By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jan 06, 2016 at 4:12 PM

Soul Low – one of Milwaukee’s most popular and promising local bands – is comprised of four musicians, three of whom have been making music together since they were 11-years-old.

Sam Gehrke (bass), Jake Balistrieri (guitar, vocals) and Charlie Celenza (drums) started jamming when they attended Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts.

"Most practices would just be us messing around on Green Day songs and getting Slurpees from 7-Eleven," says Gehrke.

In 2009, the three added saxophonist / keyboardist Sean Hirth and started Soul Low, a band they've described as "jank pop" and "weird loud pop garage dark surf scrambled into the aesthetic of a boy band."

The group is about to embark on its fourth full-length tour and has numerous local gigs in their future as well, including Local Coverage at Turner Hall, during which local bands will cover songs by local bands. Soul Low will perform the music of Tigernite.

Soul Low also has a show booked on Thursday, Feb. 18 at the Helene Zelazo Center on the UWM campus.

"We'll be playing a stripped down set for UWM Peck School of the Arts' MKE Unplugged series," says Gehrke. "We’ll be doing some oldies and a good handful of new songs off our forthcoming second LP."

OnMilwaukee recently caught up with Gehrke and asked him a few questions.

OnMilwaukee: Tell me more about your very early music career. Were you really only in middle school when you started your first band?

Sam Gehrke: Yes. Sean, Jake and I all went to Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts. Jake and I began playing guitar and bass, respectively, when we were 11 years old. We formed a band with a neighborhood friend of ours and called ourselves The Pink Ties. I think we had maybe two or three half-written songs; most practices would just be us messing around on Green Day songs and getting Slurpees from 7-Eleven.

A few years later, Jake, Sean, myself and a few other kids from Roosevelt got together to perform for the school's Black History Month concert. We wrote a blues song and played a cover of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." The group was called Informal Blues. We had a few member changes, including the later addition of drummer Sam Kacala, who now plays in Three.Stacks.Eliot.

The experience of Informal Blues helped us get comfortable playing in front of people, booking shows, negotiating payment, pressing merch, self recording and releasing. We did quite a bit as 14-year-olds. (Laughs.)

My favorite memory of Informal Blues was busking at the South Shore Farmer's Market, which we did just about every Saturday morning from 2008 to 2012. Informal Blues lasted until about 2009, which is when Soul Low began.

OnMilwaukee: Tell me about the early days of Soul Low. What were the highlights?

Gehrke: Soul Low began in the fall of 2009 when Jake and I were juniors. Jake met Charlie at Pius XI, the high school they both attended, and began playing together. Jake and I always wanted to start a rock band since most of Informal Blues had been folk, blues, jazz and so on. Jake invited me over one evening, we played some Born Ruffians and Modest Mouse songs and decided to start a band.

Our first show was probably about two or three months after that night. We performed at one of Pius' "Cafe Nights," which was a monthly concert series hosted in the school's cafeteria. I'd like to think that was the most nervous we'd ever been performing.

We broke up in 2011 when we all went away for college. We ended up getting back together in 2013 for a 10-day tour out East. Jake and I moved back to Milwaukee and that spring we recorded our first LP, "Uneasy."

OnMilwaukee: How would you describe your music? And do you hate it when people ask you how to describe your music?

Gehrke: I don't know that we ever stick to one particular style because our writing evolves as our tastes change. I think our constants are the surf pop vibe and goat-like vocals. I don't know that I hate being asked what we sound like, because that's a legitimate question. I think for a band like us it's just tough because we never quite nestle into just one particular sound.

OnMilwaukee: You're about to go on tour this Friday. How often do you tour?

Gehrke: This upcoming tour will be our fourth full tour. In the last two years we've toured to the Southwest and twice to the East Coast. We try to play about four to six shows a month in small regional weekend runs.

OnMilwauke: How has touring changed for you guys over the years?

Gehrke: Touring has changed for us in that we're a lot more efficient with our luggage and our gear. Touring has also taught us a lot about how to deal with different kinds of shows. I mean, we've played everywhere from basements and galleries to Turner Hall-type venues. Because a band's popularity is different from city to city, touring allows you to become very good at adapting to all kinds of situations, which is super important for growing performers.

OnMilwaukee: How do you get around while on tour?

Gehrke: We drive around in a beat-to-hell 1999 Dodge Caravan.

OnMilwaukee: Do you have a favorite venue? What about a dream venue?

Gehrke: I think our favorite place to play is either Stevens Point or Minneapolis. The fans in those cities go super crazy for every show, regardless of attendance or venue. A dream spot to play would honestly be anywhere in Europe. Maybe that can be our New Year's resolution.

OnMilwaukee: So what else would you like to accomplish as a band in 2016?

Gehrke: 2016 will be a pretty busy year for us. Soul Low will be releasing our second full length record on Gloss Records, which will be our first foray into vinyl. We'll be touring a lot, including a month long run in the summer. We'll be releasing a handful of music videos as well as a short documentary and a possible short film.

We have only a small quantity of cassettes left of our most recent EP, "Sweet Pea." Also Thursday we'll be releasing a music video for "OMG STD," also from "Sweet Pea."

OnMilwaukee: Is Milwaukee a good place to be a musician?

Gehrke: Milwaukee is great because the city is very supportive and everyone is dedicated to seeing the scene grow. The musicians here are fantastic and there is never a shortage of places to play.

However, Milwaukee's biggest problem is that it doesn't leave Milwaukee. I mean you rarely see Milwaukee artists and bands tour. Everyone wants to see the city become a nationally recognized hub for culture, but hardly anyone travels elsewhere to prove it. The Internet is a great tool for promoting but it's momentary; there's so much to pay attention to that it's easy – and I think inevitable – to be stepped over. If you truly want to engage your audience, you absolutely have to bring yourself and your art to other cities, otherwise they have no reason to care. 

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.