Milwaukee singer, songwriter and guitarist Brett Newski is a globetrotter. No, I don’t mean he can dunk a basketball after leaping off a trampoline, though, who knows, maybe he can. He’d surely be willing to try.
Newski, whose new disc, "American Folk Armageddon," is top-loaded with chipper, melodic folk rock gems -- part Violent Femmes, part Ben Kweller, part Jonny Polonski -- bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok a couple years ago and hasn’t sat still since.
I managed to catch up with him via emaail while he was in the U.K. to ask him about his music and his travels and how they inform each other. He also talked candidly about his previous career at the fry-o-later...
OnMilwaukee.com: Give us the Brett Newski musical bio in a nutshell.
Brett Newski: When I was younger I worked at McDonalds. That was honestly my second favorite job to playing music. So if this songwriting thing doesnt work out, Ive got a backup plan. It's comforting to know he fry-o-later will always be there. Flipping burgers was my favorite position at MacDons. I’m not kidding. Remember, these were middle school days -- 13-15 years old -- which were some of the worst years of my life. Flipping burgers was one safe place where no bullies would f*ck with me. I would scrape grease, flip sh*tty meat and just be in the zone. It was grand. Dollar menu 4 life.
OMC: Did you play in bands here before your solo career?
BN: The solo mission only started in the past two years when I dropped everything and started touring. As an anxious person who gets scatterbrained, it was pivotal to concentrate fully on touring and writing. It doesn’t feel like work. We don’t make briefcases of money in this game obviously, but you sacrifice freedom for dollar signs. Freedom is the highest form of currency in my opinion.
OMC: You bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok in 2011. Did you friends and family think you were nuts?
BN: My mom and dad are starting to accept that maybe I'm a bit of a weirdo. I did receive light pressure from them for several years to "get a real job" -- that whole speech about security and career culture. They have always been super supportive and are now more supportive than ever. My pops is 60 and his favorite bands are Weezer, Green Day and The Offspring. What a bad ass.
OMC: Where did your travels take you from there?
BN: When I was traveling through Asia I played a show in Bangkok with a South African songwriter named Matt Vend & the Tender Ten. Packed little sh*thole of a venue in Bangkok. Smoke everywhere, but nice rowdy crowd. We bonded over a mutual love for folk/punk music. We toured together in South Africa 2012. I go back every year and its been a nice home away from home.
OMC: Could you have made this record if you hadn't gone to those places?
BN: I hope so but I'm not sure. Many of the songs were written while living in Vietnam and touring in South Africa, a few in Milwaukee. I’m about to finish a three-and-a-half-month long tour, which is a bit long. Time to take a short short break for the sake of my mental and physical health. Will get some good summer jogs around Milwaukee and get sunburn.
OMC: Do you think the music in those countries affect your songs?
BN: The pulse of a city really fuels songwriting. It's really fun to surround yourself with bizarre places and outrageous people. Just looking into your wallet and seeing 50,000 Vietnam Dong is a great WTF moment, especially because you can’t even buy a used CD with that.
OMC: You're in the UK right now. Can you tell us a bit about how you manage more than 200 gigs a year all around the world?
BN: Getting used to low lonely moments is important. I spend a lot of time by myself, sometimes days at a time traveling. It can get weird. The troughs are terribly lonely, but they don’t last long. Growing accustomed to a transient lifestyle has helped. The stranger life gets, the more normal it feels. The road is far friendlier than I ever would have imagined. One can justly argue that humans are pretty sh*tty as a whole unit, but as individuals people are the greatest thing to happen.
OMC: So you’re coming home soon. Will you stay for a while? Maybe make another record?
Sitting still is difficult. Touring is addicting, but Milwaukee is one of my all-time favorite cities. It’s the first musical community I’ve really ever had. A jolly musical family. Good Land Records has been a great support system and a great label. Jonny Phillip, my manager, has been clutch. Ben Pearlstein, also with Good Land has lended a helping hand. Myles Coyne and the Breadking Collective have also been great friends to me. For the first time I've found people equally obsessed with music.
I’m very proud to say that I’m from Milwaukee, even though most foreigners only know it because they watched "Wayne’s World." Milwaukee may be underrated, but it is rock ‘n’ roll to the core.
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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.