Milwaukee's rock music pantheon is comprised largely of forgotten acts. For every long-standing indigenous band who has achieved national acclaim – think Violent Femmes and The Bodeans – there have been countless obscure groups who released, say, a lone 45rpm record or a few hand-dubbed cassettes before disbanding.
Mkepunk.com is an online archive of these small-run local musical artifacts. The site's curators, Jeremy Ampe and Marty Defatte, celebrate the history of underground Milwaukee music by digitizing rare recordings and offering them for free download.
We sat down with Ampe and Defatte to get a better understanding of Mkepunk.com's origins, what the site's impact has been and why they feel Milwaukee music is worth preserving.
OnMilwaukee.com: What was the impetus for starting mkepunk.com?
Jeremy Ampe: In the early 2000s it seemed everyone was making CDs of their old recordings and sharing them with whoever wanted them. For the bands it meant someone had to tell them that they wanted a copy, then you'd actually have to remember to burn it and have it with you next time you saw them. I know I was bugging some friends on several occasions to get me their disk. It just seemed like it would be easier to put it all online so when they ran into someone at the bar they could just tell them where they could get it. It took several years from there for the cost of hosting all that music to become affordable enough to actually do [the site] without going broke.
Marty Defatte: This is our generations' folk music. It needs to be documented before the next rummage sale or spring cleaning, or before the source material deteriorates.
OMC: How do you go about soliciting bands for the site?
MD: It started with our friends that Jeremy and I did design work for. We had our own collections, then we asked those friends for their boxes of tapes. We'll hit up Half Price Books, rummage sales and thrift stores looking for old tapes and records. If we find something good, we'll use Facebook or Google to find band members and just do the equivalent of a cold call. More recently, the site's become well known enough from Facebook and we can tell by our Analytics that people far and wide are using the site. We've had people send us packages as far away as Northern California. Most people really like what we're doing and want to be a part of it.
JA: Luckily we've gotten to the point where we are getting a lot of stuff sent to us without having to go banging on doors as much.
OMC: What is the biggest difficulty with running the site?
MD: The biggest difficulty I've had is just converting all the material. We try to prioritize the boxes we get from people when we queue them for ripping. A band we already have the okay from gets converted first. We usually wait until we have confirmation from the band to post them before we'll even rip them. Jeremy and I are both very busy in our personal lives, so the site sometimes goes weeks without new batches of releases, and then some weeks we will drop six releases.
OMC: Are there ever legal implications?
MD: Not really. Not at this point at least. No one is making any money of the mkepunk site, and these releases are so obscure and most bands are just stoked to have us convert them to mp3s.
OMC: Obviously, bands on the site must loosely fit under the category of "punk," but what exactly does that word mean in the context of your site?
MD: Punk, for us, is just anything that was released with a DIY ethic. We didn't realize how large of an impact we would have when the site was named. Looking back, we both agree that the domain name is unfortunate, in that people think we only want to archive punk from Milwaukee. We've changed the verbiage on the site over the years to reflect the fact that we want to include any out-of-print DIY recordings from Wisconsin that are at least 10 years old and are at risk of being forgotten or lost forever.
OMC: Releases on the site stretch back to the 1970s. Is there a reason earlier decades aren't represented?
MD: There are a few reasons why we don't have a lot of material from those era's. Most of our knowledge of Wisconsin music is of the 1990s and later. We've managed to do a decent job with the '80s, but recording was so cost prohibitive before then that there aren't a lot of underground bands documented. Or if it was, it was probably on reel to reel, that has deteriorated over time or has never been converted to newer formats. We'd love to have more early music on the site ... after all, each generation stands on the backs of the previous generation. It would be great to trace Wisconsin music back further than 1971.
OMC: Why do you feel that the work of Milwaukee-area bands is worth preserving?
JA: What's "worth" arching is really hard to say. The first local band you saw that opened you up to something completely new could have been absolutely horrible and not be worth archiving to almost anyone else (often times even the bands) but it means a lot to a few people. There are several bands I feel like that about. That's what we try to keep in mind when we're collecting music for the site.
Of course we think Milwaukee and the scenes we grew up in were uniquely amazing for all sorts of reasons. I'm sure someone is saying the same thing about '90s hardcore in Cleveland or whatever they were into too. I think it's all worth hanging on to.
MD: At first, it started with our friends in Milwaukee, but it's grown to include Madison, Green Bay and many of the outlying areas outside Milwaukee. The domain name no longer seems fitting, but we've already got momentum using it, so it just kind of stuck. This stuff is worth archiving because if one person has a fond memory of going to a show, but lost their cassette of the band ... they can come to the site and see if we've rescued it from extinction. We've tried not to be exclusionary. Anyone that brings us a box of demos, we will track down the bands (hopefully with their help) and include them on the site. We don't want to have only our personal tastes reflected on the site.
OMC: What are the top three musical discoveries you've made in the course of this project?
1. For me, it's just learning about all these bands I never knew existed. Growing up, I only had access to music that my friends were playing or had turned me onto ... but at the same time, there was all this great music being made that I didn't have access to.
2. I guess the one "holy grail" release for me was learning the existence of a Die Kreuzen demo tape that was made the year before the cassette demo.
3. I now know where West Bend is.
JA: That's a tough one. There are so many things that I've been introduced to through the site and listen to all the time.
1. Everything I missed from the '70s and '80s. I've got friends that are a little older than me that could take me a couple years further back than I know but for the most part that oral history wasn't getting passed along. It's really exciting to get exposed to that whole world and get to know everyone from that era.
2. I've been listening to T-1 a lot since i got it. If Post-'90s-Hardcore is a thing then this would be it.
3. There are a couple Ablo Diablos releases I hadn't heard. I've always really liked them and some of the stuff I didn't know about turns out to be my favorites.
OMC: Overall, what has the response to the site been?
JA: The band have been amazing. We've received messages like "Thank you. I took my wife to see this band on our first date in the early '80s and hearing it again takes me back." I just hope all the bands know how much people appreciate them making their songs available.
MD: Very positive. I've met a lot of music fans and musicians that have personally thanked me for what Jeremy and I have accomplished in these last three years. I hope we're able to keep digging and growing.