By Eric Beaumont   Published Nov 06, 2001 at 6:16 AM

Born and raised on the northwest side of Milwaukee, Paul Cebar has played in over half of the United States and in London, England, singing his heart out for crowds ranging in size from four to tens of thousands, for dancers, diners, diplomats and drunks.

Cebar began his performing career as a teenager, playing coffeehouses, theaters and punk rock bars in Milwaukee and Florida, where he first dug the blues. His act grew from solo shows in which he'd cover Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Billie Holiday tunes into duo shows with estimable sax raconteur Rip Tenor, a scruffy, sardonic jazzer of high improvisational skill and expression.

Joining Cebar and Tenor were bassist Alan Anderson and the mysterious soprano Robyn Pluer, who helped Cebar realize his songwriting visions with the seven-piece Milwaukeeans. Pluer gave the band its critical momentum on "That Unhinged Thing" before she split to sing French cabaret songs, with great recorded results on the 1999 release "Les Chansons de Crepescule."

Cebar and Pluer were first bandmates in Midwestern songwriting hero John Sieger's R & B Cadets, an exciting sextet that mixed brilliant covers (like the Nick Lowe-produced recording of Rory Block's "Strong and Lasting Kind" and Cebar's prodigious take on Lee Dorsey's "Messed Around and Feel in Love") and whose one album for Twin/Tone was a sweet victory after years of swinging and suffering together. To coincide with this summer's recent reunion shows, the band recently reissued the album on CD.

When the R & B Cadets split, Sieger off selling his brilliant songs to a less-than-clued-in Warner Brothers, Cebar and the Milwaukeeans met Randy Baugher, the rosy-cheeked drummer of eternal funk. Anderson picked up an electric bass, turned up the volume and the Milwaukeeans were in it to win it, dazzling even their old fans with an eye-gougingly good opening set for the BoDeans at Milwaukee's art deco landmark, the Oriental Theatre, in the fall of 1986.

Paul Cebar is now the standard against which Milwaukee musicians measure themselves. Besides the Violent Femmes and BoDeans, Cebar and former labelmate Willy Porter are the city's only original musicians who don't hold "proper" jobs. His intelligence, style and facility on the mic and guitar are of the highest caliber. His literate, instinctively solid songs wield serious emotional and physical power.

Listen to "You Make Me Feel So," a chilling but ultimately exhilarating minor-key samba, centerpiece of Cebar's first album with the Milwaukeeans, "That Unhinged Thing." Cebar drops deadly social science: "We've got babies shooting babies/Zealots keeping the crosshairs clear/Fish are jumping on the banks to die/And you, you make me feel so," gets slightly louder and more insistent, "You make me feel so," and hits a vocal crescendo just before a stunning, tonically troubling saxophone break: "You make me feel so."

For his musical knowledge, Cebar has become a cultural spearhead. Every other week he hosts "Way Back Home," a weekly three-hour radio show on WMSE-FM, the pioneering format-free station launched 20 years ago at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The show exemplifies Cebar's commitment to a Milwaukee that decades of reactionary government and socially irresponsible business can never kill. Tune in on a Wednesday morning and you might hear coolly alluring weather reports over a dope, atmospheric Blue Note side or a bulging Randy Chin Loy reggae rhythm, the Cookies making way for Kanda Bongo Man.

On Christmas 1995, Cebar went international for two nights at London's Jazz Café, opening for Nick Lowe, with whom the Cadets had a brief fling. He tours the United States constantly, and still stays up long past everybody's bedtime. His new album, "Suchamuch," shows off Cebar's singing and the powerful Milwaukeeans' playing in front of a Chicago audience, with emphasis on cool cover versions -- Roaring Lion's "Jump in the Line," a truly funky version of Eddie Bo's "Check Your Bucket," a reggae remake of the Miracles' "I Second That Emotion," a beautiful solo rendition of Lil Green's "Romance in the Dark," and a samba arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love."

Co-author of "Shack and Shambles" on Los Lobos singer/guitarist Cesar Rosas's debut solo album, "Soul Disguise," Cebar is constantly throwing down great music with high energy and building it on up with more great songs every year. His current band is Cebar, guitarist/vocalist Terry Vittone, R & B Cadets alumnus organist/tenor saxophonist/vocalist Bob Jennings, bassist Pat Patterson, drummer/vocalist Reggie Bordeaux, and percussionist Romero Beverly.

A while back we embarked on the Definitive Paul Cebar Interview, an impossible bird, of course. Excerpted from the conversation, this is how the man thinks, how he sings, and how he can freak y'all with one steady roll:

OMC: What is the unifying thread that runs through the music that you write, the music that you love, the things you read, the clothes you wear, your style and your politics? You're a pretty complex cat.

PC: Yeah, complexity makes it difficult to find a unifying thread. I would say that I have a high regard for liveliness of language and rhythm. I try to incorporate tradition in some way that allows it to live and allows it to prop up a modern life, as opposed to some sort of ironic distancing from tradition.

I am trying to throw some kind of light on past artistic expression or even past social interaction, whether you want to talk about the dance hall of the sixties or the dance hall of Jamaica in the fifties.... I want to bring those kinds of situations into play. I guess there is a side of me that wants to carry that emotional situation forward into a time, maybe, that's thought of as old hat or as something that was "done before" but is not au courant.

OMC: New hat.

PC: Yeah. There you go.

OMC: A vital part of what you do is standing up and doing it lively.

PC: Well, I do have 10,000 albums in my room. I'm into records as well. I'm into some sort of pickled liveliness and all the attendant variables with pickling and the processes, plastic bags on up.

OMC: The emotional uplift is what seems to make people come to your shows.

PC: I'm trying to live up to certain standards or performance that I've enjoyed, whether it's Clifton Chenier or James Brown or Diblo and people like that from Zaire. Whether it's Eddie Palmieri or whoever the hell it is, it's just that there's a sense of bringing it to the party, like Celia Cruz, bringing it to the stage with an effortlessness that I'm not sure I've achieved yet. But I think that I'm aiming that way.

The greatest stuff that I've seen has that kind of giving spirit and has a warmth to it, even if it's a very cold expression, although I can't think of too many cold expressions that I've been running out of my way to see.

OMC: It's a rare songwriter who can make people jump for joy and also make them cry. You can do that.

PC: It didn't use to be [rare]. Maybe it is. I'll give you that. It's nice of you to say that.

OMC: When you write, do the words that you love strike listeners the same way?

PC: Sometimes, whether it's my writing that obscures it or the way I deliver the line where it doesn't quite come across in a live context.

OMC: So put some magic in the delivery!

PC: Oh, definitely. And there [are] cross purposes. There's a sense of language, of sonic experimentation that runs through all kinds of music, whether it's Al Green -- although Al Green is a guy that can actually make a lyric understandable even when he's not singing the whole lyric, which takes some doing.

OMC: Your vocal range has exploded on your recent recordings, going from high falsetto to low baritone within seconds. That takes some doing as well.

PC: I guess I've been viewing the process of playing, and I've been playing out for 20 years. I've been touring around playing 18 of those, and if there's one good thing [about] having a lot of ridiculous gigs is that you push your voice and you take yourself where you can go. Over the years I've interpreted a lot of music, and so I've used my voice in different ways that fit certain types of music or certain tunes.

But, as my writing has progressed, I guess I have employed a few more things that I've wanted to try.

OMC: With "Upstroke for the Downfolk," it sounded like you finally mastered the studio.

PC: Well, I would hesitate to say that myself. When I hear tapes, I hear shortcomings and things that I was aiming [at] that I didn't get at. I'm always looking to achieve a liveliness. I'm using that word all the time, but I mean the spunk and spontaneity of Amos Milburn records or Prince records, or Cameo records for that matter. It is a difficult thing because all those things have different things. I can find examples of things where drum sounds are absolutely dry, there's no reverb. I can find records I love that have miles and miles of reverb.

And there are decisions you make in producing and in trying to take yourself into a studio and come out with part of your wallet intact that maybe don't take you as far as you could go into "studiodom."

I think most of the records I like have at least the illusion of a live spontaneity to them, though if I ever really scrutinized them I'd realize the amount of "studio-itis" involved. You get a guy like Al Green double-tracking himself, singing with himself, and for some reason it doesn't sound unnatural, nor does it strike your ear as unbelievable. It just strikes you as, "Yeah, of course. That's Al. It's beautiful."

OMC: When Springsteen said that the whole point of making records is to sound spontaneous, not necessarily to be spontaneous, I was shattered. And reading "Mystery Train," with tales of the 30 takes of "That's All Right," really stopped that train.

PC: I think that's why knee-jerk reactions to what we see as artifice as being somehow authentic are off-base. It's sort of like the nativist fallacy that people grow up and they're just born trumpeters. Your ethnicity never played a note. It's your lips and your head, your hands and your blood.

It dovetails with the emotion that you're a conduit between antithetical, artistic approaches that strike you as valid on any given day, whether it's dub reggae where you've got a record that's already made [and] some guy decides, "It's not finished; I have to talk over it." On any given day those things speak to you or don't speak to you. The hard thing is to find your own expression and stand up and go, "Oh, yeah. That's what I meant. I meant just that."

OMC: Before you started writing your own music, you were in a self-proclaimed apprenticeship, woodshedding on other people's stuff.

PC: Yeah, and I think that whole notion was sort of encouraged by people like Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, whom I took as signposts to an approach that I liked. It had to do with interpreting and reinterpreting older forms, and seeing them, putting on a different pair of glasses on, and seeing what you come up with. Or taking the underpinning of a New Orleans R & B tune and see what it would be like if you just changed one element or this element or that element.

I think that's the glory of somebody like Cooder. He sits down and says, "I'm not going to do exactly like...." You're trying to honor the beauty of a great piece and a great piece of work, and on the second side you're trying to bring your own heart to it and put a new spin on it.

OMC: Did the apprenticeship help you write?

PC: Yeah. I had a lot of fun. I've been having a lot of fun for a long time. [laughs] Learning people's tunes is one great, great, great, great way to appreciate them, to become even more than a fan, but some kind of devotee ... I was digging into Miriam Makeba and people like that -- music that I would never interpret but that I was trying to come to grips with. That kind of fervor, that kind of vocal abandon and vocal control at the same time, I was trying to bring to a Lee Dorsey tune.

OMC: Your music has always been very happy and upbeat, but you're not afraid of going into some dark corners. How do you maintain the overall feeling of celebration?

PC: The traditions I really, really respect, whether soul music or calypso music or the various African forms or Latin forms, all seem to take into effect that any one of these members of this community might be dejected, or might be terribly put upon. But somehow or another it comes out, whether it's the stomping of the blues that Albert Murray talks about, or it's calypso's use of intelligence and wit to kind of sidestep anguish, to somehow pull a little martial arts on the whole deal, some kind of crafty karate kick at those who are oppressing, or whatever the heck it is.

OMC: "You Make Me Feel So," from your first record, has that kind of kick.

PC: The idea of the song was that being with this person makes these things matter to me: "I feel regularly, but when you're around you make me feel so that I'm noticing all this stuff around me, and yet when I'm dancing with you I can get beyond that. There's still some intensity that comes from this modern life, or this post-modern life that we are traipsing through at this point."

OMC: Some of your best shows have been those where you've played James Brown's "Ants in My Pants" for 20 minutes. When you first came up, I don't imagine you were really into the idea of 20-minute songs.

PC: You go with the audience, you go with the band. You go with the groove and follow it down. You listen to a live James Brown album, a certain one, he'll go forever on something. At the same time, you got the anti-Grateful Dead police in your head saying, "Don't be self-indulgent. Don't stretch out with nothing to say." Part of that is an experimental attitude toward performance. You're bound to have some chaff if you let the old flag fly for a long time.

OMC: The experimentally inclined Violent Femmes are contemporaries of yours.

PC: I actually used to give them opening gigs. I was playing before they were playing.

OMC: What, if anything, do you have in common?

PC: We've walked on some of the same sidewalk squares, I think. I think that Gordon's writing is awake, his mind is pretty alive and all over the material in a particularly pleasant manner. He's got a playful mind, and that grabbed me right away when I saw him the first time.

OMC: What's so great about Milwaukee? Why on earth would you call your band the Milwaukeeans?

PC: It was chosen in a playful spirit. I was going to New York. John Zorn had set me up in a little performance place in SoHo and I had to have a name. It was either going to be Paul Cebar and Friends or I was going to try and think of something that was suitably exotic. I started thinking that one of the first things people do when they go from the Midwest to New York, is to try to say, "I'm, of course, a Gothamite, not a Midwesterner."

Zorn was like, "You got a half hour. Tell me what you want me to call you." So I told him, "Oh, call me the Milwaukeeans." And the idea of owning up to it! The Indian word [Milwaukee] means "where the waters meet" or it means "suck hole." So you can take it either way: it's the guys from the suck hole or it's the people from the place where the waters meet. I think that in my little liberal arts-educational mind, that the place where the waters meet is not a bad metaphor for what we're doing musically.

OMC: You're a word fiend, noticeably so when one looks at your lyric sheets. In live shows, your ideas are more dispersed amidst the din.

PC: It's a challenge to communicate clearly. Part of it is that I have a respect for spoken language and then also for sung language and melodramatic expression that leaves sense behind occasionally. And it is at war with the kind of sense I'm trying to make sometimes. I think, in the live context, it's a challenge to communicate the lingo.

OMC: You have been know to exhibit humor.

PC: In terms of music, I'm an anti-joke, pro-humor guy. I'm not a big fan of joking music or of parody or things of that sort. I can respect it and I'll listen to it once, but something that has actual humor, that actually has some sort of displacement of sense, can captivate me and be something that I'll live with for a while. It's what I admire about Nick Lowe's work or John Hiatt's work.

OMC: If you had unlimited money to spend in the studio, would you do anything differently?

PC: I would like to be able to explore a full horn section, three horns á la New Orleans or Stax or Motown, for that matter.

OMC: Do you look at your music as like a stew or a gumbo, or like a discipline or school?

PC: I'm trying to be both Gerry Goffin and the Shirelles. That's what I'm aiming at. And there are some conflicts there. I'm a male and I'm not the Shirelles. I'm not trying to simply go through the same motions and achieve a similar product. I'm trying to put some kind of twist on traditions that I admire, and certain kind of groove families, if you want to talk about that.

At the same time, I'm trying to be that emotional interpreter of that stuff, so that I can bring it to life to people and maybe be part of somebody's lovemaking at some point.

OMC: A while back I interviewed the great novelist Nathan Heard. I asked him if he was optimistic about the future of male-female relationships. He said, "What else is there?" Can you say he's wrong?

PC: Sun Ra had the rather indelicate way of talking about "p*ssy-and-d*ck music," and that he didn't do that, although he had his share of I'll-wait-for-yous and If-not-for-mes and But-not-for-mes. He had a sense that there were other things to write about.

And there's always been a tradition in music to say that music's not about anything. There are a lot of people who are doctrinaire: "Music is music, and I'll continue dealing with music under music's terms."

I obviously buy into pop music in some way, shape or form. I've spent enough hours with Smokey Robinson and Lee Dorsey and Allen Toussaint and Calypso Rose that I have a respect for that. I think what most music is about is the character of lovers and the situation of very particular lovers and what that says about those people and other people that are standing outside looking over the fence.


OMC: So can a spiritual song be a political song be a love song?

PC: Well, of course. Bob Marley! Of course.

OMC: What do you gravitate to in your listening?

PC: My view of things has exploded at this point. There are so many things. If I start saying I like to listen to very, very honest, emotional music, I could also tell you that I listen to very contrived, commercialized, ironic activities.

I would say in my own work I aspire to that kind of plain-spoken thing that Arthur Alexander had or that even Ry Cooder, in his reinterpretation of Arthur Alexander, had, or that Joni Mitchell achieves, that sounds offhand, sounds matter-of-fact, sounds spoken, and sounds honest and straightforward. Yet, by twisting language and communicating in an indirect manner or in a metaphoric manner you might suggest other dimensions to that speaker. That speaker might be me; it might be somebody I'm conjuring up.

When I talk about music of lovers, letting one describe one's love in the way one describes it lets you know who that lover is. It's insight into human character that I'm interested in.

OMC: In "Staying Up Late," you describe in poignant detail a fellow who's helpless after the woman is gone: "He's down to his last t-shirt." "He's eaten his way through the cupboard." It reminds me of a Larry Brown story. It must have been strange territory for you, as you've been a pretty stable guy. You're more than just a Sixty-Minute Man.

PC: Well, I've seen enough of it. I've seen people live through that kind of stuff, and I've lived through my share of it. I admire people like Larry Brown, I admire Charlie Smith, I admire Michael Ondaatje and Zora Hurston. I'm reading a lot and pretty widely.

I get different things from different writers, and a lot of that just has to do with keeping language going through. I had one friend of mine that advised me to just keep language, run language through your head -- you know, almost a computer metaphor of "keep your screen busy."

OMC: Keep language alive, like Bootsy keeps the funk.

PC: You'll play with it then. Your play will be that much freer and that much more encompassing or involving. The height of Chuck Berry's achievement is detail and telling detail and suggesting a whole picture by detail. {With] "Staying Up Late" I was just going at [that]. I had one friend who literally started staying up late after his wife left him. And I just tried to imagine what that was about, what would fill those hours and what would fill that time, what that would mean.

OMC: "Tie Me Down," the title of one of your prettier songs, was also the name of a bondage shop in Milwaukee.

PC: I didn't really know of that (at the time).

OMC: Sure. You've got lyrics in there about hanging on hooks and "Let's hang on tight." Are you messing with any of that disciplinary stuff?

PC: I'm messing around with metaphors of that disciplinary stuff.

OMC: Sophisticated sex rhymes.

PC: It's an attempt to write the kind of tune that Otis Redding would write, where it's sort of a plea for emotional chance-taking. That was a bald statement of, "Bowl me down, man. Keep me here. I need to be here but I'm running."

OMC: Are the pop charts any better now than when you started listening to records?

PC: I'm surprised at the echoes of the things that I didn't like then that exist at this point that are valorized. There's a certain critical climate that says that, if you draw upon Al Green and you draw upon Nina Simone, you draw upon Jimmy Rushing, you're hopelessly out of step, but if you draw upon Black Sabbath then you're doing fine.

I've always been on one side of the fence on that, and I'm still on the same side of the fence on that stuff. I really have been following my nose. I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to the charts, and I'm certainly not paying a whole lot of attention to them now.

OMC: What do you have planned for the people who are buying your records?

PC: More, more, more! I don't know. I think that we're in the middle of a neo-regionalistic scenario. I haven't solved the problem in my work of timeliness, of trying to have it be a quicker journey from my hands to those I'm trying to reach or entertain or whatever we want to say.

OMC: Have you considered a Warren G remix?

PC: Warren G has achieved a certain ability to communicate his ideas quicker at this point. I think that there's any number of worthy and wonderful talent out there, and not even talent, just minds and hearts in pockets throughout the country, that have the same problem I guess we always used to have, when things were much slower.

Maybe people always had that. Maybe their pipeline was always full and they couldn't get it out to the colonies. I do think that there's a homogenization going on. There is regional activity going on that could speak to the larger picture, but the means aren't quite there.

OMC: Are we getting to the steamroller theory here, where you have to be your own library against the doomsday machine that breaks the sweetest hearts, burns all the best books and crushes all precious vinyl into non-recyclable ooze?

PC: See, when I started playing you couldn't get anything. I mean you could, and the fun of it was that. Digging and going to New Orleans and finding the last Ernie K. Doe album on Janus. I think CDs, in a perverse way, have made things available, things I used to think were going to be the things I needed to cure AIDS, that I needed to bring to my library because I wouldn't be able to hear them any other way.

Many things are available to the average Joe if he's got the money. Then you enter the whole economic issue of access to culture. My idea was probably that everybody wasn't going to be able to afford all this stuff but the stuff that I needed to put my artistic self together and to keep my heart together I was going to find. I've been on the radio for 15 years playing it, trying to share whatever this stuff is that I think is not being seen. It's a welter of things out there.

It may be a welter, but don't wait: Paul Cebar may be heard on the following releases, some of them "deleted."

  • "Get a Move On" 7" EP with the R & B Cadets (Just Think Records, 1982)
  • "The Outskirts of You"/"Baby It's Cold Outside" 7" 45 with Claudia Schmidt (Just Think, 1982)
  • "The More She Gets (the More She Wants)" with the R & B Cadets on "Milwaukee Sampler, Volume 1" LP (Breezeway, 1984)
  • Vocals with Robyn Pluer on "Sally" by Da BoDeans on "Milwaukee Sampler, Volume 1" LP (Breezeway, 1984)
  • "Top Happy" with the R & B Cadets LP (Twin/Tone LP, 1986; CD reissue, 2001)
  • Vocals with Robyn Pluer on "Caution" 12" 45 by the Blowtorch (Bopaganda!, 1988)

Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans:

  • "Can't Sit Down" on "Badger-a-Go-Go" LP/CD (Atomic, 1988)
  • "That Unhinged Thing" featuring Robyn Pluer CD/cassette (Shanachie, 1993)
  • "Dance Me to the End of Love" on "Gag Me with a Spoon" CD (Don't!, 1995)
  • "Upstroke for the Downfolk" CD (Don't!, 1995)
  • "I Can't Dance for You" CD EP (Don't!, 1996)
  • "The Get Go" CD (Don't!, 1997)
  • "Suchamuch: Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans Live" CD (Groovesburg Joys, 2001)

Compositions performed by other artists:

  • "Shack and Shambles," Cesar Rosas, "Soul Disguise" CD (Rykodisc, 1999)
  • "Same Dog," "Paradise," and "All Her Lovin' (and She Still Wants More)," Terrance Simien, "Positively Beadhead" CD (Tone-Cool, 2000)