Calliope travels from the circus to the '60s for full-length debut
Calliope's origin story sounds like one you've probably heard before – a bunch of college guys gathering in a house to rock out together and annoy the neighbors in the process. The music itself, a loony brand of circus-influenced novelty tunes, is where the origin tale gets a little weird.
A few years later, the Milwaukee band is preparing to release its first full-length album, which it rings in with a release party/show on Friday night at Linneman's Riverwest Inn. And while the music may have moved closer to the psychedelic rock and roll of the '60s, there's still a touch of the circus-tinted "madness" that got Calliope going in the first place.
I sat down with band members Vic Buell IV (guitars and vocals) and Al Kraemer (keyboard and vocals) to talk about their circus-influenced origins, creating their first full-length album and why they're actually looking forward to the reviews.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you guys start up?
Vic Buell IV: We had been friends for quite a while and went to school together at UWM. We weren't really doing much musically at the time. Al just brought over this old Farfisa combo organ, and we were like, "We gotta hear this thing." So we were just messing around with this thing, making some of the most terrifying noises I've ever heard in my life. That's what kind of planted a seed in a way. After that, I just thought, "Man, we gotta make some music together and use this thing."
Al Kraemer: I barely even played keys back then. It's like I started playing keys after I bought that Farfisa. The neighbor hated it; he called the cops on us three or four times.
VB: We had a cranky older neighbor who was like a lifelong resident, and our place wasn't insulated too well. So that was the seed, and it just kind of started with us writing these joke songs. Little novelty, vintage songs that were just made to sound old. I mean, the organ was old, and it was made with that old aesthetic.
AK: I think it was from 1968.
VB: So yeah, we started doing that, and a buddy we worked with played the drums. We were just kind of interested in jamming with someone. And he was cool, but I think he had different priorities. At a certain point in time, we wanted to go a little further, and maybe he had other interests I guess, so we brought in our current line-up, our bass player and our drummer, John Larkin and Eric Gomoll. That's really when things really started to take off and became what it is today.
OMC: Your EP "Kawaguesaga Sessions" has a very distinct style to it, with a lot of circus influences. Where does that come from?
AK: Those were like the jokey, novelty songs that we started with, and when we were jamming in his attic, we would play these terrible, waltz-sounding things. Usually really late at night.
VB: It kind of came from this element of madness. The circus waltz has this theme of madness to it.
AK: Willy Wonka madness.
VB: They wouldn't have worked in any other arrangement. Maybe they would have – maybe they would have sounded better – but they wouldn't have had the same loony vibe. It's sort of intrinsic with the instruments, but it also definitely stems from our personalities.
OMC: "Mine, All Mine" seems to be distancing away from those novelty songs. Is there still any of the circus influence on the new album?
AK: The last track on the album was one of the first songs we ever wrote, and it definitely has a quirky, funny sound to it. It's called "The Happy Song."
VB: It sounds happy but the subject matter is not very happy. This album is sort of like from the beginning until now for us. There are songs that are from before we ever started playing with a drummer – I mean, we've been messing around with "Happy Song" since day one. So there's songs that have been always in the repertoire, and then there's a couple songs that were written maybe two weeks before we recorded. That might explain why there's such diversity between the tracks.
AK: I feel like once we decided that we were going to put money into a full-length album, we definitely wanted to put songs on the album that we thought people would take seriously. Having a ton of those novelty circus songs was out, but that's not going to stop us from still making weird circus songs in the future.
VB: The majority of the material was written in a collaborative setting with every one of the band members present or at least everyone bringing something to the table. That's really what informed the sound and made it what it is. We were jokingly going to call the album "Greatest Hits" just because it's such a mixed bag of tunes. There's definitely a common denominator; what it is, I don't know.
AK: I don't know what it is either.
OMC: If you had to take a guess, what is that linking element?
AK: I feel like the reason why we picked "Mine, All Mine" to be the first single was it felt like a good representation of the whole album. I feel like that's probably the best way I could describe a common denominator.
AK: You're like, "Hm, no."
VB: I mean it is – that's my favorite song of all of them.
VB: To me, it just sounds … cool. I don't know; you just get this cool vibe. It really embodies the way I describe the band to someone, which is like this retro-groove rock and roll semi-psychedelic band.
AK: With hints of spy theme music.
VB: I feel like it definitely has an older, vintage aesthetic, and it's psychedelic, not in the sense that there are lengthy 20-minute rock guitar solos, but in that it has this older psyche vibe with heavy reverb. You can perceive the element of space, and I feel like "Mine, All Mine" is most like that. It's like you're in a car chase or something.
OMC: You were talking about taking a collaborative approach to writing songs, and a number of the bands I've interviewed have talked about the difficulties with writing like that. Is it that way with you guys too?
AK: I feel like we've learned how to communicate our ideas to each other while we're playing. We don't really argue over how we think a song should go, but everybody gets their hands dirty on every song.
VB: It can kind of be sort of tough sometimes, but everybody's very chill. We're all pretty accepting of what we think, and I think that comes from the fact that everyone is a pretty nice guy.
OMC: Do any of you bring a certain individual personality to the songs?
AK: I think so. Think about the songs that you (Vic) wrote the lyrics for and more of the arranging, like "La Catalina" and "Soma Holiday." I think they're different from the ones I wrote that bring more of the main riff to the table.
VB: I don't know you'd explain it really. It always starts out with an idea or a theme, and everyone kind of puts their own twist on it. The drummer puts his own spin on something, and then the bass player does his thing. I'd say there's a fair amount of artistic freedom, but everyone also really has a good ear for music, so it's used tastefully.
AK: Everyone in the band has played a lot of different types of music.
VB: Yeah, everyone has a myriad of musical influences, from Meshuggah to Madonna.
OMC: It sounds like almost pretty much everything inspires you guys, but what bands in particular would you say inspire you?
AK: Definitely organ-driven bands, like the Animals and the Doors. There's some really good organ stuff in Pink Floyd. A lot of classic rock. I'm a little sad how ignorant I am on current music.
VB: I'd second a lot of that. There's one song, "Soma Holiday," that some people tell us sounds like a Talking Heads song. I didn't realize it until they said it. Zeppelin has to be in the top three bands. Has to be.
OMC: I didn't get a chance to ask you, Al, what your favorite track is off the album.
AK: I really like the first song, "Miller City Blues," off the album. It's the song that we used for our music video. It doesn't have any organ in it, but whatever our bass player does on that song is just … I love it. And it's simple and short.
VB: It's heavy but it's also very roots bluesy.
OMC: I'm assuming from the title that it is a bit of a tribute to Milwaukee. What is it like being a band in Milwaukee?
AK: I feel like Milwaukee is a really good city to play music in right now. Having played in bigger towns, like Chicago and New York, with the other band we're in – the Delta Routine –you see how well bands are treated in Milwaukee as opposed to bigger places where nobody really cares.
The population here is, what, close to 600,000. I feel like that's a pretty small city, so if you can bring decent music to the table, it's not too hard to stick out.
VB: It's warm and has a community vibe. I don't really have a reference point as to where Milwaukee once was, but I feel like it's doing better.
AK: I feel it's on an upswing. Even having been a part of the music scene for only two years, there are a lot of talented people here.
VB: Just generally speaking, it feels like there's a creative renaissance going on. Or at least I'd like to think so. And we're here making tunes that – to our ears – sound good, and hopefully other people like it too. Sounds like they have so far, so that's a good sign. We'll see how it's reviewed though.
OMC: Are you nervous about that?
VB: Not really.
AK: I'm interested.
VB: I'm curious to hear what he has to say. Unfortunately, I've never met the guy writing it so I don't know where he's coming from, but brutal honesty is kind of nice. I would appreciate it; it's not supposed to be a puff piece. Some friends and family members will tell you that it's great, even though they might not be completely honest.
If we could get a super objective review of the record, that would be valuable. I'd be very interested in what a person who doesn't know us personally at all would have to say. That might be the most valuable feedback we've gotten in the past two years.
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