Starting out as the singer, guitarist and songwriter for Milwaukee ska stars The Pacers, Paul Amitai has been a fixture on the Brew City art and music scene ever since. He's worked as a DJ, visual artist, filmmaker, sound artist and was an engineer at Citizen King's Bionic Studios for a time, recording local hip-hop artists.
In the late '90s, he fronted Jookbeat, a downtempo electronica outfit and has since been working on a number of projects, including his solo disc, "River of Shadows," which is now readily available after having circulated for more than a year on an underground basis.
Amitai moved to Brooklyn last year to try working within a new scene and we asked him about the move, about the opportunities and struggles of working and living in the Big Apple and, of course, we asked him about Milwaukee.
OMC: Why did you decide to leave Milwaukee and why did you choose Brooklyn?
PA: It was time for a change. I lived in Milwaukee most of my life, aside from a few short stays in Minneapolis and New York. I think regardless of where you're from, it's natural to want to check things out someplace else, to get a different perspective. New York has been a place I've always felt comfortable, and more friends and family are arriving here all the time.
I dig the constant energy, though I try my best to avoid the annoyingly touristy areas. That's what makes Brooklyn appealing -- close proximity with a little separation. While the East Village gets swamped with drunken frat boys and tourists, my neighborhood remains pretty much locals.
In general, there are lots of creative and professional opportunities here that simply aren't possible in Milwaukee. Yes, there are an insane number of people trying to do exactly what I'm doing and the cost of living is pretty ridiculous. But in New York -- as in L.A., London or Berlin -- you have a greater potential to be in contact with people and situations that can help facilitate making more art and getting it out there.
I can appreciate artists who are able to get it done in Milwaukee, or anywhere else that isn't considered a "center." Somebody like Santiago Cucullu -- a visual artist that I respect a lot (and) lives -- in Milwaukee, can benefit from the low cost of living, the access to cheaper work space and lower pressure lifestyle, while being able to work and exhibit internationally. It's a nice position to be in, when it doesn't matter where you're located.
OMC: How are things working out for you there? Are you able to pursue your music?
PA: Things are working out pretty well. Creative projects are moving along a little slowly right now, but I'm soaking up a lot of energy and information from what's going on around me. I just got a job with a new media art institution called Eyebeam, which I'm pretty excited about. It should be a great way to contribute to the art scene here. I've been playing periodically, trying out a variety of rock clubs and "singer/songwriter" venues like Knitting Factory, Sin-é, Rothko, etc. Ironically, I've found it to be easier to get bookings in New York than Milwaukee.
Part of the reason would be the sheer number of venues needing to fill slots seven days a week. So you can get gigs, but you might have to be willing to play an 8 p.m. Monday slot. But at the same time, I get the sense that if you actually have something legitimate to offer, you will get some feedback. Booking is more cut-and-dry and slightly less clique-ish, but of course it's harder to get people to come out to see you when there are so many other options on any given night.
The challenge is the same as it was in Milwaukee: Finding ideal venues and an audience. Since what I'm doing doesn't fall within the traditional rock band, singer/songwriter, or DJ/electronic model, but somewhere between, it's going to be a challenge no matter where I'm located.
OMC: Tell us about the new disc.
PA: The album, "River of Shadows," is finally available in mass-produced form! The songs were written and recorded over a handful of years, and were completed last summer. But I was burning only a few copies at a time for shows. Now the album is available online on CD Baby, and will be available soon for download on iTunes among other places. In the meantime, selected tracks are available for download on my Web site and on myspace.com.
I feel good about the way it turned out. I feel like I was able to edit down from about two dozen solid songs to arrive at the eight songs that made it on to the album. In the end, I hope it reads as a cohesive, yet varied range of flavors -- electronic rock, soul, dub, etc. This is where I should probably have a tidy little sound bite to sell the thing.
OMC: Do you have any other projects or collaborations in the works?
PA: I'm working on a new video installation piece loosely about World's Fairs. I'm still collecting material for that, and talking to some venues about exhibiting it. Musically, I just finished a collaboration with an electronic artist named Caural. Fans of Wobblyhead Records (Casino Vs. Japan, Signaldrift, Magic Arrows) will dig what Caural does, if they haven't already heard him. He's been on tour lately with Busdriver and RJD2, and has a new album coming out in October on Mush Records.
He asked me to come up with some vocals for a song that will be on the new album. I was already a fan of his music, so it was flattering to get the offer. I think people who know either his music or mine will be surprised. It turned out really well, so hopefully more collaboration will happen. Since I tend to work on my own, it was a nice challenge to write to someone else's arrangement and blend with their sensibility. It pushed me to come up with something outside my usual tendencies, which is what you hope for with collaboration.
OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much?
PA: I haven't been back to Milwaukee since I moved last summer. But I'm planning to be back sometime in late summer.
OMC: Do you miss anything here?
PA: There are a lot of people that I miss. That was definitely the hardest part about leaving. Lots of close friends, lots of supportive people in the creative community, my nieces and nephew ... those connections are harder to break and make anew as you get older and settled in a place. My next visit to town will definitely be action packed. New York is also sorely lacking in decent frozen custard. If Kopp's ever decided to franchise, they would make a killing here! I mean come on -- Tasti-DeLite? Is it ice cream or a plastic?
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 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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.