By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 01, 2002 at 6:01 AM

Paul Amitai has long been a part of Milwaukee's music and arts scenes. He was lead singer of the popular ska band The Pacers and has since become one of the city's most adventurous musicians, working alongside the likes of Old Man Malcolm, Jason Todd, members of Recycled Future and others.

He's also an accomplished visual artist and is currently working on a Masters Degree in Fine Arts at UWM. He worked at Marquette's Haggerty Museum, and that's just a small part of his involvement in the local art world.

We recently caught up with Amitai to see what he's been up to. Here's what he had to say.

OMC: Many people remember you as the singer for The Pacers, but you've been very busy since then. Can you bring us up to date on some of your projects, musical and otherwise?

PA: After The Pacers, I went to UWM to study art and film. Art had always been something that was in the house growing up. My mom is an artist, so I was exposed to a lot of things at an early age. I was always drawing ... whenever we went on a family trip, the Magic Markers and drawing pad were sure to be there. Film was something I was always curious about and wanted to learn how it was done.

OMC: What about musically?

PA: Eventually I found my way to the electronic music studio at UWM and got really into experimenting with different studio processes: tape loops, analog sequencer synthesis, digital audio editing. I guess I acquired a reputation in the film department as someone who was fluent in creating sound for film, whether this meant incidental music, soundcaping or songs. I worked on a bunch of projects for a few grad students, as well as for one of the professors, Cecelia Condit. Her film ("Why Not a Sparrow?") was shown last spring at the Milwaukee Art Museum, but my work had been done four years previously. It was a pretty amazing learning experience. With just a rough narrative idea and no visuals, I created an electronic music score using recordings of bird calls as my guide. Once the tone was set, the music came very easily, very intuitively. I can't say that it happens like that too often.

While I was in school I was also part of a band called Jookbeet. I was writing, singing and playing bass. My old roomates Erik Radloff and David Wake (Recycled Future) were in the band, along with a friend from Chicago named Dustin Harris (Boogie Shoes, Skapone). The idea was to blend elements of soul, hip-hop and jungle in a live band that operated like a club DJ, creating smooth transitions between songs. We treated each song as one aspect in the larger structure of the set, so each show had a logic as far as the flow of energy from beginning to middle to end. Musically, it was very rewarding but it was hard to be consistent about rehearsing and performing. We lived in different cities and had different projects going at the same time, which often meant long tours.

OMC: You left town for a while, didn't you?

PA: I was in New York for a spell, working as a production assistant at a club called the Knitting Factory (owned by two guys from Madison). I was booking shows for one of the spaces in the venue, but my big project was conceiving and curating an electronic music festival. It ran for a week and featured a diverse bill of players, from original innovators like Pauline Oliveros and Tony Conrad to younger artists like Pan Sonic and Carl Craig. I really didn't know what to expect as far as turn-out goes. I figured there was a pretty limited audience for experimental electronic music, but every night sold out. It was a really inspirational thing to be able to bring together all of these different, underrated and underexposed musicians -- many of whom had played together back in the day but hadn't seen each other in a long time. When I came back to Milwaukee I felt compelled to get some things going here.

I've been in grad school now for two years, digging more deeply into digital media -- sound, image and web art -- and installation art. I've shown work pretty regularly in town, as well as in Chicago and New York. And I've also put together a few music and/or art events, and done some writing for a number of arts & entertainment publications ... I'm keeping busy.

OMC: How does your visual art affect your music and vice versa? Do these creative outlets influence each other or are they divergent for you?

PA: Everything feeds into one another. Methods or ideas that I develop in one medium are often applied to another. But really it comes down to the idea I have in mind. If the idea seems like it needs to be communicated through paintings or prints, then that's what I'll do. If it feels like it should be a stand-alone sound piece, then that's what it'll be.

At times I wonder if working in these different areas dilutes the potential of any one thing. Something is always getting pushed to the back burner ... for instance, right now I'm doing less painting than in the past. But in the end, I feel like stepping away from one approach in order to experiment in another helps bring a new perspective to the overall scheme of things. And I think I'm too curious about a lot of different things to not explore them.

OMC: Tell us about your latest project.

PA: I've been moving between three different music modes lately. One is a stripped-down, structured singer-songwriter thing -- kind of a dark soul music, another is more beat-heavy and involves sample-based sequencers mixed with bass and vocals, and the last would probably fall more into the sound art category and revolves around live audio sampling and manipulation of acoustic environments.

Each one is creatively engaging in its own way, and they each have their own time and place. The context is usually the determining factor in how I'll work. But if I'm playing in a club or a bar, I'm going to try to get people moving while pushing things a little bit outside musically.

When you're working with sequence-based music it's important to find a way to breathe life back into it, to put things in precarious situations. Otherwise, you might as well just press play and go get a drink. That's not a terribly interesting experience for an audience and it's not too exciting as a musician. All of the work is already done and there's nowhere for it to go. When I'm playing I want the music to be subject to the energy of the crowd.

So I mix things on the fly, layering sounds, playing bass or singing when the moment arises. I also really like the sound of digital and acoustic instruments together. I think it's a really compelling combination, both conceptually and sonically.

OMC: You do a lot of collaborative work, like some upcoming performances with The Tropics. What do these types of experiences bring to your work?

PA: If I didn't work with other people every now and then I wouldn't ever get out of the bedroom studio! Really it's the best way to bring a different perspective to your own work. When I collaborate with other people -- whether on art projects or music projects -- I'm able to see the work through their eyes. I'm able to be much more critical about what is or isn't working. And again, it helps to loosen up the predeterminedness of sequenced music when there are other people responding to it, bringing their own ideas to the mix.

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I make a distinction between this kind of collaboration and being part of a band. The collaborations I've been a part of are mostly improvisational. At the moment, I'm not that interested in rehearsing to get a tight set together to play gigs. It's more fun when the expectation of being a band, and all that comes with it, isn't part of the equation. Also, it's just logistically a lot easier to do that part on my own. The technology allows that to be, and for better or worse, everyone has the potential to create in this way with sound. But I do like constructing things on my own and then deconstructing them with the help of others. I'm not a trained musician, but I feel like I have a decent ear for melody, harmony and structure ... structure and editing being another area where working in film has no doubt influenced the way I think about music.

OMC: What can we expect at your upcoming gig at The Social?

PA: You can expect to hear some funky, hip-hop and dub influenced soul music. I'll be playing with Eltron (aka Elton Lawson) who works with a similar array of sequencers, drum machines and effects. His own music is a unique blend of electro, dance hall and dub. We've played a number of shows together in the past few months, and it's been a lot of fun. We usually trade off playing songs as well as play on each other's songs. We'll just set up all the gear and have a go at it.

See Paul Amitai and Eltron, Thurs., Oct. 3, at 10 p.m., at The Social, in Walker's Point. Visit Amitai on the Web at www.uwm.edu/~pauly.

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 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.