Walt Lontkowski—better known to Wisconsin punk aficionados as “Walt Hamburger“—is in the midst of a “rock and roll fantasy camp” moment. The Appleton area musician (who went to elementary school in Riverwest) is days removed from the release of his debut solo record. The album was recorded over the course of a week in the pop-punk legend’s San Francisco home, and even includes a duet with Cape. Before Walt Hamburger heads back to the west coast to tour in support of the new record (released on Cape’s label, One Week Records), he’ll cross a few more pop-punk notables off his achievement list, as he’ll play in support of Groovie Ghoulies’ Kepi Ghoulie and The Smoking Popes singer Josh Caterer at The Borg Ward on Friday night.
Prior to the show, the Fox Cities singer-songwriter told Milwaukee Record about recording with one of his idols, how the opportunity came about, and why unplugging and shifting his focus helped amplify his music career.
Milwaukee Record: How was your Morning Blend appearance? Not enough Hamburger talk for my liking, personally.
Walt Hamburger: It was a lot of fun. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the hosts and crew seemed like they really enjoy their jobs. I half expected a fake atmosphere, but it was pretty cool. I learned that I mumble and stare at the ground a lot, too.
MR: Having some familiarity with your past work with Caution To The Wind, Honor Amongst Thieves, and The Hamburgers, this album is definitely a departure. What led to your decision to unplug and venture away from punk and closer to folk?
WH: I’ve been doing acoustic performances for about 11 years now, but mostly as a side project to my full bands. In the last few years, I decided to pursue more of a solo path—really taking it seriously the last two or three years. It’s a lot easier to book shows and tours when I’m the only one who needs to commit. The new record probably does lean more towards a folk sound, but I try to keep my live performances entertaining and somewhat energetic. That often depends on the show, the venue, and the city.
MR: What was it like when Joey [Cape] approached you about putting out a record? Talk about the experience of spending a week in San Francisco recording in the home of someone you obviously loved and respected as a member of Lagwagon and Me First And The Gimme Gimmies. Was it surreal?
WH: I was sincerely surprised when Joey called me to offer me the record deal. I had met him in Green Bay at a show we played together, but they had to drive to Winnipeg that night, so we didn’t really get to talk very much. I gave him a CD when he left and we exchanged phone numbers so we could hang out when Lagwagon came back next month. I really didn’t think there would be anything more to the story. Then a week later, he called and asked if I wanted to make a record. Apparently [Lagwagon] was playing my CD quite a bit during their Canada leg of their tour, and he called me right when they got back into the U.S. Flying out to San Francisco, staying and recording in Joey’s home, meeting his family and his close friends, touring Motor Studios and Fat Wreck Chords, hanging out with E from Fat, hitting the road with Lagwagon, seeing the Pacific Ocean…it was like I won a rock and roll fantasy camp contest.
MR: What did Joey bring to the record in terms of production? Did he have an notable impact on some songs? Did he keep the mood light during those 17-hour sessions?
WH: Joey is a gifted producer. Some songs we barely touched; some we made some major changes to; “Whiskey And Jen” we actually wrote together—and it’s a duet, which was a whole other bucket of awesome. His philosophy was to never change anything unless it improved the final product. Some songs we recorded very quickly, others took a long time. He wasn’t satisfied with mediocrity and that kept me motivated. I think we worked well together. He was pretty patient with my ADHD and my constant interruptions. One week for a full-length is a not a lot of time. We always found an hour or so at the end of the night to trade stories, get a few hours of sleep, and then get right back at it the next day.
MR: Speaking of noted pop-punkers, are you pumped to be playing with Kepi from Groovie Ghoulies and Josh Caterer from Smoking Popes? Are you marking more teenage life goals off the list as we speak?
WH: Yes. And Drew [Fredrichsen] of Leg Hounds, Jetty Boys, and Sugar Stems fame. Drew is one of my favorite Wisconsin artists. I’ve never played with Josh before, but my bands Honor Amongst Thieves, The Hamburgers, and Obvious Man Hands played frequently with the Groovie Ghoulies. It’s actually kind of tough to get an acoustic show in Milwaukee, so falling into this incredible lineup is pretty special. I grew up in Riverwest, so Milwaukee always feels like home. Teenage goal-wise, I get to play with Tim Barry [of Avail] this summer. Just played with Dave Hause [of The Loved Ones] a month ago. Played with Kristopher Roe from The Ataris last year, Richie Ramone…so yeah, fantasy camp.
MR: What do you feel the current state of punk and pop-punk in Wisconsin is? Beyond Tenement, Masked Intruder, and Direct Hit!, is anyone helping to carry the torch?
WH: You gotta add The Jetty Boys to that list for sure. Arms Aloft are worth seeing. I don’t know. I’m old now, I don’t always know about the new bands. We were spoiled in our youth with great venues like the Concert Cafe [in Green Bay]. I was spoiled. I went to High School with the guys from Yesterday’s Kids, Obsoletes, Tenement, and Ed Temple & The Chalkboard. It definitely feels like all-ages shows are no longer part of the scene, and those are the settings that all these great bands thrived in. It was certainly where my punk bands did best.
Walt Hamburger plays Friday, May 22 at The Borg Ward in support of Kepi Ghoulie, Josh Caterer, and Drew Fredrichsen. The all-ages show begins at 8:30 p.m. and costs $5.