The now Oscar-winning film "Whiplash" is about the abusive – emotionally and often physically – relationship between a young motivated jazz drummer and his sadistic band leader. With chairs flying almost as often as pointed, razor-sharp insults, it’s a great, edgy movie. For Clamnation founding member and drummer Jay Arpin, the movie plays at his tempo, but it could’ve gone even further.
"I thought the music could have been edgier to match the psychosis of the two main characters," Arpin critiqued. "It could’ve been a little crazier. From a jazz perspective, it wasn’t quite edgy enough. I think it would’ve enhanced the content. I thought the filmmakers maybe don’t know as much about jazz as they’re leading on. I don’t know if East Coast schools would be teaching that style of big band, but maybe it’s changed."
It’s a strong, thought-out and knowledgeable critique, and coming from Arpin, one with significant insider value. After all, he and his fellow bandmates are essentially local jazz legends, helping to influence and form the Milwaukee scene for the past 25 years with Clamnation (and The Clams before then).
After a quarter of a century as Milwaukee music mainstays, however, Clamnation is coming to an end, bringing things to a grand close Friday night at the Nomad World Pub ("our last place of true club greatness," according to Arpin) beginning at 9 p.m. The band began to prepare for its final gig back around December, when co-founder and percussionist Tom Presser announced to the group that he was moving to Minneapolis.
"I found out Christmas Eve," recalled Mike Pauers, baritone sax player for Clamnation. "I think he sent it late in the evening on the 23rd, and I woke up and checked my email the morning of the 24th. He invited us to a New Year’s party, and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, this will be the last one because I’m moving.’ So right when I saw that, I sent a text to (Jay) and (trumpet player) Jamie Breiwick, and I said let’s do something before Tom splits."
There tends to be an assumption of the worst when band members go separate ways, but that’s far from the case here. The guys are still just as good of friends as they are musicians – "When you play with someone for 25 years in the case of Jay or 18 years in the case of me and Jamie Breiwick, there’s a reason why you last that long," Pauers noted – partly thanks to the band’s relaxed, almost leader-less structure. Pauers described the band as more of a collective – even if "that makes us sound like hippies though," he joked.
In the end, Clamnation’s swan song is less of a break-up and more of simply a retirement and final celebration of the Clamnation name. And though Arpin noted they’d likely have done the same if it was any of the other founding members moving away, there’d certainly be something missing without Presser in the group.
"As the drummer, I find that I play very differently with Tom than I do without Tom," Arpin said. "So for me, playing with Tom is Clamnation. Could you find another percussionist? Maybe. But I’ve been playing music with him for longer than you’ve been alive. For me, there was no Clamnation without Tom."
"I play in a couple of other bands with percussionists, but there’s something about Tom’s style that’s very different; it’s very much his own style," Pauers added. "There’s something he brings where he knows what to do with a wide variety of music. It feels really organic, and we could do it without Tom or with other percussionists, but it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be Clamnation."
Fittingly, the Nomad show Friday night is scheduled and planned more as a celebration of Clamnation and its 25 years rather than a sad goodbye. The evening is tentatively planned with two sets, the first being their set – the current sextet lineup each picking a tune from the band’s history to play ("I picked one we haven’t played out in 20 years," Arpin noted). The second set will then be more of a loose jam session, with friends and former Clamnation/Clams players hopping up on stage with the band.
"It’ll be a nice goodbye to the band and Tom, but also a nice hello to some old friends – both personally and musically," Pauers said.
After two and a half decades of playing Milwaukee and Wisconsin, the guys of Clamnation have seen plenty of ups, downs and changes in the local jazz and music scene – especially in regards to the club scene and club owners. Arpin remembers 15 years ago, they could play out every weekend at different clubs with full houses; now, he notes younger audiences don’t seem to head out as often for jazz and live music overall. He laughed recalling a recent conversation with Brian Sanders where the former co-owner of the Jazz Estate said, "The Internet’s turned everybody into attention-deficit f*cks."
"We would actually walk down to the Oriental drug store to get a Shepard so we could look through the club listings," Arpin said. "It seems like a huge effort now."
"Go back 15 years ago, we were turning down club gigs, and even at that point, we heard from the old farts ahead of us that we didn’t even know, that we could pay the rent and the bills with club gigs," Pauers said. "While we were having to turn down club gigs, we couldn’t get summer festival gigs to save our lives. Then suddenly – around the time of the economic downturn, the mid 2000s – it kind of switched where club gigs became very rare, but we were getting all of these summer gigs."
Both credit not only a change in club going culture, but in club owner culture as well. Arpin remembers early gigs where they’d walk out of a show with $150 per guy. Now, he notes no club in town will pay out like that anymore. Like many industries, exposure is often the preferred form of payment.
"That’s not to disparage club owners – because I’ll never begrudge anyone of their desire to make money – but it could be said that there are some folks that used to have lots of live music who don’t anymore precisely because they have that hesitation – this idea that maybe they’ll take a bath and lose money on a night, and they’re not willing to see if the scene will develop," Pauers said. "It takes time. Brian Sanders let some of his buddies show up on Tuesday nights and f*ck around basically, and that became the Static Chicken, a Tuesday night staple. He let the scene develop and the guys stretch out."
It’s an increasingly difficult world – plus add in families and the other responsibilities that come with growing up – but after the finale’s festivities and Tom heads off to the new opportunities waiting him in Minneapolis, things will be far from over musically for Arpin, Pauers and the rest of the former Clamnation. Everyone already has other side projects and groups in progress. Breiwick is plenty busy composing, recording, playing and full-time teaching – plus the responsibilities of a family and four children. Pauers and Arpin also play together in Dr. Science, a Herbie Hancock-esque funk group, in addition to their separate ventures playing professionally around town as well.
"Everybody is still kind of doing stuff; it’s just Clamnation will cease to play out in name," Arpin said.
Still, the past 25 years of Clamnation have certainly left their mark, not only on the Milwaukee jazz scene but on the members of the group as well.
"It’s been fun; it’s been satisfying, musically and artistically as well," Arpin said. "I actually have my degree in art, and I’ve gone through ruts of artist’s block. But I never really had that with the music. It’s been a creative outlet for me and kept me on an even keel creatively. It got that jones out of me."
"I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, and without getting overly maudlin or sentimental, it’s meant a lot to me personally to have such a relationship with these guys for so many years," Pauers added. "To know the friendship is going to be there – whether we’re playing or not – that’s really important. That is something I’ll value almost just as much as the music."
And though the scene has changed quite a bit over the group’s quarter-century reign, Clamnation also helped create much of the changing, playing a significant and influential role in developing, growing and contributing to Milwaukee’s jazz scene.
"I never gave it any thought to be honest," Arpin said. "I just figured we were a part of it, and we just went about our day. All of a sudden, 25 years go by."
"I remember going to see Recycled Future and Milwaukee Creative Music Ensemble," Pauers added. "That scene wasn’t just for the audience coming out, but also for us musicians too. I remember going out to see Hudson play, all in this Brady Street area. It was just a fun, real special time. Given that we were all going out and seeing each other play, you didn’t think about it at the time necessarily about how influential these things were on you. But I suppose when you ask people to look back, it’s suddenly like, ‘Hey, that meant a lot to me.’"
Pauers keeps thinking back to a poster at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music just outside of the jazz practice rooms. On it, the huge poster shows the jazz family tree, with all of the branches spreading off into all sorts of directions – its roots in the blues and African traditions and Latin traditions, with rock sprouting off and other genres and subgenres from there. It reminds him not only of where jazz has been, but where jazz – often the subject of premature "Is jazz dead?" cultural obituaries – is now and where its future might go next.
"It feels great that, on our tiny little twig of the jazz tree, maybe one or two other shoots maybe popped off of that just because they heard us or whatever. And that’s really cool."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.