By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 04, 2002 at 5:45 AM

Singer, guitarist, songwriter John Sieger is a god among Milwaukee musicians. He may not have the swagger of a Sammy Llanas or the wardrobe of The Gufs, but he's been pounding the stages in Milwaukee -- and far beyond -- for a few decades now and there haven't been many songwriters than can keep up with him.

From The R&B Cadets, who reunited for some gigs last summer, to Semi-Twang -- signed to a major label 20 years ago -- to his more recent projects, Sieger has fueled them all with his smart, funny and groove-driven songs firmly rooted in American music traditions.

Sieger is currently working on a number of projects, including a regular gig at the Bombay Bicycle Club in Brookfield, to which he brings not only his guitar but also some well-heeled friends like Robbie Fulks and former R&B Cadets compatriot Robyn Pluer.

Sieger took time out of his schedule to chat with us about his career and what he's up to.

OMC: You've been a part of the Milwaukee music scene for a long time now. How did you get your start?

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JS: I'd done original and cover material in Kenosha and played the Chicago bar band scene. Neither approach was getting me anywhere. I had recently been writing with Michael Feldman and really sowing my artistic oats. What I mainly wanted to do was a band where the pressure to please morons in seedy saloons near steel mills wouldn't be a factor. So R&B, which I loved, seemed a natural. (Drummer) Cy Costabile had been in most of my bands all my life and my brother (bassitst) Mike, who sings just like me -- or me like him -- were up for it. The magic ingredient was Robyn Pluer, introduced to us by our other guitar player of the time, Richard Fitzgerald, who had seen her in Racine.

OMC: Did you have any early influences in the Milwaukee music scene...a mentor, if you will?

JS: Robyn introduced us to Paul Cebar, and he introduced us to Milwaukee in essence. Paul was a fountain of knowledge in the field we were entering and knew his way around not only Milwaukee, but Minneapolis, too. You have to remember that all my bands worked out of Kenosha and the thought of Milwaukee at the time was quite daunting!

OMC: The band was unusual in that you had three personalities up front and although the band performed mostly covers, the high points were usually your original songs. Was there a bit of a push and pull between the cover songs and the originals?

JS: There's always a little push and pull. We were younger and didn't always handle it well. At the same time it could be described as creative friction. To this day, that band stands as one of my proudest moments and, if yesterday were tomorrow, I think we could take it much farther.

OMC: As the Cadets wound down, you fired up Semi Twang, which became another Brew City superband with Mike Hoffmann and Jason Klagstad and others. Did you put the band together as a vehicle for your songs or was it more spontaneous? A bunch of great musicians just getting together?

JS: Part of the frustration I felt at the time was due to the sheer number of songs I was writing and not playing. The other factor was not feeling right about doing anything remotely country in the R&B Cadets. Originally Semi-Twang was going to be a side project, a way to release a little musical tension, along the lines of Paul and Robyn's group the Milwaukeeans.

OMC: Semi Twang did well, getting signed by Warner Brothers and recording out in L.A. with Chris Thomas. What was the experience like? I assume it wasn't all smiles and laughter. Did you learn a lot about the business from that experience?

JS: Don't ever spend a quarter of a million making a record until you read the book on the music biz. It was a rare opportunity and won't come round again. I'm ok with that but I wish I could spread that inflated budget out over the 10 or 20 great records I could make with it. I had my ego stroked and my heart broke and, to the degree that all experiences are usable, I'm making the best of it.

OMC: After Semi-Twang you performed solo, is that right? And, ultimately, you left Milwaukee to try and make it as a songwriter in Nashville. Tell us about that.

JS: Nashville is a great town. The commitment to music from everyone I met was unreal. Performing solo is a great experience for anyone who writes songs and plays in bands. It's important to know you can carry on with or without the support system.

Nashville, of course, isn't very hospitable to anyone doing interesting work. I speak not only of myself, but all the great writers I saw scraping by while abominations like "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" were being lauded and given Grammys. Thank god for Lucinda (Williams), Emmylou (Harris), Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderadel, Gillian Welch, Buddy and Julie Miller, Greg Trooper, Robbie Fulks, Phil Lee and a bunch of others who are only relevant artistically and not commercially.

OMC: Who are some of the performers that have played your songs?

JS: Greg Trooper, Phil Lee, Robbie Fulks, Flaco Jimenez, Libbi Bosworth, Jerry Harrison, Dwight Yoakam, the Bodeans, Etta James (there's an unreleased recording of "Salty Tears"), Gurf Morlix, Prairie Oyster and Bob Dylan. No, wait, he didn't do any of my songs! Dang!

OMC: Did you have to change your approach to writing? For instance did you write with specific artists in mind and try and sell them a sort of "custom" song or did you just stay the course, write what you'd write and then try and find an appropriate home for it?

JS: I realized at one point that I had traveled a long way to hold country music at an arm's length and made a few attitude adjustments. I'm not inherently malleable when it comes to style, I just sort of write out of my current mind-state. A lot of times, there's an overload of Dylan up there and I want to be him. Unfortunately, he's still doing a better job at being Bob than I am. Other times I think I'm Dan Hicks, Muddy Waters or Tom Waits. Occasionally, I'm a saucy Eartha Kitt type. None of this is too obvious, I hope, when the end product comes out. I consciously try to avoid listening to any modern country radio as it reduces me to a quivering mass of lime Jell-o.

OMC: These days you're working with drummer John Carr and bassist Mike Frederickson as El Supremo and you've released a record under that name. Is the group progressing the way you'd like?

JS: El Supremo, though dear to my heart, is on hiatus, or as Tim Carroll calls it, I-hate-us. I seriously intend to do more with the boys when circumstances change. I'm playing cajun music right now with Big Nick and the Cydecoes, featuring the original R&B Cadets rhythm section and a groove a mile wide and two miles deep.

OMC: What's the next move for John Sieger?

JS: After 9-11 I got serious about writing and took the theme of seven deadly sins as my inspiration. I'm currently trying to record as many of those songs as I can and there will be a record, I hope, by summer. At that time, I will be back in front of a drummer and bass player performing a lot of new stuff. In the meantime, I play solo every week at the Bombay Bicycle Club on Bluemound Road in Brookfield. I have a guest every week.

Last week it was Robbie Fulks and the week before, Robyn Pluer. I'm hoping to make it into something a little hipper than the average lounge gig, but I will do "Feelings" if the request is written on a $100 bill!

I'm also conducting a songwriting clinic at Cascio Music (in New Berlin). It's a six-week course and I'm trying to share a little of what I've learned in 30 years of writing and in the process, learning a bit more myself. As I tell everyone I see lately, everything I do nowadays is out of spite. You just can't kill me!

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.