Local boy John Sieger is one of our musical treasures. One of few musicians from Milwaukee who has made a lasting mark beyond our borders and earns the respect of his peers, both here and elsewhere, at the same time.
He was a driving force behind The R&B Cadets and Semi-Twang, which inked a deal with Warner Brothers in the mid-1980s. He spent years working as a songwriter in the Nashville music machine.
He's been back home for years now, leading bands like El Supremo, a reunited R&B Cadets and his latest outfit, The Subcontinentals. Through it all, his songwriting partnership with public radio personality Michael Feldman has endured and Sieger has released a clutch of varied discs. He teaches songwriting classes, has hosted concerts in his own living room and recently made his U.K. debut.
His latest CD is "The Shaming of the True," on his own Faux Real label, with 12 songs recorded in Nashville and Milwaukee and featuring guests like Phil Lee and Rosie Flores.
Sieger's self-stated goal these days is to entertain and the dozen slices of roots rock on "The Shaming of the True" do that, thanks to Sieger's knack for boogie and Feldman's clever, artful lyrics.
We asked Sieger about making the record and more in this installment of Milwaukee Talks, his first since 2002.
OMC: First off, tell me a bit about the history of this record. How did it come to be, in practical terms?
John Sieger: I started the recording two years ago in Nashville at Steve Allen's (from ‘80s power pop outfit 20/20) Blue Planet Studio. He's an old friend and it is a really comfortable studio in his home. It was him and me and Phil Lee on drums, getting the basics down. Rosie Flores consented to having her reputation dragged through the mud and sang a beautiful -- her part -- duet with me. I had an assortment of songs, old and new, some leftovers from a serious writing jag with Michael Feldman ... others as old as 15 years. So a mish mash.
OMC: Did you have experience recording at home?
JS: I had just purchased Pro-Tools and my learning curve is close to flat, so I had to call all my ProTools gurus to talk me through the hard parts, which was everything. I finished it in December and had the usual burnout syndrome of never wanting to hear it again. I'm slowly getting over that. The last formidable problem was sequencing it. It's a non-sequitor in every imaginable way, and I couldn't make sense of it, so I pushed the differences from track to track as much as I could. If you know me, you probably understand that continuity is not my strong suit.
OMC: How come it doesn't feature your band Ravi John and the rest?
JS: My band -- The Subcontinentals -- whom I love, can't always hit the road or commit to longer projects. We're all parents, but my son Sam, who's the drummer on one cut, is 17. Their young ‘uns are 8 and under. Very different lifestyle. We are going to be putting out a recording of this line-up, which is an oddly happy and non-contentious crew with the ability play anything!
JS: I've known Mike since the late 70's in Kenosha. There was some romantic intrigue, which was settled long ago and I consider him one of my very best friends. He's very funny, quick and has a hidden life as a seriously skilled lyricist. He showed me some lyrics way back when and I was floored. The rest is almost history! Our first song was called "If My Old Man Was Alive Today, This World Would Kill Him Quick."
OMC: Is this the most intensive collaboration with him -- he co-wrote more than half the record.
JS: My last CD was all Feldman lyrics! He's prolific in a way that scares me. I get two or three lyrics e-mailed to me every week ... I can't keep up. I'm hoping someone, somewhere is confused about who wrote what, but to me it's really obvious that he's saying the really outrageous and original things and I'm pretty much just singing about girls.
OMC: After your many years and varied experiences in the music world over the years, what's your goal when you make a disc now? I guess I expect that your goals and expectations, from a business standpoint, are different than those of the average 20-year-old recording for the first time, since you've seen how things work.
JS: I'm with you on that. I'm still a 20-year-old inside, but I don't expect 20-year-olds to like me, nor do I expect to sell records. That's OK. There's something about the sheer pleasure of making music that keeps me at it. It's a gift, something I often overlooked and made silly demands of. Now, if I have a guitar in my hand, I realize I'm one of the lucky few who can do something with it. I'd love to share that with people but, as I have always said, music-business is an oxymoron.
OMC: How about from an artistic standpoint? Do you approach each record as a collection of your best songs of the moment, or is there a kind of grand conceptual plan?
JS: I guess I have less tolerance nowadays for the a-word, even less than the I do for the g-word. I was a little pissed off lately to hear Daniel Johnston described as a genius. He's a sad, suffering human being who is very creative -- Brian Wilson is a genius.
The idea of entertaining people appeals to me, it's a more generous gesture. When you are trying to be an artist -- and believe me, I was! -- the focus is on yourself and your fragile ego. I've been put to sleep by a lot of people trying to make important statements, including one whose initials happen to be B.S. In a nutshell: At 20 I was dying to be an important artist, now, I'd like to be able to entertain.
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.