Just two summers ago, an unknown band of young Milwaukeeans released eight songs they wrote and recorded in pieces over the course of a few years, beginning all the way back in 2009 when three of the (then) 20-year-olds were in high school. Since casting UNEASY out into a world with little knowledge and even less expectation of the unproven outfit, Soul Low‘s outstanding and beyond-its-years debut was a frequent inhabitant on many 2013 year-end lists. Meanwhile, the band that was previously relegated to basements and cafeterias suddenly saw its show schedule and touring opportunities expand exponentially as local consciousness grew. Along with their expanded notoriety and swelling expectation in Milwaukee, Soul Low was quickly struck with a question—both internally and by others—which they’d never faced before: What’s next?
“It was weird to go from being in a high school band to having local people start paying attention to us,” Soul Low bassist Sam Gehrke says. “UNEASY was such a scatterbrained album because how long it took us to write the songs. We had so much time to sit on them and work on them. All the sudden it was like, ‘Oh shit. Now what do we do? What direction do we go in?'”
Singer-guitarist and primary songwriter Jake Balistrieri acknowledges the sudden attention and accompanying expectation of matching his band’s intensely-enjoyable introduction was “extremely overwhelming initially.” After some stress regarding their next step, Soul Low decided to tamp down the pressure and sidestep the expectations of which way to proceed on their follow-up release and, instead, forge ahead with a plan to put out three considerably different records in 2015. The first, January’s Kind Spirit, found Soul Low navigating through distinctly divergent musical styles in four songs (that Gehrke says “didn’t even really fit together”), and even relying on Milwaukee rapper WebsterX to lend some verses and bars on “Heard It All Before.” Today, the band officially berths its second EP in under six months, Sweet Pea.
“Sweet Pea is focused more on the vocal melodies, where other releases have been more instrument-oriented. Sweet Pea is more poppy,” Balistrieri says.
Soul Low’s latest eschews the intricate arrangements and genre-hopping of its two predecessors. Sweet Pea—another four-song EP, not including five immensely stripped-down demos—derives from fleshed out versions of recordings Balistrieri had compiled, the majority of which are short, sweet, and simplistic. The band recorded the EP with Harrison Colby (No/No, Gloss Records) over the span of just one day. From jangly opener “Always Watchin’ Out” and lighthearted garage-rock number “OMG STD” to dyspeptic rocker “Green Beams” and gentle, exposed “I Can Write A Poem” (which features Milwaukee rapper Lord Fredd33), the EP differs from anything the band has done to date, but still displays some touchstones that are definitively Soul Low, including perfectly placed horns and Balistrieri’s unmistakable wavering vocals.
“The demos are super straight ahead, melody driven,” Gehrke says. “The chord structures aren’t too complicated. The song structures aren’t too complicated. We kind of thought this would be a really good way to take the pressure off ourselves, to write a fun, easy EP to put out in the spring and just relax and focus on finishing up the more challenging record.”
The “more challenging record” to which Gehrke refers is a full-length the band anticipates will be out by the end of 2015. He says he expects the forthcoming release to be Soul Low’s most ambitious and cohesive effort, and will hopefully expand upon UNEASY’s reception. The Brew City breakout band spent much of 2014 concerned with which direction to take the band’s sound after an encouraging start. Through an almost stream of consciousness approach to recording and a removal of any such expectations, it appears all roads Soul Low takes lead listeners somewhere satisfying.
“Yeah, we had the pressure, but we slowly started to say, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do it at our own pace,’” Gehrke says. “We just took our time and wrote the songs as they came.”
Soul Low’s new Sweet Pea EP is available today on Bandcamp or on cassette via Gloss Records. The band will play release shows Friday, May 29 at Cactus Club with Split Single and Heavy Hand, and on Monday, June 1 with Ava Luna and Sat. Nite Duets at Villa Terrance Decorative Arts Museum (all-ages).