On Saturday, April 27, Ian McCullough turned 28 years old. Instead of opening presents from others, he decided to give listeners the gift of a brand new album. This isn’t the first time McCullough—who makes music under the “Cullah” moniker—has released new music on his birthday. In fact, it’s become a tradition that the Milwaukee musician and producer has been doing since he turned 15.
The son of a musically-inclined mother and a computer scientist father who would bring him old and discarded materials, McCullough was encouraged and influenced to create at a very young age. Using production software like Fruity Loops and whatever instruments he could get his hands on, he started writing music when he was a child.
“I had that genuine curiosity and also the tools to understand how to be thrown into an environment where your limits are your own,” McCullough says. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
Though his discography technically begins in 2007, Cullah’s debut release, Adolessonce, features songs he wrote between the years 2003 and 2006. When April 27, 2008 rolled around, he decided to release another album.
Originally, he decided to put music out on his birthday to celebrate the occasion, not unlike a kid bringing treats to school on their special day or people inviting friends to birthday dinners in adulthood. However, in the years since Adolessonce, Cullah’s birthday has served as a perennial April 27 record release date and a creative deadline for the perpetually active composer.
“Part of what might help me keep going and not constantly analyze [material] is that I have to release it every year,” McCullough says. “I could spend months and months and months mixing, remixing, fine-tuning, and trying to make it perfect. Because there’s that album-a-year [goal], I have to embrace this abandonment.”
McCullough says his early work was influenced by Daft Punk, video game scores, and “very fast experimental electronic music.” Though he cringes at the thought of some of those first albums, he admits “some of it isn’t half bad,” and he’s happy to have audio evidence of his early work.
After majoring in computer engineering at Marquette—the site of a tragic “hardware failure” that caused him to miss his release goal for the one and only time back in 2011—and studying music in Ireland for two years, McCullough moved back to Milwaukee with new influences and a developed set of skills.
Over the weekend, McCullough released the 13th Cullah album. Spectacullah is the latest in the musician’s arsenal of pun-y productions (joining last year’s Culluhsus, 2017’s Cullahmity, 2015’s Cullah The Wild, among many others) and McCullough considers the release to be “almost like a distillation of the last 13 years.” The nine-song release manages cover a great deal of sonic territory, including reggae, funk, hip-hop, stripped-down folk, rock ballads, house music, a “psychedelic Appalachian banjo tune,” and even a country song with synths.
“I feel like I’ve set a precedent where I can do whatever I want,” McCullough says. “It’s all about what I like and what I find interesting.”
With a tight annual deadline for a loose concept, Cullah has been able to trace his growth and musical evolution on a year-to-year basis.
“I think one of the things people can connect to is that they’re listening to someone’s life,” McCullough says “They’re going along with me every year.”
Even though he’s yet to even play the release show for Spectacullah, McCullough says he’s already working on next April’s record. As he chips away at the next album, he’s also looking ahead to 2021, his 30th birthday and the year when he will have been releasing music for exactly half his life. Despite having already amassed more material at 28 years old than most musicians will put out in a lifetime, McCullough isn’t planning to stop Cullah any time soon.
“I’m building momentum every year,” McCullough says. “The more I give to it, the faster I see things rolling. At least for the next five years, I should go as hard as I can with this and just give everything.”
It’s safe to assume that when next April 27 rolls around, Cullah will have something new for people to listen to.
“I don’t see a stopping point,” McCullough says. “I can’t imagine a life without it.”