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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

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In Music

Group of the Altos now have a shorter name - The Altos - and a new album - "Altos." (PHOTO: CJ Foeckler)

Many Altos, one sound


Finding a way for different personalities in a band to work together – and work well – is a tricky situation.

Be it pride, sensitivity or a unique way of hearing and envisioning things, talented musicians are often slightly off-center when it comes to the creation of music, which is something that has caused break-ups and feuds within major and minor bands of every generation.

Now, imagine having a dozen members in a band. Twelve players who all have one-of-a-kind ears for sound. Twelve minds that filter and produce creativity and emotion in different ways. Twelve men and women who all want to be heard.

This is the seemingly crazy plight of Group of the Altos – or, as they're known now, The Altos.

The Altos were originally created to be an avant-garde band that never recorded, and would only compose very long pieces of music that would be performed on a one-time basis and then disposed of for the next movement in their symphony.

A couple of weeks ago Thomas Duffey, Brendan Benham, Amelinda Burich, Shawn Stephany, Erin Wolf, Daniel Spack, Todd Ringe, Adam Krause, Marielle Allschwang, Nathaniel Heuer, Heather Hass and Ken Palme – The Altos – released a fantastic three-track album called "Altos" on Bandcamp that swoops and swings and somehow manages to showcase all of the players in some way or fashion.

Music that is based around the strength of the instrumental and its ability to tell the story instead of employing vocals for that primary function can sometimes be dull and inauthentic, but what The Altos have created on their recorded project is warm and full of emotion and atmosphere, and is truly accented by the chorus-esque vocals they use in a minimalist fashion.

Guitarist Daniel Spack, who is also known for his work in Collections of Colonies of Bees and Volcano Choir, talked with OnMilwaukee.com about the making of the music and the shift in the focus of the band.

OnMilwaukee.com: With so many different players, how do you handle all of the various visions, influences and ideas that have to happen during the composition of your songs?

Daniel Spack: It all runs pretty smoothly now. In the beginning there were a ton of different directions, but these days everyone just seems to be on the same page.

OMC: The Altos have performed at the indie Mecca, SXSW. Is there any challenge to come back home to play shows after getting out of the state and experiencing what other scenes and circumstances have to offer?

DS: It's never a challenge to come home. Besides, it seems more like whenever we leave there's a thousand people from Milwaukee around, making other scenes feel just like home.

OMC: What were some of the motivations behind the creation of "Altos?"

DS: Tom and I really started it just to see if we could make a melody sound interesting for 45 minutes. It's evolved, but still that hope is in there somewhere.

OMC: What was the creation of "Altos" like? Were the songs written as a group during jam sessions or was it a few people's specific visions that drove this new project?

DS: That's a hard one to answer. It was over a pretty long period of time, and plenty of different styles/members. Most frequently I'd put together a skeleton that we'd all build on. Other times I'll just grab one section of the band and work on one melody over and over until we could hear what happens next. Sometimes it's someone else.

OMC: Were there lots of frustrations or setbacks?

DS: Not really at all. We went through a few members along the way and that's always hard, but the band as a whole always stayed on course. As a matter of "course," it's a long one.

The initial intention was to never record. The goal being simply to compose one 45-minute song, perform it, then start on the next one, never really looking back at the ones we'd finished. As we added players, it became more and more about how to make "songs" happen, which gave us an opportunity to figure out how to do the same thing more than once. This could be considered a setback from the original concept, but it also really turned us into a "band."

OMC: Looking back over the years, what is your fondest memory to date of being an Alto?

DS: Pretty much anytime we get to be together.

OMC: What's next for The Altos? Will there be more music? Another SXSW visit?

DS: Yes, more music for sure. We never know quite what it'll be or where it will come from, but all of us seem to want to keep going. SXSW is always a wonderful time. I'm sure we'll go back. There's really quite a few ways for music to happen when you are working with 12 people who really care about what they're doing.

"Altos" – which was recorded in May 2011 at April Base by Brian Joseph and Jaime Hansen, and mastered in December 2011 at Peerless Mastering by Jeff Lipton – can be streamed and purchased from The Altos' Bandcamp page here.

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