In honor of the seven new original tunes on "First Name Lucky," the new CD by Milwaukee blues outfit Tweed Funk, we hit guitarist J.D. Optekar with seven questions about the WAMI Award-winning band, which has released three records in three years.
"First Name Lucky" is launched this weekend with a special gig at Milwaukee Beer Bistro. Full details are below.
OnMilwaukee.com: I don't think we've ever talked about the band's name. Does it refer to Fender amps or is it a reference to a clothing fabric?
JDO: Fender amps. I also wanted it to have an additional meaning related to the tweed fabric. As I moved from my last band, Hounds Tooth, to Tweed Funk I wanted the continuity of a fabric in the name. I don’t think many people ever made that leap in connecting the two bands.
The idea behind the band’s name was to conjure up images of vintage Fender amps from the '50s. Our style is a bit old-school Memphis and more of a raw soul-blues sound than polished Motown sound.
OMC: While we're talking about names, what's the story behind "First Name Lucky"?
JDO: (It's a) Smokeyism (referring to mononymous lead singer Smokey). I am not sure the full story is fit to print. We have spent quite a bit of time together rehearsing, playing, sitting in a van and hanging out in motels. Smokey has a bunch of sayings that we either hear at a show or back at the motel room.
We were brainstorming some ideas and this Smokeyism was brought up and we went boom! That is the new album name. Ask a band member at a show for the complete, uncensored story.
OMC: Three records in three years is pretty impressive for an independent Milwaukee band. Do you think you can keep going at that pace?
JDO: I keep thinking if I don’t really start to see the money roll in that this will be my last record. It costs quite a bit not only to record and manufacture an album, but to promote it on a national/international level.
However, I absolutely love writing songs and we really worked well as a group putting this CD together. Everyone in the band had excellent contributions in arranging, tweaking, and writing parts on this record. Additionally, I was able to get most of the band to financially invest in the album at some level. If you aren’t recording and putting out new material it is hard to keep your name out there nationally in this industry.
OMC: Tell us a bit about the songs on the new disc.
JDO: There are seven new original tunes on the CD and four cover tunes. Having worked with Smokey for over three years I feel like we really connect on the new original material. I am able to write in his voice and he can take something that I write and elevate to a whole new level.
The song "Blues In My Soul" is really the biography of Smokey boiled down to three verses and a chorus. After an article appeared on Smokey in American Blues Scene Magazine, I was inspired and sat down wrote the song in a day. We had a good time going down to Gary, Ind. – Smokey’s hometown – and shooting some footage for the music video for this tune. "Hoodoo Power" draws from some of my personal experiences with my wonderful wife.
She is a strong, independent woman who has a ton of confidence in her abilities and really as a husband I have to bring something to the table to stay in the game. Anyone who has been in a relationship will probably relate to this tune.
There are couple of songs that are really significant to some of my current and past experiences. "Divided" is a bit of my political statement – though I am not very political. I see so much hate in politics as our country continues to slide backwards. People don’t want to invest in each other or our communities and just want to grab all they can from society. Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, John Lennon – they saw what needed to happen – that was decades ago and we are still fighting some of the same battles in society today.
"Sippin Misery" draws on a particularly dark period in my life. Since, I have been on the other side of that dark period for 19 years it is healing for me to talk and write about it. Additionally, I wanted to write a song that featured Kevin Klemme’s trumpet work and Nick Lang’s excellent brush work on the drums. I was also inspired to do something in this style after listening to Hugh Laurie’s latest album and in particular the song "Junkers Blues."
The other three originals are just kind of fun. "Time to Burn" is something I recorded with Hounds Tooth and we reworked the groove and structure for this album. It is just about hanging out and having a good time with your special someone. "Deed is Done" is a funny story that Smokey told me about his son. Smokey was relaying this story to me when we flying back from Memphis in 2013, after hearing that story I just had to get it into a song. "Get It On" is all about Smokeyisms.
OMC: What's the scene like these days? Is it easier or more difficult to make a living in a working band these days?
JDO: We play in Chicago more than Milwaukee – outside of the summer season. As a six-piece band it is tough for us to find work around Milwaukee – most of the "blues bars" are small and/or don’t pay that well. Chicago is real great for us and there are a number of other clubs that we play at in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana.
We make our money during the summer at festivals and/or at some of the blues clubs where the patrons really support the artists by purchasing CDs, merchandise, and hitting the tip jar. Blues matinees at Kochanski’s with Rev. Raven are also pretty successful shows.
OMC: Is it a bit different for a blues band or a genre band of any kind, really, because there's a built-in crowd?
JDO: I have never been in an all-original band, but as I understand it most of the time you are playing for the door and hoping to make gas money. Of course the upside is huge if you have some mainstream success. There are a lot of great bands from Milwaukee that just went to SXSW to take a shot at doing something big in the industry.
At least with blues bands most of the gigs that we play pay us decently and put us up if we are out of town. Summer festival season can be great with big stages, great hospitality and merch sales. Also, since we are soul-blues we go over well at casinos and we just got booked for three weddings.
OMC: Finally, tell us about the CD release party....
JDO: The CD Release party will be at Milwaukee Beer Bistro at 2730 N. Humboldt on Saturday, April 12 at 8 p.m. There is no cover charge and the show will be downstairs in the big event room, which has a great stage and bar.
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.