A decade together is a milestone for any band. But when a cast of collaborators can come together as teenagers and span the length of two and a half presidential terms, see 10 versions of the iPhone, last approximately 119 more months than something on TV called Selfie, and bow out gracefully before its members turn 30, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. Saturday, Milwaukee psych-rock sextuplet Catacombz will take the stage for the last time.
Catacombz was originally formed in the early aughts by a trio of Isaac Sherman (guitar, vocals), Joe Peterson (bass, vocals), and Aaron Bethke (drums), who moved to Milwaukee for college after playing together throughout middle school and high school in the Fox Cities bands L-mo, Face For Radio, and Catacombs Of Rome. The band’s new location and the expected changes in musical influence that are natural for 18-year-olds quickly saw the same ingredients that previously came together to make a pop-punk trio and an overt nod in the direction of The Mars Volta exploring some uncharted sonic territory as Catacombz.
“It always felt like we were out of place,” Sherman says. “We were really stubborn and persistent in doing our own thing. We wanted to lay our own ground and we wanted the music scene to grow out and allow for weirder music.”
Catacombz was (and still is) an outlier that borders on the obscure krautrock and drone sub-genres, with a penchant for the experimental, and no shortage of psychedelic elements incorporated into the recipe. Along the way, Bethke left the band, and four others joined Sherman and Peterson’s endeavor. Despite transitioning from three to six members and seeing its sonic direction change markedly, the middle school chums and their new bandmates were always friends more than anything else. Friends who just happened to make great and entirely original music together. The ability of those friends to play basements and bars from coast to coast together was just a bonus.
“I feel like touring was the highlight,” Peterson says. “I mean, you can vacation for 30 days with five of your best friends and go to a different city with them every day.”
Even hardships like their brakes going out on the way out of Maryland, losing money on early tours, and playing to just three or four people in strange houses are all looked on with a sense of wistfulness. This includes the time they pooled money with Tenement to buy a red short bus to tour in one summer…at least briefly.
“That thing was a death trap. All the weight was right on the axles, so we just kept blowing tires. You know, we’re going 70 in the middle of Tennessee…” Peterson says.
Over time, though, the Catacombz crew started to grow apart (both figuratively and geographically) and tastes began to change, which isn’t all that uncommon of a post-college occurrence between longtime friends (new drummer Casey Marnocha was also a high school friend of Sherman and Peterson’s) who started collaborating before their individual tastes were fully formed. Peterson began performing as party-popper Rio Turbo, and recently joined Riverwest classic rock dynasty Platinum Boys. Sherman started an electronic side project called Storm Chaser. Jason Jolly is playing in Soup Moat. Marnocha took an extended trip to Europe and opened a musical/electronic repair business. Nathan Riddle moved to Minneapolis (and has since returned). Sam La Strapes is finishing school while writing and recording music for a solo venture.
As production slowed to a crawl, practices became a chore, new projects fought for members’ attention, and close to two years passed without a show in the books, it became apparent that Catacombz was ending.
“With the six people, we all kind of had a different vision of what Catacombz was,” Peterson says. “Sometimes two people or three or four [would share a vision], but at the end it was getting rare to have all six agree on the sound. We were all listening to different music, and we couldn’t agree on a clear direction to go.”
But before calling it a day, the band needed to issue its parting shot with a final show at Riverwest Public House Saturday, and the digital release of a final EP, Catacombz II, which (perhaps tellingly) is the band’s most straightforward and structured material to date. “It’s songs that we wanted to share with people. They’re songs that we put a lot of work into writing,” Sherman says.
For Peterson and Sherman, Saturday’s finale won’t just signal the end of Catacombz, it will be the first time the pair haven’t played in a project together since they were 11-year-olds fucking around with guitars. (Well, not counting the upcoming Rio Turbo and Storm Chaser tour that starts next week.) Both have already moved on with their new projects and, soon, Sherman will be moving to Oakland.
“With this last show, I’ve been thinking about how lucky I am to have that. It’s cool growing up and it’s cool watching someone else grow up, and doing it together in a band,” Peterson says. “When I think about how old I was when we started and everything that’s happened, it’s amazing that I can still be associated with the same people.”
As bittersweet at the last show will be, Catacombz can die knowing it pushed Milwaukee’s music scene to some strange new places, captured some tremendous sounds on tape, preserved their bond, and left the scene in better shape than they found it 10 years ago.
Catacombz will play its final show Saturday, December 4 at Riverwest Public House with Dogs In Ecstasy, and (ORB). The show begins at 9 p.m. and is free.