Lightnin' Hopkins once said, "the blues is a feeling." Or, wait. Maybe he said, "the rubber on wheels is faster than the rubber on heels."
Either way, he might have been talking about Milwaukee's Altered Five – albeit decades in advance. This hard-workin' blues quintet knows that blues is about the vibe and for the group's members – bassist Mark Solveson, singer Jeff "JT" Taylor, keyboardist Ray Tevich, drummer Scott Schroedl and guitarist Jeff Schroedl – that feeling is a mix of traditional blues with a healthy dose of R&B and other styles.
And this band surely has wheels. While it might have begun on heels, moving a little slower and building its arsenal with covers, over its decade of existence Altered Five has, well, altered its approach, working in more and more originals.
The band's second disc, "Gotta Earn It" – released by Conclave/Cold Wind Records – is carved out of 70 percent original music, with a trio of covers added for spice. It follows 2008's "Bluesified."
At the time of writing, "Gotta Earn It" is in the top 10 of Roots Music Report's radio airplay chart, a notch above Led Zeppelin, and immediately upon its release it shot up the iTunes blues chart, too.
As the band preps for a release party for "Gotta Earn It," Friday, Dec. 14, at 9 p.m., at the Milwaukee Ale House, we asked about the record and about Altered Five's approach to one of America's classical musics: the blues.
OnMilwaukee.com: It's been a long time since the debut record. What has been happening for the band during that time?
Mark Solveson: Altered Five has been consistently playing live shows at various festivals, clubs and parties. We have played several Summerfest and State Fair shows, as well as appearances at Tosa Fest, River Rhythms, Dane Dances, Atwood Fest, Metro Jam, the Waukesha Blues festival and dates in Chicago and Minneapolis.
We even recorded an original Christmas song back in 2007, "It's Christmas Time," which is now part of a Christmas compilation album. It's one of my kids' favorite songs for the holidays. But most of all, we've really segued to doing more of our own thing. It's really enjoyable for us musically and seems to be really paying off overall.
OMC: Tell us a bit about how the new record came about. Had you been recording it in bits and pieces during the time in between or did you go in and knock it out all at once?
Scott Schroedl: We decided after our first album, that a follow-up project should be pursued that would also include original material. We wanted to have the benefit of playing those songs live before we recorded them, so we started writing songs and performing them at shows.
Jeff Schroedl: This approach allowed the new songs to evolve during performances. We tried new ideas, noticed fan reaction and worked to hone in on our sound. Our music has really developed over the past few years and we wanted to capture what's unique and interesting about it. We ended up recording five songs, then repeating the process and finishing the album over a year later.
OMC: The band started out doing covers, but now 70 percent of the new record is originals. Was it hard to make the switch or has the songwriting come pretty easily?
Jeff Taylor: Our premise starting out 10 years ago was to load our live shows with bluesified arrangements of popular cover songs, such as "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Brass in Pocket" by The Pretenders, and even "Amtrak" by Minneapolis-based blues artist Big George Jackson, which also made it onto the first album.
We experimented with lots of different genres and spent a lot of time as a band figuring out grooves, new chord progressions and vocal phrasings and keys to try to bring something new to already good songs while maintaining some sense of musicality.
MS: So, as a band, we were already pretty strong going into the new album. I think the biggest challenge was writing good lyrics that stayed true to the Blues and R&B idiom. Our guitarist, Jeff Schroedl and singer, Jeff Taylor did an outstanding job here generating interesting themes and lyrical uniqueness about love, loss, regret, and resurgence. Our experience as a band allowed us to bring the lyrics and music together resulting in some really good songs, "Three Wishes," "Mona Lisa" and "Keep the Best" are my personal favorites of the original cuts.
OMC: With so many originals coming into the set, how do you determine which covers are worthy of inclusion now?
Ray Tevich: We have lots of arranged bluesified covers in our repertoire, but more and more, we're choosing songs that fit more closely with our sound and the direction of our originals. The three covers that made it to "Gotta Earn It" are a good example.
It was tough to decide which to record because we all have our favorites but we went with lesser known R&B songs originally performed by Marvin Gaye and the Staple Singers – "Ain't that Peculiar" and "You've Got to Earn It" – as well as a great old blues song, "Watch Yourself," performed by one of our favorites, Buddy Guy. These songs also worked well during our live shows, so that helped the decision.
OMC: What's the key to being a great blues band in 2012? Is there a trend toward being "authentic" and sticking to the tradition or more the reverse? Do folks want a melange of styles, a mix of things?
JT: We've always tried to rely on the band's natural musical strengths and not try be something we are not. Traditional blues is great, and is what inspires and influences everything we do, but we skew toward a more modern blues and R&B sound. That said, we play what we play with energy and emotion and let the chips fall where they may, and that should be an essential part of any music. This is what we try to bring to our live shows. The bottom line is all five of us bring something unique to the mix, and the result is really a sum of the parts.
OMC: Next up?
RT: We are continuing to promote the latest album and have the CD release party and performance at the Milwaukee Ale House on Friday. Our calendar for 2013 is starting to fill up with dates, so we are excited about those opportunities and playing to new audiences. The new album has received a lot of publicity, and was featured in the iTunes blues store, so this has generated some calls for festivals and other concerts.
MS: We are having success with "Gotta Earn It" receiving radio play from New York to Hawaii, inclusion on syndicated Blues radio shows, and have new fans contacting us as far away as Europe, Brazil and Australia. I've always loved the labor of recording and think a third project is definitely worth pursuing, these guys are so talented and easy to work with and it makes producing an album very rewarding.
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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.