With wild eyes, a shaved head, and a silver front tooth, the heavily tattooed Henry Berger has the look of a hardened sailor of yesteryear. The S.S. Web lead singer delivers tales of drinking hard and loving wrong with a deep, placid voice that booms above the hard-touring Milwaukee band’s brand of whiskey-soaked folk. So, it’s only fitting that the band’s name—Steering Ships With Empty Bottles in its full, unabbreviated form—is dripping with maritime references and is an ode to alcohol.
“We decided we wanted to kind of do a nautical theme for the name and didn’t really know what we wanted to do specifically yet,” Berger says. “But the band came to be over drinks basically, so it just came to us. We decided to shorten it up because no one could remember the long form of it, and it just worked out to be S.S. Web and remained nautical. It just kind of happened.”
Seven years later, through lineup changes, fluctuating instruments, and an evolving sound, S.S. Web has carved out a niche within the growing roots music scene. Mixing folk, punk, country, and gypsy influences, the band has a surprisingly rowdy dynamic in spite of their unplugged instruments. Now with a settled lineup that features Berger on guitar and banjo, fellow founding member David Schuster on mandolin and harmonica, and two-year shipmate Cris Bissell on washboard and percussion, S.S. Web is set to release its fourth album, Revenge, When It Matters Most, on Thursday.
“I’m pretty excited,” Berger says. “I’m really proud of it. I’m excited to see what happens.”
The release date of the self-released album coincides with S.S. Web’s performance at Farmageddon Records Music Festival, a four-day roots music event held at the Wilderness Inn in the unincorporated central Wisconsin community of Sprague. The band hurried home from a two-month European tour in late July to finalize mixes and to master the 11-song record just in time to release the album in conjunction with its opening-day Farm Fest performance. A digital download will be available within the next few weeks with mail-order copies available later this fall.
“It’s different than all of our other stuff,” Berger says. “It’s a little bit darker in tone, and there’s a lot more banjo on this one than there has been on the previous CDs.”
While S.S. Web remains true to their signature foot-stomping tales of sorrow and redemption, Revenge, When It Matters Most showcases the band’s evolved, fuller sound compared to previous releases. The soulful trio kicks their old-time influences into high gear with Berger’s resonant voice bringing a calming balance to the frenzied picking and percussion that drive the band’s acoustic assault. The record kicks off with the ominous “Sharpen Up the Meat Clever,” a catchy ballad about sinister payback.
“It’s just kind of an eerie tale of revenge and basically cutting fingers off for unsettled debts,” Berger says.
Other standout tracks include the infectious banjo riffs of “Smoke in the Eye,” the catchy singalong chorus of “2 Devils,” and the desperate call for relief in “Bring Me Home.”
While S.S. Web has settled into a consistent three-man lineup, they have toured as a two-piece—Berger and Bissell—for the past couple of years. Schuster, who has a family and a full-time career in Milwaukee, jumps in with his mandolin whenever possible, especially when the band plays locally.
“He doesn’t really tour with us that much, but he’s still a very integral part in the songwriting process,” Berger says.
The move to a two-piece touring band led to some experimentation that pushed Bissell from a full drum set to his current washboard setup, which is now a cornerstone of the band.
“We get a lot of comments on the washboard,” Berger says. “A lot of people have never seen a washboard played or never even heard of a washboard, believe it or not, which is always pretty funny. It’s definitely changed the sound quite a bit, and I think for the better.”
Bissell, who had next to no experience playing the washboard before his first S.S. Web tour, has since honed his fierce washboard style and developed a setup that also includes a can, a cymbal, a tambourine foot pedal and an African drum called a Cajón.
“He kind of figured it out on the fly,” Berger says. “He had messed with it a little bit before but didn’t really know what he was doing particularly. He had to go through a few weeks of playing the same songs to really figure out what he wanted to do and actually have parts specifically planned out for songs instead of just tapping on stuff.”
Watch S.S. Web tap on stuff in Wisconsin before they hit the road again. Their Farm Fest performance will be on Thursday, August 6 in Sprague. S.S. Web’s next Milwaukee-area performance will be at noon on Saturday, September 12 on the Shorewest Acoustic Stage at the 40th annual TosaFest. They’ll also be playing Halloween set at BBC Bar & Grill’s Upper Level on Saturday, October 31. Stream the first three songs off Revenge, When It Matters Most now, only at Milwaukee Record.