It's almost hard to imagine Milwaukee still has a music scene since Jeff Castelaz left town. Certainly there was one before he appeared, but it hasn't been the same since he left his mark, before moving out to Los Angeles in 2000.
A Milwaukee boy who loves music, Castelaz started out as a WMSE DJ and a music writer for the now-defunct Downtown Edition and other mags. But he soon found himself guiding what was then Brew City's hottest bands, Citizen King. And he did it with a mix of street smarts, sweet talk and astonishing dedication.
That passion and hard work guaranteed that by the time Citizen King imploded, Castelaz had already built enough of an empire that a continued career in music was guaranteed.
Now that his record label has a handful of releases, we decided it was time to catch up with Castelaz and find out about Cast Management, Dangerbird Records and his history in the business.
OMC: When did you move out to Los Angeles? Was Citizen King still going at the time?
JC: I moved to L.A. in February 2000, six years ago. Citizen King was still very much going at that time. In fact, I remember that I timed my departure flight so that I could see a CK show in Milwaukee the night before I left. I have no memory of the show, but the party after was good. I remember standing in the warehouse space next to our studio, Bionic, with Eric Benet and DJ Brooks from CK. We were laughing and having a great time, then the cops came in and busted the place up.
OMC: Why did you make the move?
JC: I was spending so much time in New York and Los Angeles, the decision to leave Milwaukee kind of made itself. I love New York, but L.A. is where I had more friends, and was doing more business. And something about the minimal possibility of snow gave it a leg up.
The thing I love about L.A. is that space is far cheaper than NYC, and people are very driven here, but in a different way than New York. Plus, I get car sick in cabs, so I like to drive myself, which is perfect for L.A.
OMC: Did you adjust pretty much right away, from a business standpoint and a personal standpoint?
JC: It was definitely for both business and personal reasons. Seven years ago, there was no delineation between me as a person and my professional identity. I am happy to tell you that that is not the case today.
The move was necessary, because, managing Citizen King, I was spending so much time in L.A. anyway. In the beginning stages of CK's tenure at Warner Bros Records, I would constantly do week-long trips to L.A. or New York. Over the course of 1997-'98, it was more like: I'd go back to Milwaukee for five days and spend the rest of the time away, particularly in L.A., where Warner is based. At that time, I was spending up to 10 hours a day in the Warner headquarters in Burbank, setting up and working the CK record. It was great. And every time I went home to Milwaukee, I felt like I was missing out.
In fact, I would have made the move sooner, but I had an office running in Milwaukee, and four people working for me. So I had to make the move at the end of the "Mobile Estates" album cycle.
Since I was already doing so much in L.A., it was a very pleasant transition. My friend who manages The Flaming Lips told me to rent a spare bedroom from someone who worked at Warner. There were always people looking for that kind of thing. So I put the word out, and ended up renting from a friend, who became my best friend, and was a very important part of my life when I moved to L.A. I was a groomsman in her wedding last year.
OMC: What happened at the end of Citizen King? How much of an effect did it have on Cast Management?
JC: Well, what happened is a good question, and one that I won't go too far into. I will say that what happened is one of the saddest things I've ever been involved in. And, to some degree, I still can't believe that all the work we did went up in flames almost overnight. But that is what happened. And, based on the reality at that time, it had to happen, I suppose. That is all I will say, out of respect for everyone.
The effect it had on Cast and me as a person was tremendous, as you can imagine. Especially because so much of who I was at that time was connected to what I did professionally. At the exact moment CK fell apart, we had the second album 85 percent complete. For all six of us -- the five band members and me -- it was a complete obliteration of the reality that we had been living in -- and fought to create -- for eight years.
It was an exciting time: the advances that were due from the label and the publisher were tremendous. But the money was the least of it.
Contrary to the left-handed swipes the daily papers in Milwaukee continue to throw at Citizen King, "Better Days" was a monster pop hit all over the world; the Journal characterizes it as a "minor hit". To this day, "Better Days" has received over 300,000 spins in the U.S. alone; it is still a major recurrent song at Top 40 radio. We did millions of dollars in film, television, trailers and commercial licensing of all the songs on "Mobile Estates," and had a hell of a time doing it. Plus, we wove the "Summerfest Polka" into the album, something we were very proud of!
So, regardless of the how and why of the demise of Citizen King, it was a very painful thing.
For me, it was also the beginning of a change in my life that has brought me to where I am today. I am still friends with four of the five band members, and on decent terms with the fifth one. And, the man that brought me into this game, Dave Cooley, is still a client of mine. He is producing some incredible records at the moment -- including the debut Silversun Pickups record, for my label, Dangerbird.
OMC: Maybe we can go back a bit and you can tell us about how you got involved with bands in Milwaukee?
JC: I remember the time and place: March 1992. A friend introduced me to the keyboard player in Wild Kingdom, Dave Schneider (who later changed his name to Cooley, taking on his mother's maiden name). It was at an in-store record signing for Lush at Atomic Records. I had just interviewed Miki and Emma from Lush on my show on WMSE, and had made a deal with the promotion rep from Warner Bros. that I'd drive them to Atomic for their record signing. I am sure there's no way I'd have been there otherwise, because I didn't own a car. I actually borrowed a friend's car to pull this whole thing off.
Anyway, this mutual friend of mine and Dave's (honestly, I don't even remember her name) thought we should meet. It was the single most important introduction in my life. It is, without a doubt, the reason I am sitting in my living room in my house in L.A. with my two boys, doing this interview. The funny thing is, that Warner Bros. rep I mentioned earlier -- my family and I live in her old house here in L.A.! My wife bought the house from her when she moved. Now THAT is some weird, fateful shit!
That day at Atomic Records, Dave had heard I was a driven dude: that I was a DJ on WMSE; I was involved in promoting concerts at Marquette University, where I was a student; and he knew I was the music editor of the weekly, Downtown Edition, and a freelancer for Milwaukee Magazine and Ray Gun magazine out of L.A. He was looking for someone to manage Wild Kingdom, and wondered if I was interested. I said yes, and immediately felt guilty, because I had been critical of the band in my paper, for having not written a new song in a long time. He either didn't know, or didn't care.
A few days later, I was meeting with the entire band in their rehearsal studio in the Sydney Hih building on Juneau Avenue. I have never been so fucking scared in my life, sitting there with these guys: Dave, Paul Finger, Sage Schwarm, Malcolm Michiles, DJ Brooks. I went to high school at Tech with the sax player, Jason Todd, so that added another odd dimension this meeting.
Their studio was an entire world that I instantly found mesmerizing. I had no idea how to manage a band, but I jumped into that meeting with both feet. In the middle of it, as I could see them lighting up at the things we were talking about, I knew I had found a new home, and that I could fit in.
I learned a lot from those guys. I would definitely not be the person I am today without those Wild Kingdom years. Those guys were into jazz, blues, hip-hop, hardcore punk. They were reading Nat Hentoff's book "Jazz Is," and threw on Chicago Art Ensemble, then Bad Brains, then De La Soul. They were musical mercenaries -- very competitive about what they knew, and very interested in creating pastiche music, ignoring the false borders between genres, mixing currents. That is the reason they broke up Wild Kingdom and started Citizen King.
OMC: And after Citizen King, you started working with other bands, too, right?
JC: I started to manage other bands during CK. I managed Cupcakes, who were on Dreamworks. Then, I picked up The Promise Ring, and moved them from Jade Tree to Epitaph's non-punk imprint Anti-. I also started managing a producer named Tony Hoffer, who had been Beck's guitarist for a moment, then went on to produce Beck's "Midnite Vultures" record. Tony did the second CK record that never came out. The first record Tony and I did together was Air's sophomore record, "10,000 Hz Legend"; we've never stopped working since.
OMC: Tell us a bit about Cast Management's roster now. Who are you representing?
JC: The bands I manage are Peter Walker, The Vacation and a new band called Division Day.
The producers are Dave Cooley, Tony Hoffer and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who you know from being Beck's bass player; he has just produced an amazing new band called Canon.
You already know Cooley very well. I am very proud of the work Tony Hoffer and I have done over the past six or seven years, which includes records by Beck, The Thrills, The Kooks, Belle and Sebastian, Air, Marianne Faithfull, Turin Brakes, and a ton of other stuff.
I also manage an L.A. band called The Vacation. We met when they were playing a tiny little club called the Kibbitz Room, which is part of the famous Canter's Jewish Deli on Fairfax. Imagine a place that's a cross between Benji's Deli and the Y Not II on Lyon Street, that's the Kibbitz Room. Anyway, they blew my mind, and we hit it off. Rick Rubin and Dino Paredes at American / Warner just signed them, and their record is coming out in June.
Peter Walker is another client I am really proud of. His new album "Young Gravity" came out last week, and it's gorgeous, heart-wrenching stuff. He is the modern Neil Young, putting his heart through a distortion pedal.
OMC: And you have a label, too. Tell us a bit about Dangerbird Records.
JC: Dangerbird Records is something I've been building toward all my life, without even knowing it. It turns out that the credits transfer: after years of managing bands and producers, you can take what you've learned, and the relationships you have, to go higher up the food chain, to actually own the masters and take the risk of putting your money where your mouth is.
I was bored of the game of only managing bands on someone else's label. I wanted to take the execution skills I had, and put them to work at a higher level. To put it in plain English: I was sick of beating up product managers at major labels in an effort to incite them to do what I knew needed to be done, and in many cases was doing, with them simply signing off on the budgets. I figured: I can remove that cumbersome step, do it myself, with my own staff, and get to the end goal much quicker, with much more enjoyment. It was that simple: the old game got old and needed a tune up.
Now, the bands I manage and the artists on my label have a dynamic benefit: we are doing so much business in all corners of the music world with Cast Management and Dangerbird Records; we have our fingers in so many things, that everyone on both sides benefits.
As the music business has contorted and shifted, there's an amazing new playing field, where anyone with indicting music, a budget to hire the incredibly skilled and passionate former major label employees who are now operating as freelancers, and the skill to manage the process can make a real difference. You no longer have to be a major label to compete. In fact, lots of bands no longer want to be with a major. They won't drink the Kool-Aid any more, either from personal experience, or the nightmares of their friends in other bands. We're distributed by Warner's independent distribution arm, ADA, so we have a great machine to put our records through -- the same as Matador, Epitaph, Sub Pop, Saddle Creek.
Our roster includes Silversun Pickups, Peter Walker and Darker My Love from L.A.; a Dublin band, La Rocca; Joy Zipper from New York. We are in the middle of signing an incredible Australian band, and the guitarist from one of the most loved and respected indie bands. To use Silversun Pickups as an example: we took them from being a local L.A. band to a band that has sold thousands of copies of its debut EP, can sell hundreds of tickets away from home, and are poised beautifully for the release of their debut full-length in July. We put a lot of effort to get this band to where they are.
So, Dangerbird is run on that old Milwaukee spirit: trying to change the world, in a very simple way.
OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much and keep in touch with what's going on here?
JC: I wish I had more time on my hands. My younger brother, Dean, still lives there, so I keep an eye on things via him. I have not been to Milwaukee for a couple of years. Having two kids and two companies is pretty demanding on my schedule. When I travel, it's usually to New York, London or some other market where I have to check in on a band on tour.
I always -- always -- route Milwaukee into my artists' tours. Grandaddy, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Phoenix, Peter Walker, The Vacation -- I have routed all those bands through. And they always -- really -- call me and say 'Milwaukee went OFF!'
That said, I guess I should go to Milwaukee soon!
OMC: Is there anybody here you're keeping an eye on or are excited about?
JC: I am really excited about the entire city of Milwaukee, even though I have not been there for a while. I went to high school at Tech, and spent a lot of time in the warehouse district in the Third Ward, and it's cool to hear that so many businesses and residences are populating those once forgotten areas. The Public Market seems really cool.
Kristian and Malcolm from CK still operate Bionic Studios, and have produced a lot of music there, which excites me. A great studio and great, creative producers are the two most important elements in a music scene. Like many smaller cities, Milwaukee has had a lot of incredible club bands that never became great recording artists. It's easy to miss that distinction, but it's why the music of New Orleans, Austin, Athens and Minneapolis, Omaha and Seattle have transcended the clubs in those cities. People get progressively better at songwriting by recording and moving on to writing and recording new songs.
Specifically, I think the BoDeans are a lost treasure of Milwaukee. They should be hovering alongside Aimee Mann, Ben Harper, Los Lobos and Dave Matthews in the pantheon of smart, song-based rock and roll. They should be on the front page of iTunes and Yahoo Music, like Aimee. The idea that they could make a great record and return to form excites me. The kind of music they do is one of the few genres where age not only doesn't hurt you, it actually makes you more cool! Kurt and Sam have the voices of a generation, and I have a feeling that they have more in them.
They just need direction and support from a label and a producer -- something all the bands I've mentioned have, and have prospered from.
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.