the most genuine dialogue with, and one we’re at odds with sometimes.
A: Traditional punk music played a much larger influence in my writing (personally) once upon a time. The Ramones were one of the first punk bands I ever heard and they still remain timeless to me. I think about The Ramones all the time when I’m writing.
5. What non-musical entities do you guys take inspiration from?
A: Any great work of art, really. While doing commissioned artwork for other bands and labels, I work in the mode of collage. I’ve got to spend hours digging through piles and piles of old magazines and books to find my material. The other day I ran across a large photo-journal in a 1950’s Life Magazine about the making of a stop motion animation film at NBC Studios. It showed these large background scenes made out of who-knows-what with sculpted trees and hills and houses, and looming above all of it was a production engineer holding some kind of oil-can looking thing with a plastic tube that ran to his mouth, which he was blowing into to push some kind of chemical out in dense cloud-like forms, that in turn hung slowly in the air above the artificial landscape. The guy was painting these things into thin air! It looked like a dance; a performance in itself. Above him hung hundreds of high wattage light bulbs, directed very particularly to illuminate only certain things and to cast shadows onto others. It was such an involved production. There was nothing virtual about any of it. It was all tangible and made by physical means. Really so mind blowing. I see something like this and I want to get up off my ass and make a record.
J: I really like movies and photography, and other harder to describe aspects of objects and their resonant qualities.
6. The music of Tenement has a lot of layers to it, are there elements you stay away from when writing or recording?
J: Autotune, maybe?
A: Of course I try to stay away from things that might seem dishonest or forced. There are elements of hardcore punk that I particularly love, such as chord progressions and urgency and production ideas- I’ll borrow those ideas, but I’ll never try write a hardcore record as Tenement. My heart would not be in it. The audience which follows a band is not stupid- they will catch onto anything which a band seems to force and make them eat it. I love hip hop music- in particular, the idea of lyrical flow, the idea of layering of samples – but Tenement will never make a hip hop record. We have, though, borrowed some of these ideas and used them at our own advantage.
7. While Tenement has toured all over you’re still based out of Wisconsin. Is there something special about the area that keeps you anchored here?
J: I think it’s being in Wisconsin that affords us the possibility to travel; however, I can’t speak for the contrapositive such as if we were from NYC would we be better off, etc..
A: I love the general feeling of Wisconsin. In an interview, George Crumb once referred to a geological place’s feeling as its “acoustic”. I like that. I think of it as the way everything reflects on one another. The way it sounds here- the vegetation, animals, industry all interacting with each other. The way people talk and the way they do things- it’s quaint or something. Sometimes simple to the point of almost being a little stupid. The way the land sits- this part of the country is subtle in its beauty. We’ve got rolling hills and forests and cornfields and lakes rather than mountains (which I don’t really like) and deserts (which I love). The way a sunset hits a cornfield or a lake is perhaps something I’ve been conditioned to love since I was a child. Wisconsin is mostly made up of these small working class communities with political leanings that make me feel alienated, but I think I’ve got some kind of perversion for the feeling of alienation. It assists me in focusing on the things I really want to create and what I’m seeing in my own mind, rather than what my peers are doing.
8. What is your favorite piece of equipment that you use on the road and in the Crutch of Memory Studio?
J: While all the equipment that Amos has amassed is exciting, it’s the unique non-mass produced items that capture my interest the most. Foremost of these is what I will call the Pitsched Glass Bells which can be heard on Predatory Headlights, and a pre-production model plate reverb.
A: I think the van is the most important piece of equipment for the road. It’s our home on wheels. Touring in a vehicle that you really don’t like alters your perception of the road. It’s a spiritual thing like anything else- how it looks inside and out. Like your favorite clothes, it gives you confidence and it makes you feel comfortable. It’s many folks’ first perception of you as you pull up to a show. It’s your only true personal space that you can escape to if you need a little familiarity. It looks familiar, is often quiet, and smells like you (whether that’s good or bad). The most valuable pieces of equipment at Crutch of Memory are the rooms themselves. I have a strong belief in the energy of a given place. Whether the space sounds good or not, it must have a strong creative energy. Iconic recordings have been made in total sonic shitholes. But the space has got to inspire you to relax and release your ideas naturally. I believe that energy in a given space accumulates over time, good or bad. The first time I visited the old Motown studio in Detroit- the energy I felt when walking into the live room was incredible. It has a smell, a sound, and a feeling that no other place on Earth has. The sweat from all of those sessions, the heat and humidity generated by having all of those people being creative in a room together all at once for all those years- it sticks around. Those walls absorb those smells and that energy. Before we moved into Crutch of Memory, we lived in a punk house called BFG. We hosted several punk shows a week for seven years. By the time we moved out, the place had an energy even when it was empty. It was a fine aging process- even if you had no knowledge of its history, you could walk in there and get the feeling that something happened there. That’s an important element of being creative to me. It’s the polar opposite of sterile; of empty. It’s giving birth to a “room” rather than a “space”.
9. Other than the obvious difference in genre and members, how does Dusk differ from Tenement?
J: I think the audience for Dusk is different, or at least what I notice from shows in Wisconsin.
A: Dusk is made up of five members and it works together more like an orchestra or something than Tenement does. It’s generally more fluid. It relies on small and subtle contributions from each of its members, even in a live setting. Tenement is more of a rhythm section than anything. Everything is organized around the rhythm. The drums, guitars, vocals, everything. Tenement is a loud and abrasive live band. It’s based in large part on power and volume, among other things.
10. What is one book recommendation, movie recommendation, and one album recommendation you have right now?
J: I’m not very good with literature as I scarcely but mainly read non-fiction books about jazz or photo art books, but the Four Lives in Bebop Business by AB Spellman is interesting. A photo book I’ve been enjoying is 都市は浮遊する | 内山英明 吉岡忍 (Wavering City, Hideaki Uchiyama) an early publication by a guy famous for his undergound architecture photos especially one you may have seen of the neutrino collector, Super Kamiokande, in Hida Japan. This book is odd in that it’s purely black and white urban landscape and street photography, themes and styles Uchiyama would in large part abandon. As for a movie I recently watched Blood Simple, an early Cohen brothers film. I’ve been enjoying both the new Joeybada$$ album and the recently reissued Midori Takada album Through the Looking Glass as far as currently available new albums are concerned. But for the nerds, I recently found a copy of Mal Waldron’s Free At Last album which I recommend strongly.
11. What are your plans for the rest of 2017?
A: We just released our soundtrack to the film PROXY on vinyl through Malokul Records, and we’re currently working on releasing the soundtrack to the film SMOTHER ME IN HUGS on Malokul as well. We’re working on planning some amount of touring of America this fall.
J: I need to eventually find a job and move out of my parent’s basement, work on some songs for the Tenement album, play some shows, print some zines, keep working in the darkroom, and generally stay creative.
12. Anything else you’d like to plug?
J: Check out my photography here:
A: Pizza Hut and Dominos are currently the worst nationwide pizza chains. Little Caesars is currently the best.
– By Mike Metcalf