In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle important city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: Andrew, at the risk of making this too personal, I want to let readers know we met while working together at the Advance-Titan (UW-Oshkosh’s student newspaper). Sorry if I’m speaking out of turn here, but after college, we both briefly moved to places we did not enjoy for about a year before finally relocating to cities we knew we wanted to end up. You landed in Madison and I took my newfound unemployment check (Thanks, Gannett!) to Milwaukee. Weeks away from my five-year anniversary of Milwaukee residence, I can say with absolute truth that I love the city more than ever…you know, just in case co-launching a publication with “Milwaukee” in the name didn’t quite hammer that point home. And you seem to be quite fond of Madison as well. I kind of get it. I think capital city is a great place to visit, but can’t say I’d ever want to live there. (More on that later.) I know you feel similarly about my adopted city as well.
In speaking to other people I know in Madison, as well as people who went to school there and have since come to Milwaukee, I know our sentiments aren’t all that unique. With Madison-based (by way of Baraboo, but I’ll give it to you) Phox coming to Milwaukee tonight on the cusp of what seems to be huge things on the horizon, I’d like to dust off the timeless discussion about the clearly drafted disconnect between Wisconsin’s two largest cities. I think Phox’s success is well deserved and is good for music in all segments of the state. That said, I’d be lying if I said seeing that the latest Badger State breakout band resides in Madison—and, in my opinion, that band not being at all indicative of the level of music coming out of the city otherwise—didn’t irk me a tad, when so many commendable acts in my coverage area go unnoticed.
There are a shitload of entry points to this very broad conversation, and I’m sorry to task you with being the voice of a mini metro’s entire populace, but why do you love Madison? What are some factors that make you like it there more than Milwaukee? And why do you think things can be so very disparate between two places that have just 78 miles of smooth interstate separating them? At least we can agree both Milwaukee and Madison are better than Oshkosh, right? Man, fuck that place.
Andrew Winistorfer: I don’t know, Tyler, Oshkosh got an Olive Garden since we went to school there. Could you imagine how much our undergrad years would have been improved by endless noodle platters? I’m also coming up on my five-year anniversary living here, meaning I’ve eaten enough Stella’s Cheese Bread to be the voice of Madison.
I, too, would say I love living here more than I did when I decided to leave St. Cloud, Minnesota (long story) for a shitty apartment on the near north side of Madison. And the main reasons I love living here are the same reasons outsiders (and flummoxed insiders) view this city skeptically: It’s a city that is very rarely encroached upon by reality. Madison is a city that will bend over backwards to support nearly any flight of fancy that its residents can conjure; it’s possible to buy humanely butchered rabbits at a Farmer’s Market that sometimes gets drive-bys by naked bike riders. You can see a play by one of our 12,000 local theater companies practically every night of the week, and don’t forget, we once supported a Snuggle House. I bet 90 percent of the populace has an Etsy page. Living here feels like living an episode of Portlandia, but with about 7,000 percent more binge drinking. When you learn to embrace the self-parody, this place is perfect.
The downside of that—which is something you guys are doing a great job of at Milwaukee Record—is that there’s a real lack of calling out stuff that, for lack of an equally effective term, sucks. In Madison there’s an emphasis on fostering any culture, which, especially in our local music scene, means that everyone is considered “great!” which serves to effectively make no one great. It’s to the point where it’s genuinely surprising when a local band gets national nods—Zola Jesus, Peaking Lights, All Tiny Creatures, Julian Lynch, now Phox, I guess—because you see those bands getting effusive praise locally alongside stuff that sucks, and you never think of them as something that can break out of the, “You guys killed the Frequency!” ghetto.
I’ve always considered Milwaukee as the serious, less-accepting-of-bullshit counterpoint to Madison’s idealism. Your suburbs seem to be harboring the worst kind of political movements, while our suburbs house mustard museums. The weirdoes—my people!—from upstate move to Madison, while people with serious career aspirations move to Milwaukee. To me, Milwaukee has always seemed like the Alex P. Keaton to Madison’s, uh, Alex P. Keaton’s parents. Our cities may share an affinity for the same cold beer, curded cheese, and sport teams, but we’ll never forgive Milwaukee for letting Scott Walker nuzzle at its teat during his formative years.
Go ahead and tell me why I’m wrong about Milwaukee. Why couldn’t you see yourself living here?
Tyler: I’m glad you noticed our penchant for criticism when we feel it’s necessary. Your check will be mailed out next week, by the way. Anyway, I don’t think you’re entirely wrong with some of your points about my fair city. I do think the scene can be more jaded and competitive than Madison’s, which I think blows if you’re a band that’s trying to start out and you’re forced to compete for stage time and attention with more-established in-town acts—some of whom have been kicking for more than a decade. In the same breath, I feel that inherent competition (that, yes, occasionally borders on being too insular) ultimately helps the best and most interesting shit rise to local consciousness. Even more, the local bands must also vie for awareness and coveted door dollars with literally thousands of touring acts each year at dozens of venues (that—unlike High Noon Saloon, Frequency, and Majestic—are not always affiliated), as well as professional sports teams, and comedians of all echelons. Yeah, it’s a more difficult, more competitive, and an altogether grittier place than Madison, but you can find parcels of Madtown-like respite here too. I’m less than 100 hours removed from watching a rap battle between two children on a Riverwest side street, while drinking a PBR I bought from one of their parents (I hope!) for a dollar. And as a Bay View resident, I literally get to see how the organic artisanal sausage is made in establishing Milwaukee as a new found haven for foodies. At the risk of accidentally backing into a MilwaukeeHome sponsorship deal, this city has everything I want. I know it has its flaws, but I embrace and love this transitional, rough-around-the-edges place more than any other locale I’ve ever been.
As far as why I could never live in Madison, I simply don’t think I could call it home without battling with an ever-present awareness of my own mortality. I know there are lifers in Madison like anywhere else, but every September, the populace seems to hit a collective reset button that ushers in a new batch of fresh-faced 18-year-olds to a place in which they’ll exist for few-month windows between breaks from school, and ultimately, the graduation ceremony that will find them returning to either coast from whence they came or to a bigger city with more opportunities for them (Milwaukee, for example). Locals seem to simply accept that the city was fashioned to serve as a temporary habitat for students and career politicians and willingly fill in the cracks with actual culture. You’ve even told me that you love June most because you’re finally free to go where you want without fear of it being overrun with students.
I think the ongoing recycling of youth also has an adverse impact on your music scene. Just when a band starts hitting its stride, a huge chunk of its fanbase graduates or, oh shit, Bryce (he’s always named Bryce) got into the grad program at Boston College—which is one of the best in the country for his major! Band over. With Marquette, UWM, Alverno, and others in town, Milwaukee deals with that as well, but it seems like we have a greater ability to retain people after graduation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m jealous of the frequency and caliber of punk shows Madison regularly offers (see all-ages venue Crosstalk!); I’d kill to have something like Comedy Club On State in here, and I’ll never pass an opportunity to sing some obscure ‘90s songs at Karaoke Kid, but, to me, Madison is just a place I’ll visit two or three times a year when I want a fun change of pace with old friends—and, in the process, a reminder of why I love Milwaukee.
But anyway, back to Phox: do you think the band’s impending breakout will help render your city a place for creative people to come and actually stay? Do you think having (arguably) the state’s two biggest bands/label mates—Phox and Field Report—on opposing ends of that aforementioned stretch of I-94 will help cultivate increased overlap between the two music scenes? And, moreover, do you even want that? Could the stark contrast between Madison and Milwaukee actually be a good thing that gives citizens almost everything they want, but never everything they desire in one place?
Andrew: You’ve given me a lot of ways to take this, but first I want to talk about the stuff you said about the university being here, because you’re certainly not the first person to express that to me. Outsiders look down their nose at Madison, because at nature, it’s unavoidable: we are a university town, first and foremost. And yeah, the end of May and beginning of June is my favorite time of the year, because it’s possible to do all the rad things Madison has in the summer—Milwaukee doesn’t have anything that can approach drinking beers on the Terrace, sorry—without the presence of a bunch of 19-year-old coasties singing Macklemore lyrics.
But, whereas you look at it as constantly being reminded that you are closer to 40 than you are to undergrad age, I look at that turnover as a positive. The people who choose to stay in Madison after graduation really, really love it; I feel like the people who love living in Madison love it more intensely than those who love living in Milwaukee. I mean, we’re choosing to live in a city with too-high rent, less economic opportunity (unless you work for Epic), and an attitude that can affectionately be described as “up its own ass.” There’s a passion for living here that I haven’t encountered in any other city. I like visiting Milwaukee because you guys have bigger national shows, and charming bars where you can get cigarettes as part of shot and beer deals, but I can’t imagine having to live somewhere where I can’t get into debates about veganism with the local homeless community. (This really happened when I was wasted once.)
Ultimately, the turnover here gives the truly great bands in Madison a competitive advantage over their counterparts in Milwaukee. Because bands are constantly turning over—like you said, because of grad school—it’s possible to go from a local open mic night to headlining High Noon in pretty short order. It feels like I heard about Phox a year and a half ago when they played locally, and they rocketed up to the bigs in no time. And because bands are often only here for their undergrad years, it’s possible for them to catch national buzz at the exact moment that they have no reason to live in Madison anymore, and are able to take their acts national instead of worrying about trying to dominate the local opener spot at Turner Hall or whatever. This has happened repeatedly since Boz Scaggs went to school here in the ‘60s, pretty much, and most recently with Zola Jesus, who had her first Pitchfork coverage and Best New Track before she graduated. My—admittedly limited—knowledge of the Milwaukee music scene is that bands are content to be the biggest band in Milwaukee, whereas the great Madison bands are always aware that their time as Madison’s best is temporary.
Which is ultimately a problem, as you say, because this city has a cultural drain, especially when it comes to music. Most of the big bands I mentioned from Madison in the first part have moved to points beyond Madison as their national profile grew. So the bands that dominate over long periods of time locally are some of the most middling things, because they have to somehow hold on to a temporary audience for multiple resets, and that sucks. Milwaukee doesn’t have that problem as much, though you guys are still responsible for Pat McCurdy being a thing, and that should be in the back of your minds anytime you guys wonder why Milwaukee bands aren’t getting shine some Madison bands do.
Do I think Phox will lead to a new renaissance of Madison bands who decide living in Madison is preferable to moving to a place with more venues, more money, and maybe more national exposure? No. I don’t even expect them to be Madison residents this time next year, and that’s okay. That’s part of living here. I think it’s great that Partisan Records has somehow plucked the two best bands from each city’s music scene, and I hope there will be some national package tour with Phox and Field Report (shouts to Travis Whitty, another Oshkosh ex-pat) where people around the U.S. can realize we’re a state with two cultural centers. I think more interchange of bands between our two cities can only be positive; the Madison bands I love that I doubt could play anywhere else should want to road test in Milwaukee, while those bands that have dominated your scene locally for a decade should try captivating a crowd of old people and children on the Terrace.
In closing, I think it’s important for us to not forget that the actual biggest band in Wisconsin—like, hanging with Kanye West in Hawaii big—is Bon Iver, and that dude hasn’t been convinced that Milwaukee OR Madison is the right place for him to live as far as Wisconsin’s music scene goes. We’re just fighting for second place to Eau Claire, man.