In our MKE Music Rewind series, we revisit notable Milwaukee music that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014.
For over three decades, Milwaukee’s music scene has experienced numerous periods of great activity and vibrancy. While some may assume it to be solely limited to a particular sector of the music scene, this productivity could often be seen spanning genres and styles, be it in the mid ’80s, early ’90s, or present day. The late ’90s moving into the early 2000s were no exception to this, and everyone from Eric Benét to Citizen King to The Promise Ring were all finding relative larger-scale success; every act had by then signed with a major or larger indie label and, in the case of Citizen King, found themselves with a top 40 radio hit. But what about the acts whose successes were equally as significant but less obvious? Such was the case for Casino Versus Japan.
By nature, the music made by Casino Versus Japan (a.k.a. Erik Kowalski) was not one that had the mass appeal of the aforementioned acts, but its impact was just as significant. Releasing his earliest works towards the tail end of the ’90s, Kowalski melded the washed-out and otherworldly sounds of acts like the Cocteau Twins with gooey analog synthesizers and crisp drum programming. While his most common comparison was usually mentioned with respect to the originality of both acts, Kowalski’s music was always unmistakably his: a distinct cocktail of sounds that could only be birthed by Milwaukee’s favorite sonic astronaut.
His self-titled debut was an exercise in lo-fi minimalism, sounding like a soundtrack to a solo caving expedition. He continued to release music throughout the 2000s (much of it on the now-defunct Wobblyhead label), developing many of the unique patches and textures that would become hallmarks of the Casino Versus Japan sound. While a sabbatical was taken in the latter half of the decade, Kowalski’s activity began to slowly resume. His music was famously championed by Deerhunter and Atlas Sound leader Bradford Cox, who eventually brought Kowalski on tour in 2010, his first in years. Night On Tape and Frozen Geometry soon followed to the delight of his devoted fanbase. Just last year, he quietly released his most recent full-length, Suicide By Sun.
While Kowalski’s entire catalog possess many high points, “It’s Very Sunny” from his 2000 album Go Hawaii is arguably his most well-known track.
Starting with a simple looped bass line before settling into a hypnotic groove that would please underground hip-hop purists and downtempo electronica fans alike, “It’s Very Sunny” is, while a relatively simple track, an incredibly satisfying listen. It radiates optimism and innocence without sounding forced or disingenuous. Though some of Kowalski’s other work touches on considerably darker moods and atmospheres, “It’s Very Sunny” is still very much a Casino Versus Japan composition. It’s all there: the colorful organs, the crunchy kicks and snares, the hazy dream-like textures. But there’s also a voice, presumably a sample, of a little girl’s retelling of her parents’ trip to Hawaii. In reality, though, this was no sample, but Celia Carroll, future industrial designer and daughter of Milwaukee music veteran Clancy Carroll.
The result was perhaps the closest thing that Kowalski had ever created that had potential hit status, and in a time where electronic acts were enjoying glimpses of success in the states, the idea of it appealing to an audience outside of the electronic music community didn’t seem too far fetched. In 2002, Kowalski was approached by Hummer to license the song in a commercial. While the initial thought of the low-key track being used in a commercial for one of the more lavish vehicles of the time seems a bit of a strange paring, upon viewing the final result, the song accompanies the visuals wonderfully. Kowalski shared the revenue with Celia Carroll, whose voice can be prominently heard in the commercial as well.
“It’s Very Sunny” sounds like the first 60-degree day of the year—the day where everyone emerges from their homes to bask in the sunlight with carefree smiles, the day where that idiot who’s been wearing shorts all winter can finally justify their choice of apparel, the day where we realize that we’ve made it out of the worst part of the year and will soon be rewarded with the best. On that first warm day, there may be no better Milwaukee song to blast with the windows down than “It’s Very Sunny.” Until then, throw on some headphones, shut your eyes, and get transported to a time that isn’t as far away as it seems.