By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 13, 2005 at 5:18 AM

{image1}Musician Matthew Skoller -- a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. -- only lived in Milwaukee for about a decade, but it was an especially fertile time for music in Brew City. So, when he relocated to Chicago to pursue his career as a blues singer and harpist, he left a lot of talented friends back home.

Skoller -- who has performed with the likes of Koko Taylor, Bernard Allison, Big Daddy Kinsey and Harvey Mandel, and has toured the United States and Europe -- recently completed his fourth disc as a leader and will return to Milwaukee to celebrate its release.

"These Kind of Blues!," issued by Chicago's Tongue 'N Groove Records, has guest appearances by Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes and a few other Cream City cats and is launched here with a Friday, Jan. 14 gig at the Up & Under Pub, 1216 E. Brady St.

We asked Skoller about his Milwaukee connections, Blues crossover and more.

OMC: What's your musical background in Milwaukee?

MS: In 1976 my family moved to Milwaukee (from Vermont). My father was hired to help create the new film department at UW-Milwaukee. Three years later I bought my first set of harmonicas. I was already seeing local favorites like Paul Cebar pounding out Louis Jordan's "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" and Sam and Dave's "Soothe Me," alone on his acoustic guitar. Steve Cohen -- he gave me my first harp lesson -- and Leroy Airmaster were playing their own very creative take on Chicago Blues classics by Little Walter, Muddy Waters and other greats.

There was a club on Oakland Avenue Called The Metropole Theatre (now The Miramar, -ed.); I saw Koko Taylor there and scorching performances by Son Seals and life changing moments watching Luther Allison. And of course some of the first performances I ever saw of Milwaukee harp king Jim Liban -- a huge influence on my playing -- were at The Metropole. We would also crowd in to the Murray Tap and watch him play for hours. Passionate virtuosity.

In terms of bands, the first band I was ever in was Jeff Dagenhardt and The Dallas Dusters, after that I formed Stokes and the Raw Rockers with Tom Wilson on drums (Leroy Airmaster and Jim Liban and the Futuramics), Kenny Berdoll on bass (original bassist for Short Stuff) my big brother Larry Skoller on guitar and of course Milwaukee's own national treasure, Stokes on vocals and guitar. You see I was already going up to the North Side and listening and playing with Eugene and the Soul Gang on 5th and Garfield at Boobie's Place. This was the closest thing to a southern juke joint one could find on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

So, between The Metropole, Boobie's Place, Century Hall, Murray Tap and Hooligan's there was a lot to cut my teeth on. I also want to mention that during that time I got play with so many great players like Billy Flynn, Kenny Arnold, Mark Wilson, Kent Ivy, Charles Robinson, Clyde Brooks, Jasper Buchanan, Harvey Scales, Silas McClatcher Chris Beggan, Danny Schmidt, Susan Julian, John Sieger, Junior Brantley, Brian Ritchie, Vodie Rhinehart ... the list goes on. It was a very rich musical moment in Milwaukee.

OMC: Did you move to Chicago to pursue a career in the blues or was that just a beneficial side effect of a move for another reason?

MS: I moved to Chicago for one reason: To play blues. I was told I would get eaten alive down here and to not be too disappointed. Well, I've been here for 18 years and counting and I still have all my fingers and toes.

OMC: There are a few Milwaukee folks on the record, like Brian Ritchie and Bobby Friedman. Are you still connected to the scene here?

MS: I will always be connected to the scene in Milwaukee one way or another. Brian Ritchie and I go back to the early days of my career. He was in the then-unknown Violent Femmes. Brian was and is an excellent player who can play anything he puts his mind to. We did dozens of blues gigs together and I would sit in with the Femmes from time to time. Even after their huge success we played a lot together. Most recently, after many years of no contact, I reunited with Brian to find out that he had mastered another instrument: the Shakuhachi, a bamboo Japanese flute. He has a gorgeous album out called "Purple Field" (Global Platters, 2002). After I heard the album I really wanted to have that sound on my new CD so Brian met me at Bob Friedman's studio Sound Sound in Milwaukee and laid down the tracks you hear on "These Kind Of Blues." I have been recording with Bob Friedman on and off for 15 years. I've always loved his vocal harmonies and had him lay some down for this new project. The best engineers are musicians and Bobby is a musician. I highly recommend his studio. I'm also still very close with Tom Wilson, an excellent old school shuffle drummer and bassist. We still jam together and hang out. And, of course, I'm still very close to my blues father and mentor Stokes. I think he's arguably the greatest bluesman alive, and that ain't no stage joke, Milwaukee.

OMC: Do you think Milwaukee is a good blues town these days? How does it compare to the past?

MS: Well you've got a fairly small city that boasts world class players like Jim Liban, Stokes, Steve Cohen, Lee Gates, Milwaukee Slim and others. Compared to the past it's like Chicago and the rest of the country: kind of a shadow of what it used to be. The fact is that there has been a great decline in the interest in blues music coupled with the passing on of so many great ones. I don't think the music is dying but it's definitely experiencing a very low curve of interest and support as well as a changing of the guard. Milwaukee is no exception but it will always be a good blues town as long as the musicians and their protégés have someplace to play. Support your local blues clubs!!

OMC: How did the "Handful of People" hip-hop mix come about? Is there a lot of effort to reach new audiences these days in the blues scene?

MS: A young hip-hop artist named J.A.Q. from Chicago asked me to play harp on one of his records. So, when I did this album I sent him a couple of the songs to see what kind of a remix he would come up with. I was blown away with what he did on "Handful Of People," the lyrics to his rap, his rapping, his sampling and editing of the music; the guy is super talented. I didn't do this because I was trying to reach a new audience, I did it because the talent and musicality of the artist seemed to dictate a collaboration. I don't think it's anymore outside the blues than John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy 1) playing jazz "rhythm changes" he copped from Fats Waller or Junior Wells doing his James Brown funk thing. It's a natural relationship. If it gets some younger folks to get into blues music, so much the better!! But it wasn't some kind of marketing ploy or anything like that. If anything I'm hoping it will help get the anti-war message of the song out to as many folks as possible. And, yes, I support our troops, that's why I want them home safe.

OMC: What's your plan in the wake of the release of this disc? Will you tour in support of it?

MS: Yes! I'm going to get all the gigs I can, here and abroad and work it as hard as possible. It's about survival at this point: creative and financial.

Matthew Skoller's Web site it matthewskoller.com.

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.