Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Pipes's Picks: Best Music of 2020

While musicians were unable to tour much due to the COVID19 pandemic, a big blessing that came out of 2020 was the plethora of outstanding records.  Here are my favorites of the past twelve months.

1.    Phish Sigma Oasis One can certainly make an argument that Trey Anastasio, the lead guitarist and songwriter of Phish has experienced a resurgence and rejuvenation in his songwriting in recent years.  Ghosts of the Forest, 2019’s complex tribute to his long-time friend Chris Cottrell who passed away from cancer, was an exceptional release worth checking out.  Joining up with the Phish crew of Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell, Anastasio and company, dropped Sigma Oasis as a surprise record in early April. Sigma Oasis ranks as one of Phish's finest studio releases, if not their very best record in their over thirty year career, and served as a constant soundtrack to 2020 in so many ways for me. Simply put, Sigma Oasis often tackles the theme of uncertainty with an underlying notion of hope and positivity... a message most needed in this year of years.

There are many stand-out tracks on this nine song record, which clocks in at a little over an hour (a robust release by modern standards).  “Sigma Oasis,” and “Mercury” are both stellar numbers.  The slower ballads, “Shade,” and “A Life Beyond The Dream,” are stripped down, touching and earnest.  However, the highlight of the record is the 12:22 “Everything’s Right,” a song that lyrically encapsulates 2020, as well as providing listeners with the closest Phish has ever gotten to capturing the magic of their live improvisational performance on record.  

Stand out tracks: “Everything’s Right,” “Sigma Oasis,” “Mercury,” “Shade.”

2.    Bonny Light Horsemen- Bonny Light Horsemen

Bonny Light Horsemen was a project that originated at the 2018 Eaux Claires music festival where three folk-aficionados, Eric Johnson (of the Fruit Bats), multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman and singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell first connected.  Their aim was to reimagine tunes that are centuries old with a modern realism and relevance.  In their 2020 self-titled release they more than accomplished their mission, adding soaring harmonies and lush arrangements to create a progressive folk masterpiece.  In addition to the record, Bonny Light Horsemen released a series of singles throughout the year, which were also excellent.

Stand out tracks: “Deep in Love,” “Jane, Jane,” “Magpie’s Nest”

3.    Waxahatchee- Saint Cloud

Katie Crutchfield certainly came into her own with Saint Cloud, her fifth record performing as “Waxahatchee.”  Saint Cloud is a record that showcases the singer-songwriter’s beautiful vocal range, intimate lyrics and vivid storytelling.  Simply put, it plays like a gentle summer’s evening, with lots of wonderful allusions to nature and finding joy in the mundanity of everyday life.  Listening to Saint Cloud feels like Cruitchfield is right there with you in the living room, in the car, or wherever the record is played.  There is nothing overly fancy here, and there doesn’t need to be, as sometimes the simplicity of songs is what makes them the most beautiful.

Stand out tracks: “Oxbow,” “Can’t Do Much,” “Lilacs”

4. Field Report- Brake Lights, Red Tide

Field Report songwriter Christopher Porterfield has long been known for creating beautiful, thought-provoking, reflective tunes that are relatable to listeners on so many different levels.  Through similes and imagery that sticks to your soul, Brake Lights, Red Tide is up there with Porterfield’s finest work to date.  Caley Conway’s guitar and backing vocals along with Devin Drobka’s drumming shine throughout the record as well. 

Stand out tracks: “Begin to Begin,” “Breathe,” “Peoria”

5. Fleet Foxes- Shore
On their fourth LP, Fleet Foxes’s principal songwriter, Robin Pecknold, delivers perhaps the band’s most consistent records of their career, ranking up there with their self-titled debut LP release from over a decade ago.  This is a beautiful record, front-to-back, which deserves being listened to as a whole piece with the headphones on and a tasty beverage in hand.  Excellent production and sound layering make this record an instant classic which delivers new surprises with each listen.

Stand out tracks: “Sunblind,” “Can I Believe You,” “Jara,”

6. Jeff Tweedy- Love Is King
Jeff Tweedy is perhaps the Godfather of "Dad Rock" these days. The Wilco frontman has been busy with his solo work, and on his fourth solo effort, was joined by his sons Spencer and Sammy to craft a defining "shut in at home" record. There is a beauty and simplicity to Tweedy's songwriting, and his message on this record is all about the need and importance of human connection. I would love nothing more than to see Wilco extend some of these tunes live when shows hopefully return. Stand out tracks: "Gwendolyn," "Love Is King," "Guess Again"

7. Khruangbin- Mordechai
The term Khruangbin translates to "flying engine" in Thai, and is as apt a descriptor as anything for the Houston-based funk-soul-psychadelic trio. Khruanbin has been quite prolific in recent years, releasing a steady stream of records which continue to push the trio's sound in a variety of directions. The trippy, funky, and feel-good vibes of their latest release, Mordechai were a welcome groove and distraction to this crazy year. In many ways Khruangbin is to 2020 as Jamiroquai was to the mid 1990's... feel-good, heavy groove driven music that seems to be in its own eternal time warp. This is a band that will soar to new heights on the national and festival scene once live shows return.

Stand out tracks: "Time (You and I)," "So We Won't Forget," "Pelota"

8.    Sylvan Esso- Free Love

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn have certainly become a power couple of sorts in the indie music scene.  The eclectic duo continue to innovate and reimagine their sound mixing Sanborn’s beats with Meath’s ethereal voice and lyrics.  There is something refreshingly tangible about the ten songs on Free Love that make the record both incredibly intimate and accessible.  Once again, upbeat tunes win on this record, which is impossible to sit still while enjoying.

Stand out tracks: “Ring,” “Ferris Wheel,” “Rooftop Dancing”

Sturgill Simpson- Cutting Grass Vol. 1 and 2

What do you do when you’ve become a national headlining outlaw country star?  If your name is Sturgill Simpson, why not reimagine your work in bluegrass form. As a fan of the bluegrass genre and Simpson as a songwriter, listeners are in for a real smile and treat hearing the re-workings of many of these tunes.  What is especially compelling about these two records is both the arrangements as well as the focus on Simpson’s lyrics and storytelling. This music makes you feel like Simpson and his all-star crew are sitting on your back porch picking away.

Stand out tracks: “I Don’t Mind,” “Old King Coal,” “Brace for the Impact (Live A Little),”

10. Phoebe Bridgers- Punisher
For a twenty-five year old songwriter, Phoebe Bridgers has made quite a splash.  Coming off of last year’s phenomenal Better Oblivion Community Center record, my favorite of the year, with fellow songsmith Connor Oberst, Bridgers returned with a career defining effort.  Punisher sees Bridgers emerging as a songwriter well-beyond her years.  Her songs have a raw and inviting feel to them and her storytelling is clever, introspective, and insightful. "I Know the End," might be one of the most perfect anthems of 2020.

Stand out tracks: “Garden Song,” “Kyoto,” “I Know The End”

11. Dehd- Flower of Devotion
The Chicago trio "Dehd," may be one of the best finds of 2020.  The group's palpable energy comes through on their third LP release, Flower of Devotion, with wonderful pop-rock sensibilities, wonder and joy.  This is a band that you can envision having a great time on stage together as you listen to the interplay of Emily Kempf, Jason Balla and drummer Eric McGrady.  Dehd's ear-worming melodies burrow deep and get stuck in your head quickly.

Stand out tracks: "Haha," "Loner," "Nobody"

12. My Morning Jacket- The Waterfall II
Listening to The Waterfall II is a surefire recipe for any music lover to groan and lament how we miss seeing live tunes this year. "Wasted," with guitarist Carl Brommel's expert shredding is a prime example of what we all love about the Jacket. Jim James and company returned with an album on par with any of their more recent work, the well-produced and diverse Waterfall II. Like many records on this list, there is a certain amount of poignant reflection that comes through on this record and across the range of tunes on it.

Stand out tracks: "Spinning My Wheels," "Run It," "Wasted."

Notable EP Releases:
  • Dead Horses- Birds Few artists can tell a story with more earnestness and warmth than Dead Horses's Sarah Vos. Vos and her collaborator, Daniel Wolfe, continue to hone their craft with their latest EP "Birds." Be sure to check out the tunes "Family Tapes," and "Birds Can Write the Chorus," both of which are stellar recent tracks.

  • Kurt Vile- Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep) Philadelphia's Americana troubadour, Kurt Vile, released a beautifully and apt titled EP Speed, Sound, Lonely KV, which clearly channeled quarantine feelings. In many ways, Vile's muse, the late, great John Prine's spirit is alive and well on this collection of tunes. The highlight, "How Lucky," a duet with Prine himself, emerges as a timeless and loving tale of two amazingly prolific songwriters. Vile's own "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" is one of his finer compositions as well.
For a sample of all of the music featured on this list, along with a lot of other notable music from 2020, please check out my "Pipes's Picks Best of 2020" playlist on Spotify:

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

COVID19 MKE House Show Round-Up: Staying Connected and Creative During Crazy Times

The COVID19 Pandemic has had a tremendous impact on society and culture here in Milwaukee, across the country, and around the world. With live in-person concerts on hold, for now, artists who make a living by touring are coming up with innovative and creative ways to host shows and connect with their fan bases while being hunkered down inside of their own homes. The art of the virtual house show has quickly emerged as a popular format for artists to share their music with fans, and also a great way for some of our top independent musicians to hopefully earn tips, as many of their tours have been canceled or postponed. Call it virtual busking, COVID Couch Tour, or what you will, we want to applaud some of our finest Milwaukee performers for their efforts to keep spirits up and music flowing during these difficult times.

Joseph Huber: Joseph Huber has long been touted as a Milwaukee treasure with his earnest storytelling and grippingly sincere songwriting. While busting on the scene as a young person in the mid-2000's as a founding member of .357 String Band, Huber has made a great go of it as a solo artist and has been touring around the midwest and beyond steadily for the past decade.  Huber was slated to be touring across the country this spring in support of his most recent record, 2019's, Moondog. However, due to COVID19, he's been off the open road and holed up in his Riverwest abode.  Does that stop Huber from sharing his tunes, giving passionate performances and working on a new record? Of course not!  One of Milwaukee's first artists to jump on the Facebook Live platform for performing during the "safer at home" movement, Huber pulled off an epic and seemingly insane four-hour live set on March 23rd. Let's remember this is Joe performing solo as a singer-guitarist-harmonica player, without any sort of band accompaniment either.  Huber's set spanned his career of tunes from vintage .357 String Band cuts to brand new numbers, to old tunes reimagined, and recent solo works as well.  Pepper in a few covers from the likes of Van Morrison and Jackson Browne, and you have yourself the mother of all quarantine house shows. If it wasn't for Facebook Live cutting him off at four hours, one might reckon that Joe would have gone even longer. This show was amazing to experience live and worth a revisit on Joe's Facebook page.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @Joseph-Huber-12 or PayPal at 

While Joseph Huber's solo work is always noteworthy and worth recognition, Huber recently joined forces with Jayke Orvis who also was a staple in the .357 String Band for an hour plus "street grass" revival show. The smiles on the artists' faces while trying to physically distance themselves were priceless.  This impromptu performance had over 600 viewers tuning in for their live set which started at 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon...  a great testament to fans still hungry for vintage .357 jams.
Virtual Tip Jar: PayPal at

Trapper Schoepp:
Trapper Schoepp has emerged in recent years as one of Milwaukee's most prolific songwriters and infectiously energetic performers.  Schoepp's passion for his home city and state is evident in everything from "On, Wisconsin" (a song he penned with recovered lyrics from the great Bob Dylan) to his homage to fun with his 2017 "Bay Beach Amusement Park" release.  Schoepp is proud of his Wisconsin roots and often references his home state and experiences, traveling through it and away from it, as regular fodder for his tunes.  Trapper Schoepp along with his brother Tanner recently took their show to the interwebs and performed a classic take of their song "Tracks" from their 2012 debut record.

To support Trapper Schoepp and his band, please consider checking out his Kickstarter Page: or
Virtual tip jar: Venmo @trapperschoepp; PayPal-

Ryan Necci of Buffalo Gospel:
Ryan Necci might have the best voice of any singer-songwriter to come out of Milwaukee recently. Folks that have had the pleasure of seeing Necci perform with his band, Buffalo Gospel, know how Ryan can belt out introspective vocals like none other.  Necci and his wife have recently relocated to Nashville, but still, make it a regular practice of performing concerts in Wisconsin with new and old friends in attendance. Few can howl better than Necci and even fewer can connect lyrically on so many different levels. In a recent virtual living room show, Necci performed a two-hour set showcasing the breadth and evolution of his songwriting over the past decade.

Virtual Tip Jar: Paypal - Venmo -

Ernest Brusabardis IV and Jordan Kroger of Chickenwire Empire:
Milwaukee's bluegrass juggernauts, Chicken Wire Empire, continue to stay busy and connected during these challenging times, with Sunday shows performed by Ernie and Jordan. What's fun about this particular performance is that you have Ernie (who normally plays fiddle) on mandolin and Jordan (who normally plays upright bass) on guitar. The duo does a splendid job of covering veteran bluesman Taj Mahal's "Loving in my Baby's Arms,"  and keep their upbeat nature and joy for performing for others palpable amid the social distancing.

Virtual Tip Jar: PayPal:

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Pipes's Picks: Best of 2019 (Better Late Than Never :) )

2019 saw the decade of the 2010's conclude with a number of standout releases that, while incredibly diverse, share a similar quality of evoking a greater sense of simplicity and connectivity, which are two qualities many folks are yearning for these days.  While I'm a little late to the party in terms of the "end-of-the-year" list, this belated version has allowed some of the music from the past year to sink in a bit more.   So, as the old adage goes, better late than never... and with that, I give you my belated version of Pipes's Picks for 2019:

You can check out all of these artists and standout tracks on my 2019 Pipes's Picks Playlist on Spotify.

The tag team of Phoebe Bridges and Connor Oberst delivered a stellar record that features both prolific songwriters in top form, creating an effortless, intimate sound that stands apart from their solo work.  What makes this collaboration especially special is the fact that Bridges, at age 25, is very much in the same boat Oberst was in earlier in his career when he was invited to collaborate with notable, older songsmiths (Monsters of Folk comes to mind).  The beautiful harmonies between the two songwriters and vulnerable lyric-driven songs resonate on a variety of levels and provide the listener something new each time.

Standout tracks: "Dylan Thomas," "Didn't Know What I Was In For," "Sleepwalking"

Produced by Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles, Die Happy finds the Eau Claire Americana act at their best with a record that takes listeners on an emotional journey, fuelled with introspective, honest songwriting by Soren Staff.  The vocal harmonies stand out on this record as Die Happy delivers an infectiously catchy record from start to finish.  Also to note, the band's live show is top-notch and the new tracks translate fantastically on stage.

Standout tracks: "Hand of God (parts 2 and 3)," "Evangelina," "5'6'' Monument"

Ghosts of the Forest is a project Trey Anastasio created as a tribute to his longtime friend, Chris Cottrell who passed away from cancer. This is a record that hits particularly close to home for me, as my wife continues her battle with lung cancer. The principal Phish songwriter and guitarist's project is incredibly personal and multi-layered.  Many of the tracks from the record were performed by Phish on their recent summer tour, but Ghosts of the Forest is a unique project different in sonic quality from anything Anastasio has done with Phish or Trey Anastasio Band.  There are records that come around and just help you put one foot in front of the other at different points in your life, and for the latter half of 2019, this was that record for me.

Standout tracks: "Ghosts of the Forest," "About to Run," "Ruby Waves"

2019 was a tremendous year for the indie rock quartet from Brooklyn.  Releasing two stand-out records, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, the band received tons of well-deserved critical acclaim.  Adrianne Lenker's ethereal vocals drive Big Thief's sound, but it is the unique, clever, and catchy instrumentation of the quartet that really helps the songs take shape. 

Standout tracks: "U.F.O.F.," "Forgotten Eyes," "Cattails"

The Austin-based duo of singer/guitarist Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada have become quite the buzz-band as the calendar flipped from 2019 into 2020.  The band has sold out shows across the country and deservedly so.  Their album blends the best of soul, funk, and indie rock, and is guided by exceptional guitar-work and Burton's fantastic vocal range.

Standout tracks: "Colors," "Black Moon Rising," "Fire"

Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor has become one of the most prolific songwriters in recent years, delivering a string of five top-quality albums over the past four years.  Backed with multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook supporting him, Taylor and company are a band that embodies soulful Americana. Terms of Surrender is heartfelt and reflective through and through and engages listeners from start to finish.

Stand out tracks: "I Need A Teacher," "Old Enough to Wonder Why," "Terms of Surrender"

Eraserland is a hopeful record that finds Timothy Showalter at the top of his game. Backed by My Morning Jacket, Showalter is noticeably more comfortable in his own skin as an artist, and the result is a superb record that blends Showalter's robustly introspective vocals with a genuine jammy rock sound.

Stand out tracks: "Weird Ways," "Ruby," "Forever Chords"

Gunn has emerged as one of the best guitarists on the scene in recent years, blending together bluesy, Americana, and psychedelic stylings. With soundscapes that tell a story in and of themselves, The Unseen Inbetween finds Gunn at perhaps his most accessible.  The companion release, The Acoustic Unseen is also worth checking out and further showcases Gunn's prowess on the axe.

Stand out tracks: "Vagabond," "New Moon," "New Familiar"

The veteran psychedelic, folk, punk, alt-country rocker delivers perhaps his most ambitious record to date with Tip of the Sphere. The longer-form compositions stand out and blend singer-songwriter sensibility and lyrical depth with some serious deep jams.

Stand out tracks: "I Followed The River South to What," "Rounder," "Sleeping Volcanoes"

Moctar is a Tuareg songwriter and musician based in Agadez, Niger who dropped one of the trippiest and most unique guitar-based records of the year. IIana (The Creator) showcases Moctar's unique style of play and jams hard to create vast, lush soundscapes.  Moctar is an artist who cannot be defined by genre labels and pushes his unique sound in so many different directions on this album.

Stand out tracks: "Kamane Tarhanin," "Anna," "Tarhatazed:"

The enigmatic Canadian country crooner's debut LP,  Pony combines traditional country musings with a modern touch to create a freshly unique and interesting sound.  Peck has an unbelievably rich voice that carries his music.  While we don't know tons about the masked performer, it's safe to say that we look forward to forthcoming music from him in years to come.

Stand out tracks: "Dead of Night," "Turn to Hate," "Queen of the Rodeo"

It's hard to believe that Vampire Weekend has been around for the past fifteen years. I still recall seeing them at Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee shortly after their first record was released!  Vampire Weekend has evolved into one of the top indie rock bands of the 2010's. The group continues to progress and hone their unique sound with each release.  Father of the Bride is contagiously infectious with pop songs that will noodle into your brain and stay there for a long time.  

Stand out tracks: "Harmony Hall," "This Life," "Sunflower"

Justin Vernon and company's fourth proper LP, i,i was dubbed the "autumn" record by the group. As with his previous releases, Vernon continues to experiment, explore and expand his sound as a performer.  i,i creates a nice sonic balance, integrating more of Vernon's folk sensibilities with his deeper electronic arrangements to create a solid record from start to finish.

Stand out tracks: "Hey, Ma," "Faith," "Naeem"

Local Love:

Midwestern bluegrass juggernaut Chicken Wire Empire came into their own in 2019 as a top-notch contemporary jam-grass outfit, delighting fans at a plethora of local, regional and national festivals as well as touring Europe.  Releasing What Moves Mountains on New Year's Day was a fun and unique move for the quintet, and helped set the stage for a tremendous year.

Standout tracks: "Wildflowers," "Summer and Me," "Maker"

The sincerity and earnestness of Joseph Huber's songwriting continues to evolve with his most current release, Moondog.  Huber's soulful lyrics shine on this record that spans over 70 minutes and showcases some of the singer-songwriter's best storytelling to date.  Huber's songs allow his listeners to transport themselves into the narratives of his songs on this simultaneously intimate and sprawling release.

Standout tracks: "Northwoods Waltz," "Moondog," "Pale Lonesome Rider"

Monday, September 2, 2019

Them Coulee Boys - Turner Hall Ballroom, 8/30/19

At the end of their powerfully riveting set on Friday Night, Soren Staff, the singer-songwriter/guitarist of Them Coulee Boys, came to the front of the Turner Hall stage without a mic.  With misty eyes, sweaty brow, and a huge grin on his face, he thanked everyone for being in attendance stating, “You have no idea how much this means to us,” praising the large, fun-loving audience at Turner who hung on Staff’s every word.  Them Coulee Boys, the five-piece America outfit hailing from Eau Claire, Wisconsin are honest and sincere musicians, whose passion and emotion is evident through their music and performance.  

Them Coulee Boys are at an all-time high these days.  Their new album Die Happy is exceptional and bound to make many “Best of the Year” lists (including mine).  The eleven-song record masterfully covers a myriad of emotions through the soulful, relatable writing and subtle nuance in Staff’s lyrics, paired with the rich tapestry of the band’s sound. The songs from Die Happy, when performed live provided an even greater sense of joy for the listeners as the audience saw a band truly grateful to be sharing their art with others.  Staff commented at one point in the show that he was so proud to share the new songs with others, and this was evident throughout the band’s near ninety-minute set.  

Soren Staff’s brother, Jens Staff was a pleasure to watch as he alternated from a standard mandolin to a custom-made electric mandolin which looked like a miniature Statacaster as Jens jammed on it.  Bassist Neil Krause held down the rhythm section along with the band’s drummer and also added harmonies and back-up vocals. Beau Janke was on fire with electric and acoustic banjo and also traded off with Jens on keyboards, all while providing harmonies and back-up vocals as well. 

The band’s set, as expected, relied heavily on highlights from Die Happy.  Some stand-out tracks included “Midnight Manifestos,” a song that has a sultry swagger in its rhythm as Staff tells tales of after-hours adventures. “Evangelina,” was another set highlight. While the band has played this song regularly at live shows, the harmonies amongst the band members were notable and got the crowd bopping.  Speaking of crowd participation, the hand rubbing and clapping on “Find Your Muse,” was another great participatory moment and set highlight. However, the biggest takeaway moment from Die Happy was a song that Staff prefaced by saying how glad he and the band were able to share it live.  “Hand of God, Parts 2 and 3” is a masterpiece of a tune, that is musically and lyrically is equal parts contagious and reflective.  

Not to forget their earlier work, Them Coulee Boys mixed in a fair amount of crowd favorites into their set including, “16th Street,” “10 Feet Tall,” and an encore performance of “I Won’t Be Defined” all off their stellar 2016 Dancing in the Dim Light LP.

MKE Rocks had the opportunity to chat with Them Coulee Boys’ lead vocalist and guitarist, Soren Staff in preparation of the band’s album release show at Turner Hall.

MKE Rocks: What was it like creating Die Happy?
Staff: It was a longer process than usual.  We wanted to make this record towards the end of 2017.  In the past, we recorded everything ourselves… it was like record it and get it out.
This time, we knew we wanted to work with Dave Simonett (of Trampled by Turtles) so it kept getting pushed back.  We finally got into the studio in February 2018. Then we made the record and wanted to get some label support behind it to do it the right way.  Here we are, late in the summer of 2019, and are now just getting it out.

Making Die Happy was a meticulous process.  From the start, it was different than other records of ours, as in the past the writing was spread out.  For this one, I was writing the songs all at the same time. It’s a concept record of sorts. There are songs that reference each other both musically and lyrically.  When I figured this out, I wanted to make sure that we were very intentional about each line and the way we put the album together. The extra time really helped give this record some life and gave us time to rework and revise the songs to a new level.

I’m glad we waited this long as it seems like now is the right time to put out something like this.  Giving us the extra time gave us the space to make and release the record the way we wanted to do it.

MKE Rocks: How was it like working with David Simonett?

Staff: Simply put, Dave’s great.  He’s a guy who has been a hero of mine.  I loved them (Trampled by Turtles) for such a long time and waited in line to see their shows.  They are one of the bands that got me into this genre of music. Dave is very kind, thoughtful, and intentional and that really showed through with us in his role as producer.  Some people can be hands-on and others hands-off as a producer. Dave was a good mix of both in the producer role. He gave us the confidence to believe in ourselves at times. There were times he told me, “Soren, these songs are great.”  To hear that from someone I’ve looked up to for such a long time meant a lot. He encouraged us to be ourselves.

MKE Rocks: What are you most proud about the album?

Staff: I think what I’m most proud of is that this is the hardest I’ve worked to put myself out there lyrically.  I don’t necessarily have the strongest music composing skills, but I am very proud of where I went lyrically.  I went to spaces and thought processes that I have never gone to before. I am really proud of the band for making my songs sound way better than they should. These guys help transform the songs into what they become and have made us a band that I’m incredibly proud of.  

MKE Rocks: Spirituality seems to be a recurring theme in many of your songs, especially those on Die Happy.  Could you please share a bit about the role spirituality has played in your music?

Staff: I grew up in the church, and part of this band is me and my brother (Jens) and Beau meeting up at a bible camp.  Religion and spirituality to me is always this relationship that sometimes goes really well and other times really bad.  I think that’s normal and healthy. It’s part of my life, so I write about it. When I write I focus on things that are important to me or things I think a lot about, and spirituality is one of them.  

It also is such a crutch sometimes lyrically.  A lot of those religious metaphors, people get ‘em.  It can be an easy metaphor and I don’t mind using them because they mean something to me.  

MKE Rocks: What are inspirations for writing songs?

Staff: A lot of this record came from personal experience for me.  This record is a journey. I was going through a lot of things when I was writing this record.  I went through a break-up and my mom got sick. It brought up a lot of depression and anxiety for me.  This writing session was in parts me coming to grips with all of this. I went through the low points and had gotten to a place of acceptance.  These songs are super personal as they reference certain moments for me.  

There were moments in songs, like “Hand of God” for instance, where I wanted to look outward.  There were all these characters that represented a part of me, but for me, the song came together by getting all of these characters out. I think a lot about empathy and the people around me.  I’ve written too many songs about myself and wanted to go for a different perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is good and healthy in normal life as well as songwriting.

MKE Rocks: The Midwest Americana scene seems like it’s at an all-time high in terms of talent with bands like yours, Joseph Huber, Buffalo Gospel, Dead Horses, Trampled by Turtles and Chicken Wire Empire, just to name a few.  Can you please share your thoughts on the scene?

Staff: We have a unique perspective because when we came in, we co-opted this genre.  I heard the Avett Brothers and thought, “this is amazing,” so I wanted to do something like this.  When we hopped into things, we didn’t know the history of the scene. We hadn’t heard some of the bands that paved the way in this genre.  With that, everyone is this scene is so very supportive. We are the guys who didn’t know who some of these artists were, and we were openly welcomed in.  This Midwest Americana scene is very focused on very intentional, genuine people who want to make music together and support one another. It’s hard to meet people in this genre and not like them.  I gravitate towards hardworking genuine people and we’ve found so much of them in this genre. There is a boom right now, and that means there will be younger bands jumping in. And that’s what keeps the scene fresh and awesome.  As a young band, having more established bands invite you to do shows is such a great thing, and these guys have no hesitation helping each other out.  

MKE Rocks: Any plans future for touring with this record?
Staff: We have an album release tour in September.  We had a release show in Eau Claire on Friday, then Turner Hall this week, and starting next week we’re going on a big run.  We’re doing twenty-five days on the road… doing a few shows in Wisconsin, going to the UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan), then going to Nashville for AmericanaFest, then through the Carolinas and East Coast.  We’re bouncing all over the place… it’s something like twenty-two or twenty-three shows in twenty-five days. It’s gonna be fun for sure! We’ll see how the voice stands up. We’re at a moment right now where we want to chase it and we want to see where it goes.  Suffice to say, we’re excited and want to play these songs for people.

MKE Rocks:  In closing today, I just have to ask, where does the name, “Them Coulee Boys” come from?
Staff: The name comes from the driftless region of Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Coulee is a French word that the fur traders made after hearing the native word for “valley.”  Coulee technically now is a valley with a stream or river in it. I grew up in that kind of region near LaCrosse.  When we were working at bible camp, me, Beau and Jens were working together, and our friend would make a joke when we were horsing around, “Them Coulee Boys are at it again.”  That’s where our name comes from. It’s not the most ideal name as folks will ask, “what’s a Coulee?” but we’ve grown to love it because it is just us.

Thanks to Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch for all of the photos in this post.