By Jason Keil   Published Nov 24, 2004 at 5:11 AM

{image1}Over the last year, it's been hard to look through the local music listings and not see El Oso's name pop out in big black letters. The quintet, made up of Mark Mendygral on guitar, percussionist Andrew Hartzell, keyboardist Jeff Grabowski, Lee Gianou on bass and Jim Hanke on vocals and guitars, is one of Milwaukee's hardest-working bands.

Local music fans will recognize some of these names as members of Twinstar, Radio Tokyo, Those Royals and Mariner. El Oso's songs experiment with just about every sub-genre in indie rock.

The band just released a five-song EP of a performance on WMSE, appropriately titled "Live 11.10.04," and has been garnering quite a following with numerous dates all over the Midwest.

Putting the finishing touches on their first full-length Contraphonic release "Whichever Chapter Covers Now," due in March, with producing credits going to the group, Josh Kristopeit and Bionic Studio's Kristian Riley, some of the band talked to about the past, present and future of El Oso.

OMC: Where does the name "El Oso" come from? It is the title of a Soul Coughing album, though the similarities end there. Do your first-time listeners get frustrated by the name?

Jim Hanke: We were hesitant to choose a name with the word "The," hence "El," kind of a Spanish equivalent to "The." El Oso, to me, just sort of rolled off the tongue and despite it being the name of a Soul Coughing record, I'd hope it's pretty obvious that we don't really share anything in common with them. El Oso was Spanish for "the bear" thousands of years before it was the title of some band's record. We have yet to come across anyone who was expecting some other kind of sound after just hearing our name. Besides, it's just a band name. People should be more worried about far more serious things.

OMC: What would you say your influences are? How would you describe your sound? Has it grown since the group's inception?

JH: Speaking for myself, I'm really influenced by wordy, story-like songs. A song that sets a mood, a plot and sometimes a resolution, even if the music isn't particularly striking, is a song that I tend to gravitate more to. So, songwriting-wise, I'd say my greatest influences are along the lines of Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, REM, Superchunk and Red House Painters.

Lee Gianou: I would say that everyone in this band has their own niche as far as influences go. We all have our dominant preference to music genre and, I think, it tends to show and come out at practice quite a bit. For instance, between the five of us there is a lot of love for everything from hip-hop to country, and everything in between.

Andrew Hartzell: It's hard to come up with a short enough list of influences ... I think we draw from all of them when writing, and then focus on structure. I think we've grown, but we're still growing; we're still finding ourselves.

Mark Mendygral: Indie pop is what we seem to tell others what we sound like ... but that's pretty vague. We are trying to incorporate different types of music into new songs, while still trying to keep a "pop-sensibility" because you don't want to get self indulgent and pretentious.

JH: We've been amazed that we can play alongside hardcore or punk bands or some other genre that's completely different and people who attend those shows or the bands that we play with find time to say how much they enjoyed us or whatever. I pretty much went into this band with the attitude that kids at the all-ages shows probably wouldn't be interested, but it's been the complete opposite: The kids who can't come to the bar shows are more often the ones who keep coming back.

OMC: What can fans expect from the new album? What have you learned from Kristian Riley during the process?

JH: We recorded the album with our friend Josh Kristopeit as engineer ... we had recorded with him twice previously to demo stuff so it was an obvious choice to go with him. We then wanted to get a completely different take on the songs by mixing and mastering them with people who hadn't previously seen or heard our band, but yet were in the Milwaukee area so we could come in and work with them as opposed to sending the mixes back and forth.

MM: Having someone (like Riley) with as much experience and professionalism in the studio was amazing. He taught us a lot about the right way to make an album from the recording sessions to the mastering of the CD ... We learned that next time we have to plan things out a bit more and take our time to make sure everything is in its right place.

JH: I think what people who've heard us already can expect are fuller, maybe even riskier takes on the songs, simply because we're working with people who can say "Here's an idea" or "That part just needs a little more of this or that." Kristian has complemented the songs amazingly well and we look forward to physically recording the next batch of songs we do at Bionic with him.

LG: The biggest achievement thus far definitely has been working on and getting ready to release the record. We've put a whole lot into it and soon we'll have a product to show just that.

OMC: What was your motivation for joining up with the Contraphonic label? What is the appeal for a band like El Oso?

JH: During the final year that Twinstar was around, our bassist at the time had left the band so we enlisted our friend Michael Wojtasiak, who plays in his own band called the Five Mod Four as well as runs his own online store for records and CDs. By the time Twinstar really broke up, he and his friend Ben Schulman from Chicago were pretty much just getting the idea of Contraphonic off the ground. When El Oso finally started to take formation, Michael and I had briefly talked about the prospect of us being on just a Contraphonic compilation or something; nothing serious like a full-length or anything. When we began playing out, Michael had come to nearly all of our local shows and probably by our fifth show or something, he pretty much came right out and said, "So, we should probably talk about Contraphonic putting out your record."

I was flattered, as were the rest of the guys, because I distinctly wanted the ball to be in Michael's court. I didn't want any special treatment just because we were in a band together. I really wasn't thinking that this band was going to be on a label in less than six months after our first show, but that's pretty much what happened.

The appeal of Contraphonic is that it's run by friends, it's local and their roster is extremely diverse as far as sound. You can't really hear any of their releases and go "Yeah, that's just another Contraphonic record." Also, despite them being around for not quite two years, they still have amazing distribution through bigger companies such as Southern.

OMC: What is the meaning of the title "Whichever Chapter Covers Now?" Is it just to offer a snapshot of the band at this moment, or is there a deeper meaning behind the title?

JH: I think you hit the nail on the head. "Whichever Chapter Covers Now" are the first four words of one of the songs on the album, "The Great American Novel" and they also do fit a sort-of "This is us" mentality. There's no real hidden meaning behind it.

MM: We try not to overthink these types of things; it's just an album title, not our giant statement to the world. It would just seem forced.

OMC: How do you feel about playing in Milwaukee? What would you like the band's relationship to be with the city?

JH: We love playing in town. One of our goals with this band, which definitely didn't really occur when I was in Twinstar, was that we'd get sought out and get asked to play more often than we had to set up our own shows and we've definitely reached that point, which is amazing.

MM: Milwaukee is great to play in. I love the response we have been getting at the shows, and there are a lot of clubs to play at. What's not to like about this city? I definitely want to have a hometown type of relationship with Milwaukee. Our best shows seem to happen here.

AH: I think when an audience sees us having as much fun as we do, it really helps them to have fun with us ... even though they may have no idea who we are.

OMC: How has the touring been?

MM: Touring has been great. It seems that each new place we play we get a nice reaction from the audience. If one person leaves the show and liked us I'm happy. The out-of-state shows are always interesting because you never know what's going to happen with the people there. For the most of the shows someone tends to come up and say they liked it and grab CD or a button.

LG: It's really been an amazing experience. I always look forward to when we get to leave for a few days.

JH: (Our) biggest achievement is always going somewhere we've never been and getting a great response. It's tough to win over people who have to sit through an out-of-town band to get to hear the group they came to see, but the response we usually get is really astounding. Far more than I would have imagined at this point.

OMC: What does the future hold for El Oso?

MM: More of the same. We want to write a bunch of new songs and start playing them live in the near future. Record an EP or an LP if we have enough material during the summer or fall. And hopefully go on tour once or twice.

LG: I can't stress it enough how excited we are to be doing this. Hopefully it will continue being as great as it already has been.

El Oso plays with Clementine and Those Royals at the Cactus Club, Friday Nov. 26 at 10 p.m. El Oso's Web site is