If you stood outside a Riverwest bar and heard The Tritonics playing, you might be lulled into a wind and grind with your date right out there on the sidewalk, so languid, so flowing is the quartet's brand of Jamaican rock steady.
Go inside and you might be surprised to see four veteran Milwaukee musicians recreating the slow, soulful bridge that linked ska to reggae in Jamaica in the latter part of the 1960s.
Those guys are keyboardist and singer Jeff Stehr, drummer Dave Bolyard, guitarist and singer Tom Plutshack and saxophonist Karl Landwehr.
The group has a string of gigs booked through the summer and heads out to California for a perfectly timed jaunt in December.
In the meantime, we caught up with the band – which plays a mix of covers and original material – to ask about its beginnings, the manifold meanings of its name and why, of all things, these guys found themselves playing rock steady in Milwaukee in 2012.
OnMilwaukee.com: Is it true that The Tritonics is the post-hiatus version of an earlier band? Can you give us the quick history of the band?
Jeff Stehr: Yes, Dave Tom and myself started as C-Food Buffet in the mid-'90s. I met Dave through work. Dave new Tom through a gig they shared previously in The John Frye Band. Karl did not play with us then, but he too is a John Frye band alum. The C Food Buffet trio played a wide variety of music – rock-based primarily.
Comparisons at the time from media coverage usually referenced The Police and The English Beat as influences, which was pretty much spot on. We played places like The Uptowner and The Stork Club in Riverwest a lot. Lots of east side clubs of the day; The Celebrity Club on Prospect, Harpos on Brady Street. Our biggest and most memorable gig was opening for Jimmy Buffet at Alpine Valley.
It's a real long story how we got that show and what that insane day was like. Suffice to say, playin in 90-degree heat at 6 p.m. for Parrotheads who had been drinking margaritas in the Alpine Valey parking lot since roughly noon – well, it was one of the most memorable experiences of our lifetimes.
We got back together three yeara ago when a family that I work with teaching music lessons was hosting a party and asked if I knew any bands that played Jamaican music. I said, sure, my band does! A few weeks later, The Tritonics were born.
OMC: What's the story behind the name? Seems like it might have at least a couple meanings...
JS: Primarily, The Tritonics name references Triton, the god of the sea – son of Poseidon and Aphrodite – as a way of acknowledging and connecting with our legacy as C-Food Buffet. And since we specialize in Jamaican roots sounds, and since Jamaica is an island nation, Triton seems an ideal sort of patron saint to adopt as our own. Other common interpretations – all of them correct– include:
The Tritonics as a derivative of the tritone, a musical interval of three whole steps, known back in the days of Gregorian chant as the devil's interval. We're all pretty non-threatening looking middle aged white guys.lt's nice to invoke the devil as a way to toughen up our image and boost our rude boy, soul rebel credibility.
The Tritonics as three tonics. We started as a trio and thought of tonics as a cure for what ails ye. It's a happy music and it often has a buoyant effect on audiences.
The Tritonics as beverages – the gin and tonic, the vodka tonic and the rum and tonic. Our cheap, transparent ploy to land corporate sponsorship dollars from Seagrams has been unsuccessful thus far.
And if you google us or you tube us, you'll find tons of info on Tritronix, a maker of electro-shock dog collars. We have nothing to do with them.
OMC: Though there has been a near-steady, ongoing ska "revival" since the Two Tone explosion of 1979, very few bands have been drawn to rock steady (though I know you also dip into ska and roots). Why do you think that is and what makes the slower groove alluring to you guys?
JS: Speaking only for myself – I am, so far, the only songwriter writing tunes for this ensemble – I blatantly stole the genre focus idea from 007, a band led by Alex McMurray, also a solo artist and leader of The Tin Men and The Vaparaiso Mens Chorus in New Orleans. I just loved their sound. And it reminded me at times of what C-Food Buffet used to sound like. You combine that initial inspiration with our collective love of harmonies – we all sing – and that magic, hypnotic groove that the slower, one-drop based rhythm produces ... it's just such a rich, simple sound and a joy to play.
(Bob) Marley's influence and iconic status are well deserved and we all love him to death, but so many bands already do the Marley thing – and far better than we ever could – it is great to share the music that Marley grew up listening to with audiences to help them understand how Marley came to sound like he did. It would be a shame for that era and sound to remain obscure. We're happy to do our part to make it more well known. It is a rich, diverse and important chapter in music history and part of the ongoing cultural exchange between African / Carribean musical ideas and the music of the Americas.
OMC: I'm intrigued by the song "Desmond Farnham Hustis." Why a song about an historic Milwaukee home; what's the story behind the song? Can we expect more hyper-local lyrics?
JS: Some friends of ours recently bought and moved into an amazing old historic home near Marshall and Pleasant Streets. I am a music teacher and have become close friends with the family, teaching each of them piano and guitar lessons in their home every week for years. When they moved into this amazing home, after spending years in a tiny, modest ranch home on the west side, it was such an astounding change. Very exciting and inspiring, but tons of work, too. A lifetime's worth.
It was converted into a rooming house and now they are undoing all of that. So many decisions have to be made about how to restore, rehab, update this historic home. So, once I learned a little more about the home's history of owners, I thought, wouldn't it be cool if we could contact all the deceased owners and ask them questions to help guide the restoration project and learn more about the history of the home.
Since we do some classical music along with the more modern stuff in our lessons, I thought it would be fun to explore the idea of this new family discovering that every time they play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano, it invokes the spirits of the previous owners' to return. Possibly to consult with on critical, period-specific questions about building materials, tools and techniques, but also partly psychic stuff, like, "um, dude, someone hung themselves in that room. How bout we make that the library rather than the guest bedroom?" And with that Beethoven piece the melody is so famously mysterious, it just seemed the right call.
After that, it's all just pandering and name-checking East Side landmarks to try and boost local media coverage. Thank you for helping in that regard! And definitely love to do more hyper-local stuff. Did I mention that I accept commissions for that type of work?
OMC: Your set includes a mix of covers and originals; how do you pick your covers? Do you have favorites?
JS: Picking the covers is mostly about honoring the most crucial and influential songwriters, arrangers and musicians of the Jamaican roots genres. We are still woefully short in that area – nothing in our setlist by Desmond Dekker or Ken Boothe or Jimmy Cliff. The list of who we should cover is endless. But that being said, we have tons of Toots and Alton Elllis and Delroy Wilson and Lynn Taitt that we do, so we're off to a decent start.
The other part, what we call "doowopification" involves listening to music in the rock genre in a playful way and imagining and re-casting the songs as they would have been written in Jamaica in 1969. We love doing "Oh, Darling" by the Beatles in the rock steady style. It just really works. People seem to like it; it's got all the essential ingredients for genre-repurposing – great arrangement, great vox parts, and a beat that transforms from straightforward blues to one drop almost completely effortlessly.
That's usually the criteria, does the groove change effortlessly and naturally? If you force it it never works. But for every song we do that works like magic, we probably try half a dozen we think will work but don't make it. But exploring those ideas as a band is such an engaging, exciting and playful process. It's worth the effort even if some songs never see the light of day in a show. You learn something new each time you try it.
OMC: Is there CD in the works? If so, will it be all originals?
JS: We intend to embark on a full-length CD later this year. It will be primarily originals, but not exclusively. I suspect we'll always include at least a few doowopified classic rock tunes as well as genre-based rock steady, ska and roots reggae standards on any recordings we do. I think it's important to acknowledge the source of our inspiration tangibly in that way, and pass the knowledge, love, joy and spirit found in these reggae sub-genres on to more music lovers.
Catch The Tritonics Thursday, July 26 at Horny Goat Hideaway at 7 p.m.; Friday, July 27 at 8:30 p.m. at the Intercontinental Hotel; Saturday, Aug. 4 at O'Keefe's House of Hamburg at 5 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 5 at the Horny Goat again, from 4 until 8 p.m.
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 an episode of TV's "Party of Five," 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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.