It was a Saturday night in early April. Though it wasn’t unusual for Decibully to play to a brimming bar room in its preferred local haunt, the Cactus Club was especially packed, considering the headliner hadn’t advertised the event as an album release show, and there was no tour in which the underpublicized club show would serve to send off. Still, the back room of the Wentworth Ave. watering hole was nuts to butts with Milwaukee music fans fitting one of two classifications: those who knew the show’s significance, and those fortunate enough to unknowingly wind up attending the momentous performance.
Midway through a set that was uncharacteristically populated with brand new material, as well as songs the seminal act hadn’t touched in years, William “B.J.” Seidel confirmed what much of the sweaty masses came in knowing, and most others had surely come to assume in the early going of the bittersweet affair: it would be Decibully’s final show. While the lengthy set—that left no era of the long-running band’s lengthy catalog untouched—was a gracious and understated way for the group to draw the curtain on more than a decade on the stage, the lack of fanfare or notice of the departure surely left hoards of Decibuddies without a sense of closure. It likely wasn’t easier to digest when Decibully, the unmastered album given the self-titled treatment by default, was hastily released for free digital download the next day, and still managed to be largely comparable in quality to its namesake’s preceding discography.
Fortunately, the bomb Seidel dropped on the Cactus Club stage three years ago proved to be inaccurate. Monday, Decibully will get the band back together at Turner Hall—if only for one night—in the spirit of the city’s premier holiday.
“It’s the perfect combination of circumstances,” says Aaron Vold, Decibully’s drummer. “If it wasn’t for Milwaukee Day asking us to get back together, I don’t know if we would’ve.”
The Milwaukee Day show will also find Juniper Tar taking the stage after a lengthy absence, and relative newcomers Whips opening. Decibully, however, totes the most appeal with its ability to treat fans to a publicized, true last show for a band that deserved a louder swan song that Saturday night in the spring of 2011.
Some Need Change
In 2001, Seidel and William “Kenny” Siebert took early steps in forming what would become one of the city’s most renowned bands, just as another scene leader, The Promise Ring (of which Seidel was part), was about to call it quits. Soon, two other Promise Ring expats—Ryan Weber and short-tenured guitarist-turned-drummer Jason Gnewikow—joined Decibully. The lineup expanded and shifted, before settling on seven members.
The septuplet soon signed to Polyvinyl Records, which released 2003’s City Of Festivals, an outstanding aural ode to Milwaukee that merged elements of indie rock, folk, and a tinge of electronic backing, all with a gorgeous garnish of Seidel’s hushed falsetto to forge what could be considered among the best Milwaukee albums of the century so far (which won’t be a Milwaukee Record list!). The follow-up, 2005’s Sing Out America!, was more of the same, except with jutting political commentary to juxtapose the pleasant musicianship—occasionally even including bird chirps and harp plucking.
The pair of albums, not to mention debut You Might Be A Winner, You Might Be A Loser, But You’ll Always Be A Gambler, placed Decibully at the forefront of local music of the time. Simultaneously, bands like Since By Man, Temper Temper, Call Me Lightning, and Collections Of Colonies Of Bees were also bolstering the bustling renaissance of Milwaukee music.
“That era was such a weird time that was so diverse in music,” Seidel says. “We sort of know who our godfathers are from The Promise Ring, Pele, and all these guys that we always looked up to. Then we became a band, it was the next phase of the Milwaukee scene. It’s kind of cool to be a part of that long line of bands. The thing that sucks is that Milwaukee bands are never big bands outside Milwaukee, and that’s such a fucking shame. Every one of those bands should’ve been highly successful.”
World Travels Fast
Even if Decibully wasn’t big outside of Milwaukee, during that epoch, it was at least still playing outside Milwaukee while on tour for the majority of each year.
“The traveling was always the best part of it,” Siebert says.
The band looks back fondly on seeing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the same tour, visiting Canada, and playing a decayed pre-war theater in Leipzig, Germany. Before their run had ended, Decibully had a song played when Tom Cruise walked out to present at an awards show, and was in the score to the Duplass brothers’ film The Puffy Chair. Strangely, the members now seem to elicit even more joy while recalling once-wistful occurrences like being paid entirely in South American coins from a near-bankrupt Canadian venue, performing to three people in Buffalo, and being robbed… on two different continents.
In 2005, following a five-week domestic tour (and one day at home), the band flew to Europe to play what was supposed to be a five-week tour. While staying in a monastery-turned-hostel in Amsterdam, Decibully was robbed.
“We went to a bar and came back, and I remember everybody walking into their room and individually being like, ‘Oh my fucking God!’” Siebert says. “The rooms were just tossed. The laptops were gone, CD players, cell phones.”
Worse yet, when they used then-bassist Justin Klug’s laptop—which he’d wisely kept with him—Decibully soon learned its five-week run of shows was closer to just four shows total in a five-week span, leaving the marooned musicians to scramble to fill in tour gaps and literally busk on European streets for gas money.
“Somehow we managed to pick up enough shows to take us through to the end, with only a nine-day break in the middle, during which all of us stayed with a wonderful and insanely hospitable family in Bordeaux,” says auxiliary instrumentalist Nick Sanborn. “I’ll never forget sitting around their table after dinner each night, drinking great wine and cheap cognac, and having broken tri-lingual conversations about Bush’s re-election as their pet tortoise cruised around under the table.”
After paying the majority of its van and equipment rentals in change, Decibully returned to the states with just enough money left to get burgers and beer at the airport as they, keeping with the tour’s theme, waited for their lost luggage.
Skipping Over The Goodbyes
As the 20-somethings lurched into their 30s, the discomfort of the road and novelty of scraping by gave way to responsibilities like careers, relationships, fatherhood, and, in some cases, other less-demanding projects. Klug joined self-described “dad band” Maritime and Eric Holliday took his banjo elsewhere, making way for bass player Andy Menchal and Jim Neumyer (both of Temper Temper). Sanborn provided tour support for Headlights and Megafaun, and Seidel—a father of two—opened Burnhearts, a bar in Bay View.
Tours continued, but they became shorter and more seldom and, along the way, Polyvinyl decided against releasing Decibully’s long-awaited World Travels Fast.
“We realized we were never going to be rock stars, and none of us could justify spending eight months on the road anymore because we had other responsibilities,” Seidel says.
The writing was on the wall by 2010, but the band’s fate wasn’t sealed until that fabled April in 2011.
“When Ryan told us he was headed for the Peace Corps, we realized that we’d have to relearn how to play our catalog without him again, which would have felt a lot more like work than fun at that point,” Sanborn says. “We decided to just make the next show we had scheduled our last.”
There’s no love loss between band members, though this show will be among the only times most of Decibully’s final incarnation (plus Klug, who with Menchal, will take turns filling in for the absent Weber) will get together.
Other than Weber (who is stationed in Kenya, and makes up half of Eric & Magill) and Sanborn (who has since relocated to Durham, NC, where he plays in Sylvan Esso), all members live in or around Milwaukee. Aside from his bar and restaurant endeavors, Seidel recently returned to music as part of Bad Bad Bad. Siebert is in No Future. They all remain friends.
“We literally lived 24 hours a day together for months on end,” Klug says. “It’s a unique bond that you can’t ignore. It’s a significant chapter of our lives.”
Thanks to a Milwaukee Day miracle, that chapter will be revised to finally get the ending it deserves. That is, unless Decibully has a different conclusion in mind.
“Maybe a 2 p.m. slot at Summerfest,” Menchal says.