Where are they now? Thor Christensen
Thor Christensen's 10-year run as popular music critic for The Milwaukee Journal coincided with one of the more exciting times in the city's music history.
From his seat -- usually in the center of the 10th row -- he watched countless national and international acts as well as local heroes like the Violent Femmes, BoDeans and Those Spanic Boys. He saw the opening of the Marcus Amphitheater and the Bradley Center and Summerfest's emergence as a premier music festival.
After leaving Milwaukee in 1995, Christensen took a job as a music writer for the Dallas Morning News, where he works today. We caught up to him last month and conducted the following interview.
OMC: How long did you live and work in Milwaukee?
TC: I lucked into the job right out of college when I was 21 in 1985. I got there right out of Northern Illinois (University) and was there until the papers merged in '95, when I was unceremoniously kicked out, which turned out to be a pretty good thing for me.
OMC: The world works in mysterious ways, doesn't it?
TC: I can't feel too upset over what happened, simply because I wound up with a better job and I enjoy where I am. The bad thing is that I still miss Milwaukee. Ten years later, it's still a town that is so much more interesting in many ways than a big city like Dallas. That's one drawback.
OMC: Considering that you grew up in Chicago, Milwaukee was probably a good place for a first job.
TC: Milwaukee was very familiar. Dallas -- in a lot of ways, I'm still adjusting to it even 12 years later because it is so much different than Milwaukee and Chicago. That said, it's got plenty of great things about it.
OMC: When was the last time you were in Milwaukee?
TC: I made it back to Summerfest briefly last year for about two days and it was the first time I had been back to Milwaukee in six years. That was a real eye-opener, seeing all the changes along the river and all the development. Also, just remembering what an incredible city it is in the summer and how much people are out and about and having a great time. It just made me miss Milwaukee.
OMC: What did you think of Summerfest?
TC: I covered it every year for 10 years in a row. I got burned out on it back then. To go as a visitor, I had a great time. I saw Ray Davies, David Lee Roth. I saw a great show by Soul Asylum. I saw Susan Tedeschi. I saw seven really great shows and had a gas. It was every bit as much fun as I remember. I also made it out to Miller Park for the first time, too. I have to say. I don't know what you guys think about Miller Park, but I wasn't all that impressed. From the standpoint of it being roomier and nicer and cleaner and bigger, but to me, it felt like a domed stadium even though it was outdoors.
OMC: We love the roof, but some people say that it's a little sterile and lacks character.
TC: So much of Dallas is like that.
OMC: Is there anything you don't miss about Milwaukee?
TC: The only thing I really don't miss about Milwaukee is December, January, February and March... and parts of November and April. I didn't realize how much better you feel when the sun is shining and it's warm out.
OMC: Do you have a chance to follow the Milwaukee music scene these days. Or, is there one in the eyes of a writer from nearly 1,000 miles away?
TC: It's hard for me to say. I don't keep up that much, but I do notice that it seems like The Pabst Theater is going full-steam ahead with shows. I think that's great. When I was there, they did no rock concerts there. They did the occasional jazz show and opera. I liked the Riverside, too. People in Milwaukee might not realize it, but they are lucky to have two cool, historic old theaters that are good places to see concerts.
OMC: Your tenure as a pop music critic at The Journal coincided with an exciting period in local music, with the Violent Femmes and BoDeans emerging as national acts.
TC: I always think back to that. The Violent Femmes. I was so lucky to be there at a point when they were at their prime. I'm still thrilled to see that they're doing so well. They're still doing shows. Gnarls Barkley recorded their songs. I turned on the TV last night and one of the tunes from the first album was in an ad, so they're still making money.
I like thinking back to all those great Femmes shows and all those great BoDeans shows. That was an exciting time, to be there when the BoDeans were going to be the next big thing. It turned out they weren't, but they made some really good music and some of the best live shows I ever saw were the BoDeans in the '80s.
OMC: The music industry has changed in so many ways since then, what with the Internet and iPods...
TC: It does seem like a long time ago. Basically, when I started, the only places to find music were MTV, the radio and the clubs. Now, there are a zillion places to see bands and find music. There have been a lot of changes with the Internet, but then again music is still music. If you go to Shank Hall on a Saturday night, it's not that much different than it was in 1987 or 19-whatever.
OMC: But, the business side of it seems a lot different, doesn't it?
TC: The music industry has definitely changed. I'm trying to work on a story on why there are so few great bands emerging these days. I guess you could say the White Stripes or Gnarls Barkley look like they could be good. But, where are the Pearl Jams of today? Where is the R.E.M.? It doesn't seem like those types of bands are emerging.
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Why are there no bands liek REM emerging? I think it is a couple things. 1st was and is the mismanagement of artists at the big labels; they focus most on flavor of the day. 2nd there are so many ways to get and enjoy music today whereas 25 years ago it was more centralized and controlled. I certainly favor today compared to then. If I want to hear a specific genre or something entirely new, I just tune into one or the zillion Internet stations that have high quality streams.
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