5 Wisconsin bands to watch in 2017
The five acts on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Wisconsin Bands to Watch list for 2017 are doing it their way.
Experimental Milwaukee-based rapper Milo blends philosophical examination with playful pop culture references, creating a style of his own while amassing a cult following and critical praise.
Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter Sarah Vos emerged from an existential crisis with hard-touring folk group Dead Horses, attracting Wilco founding member Ken Coomer to produce its latest album.
Madison rapper Trapo is only 18, but has already been praised by leading hip-hop sites for his soulful style.
Milwaukee group Soul Low followed cheery, catchy pop-rock songs with this year's dark, complex opus "Nosebleeds."
Eau Claire artist Shane Leonard incorporated his experience — from playing in the folk group Field Report, to banjo instruction from master Appalachian musicians — into his innovative and personal album "Printer's Son."
The care, creativity and ambition these artists bring to their craft make them among the most exciting acts emerging from Wisconsin. Expect to hear more from these musicians in 2017 and beyond.
In late 2015, hip-hop news site Mass Appeal let readers vote for the best album of the year through a bracket-style tournament. Milwaukee's Milo made the cut with "So the Flies Don't Come," a self-released album with a small amount of glowing critical favor. His competition for the first round was Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly," the No. 1 seat.
In an upset, "Flies" beat "Butterly" and took the title, a stunning feat for work inspired by unlikely sources such as German philosopher Martin Heidegger and poet Henry Dumas.
"We were all surprised," said James Johnson, Mass Appeal's former music editor. "His writing is dense and far-reaching. He's talking about literature in rap music, using complicated melody and complicated emotions at once."
Inspired by his uncle, Chicago-based battle-rapper Nizm, Milo (born Rory Ferreria) became a student of underground rappers MF Doom and Del the Funky Homosapien. In high school, he adopted his stage name after the protagonist in his favorite book, Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth."
He dropped his first project during his sophomore year at St. Norbert College in Green Bay. "I Wish My Brother Rob Was Here," released in 2011, helped Milo process the death of close friend Rob Espinosa, who drowned in Kenosha that summer.
"I sent that to a few blogs, and one in particular, the Needle Drop, actually reviewed it the day before it came out," Milo said. "All of a sudden my Bandcamp (traffic) spiked, and I was like, 'How can anyone know that? I'm not anyone.' "
The review helped launch his career. In 2013, he was working on college papers between sets at South by Southwest in Austin. He moved to Los Angeles for a time in 2014, working on the respected underground rap label Hellfyre Club, then home to Anderson .Paak.
"Super broke and hungry," Milo gave up on Los Angeles in 2015 and moved to Milwaukee. "I didn't know of a city that had such a cool underground music thing going on, and was also cheap and near water," he said.
Milo has since launched his own label, Ruby Yacht, with the release of "Flies." He followed "Flies" in July with the raw "Too Much of Life is Mood," released under the alias Scallops Hotel. He's currently making his "great work," called "Who Told You To Think?," and he was declared an artist to watch last year by Rolling Stone.
"It's going to be about permissions and boundaries and identity," Milo said. "It's a hard noodle still. I'm not going to put out something unless it really, really excites me."
Six years ago, "everything kind of broke" for Sarah Vos.
The Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter went through an existential crisis, prompted by changing religious beliefs, that unearthed anxieties about her purpose. She left the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, quit her job and isolated herself from friends.
Relocating to her native Oshkosh, "I ran into some old friends of mine I had played music with, and they asked me if I wanted to be in a band," Vos said.
Six years later, that band, the Milwaukee-based Dead Horses, has the same booking agent as Trampled by Turtles, the hard-gigging, bluegrass group from Minneapolis that grew from intimate Milwaukee venues like Shank Hall to headlining the 2,500-seat Riverside Theater.
"That's definitely not out of the realm of possibilities with Dead Horses," said Marc Solheim, talent buyer for PTG Live Events, which manages the Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater and Turner Hall Ballroom, and books shows for the Back Room at Colectivo Coffee.
In 2012, Dead Horses hit the road hard, garnering enough support to raise nearly $10,000 on crowdfunding site Kickstarter for its sophomore album "Space and Time." The album was recorded at the famed Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco, a frequent home for the Grateful Dead, and released in 2014.
Last fall's "Cartoon Moon" was produced by noted musician Ken Coomer, a founding member of Wilco. The album is a polished showcase for Dead Horses' warm live aesthetic, its lyrics conveying the suffering and self-doubt Vos struggled with in 2010.
"I am thankful actually that I went through (a crisis), because here's where I am now," Vos said ahead of a three-month national tour, the band's longest yet, kicking off this month. "I'm going to do whatever I can to keep music so central to my life."
Trapo was just 17 when influential hip-hop blog Pigeons & Planes premiered his haunting track "Cards & Consequences" in August 2015, prompting more than 250,000 SoundCloud streams.
But the Madison born-and-based rapper had been working toward that moment for years.
In grade school, Trapo (born Davon Prather) started singing and rapping on his uncle’s amateur tracks, and filling notebooks with his own verses. He started recording his own songs by middle school, blending hip-hop, neo soul, rock and other genres.
"I had no damn connections," Trapo said. When he was 16, "I used to target specific blogs, where I would click on who was following them (on Twitter). They were the people I would spam (with links to my music) because I knew they would like my (expletive)."
The strategy worked. Steven Louis and Daniel Poneman came across his songs, signed on as Trapo's managers, and secured that first Pigeons & Planes write-up. Pigeons and sister site Complex continued premiering material, and Trapo linked up with established rappers Skizzy Mars and Allan Kingdom for guest verses. XXL Mag did a one-to-watch Q&A in December.
Each Trapo track since late 2015 has netted tens of thousands of streams on Spotify and SoundCloud. The shimmering, soulful "Chicago," from last March's EP "She," was the big breakout, with nearly 750,000 Spotify streams as of late December.
"He has the ambition to take it to the next level," said Joe Topping, booking coordinator and assistant talent buyer for Madison-based Frank Productions, which booked Trapo for FreakFest in Madison last October.
Last November, nine months after "She," Trapo dropped his full-length debut "Shade Trees," the songs spanning from the disturbed trap-soul slow-burner "Riot," to smirking, old-school funk jam "Stop Me."
"I want to make a difference," he said. "Years from now I want a huge fanbase. I want people to come to my shows and say, 'You changed my life.' This may not be the project to do that, but it's a start."
Playful early material like "O.M.G.S.T.D." were catchy enough to get Milwaukee group Soul Low a "band to watch" mention from Spin in 2015.
Then Soul Low did something radical, jettisoning its breezy jangle pop rock sound for last year's ambitious, sprawling sophomore full-length "Nosebleeds."
"It's not just one of my favorite Milwaukee records of 2016, its one of my favorite records period," said Ken Sumka, assistant program director for WYMS-FM (88.9). "When the album came out I thought, this is a serious record from a band that is destined for greatness."
Sumka wasn't alone with the high praise. "Nosebleeds" won the Radio Milwaukee Music Award for album of the year in December, nominated via online voting, with the station's staff selecting the winner.
Following its debut full-length, 2013's "Uneasy," and 2015's EP "Sweet Pea," Soul Low shifted its sound. Bassist Sam Gehrke said making "Nosebleeds" "was just us making a statement that we were good musicians."
The Soul Low guys have had a lot of time to practice. Gehrke, singer and guitarist Jake Balisteri and keyboardist and sax player Sean Hirthe have played together since they were 11, busking at local farmers markets in a blues and jazz group dubbed Informal Blues.
That morphed into Soul Low in 2009, with the band members committing more time to national and regional tours and recording. Soul Low will have played its 200th show by early 2017, and plans to hit the road after Balistreri graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this spring.
When it does, Soul Low will have more material to share. The full-length follow-up to "Nosebleeds," which Celenza suggests is "even better," is slated for a spring release.
"I think the next record is a good capstone...of everything we've done to this point," Gehrke said. "It kind of touches on, I think in a really coherent way, the darker sensibilities of 'Nosebleeds' and the fun pop stuff."
When acclaimed Milwaukee folk act Field Report made its sophomore album "Marigolden" in 2014, it incorporated a sweeping sound to match singer-songwriter Christopher Porterfield's poetic lyrics.
Porterfield said its then-new drummer, Shane Leonard from Eau Claire, "was a big part of that."
"He's a great musician, but the most important thing about Shane, in order to understand and appreciate his talent and particular genius, is he is a bit of a restless spirit," Porterfield said of Leonard. "He's always hungry to improve and soak in new influences and synthesize those into the next version of his thing."
That's exactly what Leonard did on last year's album "Printer's Son," released under the name Kalispell. Leonard plans to phase out the moniker in 2017, but it was taken from a Montana town where he "spent a couple of weeks one summer with my family, and we all went through a lot of growth, and came out a new family."
Leonard's personal relationships were the central point for "Son." As he was writing, his father was diagnosed with cancer, passing away in 2014. His grandfather also died that year, and his four-year-long romantic relationship came to an end.
"That changed the nature of the songs, and my entire understanding of what life was about, to be as honest as you can in any given moment, because you don't know how many given moments you have coming to you," Leonard said.
"Printer's Son" reflects other lessons from Leonard's musical journey, from his jazz studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, to the incorporation of old-time music, which Leonard learned first-hand in Appalachia from banjo masters like Clyde Davenport and Lee Sexton.
"The album has this character of sounding basically like a folk musician playing stringed instruments and singing songs, with a jazz trio and a classical chamber group," Leonard said. "I had no idea how that would end up sounding. But my horizon widened."