In our MKE Music Rewind series, we revisit a notable Milwaukee song that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014.
I‘m a sucker for opening tracks.
While most artists typically slot their lead singles or standout songs somewhere between tracks three and five, and some prefer to end their record with a bang, one thing holds almost universally and undeniably true: musicians always want to make a good first impression. An album’s first song—be it an ominous instrumental, a dialogue-based table-setter, or an attention-grabbing stunner—establishes the tone for the group of songs that will follow. It implores the listener to stick around a while by putting a project’s most captivating foot forward. It’s meant to grab you by the ears, tug you by the heart strings, and perk up those little hairs on your arms. When it’s the opening song on an outfit’s debut release, the first track isn’t just an introduction to an album—it’s the gateway to a band itself.
Decibully’s first true record (nobody counts the band’s sparsely-heard demo, You Might Be A Winner, You Might Be A Loser, But You’ll Always Be A Gambler) is 2003’s City Of Festivals. The album is the debut release from a seven-piece band whose roots included the likes of The Promise Ring and Camden, and whose sound managed to merge drastically disparate styles. City Of Festivals was the 66th release on Polyvinyl Records, who said of the young project at the time:
“Decibully mines a unique sound, finely interspersing layers of country-esque flourishes with subtle electronic twinges and rock undertones—topping it all off are lyrics rife with aching, world-weary quixotism.”
After Call Me Lightning convinced me something special was happening in Milwaukee music, I soon learned of this band with an impressive pedigree that almost instantly opened for The Get Up Kids and who, in my mind, effortlessly landed on the same label as motherfucking Braid. I had to hear what this band was all about. Coincidentally, Festivals’ release in October of ’03 also coincided with the first semester of my freshman year of college at UW-Oshkosh. On the way back from a Brewers game or a concert in Milwaukee (I forget, sorry!), a friend put in City Of Festivals and I was in love.
Using money from student loans I’m still paying back and the newfound freedom to roam aimlessly around the downtown of the city whose college I now regret attending, I purchased City Of Festivals from Oshkosh’s Exclusive Company and committed it to memory—each line, every melody, the subtly striking backing vocals, and a banjo that somehow had a place in the whizzing a whirring of electronic effects. It became a fixture of my commute in my many short-lived and shitty cars, it was a catalyst of solo singalongs, and it joined the likes of Rx Bandits (don’t judge!) and Yesterday’s Kids in my Discman rotation when I would mow my family’s lawn on my summer breaks.
Along the way, I converted my two best friends—one of whom was still in Menasha and the other at the University Of Minnesota—to become my Decibuddies. We sang along to the album. I pondered getting my first tattoo of the flag silhouettes on the album’s cover (and thankfully thought better of it). It had more than a few turns in the CD player on our way to a summer camping trip Thunder Bay, Ontario because the drinking age was only 19 there. We talked about the record at length and debated our favorite songs. For me, it always came back to one song…the first Decibully song I’d ever heard.
On an album that’s chock full of very good-to-great songs, “On The Way To Your Hotel” stands out to me because of where it starts and where it goes over the course of under five minutes. Indecipherable and electronically-augmented opening chatter gives way to a lone, simplistic guitar part that’s soon joined by delicate and deliberate keys. It repeats and is eventually joined by the clashing-yet-comforting strum of the aforementioned banjo. With about 30 seconds of space behind him, singer William “B.J.” Seidel softly breathes life into the song with its eponymous lyrics, delivered in his smooth, high-register fashion.
From there, the song opens up—bells are employed, along with auxiliary percussion—and Seidel’s inimitable voice starts to grow. A drum isn’t even struck until more than 80 seconds in, and with its belated arrival comes a dash of keyboard effect-conveyed flare that, when paired with Seidel’s warm and soothing voice, softens the otherwise-abrasive banjo and twangy single-string guitar plucks, while also serving as the springboard for the song’s eventual rise.
About three minutes into “Hotel,” now with Aaron Vold’s intricate drumming, as well as a variety of bleeps and bloops and bells behind him, Seidel’s vulnerable lyrics take an unexpectedly dark turn in his final line. “On the way to your hotel, I burned matches that I found, individually down, until the last one that I tried to save to start a fire in your hotel.” The nearly two minutes that follow find the instruments reaching a frenzied crescendo, what Polyvinyl (who would drop Decibully for the label an album later) called “electronic twinges” in full force, and a cacophony of voices bursting in a newfangled folk-tinged indie rock symphony of sorts. Looking back, “Hotel” isn’t the best Decibully song. Shit, “My Lighter And Strings” and “Small Circles” are probably even better songs on City Of Festivals alone. Still, “On The Way To Your Hotel” was my gateway, my access point, my first taste, and my introduction to both a band and an album I continue to adore 15 years later.
In the 1.5 decades since City Of Festivals came out, Decibully put out three more albums. They were mentioned by name on a Duplass Brothers film. Members came and went. They became one of the go-to examples when people look back fondly on the salad days of the early aughts when things almost blew up in Milwaukee music. In 2011, they called it quits (only resurfacing for a 2014 Milwaukee Day show and to play Soul Low songs in our 2016 Local Coverage benefit).
Since Decibully started, some members went on to far more success in the bar and restaurant industry. Listeners in Milwaukee and beyond have enjoyed their work in affiliated acts like Maritime, Sylvan Esso, Eric & Magill, and Dramatic Lovers. Most have gotten married and started families. Personally, I’ve gotten to know and become friends with some members of the band I listened to while mowing my dad’s lawn and driving around the Fox Cities so many years earlier. One member is even my landlord at the moment. Another used to be a co-worker. No matter what’s become of the band, the lives of its members, or me through the years, I’ll never forget where my 15-year (and counting) love affair with Decibully began. It started with track one.