Long-time school buddies jam out together during their free time and eventually come to the realization that this whole performing music thing might be seriously worth pursuing. In the process, they happen upon the band’s final piece and, now in their final form, begin the march to making their mark in the Milwaukee music scene.
It’s a very familiar band origin story – one that applies to the local rock band Spare Change Trio, with vocalist/guitarist Casey Stokes and drummer Graham Brisch playing the old school friends and bassist Sam Elliott serving as the final piece of the trio. There are a few odd little kinks to their origin story – most notably that Stokes dated Elliott’s sister back in high school, which is actually how the bass player (who only really played stand-up bass in the orchestra at the time) got introduced to band in the first place.
"Not even a year after I started playing with them, they broke up," Elliott explains, "but they are still good friends, so it kinda worked out. But there was probably a month or two that was kind of awkward."
Other than that oh-so-faint graze of drama, however, the band’s origins probably sound like something you’ve heard a variation of before. What you may not have heard before, however, in the Milwaukee music scene is something like the Spare Change Trio’s sound – a mix of jam-happy reggae roots rock with a dash of something from Down Under: a didgeridoo.
"The most common comments we’ve gotten are, like, ‘Is that a big joint?’" Elliott laughed.
"Or, ‘Is that a rain stick?’" Stokes added.
Around sophomore year, after he had already been playing with the band for a bit, Elliott began messing around and fiddling with the long, droning Australian-born wind instrument on the side. He knew of it from some Australian movies and culture, but it wasn’t until he saw and heard Aussie singer-songwriter Xavier Rudd that he was inspired to give the didgeridoo a go.
"I’d never seen it in an actual concert, where a guy is just jamming out and playing the didge at the same time," Elliott said. "That was pretty cool, and he’s really good at it."
"We were, like, hell yeah," Stokes recalled from their first introduction to the didge. "We liked Xavier Rudd, and Sam had been messing around with it. We were, like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool!’ We’d never seen it in a full band setting, so we were like yeah, we’ll be the natural dubstep!"
Of course, incorporating the odd instrument into the Spare Change Trio wasn’t going to be a particularly easy task. After all, just learning how to play the thing and navigate its quirks was a challenge – not a surprise considering the didgeridoo is mostly indigenous to another continent and culture completely. With no real teachers within range, Elliott turned to the Internet, listening to Xavier Rudd performances, studying didge tips available on YouTube and constantly practicing the wind instrument’s quirks and peculiarities.
"The hardest part was learning how to circular breathe, by far," he noted. "It’s basically you fill your cheeks up with air, and as you’re breathing in, you squeeze your cheeks so your lips stay vibrating so you have a constant drone noise. People will say it’s basically like you’re breathing in and exhaling at the same time."
After simply learning how to play the didgeridoo, then came figuring out how to arrange the instrument into their lineup of covers and original tunes.
"They’re very key oriented," Stokes said. "You either have to play in that key, or all of the chords that you were to use have to have that note on top for it to fit right. There are some overtones and stuff that, as you get better at it, you can make one didge more accessible through different keys, but normally they’re pretty specific, like, ‘Oh, this is in C-sharp; we need a C-sharp didgeridoo.’ That’s why it’s kind of nice to get a lot of them."
The band’s collection of didgeridoos – or is it didgeridi? – currently includes one made of bamboo, several made from PVC and two actual didgeridoos carved from eucalyptus root – the traditional material used by its Aboriginal creators (their original name for the instrument is yidaki; the term didgeridoo came later from Westerners).
"(The eucalyptus root didge) sounds so much fuller and more resonant," Stokes noted.
"There’s a thing called backpressure that as you’re playing, if there’s really good back pressure, you don’t have to put too much effort into having your lips vibrate," Elliott said. "With eucalyptus, there’s really good backpressure, whereas PVS has, like, none."
Learning and adding the didgeridoo is certainly a challenge for the Spare Change Trio, but so far, the intermittent hint of the instrument’s psychedelic droning has worked out in their favor. The band recently tied for first place in the Up and Under’s Battle of the Bands competition, earning the guys a noon gig at Summerfest on the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage on July 5. And that’s just one of several gigs scattered across Wisconsin this summer – including another Summerfest show at the Rebel Stage on June 24, one gig at Madison’s The Frequency with fellow Battle of the Bands winner Perspective Heights and another gig fast approaching on Saturday night at 9 p.m. at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall.
The trio also has an EP coming down the line, all recorded, mastered and now simply waiting on the original artwork. The EP, influenced by Rudd and fellow Aussies the John Butler Trio, is set to contain four songs – one Rudd cover and three originals, including the EP’s titular track "Plant The Seed."
"Part of it was we’d been playing so long that it was like, ‘Hm, I think it’s about time we had some actual tactile music to hand out," Stokes said. "And the whole ‘Plant The Seed’ thing is about not getting caught up in the basic routine of life and planting an idea and letting that grow and not being afraid to take chances."
Chances like, you know, making a rock band with a didgeridoo.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.