By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 05, 2010 at 5:14 AM
Remember that old smokescreen excuse bands used when it was pointed out that they had little success at home? "But we're big in Japan!"

For some Milwaukee musicians that's actually been the case, though.

The latest local outfit to make something of a splash in the Pacific is The Sugar Stems, whose finger-snapping debut, "Sweet Sounds of The Sugar Stems," released on vinyl in the States by Milwaukee's Dusty Medical, is out on CD on Japan's Dream On Records. Bachelor Records has issued the vinyl in Europe, too.

The girl/boy bubblegum rock and roll quartet -- which comprises guitarists/vocalists Betsy Borst and Drew Fredrichsen, bassist Steph Swinney and drummer Jon Heibler -- has crafted one of the most infectious, charming and party-perfect records of the Milwaukee year (produced by Justin Perkins), with 14 irresistible slabs of timeless pop rooted in the early ‘60s.

We asked Heibler about The Sugar Stems and its trio of record deals and more. Can you give me a quick rundown on the history of the band?

Jon Heibler: Betsy was writing songs and doing solo acoustic stuff for a few years before we started this band. We formed in 2007 and played with our friend, Zach (Byrne), until he left to tour full time with his other band (The Goodnight Loving). Drew joined us shortly after that.

OMC: It looks like you have a range of record deals. How did the three-label thing come about?

JH: After we sent our demos around, Bachelor Records from Austria asked us to do a single. We recorded more songs, a full album's worth. Dusty Medical suggested we do a split release for our album, and Bachelor agreed. Meanwhile, Dream On from Japan heard our tunes and approached us about releasing the album as a CD in Japan.

OMC: The band has such a classic pop sound with great melodies and vocals, but the sound has some interesting elements added. Is it spontaneous?

JH: It's spontaneous for all of us, except Steph. She has to work hard because she kinda sucks. She's only a level six bass player so what can ya do? Anyways, we usually learn the songs and, luckily it all just kind of happens!

OMC: How has the debut LP been received in the various places it's been released?

JH: I dunno, what have you heard? We Google daily and we have read some good reviews from all over the place, so we reckon it's been fairly well received. It's fun to translate Japanese reviews: "CANDY-POP GIRLS Royal road to rock and roll tone melodies."

OMC: Have you toured in Europe and Japan to coincide with the releases there?

JH: We wish! We hope to get there some day. We toured the East Coast over the summer, it was a lot of fun.

OMC: What's next for the band?

JH: We are already hard at work on our next album and record again this winter. We also have a few more songs left over from our first recordings, that we hope to be releasing soon, so keep your ears open!

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.