If you’re a fan of Milwaukee music, veteran roots rock outfit Semi-Twang needs no introduction. If you don’t know John Sieger and his band of local all-stars – Jason Klagstad, Mike Sieger, Bob Jennings, Mike Hoffmann and Bob Schneider – then brush up here.
Though nearly a quarter-century passed between the release of Semi-Twang’s first record – "Salty Tears," the sole fruit of the band’s major label deal with Warner Bros. Records – and its second – the independently released "Wages of Sin," in 2011 – the band is already back with a new disc, "The Why and the What For."
Considering John Sieger’s songwriting prowess, that’s no shock, though it does suggest a dedication to recording, since all of the band’s members are actively engaged in other musical projects, too.
The new record kicks off with a Chuck Berry/Rolling Stones-style rocker, "The Wrong Side of the Tracks," and dishes up high-octane Sieger songs that run back and forth between rock and roll and country, but always bear the songwriter’s trademark wit and skill at turning a phrase.
As Semi-Twang prepares to unveil "The Why and the What For" at a CD release gig at Shank Hall on Saturday, March 23, we asked John Sieger for his State of the Semi-Twang address:
OnMilwaukee.com: There were 23 years between "Salty Tears and Wages of Sin," but only two before "The Why." Is it easier now to be Semi-Twang than it was before because the pressure of a big label deal, etc. is off?
John Sieger: In a nutshell, yes. Just think, at the rate we can write and record, there would be another 7-10 Semi-Twang records out there. C'est la music biz!
OMC: But are there other challenges getting the band together these days to write, record, rehearse and perform?
JS: Tremendous challenges in getting real people with real lives – which we've been forced into! – and real families together. But that is probably what saved us from a life of excess and ego-stroking sycophants. Who would want that?
OMC: I assume, though, that it's fun. Otherwise, why do it, right?
JS: That is the only reason to do music. It's also the only thing you can guarantee. If you can't have fun with some of the best musicians in town playing your songs well, maybe you should be an undertaker or something.
OMC: Were you surprised to not only make the top 50 bands list in Alternate Root recently, but but to clock in between two pretty currently hot bands: Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers?
JS: Not as shocked as they must be to see these phantoms from the Midwest wedged between them. I hope they recover!
OMC: Has American music sort of caught up with Semi-Twang? Although there was something of a roots revival in the mid-'80s it was nothing like what's been going on recently.
JS: People say that and I'd love to embrace the idea, but it seems like hubris to try and place yourself in some kind of vanguard. The truth is, I was in a great band – The R&B Cadets – that did a lot of soul and I also had a lot of songs that didn't fit that profile, so Semi-Twang was formed to do them. It really is an Americana moment right now, though, and Milwaukee is certainly doing it's part and adding some real quality to the scene.
OMC: Let's talk about the new record. There are two things I notice about the first track, "The Wrong Side of the Tracks." One is that it's a pretty hard rockin', Stones-y tune. Was that a way to stake out a little rockier territory this time around?
JS: We draw from the same influences the Stones did, thanks to them and a bunch of other Brits. This is supposed to be pure Chuck (Berry), but I can never get any of that stuff quite right. Bob Jennings put a tremendous little horn part on there which tilts it somewhat toward soul. By the way, here we are lip synching it:
OMC: Second, I can't help but think that the CP Rail tracks running through town have made an appearance at the end of the tune.
JS: You'll have to ask the mad scientist of the group, Mike Hoffmann. He added that and I'd like to think that he was out at midnight with his mic and deck, anything less would be dishonest!
OMC: What's it like when Semi-Twang is in the studio? You've got a lot of experience in the room and a lot of guys who know what they want and how to get it on "tape." Do you all surrender to one guy who serves as producer or is it much more democratic than that?
JS: Quite the opposite. I obviously have some thoughts, but there is a good flow and I wasn't even there for some overdubs. Pretty trustworthy bunch.
OMC: Is there an urge to drop the various projects band members are involved in and make Semi-Twang a full-time focus again for you guys or is that just not a reality or a desire right now?
JS: This is my main focus right now, the others would like that too. Then as soon as it sells a million, I'll be able to fund my other side projects fully. One of them is a pile of great songs I wrote with Greg Koch. We are putting the finishing touches on his amazing record and there are a slew of leftovers for a solo CD for me. I also had to release my latest on Bandcamp to do something about a serious glut of product. Shameless plug: You can get that right here for only $7!
OMC: What can we expect at the release gig? Will it focus on the new record or be more of a career retrospective?
JS: We will do most or all of the new one and throw in tidbits from our 60 years in show biz! I will also do a few duets with Greg Koch and Micah Olsan will open with his big band.
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.