Muskego native Dean Schlabowske of the Waco Brothers admits he’s lost touch with the Milwaukee area music scene.
After all, it’s been more than 25 years since Schlabowske left Milwaukee for Chicago with noise rockers Wreck before joining forces in 1994 with Jon Langford in the Wacos, who are playing Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall on Saturday night. Schlabowske left his Midwest roots behind entirely three years ago when he sold his Chicago wine shop and moved to Austin.
But now Schlabowske, whose parents and brother still live in the Milwaukee area, is planning to move back to southeastern Wisconsin in the coming months.
"Hopefully soon, I'll become very acquainted with the local music scene," he says, "but I’ve got another six months in Austin."
The high cost of living in Austin is the main force driving Schlabowske away from the city, but it’s also not always easy to survive as a musician in the place known as the Live Music Capital of the World, he says. He’s a member of two groups in Austin: the Ice Cold Singles, with three members of the Meat Purveyors, and TV White, a power trio.
"It’s a difficult challenge to make any sort of headway there because there’s so much going on on any given night," he says. "It’s difficult to find paying gigs, and it’s difficult to get people to come to your gigs. There’s a whole group of very well-established bands here that kind of dominate the paying gigs that are available, so to crack into that has proven difficult. All that said, it’s a great city, and you see a lot of great music and that’s inspiring, and I enjoy living here."
In the meantime, before packing his bags, Schlabowske is promoting and touring behind the Waco Brothers’ latest, "Going Down in History," the band’s first new studio album since 2005’s "Freedom and Weep." Over the last decade, the band has also put out a live album, 2008’s "Waco Express: Live & Kickin’ at Schuba’s Tavern," and 2012’s "Great Chicago Fire," a well-regarded collaboration with Nashville singer-songwriter Paul Burch.
Schlabowske says basic tracks for the album with Burch were actually recorded during the sessions for "Freedom and Weep." The delay in its release is part of the reason for the band’s tardy return to the studio, he says.
"We weren’t that inclined to go in and record more stuff when we knew that had to come out first and we had to recoup that money before we could move forward," he says. "The rest of the delay is probably just sheer laziness on our part. Jon and I are both constantly writing, and both of us have various other projects that we do – Jon even more so. Somehow it’s pretty easy for a few years to pass by before you wake up and say, ‘Hey, we haven’t made a record in a decade.’"
Despite not venturing into the studio, the Waco Brothers (Schlabowske, Langford, Joe Camarillo, Tracey Dear and Alan Doughty) continued to play out live as frequently as they could over the last 10 years and have developed into more of a muscular outfit, Schlabowske says. The power certainly shows up on "Going Down in History" on songs such as "We Know It," "Receiver" and the group’s pounding cover of the Small Faces "All or Nothing."
"I think the desire was to kind of shed a little bit of the overt roots influence and kind of a draw on more of the power that we know we are capable of and also to record in a way that was more spontaneous," Schlabowske says. "Really, for the most part, none of us were familiar with each other’s material until we walked into the studio that day.
"Most of the parts came up on the fly as someone just showed you the basic structure of the song, and we just built on that and made an effort not to polish it too much. You know there’s a good old saying, you can’t polish a turd, but our feeling is you can roll it in glitter."
It seems like Langford looked to his musical past for inspiration on several songs, Schlabowske says, including the standout "Building Our Own Prison," which delightfully combines a Bo Diddley beat and punk anger.
"I think Jon definitely seems to have approached going into this record, incorporating a little bit more of his history with kind of postpunk sounding musical structures. I think that shows in a lot of the material he sings," Schlabowske says. "I get kind of obsessed with melodies and hooks and things of that nature. I think that shows in some of the things I write tend to have more standard repetitive choruses than Jon’s do, but I think the balance is nice."
The band’s Milwaukee show is one of a handful of performances the Waco Brothers will do in the Midwest, Austin and East Coast over the next few months to support "Going Down in History" and "Cabaret Showtime," a nifty collection of covers they released in late 2015.
Schlabowske says the band has always preferred targeted strikes over long stretches of time on the road, which he calls a "good factor in keeping us together for 20 years."
"Something would’ve happened on the way if we had to live with each other three months at a time," he said "We would all end up hating each other, but instead Jon and I like to compare it to kind of an older gentleman’s club where we just occasionally take excursions with our friends. If it wasn’t music, we would probably be a fly fishing or something."
The Waco Brothers also continue to serve as the flagship group for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, which released the band’s debut 7" in 1994. Other artists have drifted away from Bloodshot, but the label and the Waco Brothers have remained true to each other.
"It's harder for them to justify having a band like us that only releases occasional records and occasional touring to support the occasional records," he says. "It doesn’t amount to a lot of cash flow for them these days. But from my standpoint, I was in a band that was on four different independent labels before I ever released anything on Bloodshot, and Bloodshot’s the only label that ever sent me a royalty check.
"We know what we’re getting with Bloodshot; we know they're going to be straight with us. We know they’re in it for the right reasons. We also know that any promises anybody else might make is probably a load of BS anyway, so there’s really no reason to move on. Sorry, Bloodshot."
Before the Waco Brothers’ show Saturday at Kochanski’s, Schlabowske and Langford will be interviewed on WMSE on Saturday at 4 p.m. and will also play songs and guest DJ.