“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” – Vince Lombardi
Packers win over Atlanta Falcons, 43-37. Temperature: 34°
Linneman’s Riverwest Inn is packed with approximately 64 people, all wearing name tags adhered to their shirts. By the bar, people mill about with pint glasses near a table spread with bags of chips, dip, and boxes of pizza. Near Linneman’s stage, tables are arranged with numbers labelling each 1 through 16. To an outsider, this might appear to be a Riverwest flophouse timeshare meeting, but this is actually the first day of musician Tony Schwader’s brainchild project All Messed Up V, a chance for local musicians to combat the winter blues and flex their music creativity. The 64 people in the bar this night will be randomly assigned into 16 bands with four members each. Roughly two months later, on February 13 and 14, they’ll return to Linneman’s and perform live.
This is Tony’s fifth year organizing the event and he says it’s his last, though he hopes others might volunteer to take over the project. Tony got the idea while playing a show with his hardcore band Holy Shit! in Chattanooga. There he met a group of local musicians who had a ritual of putting their names in a hat, practicing all day with random bandmates, then playing a show later that same night.
The first All Messed Up showcase took place at a basement venue called The Vault and consisted mostly of Tony and his circle of punk musician friends. For year two, they moved to Linneman’s and expanded into the 16-band, two-day marathon it is today. Tonight, the crowd buzzes in anticipation as they snack on pizza and throw back drinks, waiting to find out who they will be matched up with. After the assignments are made, they’ll sit down with their new bandmates and try to hammer out a strategy to come up with a 15-20 minute set in about two months. Tony, dressed in a rumpled suit and a pair of sneakers, his hair flopping in his face, soon bounds onstage and grabs a microphone.
“Welcome to All Messed Up V!” Tony loudly announces. The crowd cheers. “I want to thank every single one of you for believing in yourself and believing in this because it is fucking awesome! Every year I am surprised by what comes out of all 64 of you that are here!”
Tony reviews the event’s few basic rules—each band must come up with one cover song to play, for example—and talks about the motivation and challenge of the event.
“I think [this event] is important because it brings people together. Often times, you’re going to be placed into a band with people you don’t fucking know,” he says, pacing the stage. “Getting to know each other’s styles and what you’re into as a musician or what you like to play, it’s all about working together. This is important! There are people here who have never ever touched an instrument and then you got your 15-year veterans who have been strutting all their lives and that’s what makes it beautiful, man. Like I say in the event description, if you get stuck with four drummers…fuckin’ deal with it!”
“I can feel the tension so what I’m going to do—you ever see Summer School?” Tony asks the crowd. No reaction. “You people are too young! On the count of three we’re all going to scream together and it’s going to feel fucking great. Okay? 1-2-3…”
A loud scream fills the room.
“Let’s fucking do this!” Tony says. “Band number one!”
As Tony reads numbers and quartets of names, a musical chairs session happens as tables clear out and people balance their drinks and move to their newly assigned bands. He gets to the last band. “Number 16—Kevin Cross, Sarah Jacobson, Crystal Rausch, and myself! Give it up!”
The four convene at their table. The random mix has reunited Crystal and Sarah, who have known each other a long time, both being former Brew City Bruisers. They even jammed briefly before in a short lived music project called Milk And Ribbons. Other than that, Sarah hasn’t done much musically, although she is a DJ and a show runner for a local burlesque group called Cream City Cabaret. Besides The Barrettes, Crystal has also been in bands like Eat The Mystery. Both Crystal and Sarah know Tony from past participation in All Messed Up. Kevin is a new face. He’s jammed with friends and played some acoustic solo stuff, but it’s his first run at All Messed Up—and taking the stage with a band at all, for that matter.
Before the drawing I randomly decided I would tag along with Crystal after I saw her join the All Messed Up Facebook event page. Where Crystal would go, I decided, I would follow.
Packers lose to Buffalo Bills, 21-13. Temperature: 48°
“Ok, we got to figure out who we are!” Tony says, taking a swill from a Gatorade bottle filled with gin.
“What we’re all about,” Sarah agrees, drinking a beer.
“What the fuck we’re doing!” Tony laughs.
The band has decided their practice space will be in Crystal’s basement, a couple blocks away from Linneman’s. Crystal has found her upstairs neighbors are amicable to the idea as long as they don’t practice too late into the night.
The band’s first task is rearranging a space in Crystal’s basement. They shove an old futon mattress and an inner tube sled into the basement windows as soundproofing. Old chairs and coffee table are moved around. The next challenge is to figure out what instruments the band members will play—All Messed Up is often seen as a good opportunity to try out something new. While Kevin puts together a drum set, Tony thunks away on a bass and Sarah noodles around on a keyboard. Crystal tries singing, but disappears from the basement for a moment and returns with a French horn. She honks around on that, but not quite satisfied, she disappears and returns with a clarinet.
Eventually they decide Crystal will be on cello, Sarah on bass, Tony on keyboard, Kevin on drums. All four will sing.
One major factor for the timing of All Messed Up, according to Tony, is the harsh weather. It gives people an activity to do when they’re trapped inside, like today, a painfully biting cold day. Riverwest can be an ugly place in winter, as piles of pollution-colored sludge and snow dotted with litter fill the streets. For many, the neighborhood becomes a Siberian peasant village, where the natives stay inside keeping themselves warm with cheap vodka, entertainment provided by the National Football League and our comrades the Green Bay Packers.
After a lengthy break for the holidays (and Packers parties) the band reunites for a second practice on January 4. They hammer out the structure of their first song, a simple punk rock jam with wailing cello crescendos which they title “We Know Something You Don’t Know.”
Also, importantly, they decide on a name, as Tony’s band-name deadline for All Messed Up is today at 11:59 a.m. If bands don’t comply and get their names in on time, Tony names the band instead, and the more ridiculous, the better. Sarah’s band last year, for example, was dubbed Handjob Intervention by Tony.
“For promotional purposes, I need to put a fucking flyer out the door and advertise this shit,” Tony explained at the band drawing session at Linneman’s. “Now I’ve got some great band names. If you look at the past All Messed Up shows, I’ve come up with some really shitty and awesome band names. So a lot of me is hoping none of you name yourselves.”
With the deadline approaching, I e-mail Tony and ask if he has band names ready to go, and he responds with a screenshot of his list:
After discussion, band number 16 decides to name themselves after an appliance commonly found in drafty Riverwest houses: Space Heater.
“Is this what you named yourself after?” I ask at their next practice, pointing to the long rectangle with the glowing orange eye on the practice room floor.
“Yeah, we’re real clever,” Crystal laughs.
“For our introduction on stage we should say…you guys smell something burning?” Kevin says from behind the drum set. “Oh it’s just…” He holds his drumsticks up in the air.
“…SPACE HEATER!” The quartet finish together, laughing.
“Owwww!” Kevin yells and clicks the drumsticks together four times. The band is still refining “We Know Something You Don’t Know” and Tony has brought an idea for a second song that sounds a little surf. After several days of arctic blasts and sub-zero weather, 16 degrees feels like a surf-friendly heat wave.
Packers lose to Seattle Seahawk, 28-22 (OT). Temperature: 35°
A dramatic turn in Space Heater’s short history occurs when Tony removes himself from the band. The week of January 18 has been a terrible downward spiral for him. Suffering from depression, Tony makes a decision to take himself off of the anti-depressants he has been described. People tell him the dangers, but he admits he can be a “stubborn asshole”
“[The meds] worked, but they made life seem like everything was a cardboard cutout when you’re on them,” he later tells me. Tony is also drinking heavily, a bottle of gin most nights. He says he is lonely and craves intimacy.
“I see people around me that get to enjoy these things… something that spurns a lot of my weird or erratic behavior is the quest for someone to love me or be intimate with. I could be doing a lot of creative projects, but what am I doing? I’m sitting in my dirty bedroom eating and drinking, a lot of times drinking alone. It’s soul crushing.”
Alcohol helps with his social anxiety, and if you want to get drunk, Riverwest is happy to oblige. But this time the combination of getting off meds, alcohol, and “being at a spiritual low” has coalesced into “something dumb, something terrible,” Tony says.
Things hit the lowest point when Holy Shit! is scheduled to play a show at a basement venue called Scarn Manor.
“I had a plan to go home after the show and just end it…it’s terrible,” Tony later says. “That day I bought two bottles of alcohol, because fuck it, right? So we’re making our set list, and I started crying. I thought, I’ll make this show a good one, but during the show I couldn’t think about the songs or anything and I ended up not really playing the show and just standing there in self-loathing because I forgot the bass lines to songs that I wrote. It made me feel awful.” That awful feeling turns to drunken rage and Tony takes his $300 bass guitar and smashes it repeatedly against the basement wall of Scarn Manor, destroying it.
“My plan after that was to end my life,” he says.
A few days later, Tony sits down at Fuel Café to talk to me about what happened. A bowl of brick-colored soup sits next to him, getting cold as he relays the story. He looks teary-eyed, tired, and badly shaken.
After the Scarn Manor show, Tony came home and had a breakdown. Suicidal and afraid of himself, Tony called 911 that night. He was taken to a psych ward, where he was held under observation for six hours. During this time Tony decided it was best to leave Space Heater, and replaced himself with someone from the All Messed Up reserve list, actor and cellist Ben Yela. Tony also quit other creative projects he was part of. “Rash decisions. I tend to go a little overboard,” he explains. Rumors circulated that All Messed Up would be canceled, which Tony quickly corrected. He also decided it was time for lifestyle changes. He ordered himself to go 145 days (until his birthday) sober.
“I regret it and I have to tell all of them that I’m sorry,” Tony tells me on quitting Space Heater.
I tell him I was sure the band was probably just glad he was okay.
“They’ve all said that to me and I appreciate that,” he nods, adding that many All Messed Up participants, even those he doesn’t really know personally, have messaged him with well wishes.
“And some people are even saying, ‘I wouldn’t be in a band if it wasn’t for you.’ Stuff like that just makes me so happy, because that is what this is all about.”
Meanwhile, the show must go on for Space Heater. Crystal and Sarah work on refining “We Know Something You Don’t Know” and have a brainstorming session where they come up with more song ideas and structures. They hit upon a country music parody, “Wanna Be Domesticated,” and a black metal song, “Knock Knock,” built on the annoying old knock-knock joke with the punchline “orange you glad I didn’t say banana.” Crystal and new member Ben discuss a possible “dueling cellos” session to take advantage of their unique double-cello player status.
For a while they thnink the band’s cover might be the omnipresent hit of 1993, Ace Of Base’s “All That She Wants.” However, after deliberation, they change it to the classic 1978 song “Just What I Needed” by The Cars.
With about a week left to go, Space Heater is trying to get as much practice in as possible, along with the other All Messed Up bands. Corey Baumann is part of a band called the Scott Farkus Affair, a “folk punk band” with ukulele, keytar, bass, and Baumann on drums. They’ll be playing about a four-song set, including a cover of Against Me!’s “Reinventing Axl Rose.”
“So far it’s been going pretty good. We had some unexpected cancellations on practice, but we’re making due,” Baumann says. He’s participated in the event all five years.
Shannon Connor is playing bass in a band called Laser Laser Laser Laser, which is covering “The Island Song” by Lake (featured during the end credits of Adventure Time). The band had two people drop out and are now working hard with their new four-person lineup to get their set together.
“I would say we’re kind of alternative indie pop punk?” Connor ponders.
Tony says All Messed Up is on track, and his only regret is quitting Space Heater.
“I wasn’t planning on being around. I couldn’t handle anything. I’m better now. I’m taking steps to correct everything,” he says. It is day 15 of sobriety for him.
As for Space Heater, “we aren’t completely ready, but we’re stoked with what we have,” Crystal tells me after practice.
And now, with All Messed Up V just days away, here is the world premiere of Space Heater’s song, “We Know Something You Don’t Know.”
All Messed Up V takes place February 13-14 at Linneman’s. Space Heater is scheduled to take the stage February 13, 10:40 p.m.-11.