Saturday night’s show at Cactus Club will also be a back to school event of sorts, when Shane Hochstetler and Nathan Lilley return to the stage where their beloved band Call Me Lightning played countless times over the years. No, the loaded local bill won’t find Lightning striking again. It will, however, offer the next best thing, as Milwaukee punk supergroup Bad Grades will be playing out for the first time.
Close to four years ago, Hochstetler started writing song parts in his spare time. By that point, Call Me Lightning had stopped touring entirely and shows had reduced to a crawl. Members had grown busy, especially Hochstetler, who owns and operates Howl Street Recordings. As the parts started to take form, he demoed some songs in his studio in off hours and sent them to longtime bandmate Nathan Lilley to see if he’d do him a favor and write some some vocal parts for material he never expected to be anything more than a studio project.
“I wrote these songs and sent them to Nathan and he was way more excited about them than I thought he would be,” Hochstetler says. “Call Me Lightning was kind of at the tail end of not really doing much anymore. He sent me a text and said, ‘Dude, let’s make this a band.'”
Not long after, life intervened, and Hochstetler’s focus was split between drumming with Madison metal band Zebras, moving his studio space, and recording dozens of other acts. No matter how busy he was or how much time passed, he always found himself returning to the material he wrote for Bad Grades.
“In the back of my head I thought I would do something with it someday, and every six months or so, I’d listen to the demos and I’d still really like it,” Hochstetler says.
Hochstetler wrote all the music for nine songs, playing then drums and guitar parts. In addition to enlisting Lilley’s help with vocals and lyrics, he asked Chris Ortiz (Speed Freaks, Volcanos) to play bass on the record. Last winter, the founding member decided to field musicians to make Bad Grades into a band that was could play out. Hochstetler would handle drumming, and Mike Gamm (Population Control) and Nick Elert (Northless) were tabbed to take over live guitar duties.
“Those guys are, in my opinion, some of the best musicians in the city, and they’re good friends of mine,” Hochstetler says.
Bad Grades’ first nine songs barely break the 20-minute mark. The collection of fast and frenzied two-minute recordings harken back to the members’ basement and legion hall show roots.
“I was a metal kid, then a punk kid, so all of us come from this stuff,” Hochstetler says. “Population Control isn’t too far off from this band. When I met Nathan when we were teenagers, he was in a punk band.”
Though there’s now some sense of direction, there’s nothing to indicate Bad Grades will ever be anything more than a side project. All the members’ other projects come first. No release date for the band’s just-recorded album is planned. Touring is off the table. More than anything, Bad Grades is just a way for one of the busiest men in Milwaukee music to have a vehicle to write songs and, now, to play those songs with his friends at shows from time to time. Even the audience response takes a back seat to the enjoyment of playing punk rock songs with his pals.
“I don’t care if anyone likes it. If they like it, great. If they don’t, whatever,” Hochstetler says.