Hometown boy Brett Newski spends more time away from home, it seems, than he does here, even if he is a homeowner now.
In recent times, Newski has done three tours with the Violent Femmes, and shared staged with The Pixies, the New Pornographers, Manchester Orchestra and others.
Femmes’ bassist Brian Ritchie sums up Newski’s get-up-and-get-out-there approach, when he says, "I like the sound and the way he is forcing the world to contend with him."
It shouldn’t take too much pressure considering Newski’s personable, melodic, quirky songs, as heard on his latest disc, "Life Upside Down," which has led him back out on the road.
Newski, returning home from Europe to perform a couple weeks’ worth of gigs in the upper Midwest (including tonight at the Fiserv Forum and Friday at Anodyne in Walker’s Point), Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, e-chatted with us from an airport on his way back home.
You’ve got a long day in airports today, where are you now and where have you been on this go around?
Hello from London. En route back home to Milwaukee. Just got done being bullied by a Norwegian Airlines rep who wouldn't allow my guitar on the plane. My guitar is my son, and it was hard to be separated from my little guy.
Traveling so much you surely see lots of different crowds. Are they generally receptive?
Very rarely do I play a "soul crushing" show anymore.
Have you learned some tricks for winning over tough ones?
If I'm really struggling with an audience, I can reach into the back pocket to an "ice breaker" song like "Bro Country" or "DIY" to keep the mood light and win the room back.
Attention spans in the U.S. are significantly shorter than Europe, so you've really truly got to trim all fat from your set. If a joke falls flat twice in a row, I know it's time to cut it. If a song doesn't get a strong response three or four times in a row, axe it.
There are so many bands and so much entertainment on the planet, that performers cannot afford filler or weak moments in a set. People will make up their mind about you so fast and move on.
How have your world travels affected your music?
I feel extremely lucky to be able to regularly step outside of the U.S. for perspective. It is helpful as a point of reference that we don't need to always be working, working, working. We Americans live life at a million miles per hour. It is almost impossible to realize the true intensity of the pace while being stuck here in the vacuum. I do love America but I get caught up in its insanity.
Do you typically road test material before recording it?
That is absolutely ideal, but not always possible. Rehearsal can be extremely expensive – paying for a decent space and strong musicians – so instead I try to set up several warmup shows in smaller tour markets to get the band primed.
There are aspects to live shows that you can't prepare for in rehearsal ... drunk patrons, tech issues, grumpy sound engineers. It's best to face those obstacles head on in a live setting.
Fortunately, I have an extremely sharp and proficient drummer/collaborator, Spatola, who learns fast.
Tell us about the new record.
It's an underdog record. When I first started playing music full time six years ago, I always thought there would be this "magical break-through moment," where I would get some record deal that would alleviate all my problems. I thought I'd wake up one day and have broken through the glass ceiling.
The reality is you just forge ahead and win tiny battles. Find the optimism. We are all constantly winning and losing all the time. It's all perspective.
I can see my 23 ticket sales in Kansas City as a defeat, or I can see it as a victory. I could feel like a failure or I could acknowledge there are 5,000 bands in line who'd love to be able to sell 23 tickets in K.C.
There is no overnight success in any occupation, so we have to be ready for the long slow burn. I feel I am ready.
Are gigs back home triumphant returns or more lie a comfy chair, a warm place to kick back and wallow in comfort?
There is a huge pressure to hometown shows, both on stage and off. All your people are there and you can't choke. You also can't try too hard. Ideally, you want to be Phil Jackson ... a zen human who peaks in the play-offs.
What a perfect moment in time it is to even be able to play and listen to music at all ... Who even knows if "touring markets" and "music venues" will exist in 20 years? There could be war or we could all go into matrix pods and live in virtual reality and be done with this version of ourselves. We are living in a sweet spot in history. I want to enjoy the air while it lasts.
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.