By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 04, 2008 at 5:01 AM

Milwaukee native Steve Koester first made a name for himself with Punchdrunk and since then, he's led Koester and also Maplewood. Now, he's got another project going.

Two Dark Birds, whose debut disc is out now on Vfib Recordings is, he says, less CSN and more Y. It's a mix of late ‘60s, early ‘70s soul and blues flavored rock and roll that's as much Bobby Womack as it is "Exile On Main St."

As Koester prepares to return home for a gig at the Cactus Club on Saturday, April 5, we asked him about Two Dark Birds.

OMC: Can you tell me about what happened with the last band and the genesis of this one?

SK: Koester put out a couple albums on Pitch-a-Tent Records, which kinda folded. We'd recorded a third one and couldn't find a home for it. I was off touring and recording with Maplewood and by the time I got back around to it, I kind of felt like moving on ... I put together a band of NYC guys to play a couple shows at this great little place in Brooklyn called Pete's Candy Store. The sets were highly improvisational: lap steel, Wurlitzer, bass, drums and then me playing some really really long guitar solos.

I've always loved long narrative guitar solos, like "Pour Down Like Silver"-era Richard Thompson, or Tom Verlaine, or Neil Young's first few records but for some reason -- punk rock? -- I avoided them for years. But you reach this certain stage in your life, or your music, or whatever, where you just decide, "Screw it, I don't care what anybody else likes, I'm going to make the kind of music I want to hear. At least one person will always dig it then."

So, we did these shows and the audience response was really amazing and I thought, "I've got to record this right now." It's interesting, but it seems like the closer you get to finding your true inner music, the more other people respond.

OMC: Why the new band name? 

SK: Frankly, I was glad to ditch Koester as a band name. Stupid idea on my part in the first place. I thought it would make things easy but it proved to be a bit of an albatross, what with the weird spelling and all. And plus people were always like, "You named a band after yourself. Who are you, Kip Winger?"

And because the guys I had previously played with (the Maki guys from Richmond) weren't on it and because the music seemed to have a different, groovier, more American feel to it, it seemed right to have a new name: Two Dark Birds.

OMC: This record has roots is the same era as Maplewood, but seems to touch on different styles.

SK: My pat answer to this question is the Two Dark Birds is less CSN and more Y. But really, it's more like Maplewood is a conscious attempt to push the music in a certain direction -- AM Gold, for lack of better term. Two Dark Birds is more like soul music, in that it just comes out of the musicians involved in making it.

There were definitely some touchstone albums. First and foremost was Neil Young's "On the Beach." I wanted the Two Dark Birds' album to, in some ways, have that album lurking below it, kind of running under there like an underground river or something. The other things we talked a lot about while recording we're The Band's second album -- the brown one -- Dylan's "Planet Waves" and sorta the juncture where '70s soul and '70s singer-songrwiter music collided.

Guys like Bobby Womack and, more specifically, Bill Withers. Jason Mills (drummer), Don Piper (engineer) and I really bonded on that first Withers' album. It has the Stax house band on it. It's really simple, direct songs, with simple and perfect grooves, and then occasionally some dramatic strings ... Mostly, though, there was just an attempt to make a really honest, direct, good sounding record. We recorded a lot of the album live in the studio and we really wanted that push & pull of real time. No click tracks or anything like that. Just five people looking at each other making music.

OMC: Is that a reflection of what you've been listening to or was it a conscious decision to try something different?

SK: I think a lot of other things get pulled through the music. Just whatever everyone his listening to or has listened to in the past. I hear some Meat Puppets in there. I hear some Townes (van Zandt), but that's probably just wishful thinking. And other people have told me that they hear all sorts of things: Floyd, Sparklehorse, Gordon Lightfoot, Grateful Dead, Wilco, but mostly bands I've never listened to, which is always very amusing.

OMC: Tell me a bit about the band you're touring with now? Is it the same guys as on the record?

SK: Jason Mills on drums, who was intrinsic to the album. Jude Webre on bass, who also played a bunch with Maplewood. And the new kid is Ben Wildenhaus on pedal steel and Wurlitzer (organ). We've been doing some touring lately and the band has really come together. I'm always very excited to get on the stage with these guys. They are very good and I feel lucky to play with them.

OMC: What can we expect at the show here? New material, strictly stuff from the record? Any older material?

SK: First off, you can expect everyone in the audience to, at some point during the show, take off their clothes. It happens EVERY time we play. As far as the set goes, we of course play a bunch of stuff from the album, but we've been throwing some Koester material in there as well as some Maplewood tunes and some covers.

We have a bunch of tunes in the bag and we kind of pull them out depending on the situation and how the audience feels. I'm kind of into the Willie Nelson concept of live playing at this point. We'll play any tune and try to make it new that night.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.