It could be argued that Direct Hit! is Milwaukee’s biggest band. The quartet routinely tours both throughout the U.S. and internationally in support of some of punk’s most notable modern acts. It has earned evening slots on bills for Riot Fest and Fest, among other regarded music festivals. The band garners favorable press from respected national outlets, packs 200-person clubs to capacity outside state lines, and currently has more Facebook fans than Field Report and Vic And Gab (combined). Yet while Direct Hit! could very well be the most popular act from Milwaukee at the moment, the band hasn’t had much luck catching on in Milwaukee. Then again, Direct Hit! hasn’t had much luck, period.
Amid an unfortunate epoch marred by an irreplaceable item being damaged in the mail, losing half its equipment to a fire, lineup changes, and having its van stolen, Direct Hit! overcame obstacles and kept it together long enough to release a great apocalyptic concept album last year and continue to tour in support of the quite-possibly-cursed record.
Though technically formed in Madison when singer-guitarist/founding member Nick Woods (ex-The Box Social) moved there from Milwaukee to attend college in 2007, Woods returned to southeast Wisconsin after graduation. Subsequent incarnations saw the band’s lineup split between Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago. Currently, three of four members call Milwaukee home.
“The geography of the band was always kind of changing. I think that’s a big part of the reason we’re not noted as a band from here,” Woods says. “As the band developed and released new music, we were just releasing things on the Internet. Our friends and the people that we met were spread all over the country. It’s just been recently that people in Milwaukee have started to notice that we’re a band that’s doing stuff and that we all live here.”
The indisputable highlight of what Direct Hit! has done so far is Brainless God, its 2013 album complete with 12 songs intricately woven together by overarching themes of religion, death, and the impending apocalypse—though Woods wants listeners to derive their own meaning from the songs.
“I have a really negative worldview when it comes to God and church and stuff like that. It’s weird to say I don’t believe in God, but the better way to spout that philosophy is to say I don’t really care if God exists,” Woods says. “I think that perspective of feeling liberated that you’re going to die, rather than feeling constricted is putting the liberating aspect of death into a positive light.”
While the album treads into abrasive and pointed territory, the loaded lyrics are countered by infectiously poppy song structures and hooks that make hacksaw dismemberment or a serial killer seeking his next victim seem like picnics in the park. Direct Hit!’s uncanny ability to meld heavy song subject matter with pleasing musical accompaniment wasn’t lost on Shane Olivo, who has recorded the majority of the band’s material at his Bobby Peru Recording Studio, including a portion of Brainless God last spring.
“If you just listen to the music, you can just pawn it off as pop punk, but it’s some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard,” Olivo says. “They’re super-super smart—the juxtaposition of the poppy, upbeat music with the dark, conversational lyrics.”
Ben Perlstein (of The Benjamins and Good Land Records) currently works at Manhattan-based Death Or Glory LLC, where he manages The Replacements, The Hold Steady, Tommy Stinson, and Milwaukee’s own Trapper Schoepp & The Shades. After hearing early demos of Brainless God, Perlstein says he “fell in love” with Direct Hit!
“I listened to it once, and I couldn’t stop listening to it,” Perlstein says. “I haven’t liked a new punk band since the late 1900s. I just think they’re different than any punk band that’s out there right now.”
Perlstein signed on to manage Direct Hit! and quickly connected the band with All-American Rejects guitarist Mike Kennerty—whom Perlstein says was already a fan—to produce the album. In the waning days of recording, Woods’ brother Peter had to be brought in to write and lay down bass lines over the course of just five hours.
“If I was recording almost any other band, they’d probably have a fucking meltdown because of the stress,” Olivo says. “When bad things happen to the band, they handle them for what they are and not like the universe is against them. That was always the joke when we were making the record, by the way: by calling the album Brainless God, God was enacting revenge against Direct Hit! with all these mishaps.”
With the album in the can, the band saw its run of bad luck (or supernatural retribution?) continue. In hopes of covering the down payment for a van, Woods sold a 9.8-graded rare black label edition of The Walking Dead #1 for more than $2,000, only to have the issue damaged by the post office and (eventually) returned to him with a cracked case. Then the band’s practice space burned down, and much of their equipment was lost. Then, while touring in support of Brainless God last December, the very same Direct Hit! van that Woods had sought to buy with a now-ruined graphic novel was stolen in Detroit (along with gear, $3,000 in cash, two laptops and merchandise), as the band was returning home for the holidays. Strangely, the theft actually helped reacquaint the band to Milwaukee, as people paid to download Direct Hit!’s cover of Dollar Signs’ “Caroler“ and attended local benefit shows in droves to help replace some of the estimated (at the time) $20,000 to $25,000 loss. The van and some of the equipment has since been recovered and insurance covered a portion of the theft as well. People’s generosity covered the remaining costs.
“We were kind of keeping it together after that fire happened, and it just totally took the wind out of our sails after [the van was stolen],” Woods says. “At those benefit shows, especially in Milwaukee, it was really awesome to see a lot of people I haven’t in, like, six years and to know those people are still friends of ours, and that they’re keeping an eye out for us.”
Elsewhere, no benefit show angle was necessary to expose Direct Hit! to audiences. In addition to Brainless God being distributed nationally by Red Scare Industries (label of The Falcon and Elway, and formerly The Menzingers), music publications have taken to the group’s idea to combine campy, graphic music videos for every song on the album to form one cohesive “punk rock opera” of sorts.
“They’re not like other bands in that world. They made a fucking video for every song on this album and turned it into a movie,” Perlstein says. “It’s impressive. They’re not only doing shit in Milwaukee, they’re doing shit everywhere else.”
Aside from its innovative video concept, the band has played throughout the United States and Canada, and self-booked two European tours. They have opened for such popular punk outfits as Lawrence Arms, Off With Their Heads, and The Copyrights. They’re currently wrapping up a tour with Fat Wreck Chords band The Flatliners, before jumping on a tour with Masked Intruder. Direct Hit! will play right before Rise Against at Summerfest July 3.
Not flames, not theft, not post office carelessness—not even the prospect of a vengeful God can slow Direct Hit! down. With a growing army of supporters everywhere who gladly adhere to the band’s “Fuck you! Get pumped!” battle cry, and swelling-though-delayed recognition from local listeners, a 12-song effort about the end times seems to signal the beginning of a beautiful and long-overdue relationship between Direct Hit! and Milwaukee.
Direct Hit! opens for The Flatliners at The Metal Grill (Cudahy) Friday, May 23, along with Junior Battles and The Moguls. The all-ages show begins at 7 p.m. and costs $12 at the door (or $10 with a copy of the show flyer).