In our MKE Music Rewind series, we revisit a notable Milwaukee song that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014.
In retrospect, 2009 was a strange time of transition in Milwaukee music. It was also a difficult time in my life. Fortunately, Red Knife Lottery was around to make both of them better.
At that point in time, the hype and indie label attention the city’s music scene experienced in the early aughts was fading fast. The Promise Ring was now long gone. Decibully was dropped from Polyvinyl and slowing down considerably. Temper Temper had broken up, and Revelation Records labelmates Since By Man would soon be following them into oblivion. Jaill (then just “Jail’) was still a year away from inadvertently dividing the local music scene by signing with Sub Pop, and Call Me Lightning was making better music than ever, but doing so on smaller labels and to fewer people than before. I wasn’t aware of most of that at the time, of course. I had just trying to feel at home in a new city. And with the help of Red Knife Lottery, I eventually did.
In fall of 2009, I—24 at the time—decided to move to Milwaukee after being dumped by a girl I’d dated for about three years and months removed from being the first Gannett copy desk casualty in the latest round of Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper layoffs. I had nothing but the temporary help of unemployment checks, some helpful friends who lived here, and a desire to see the local bands I loved in a city I’d longed to live in since high school. Due to the reasons I’d listed above and more, the last part wasn’t really what I expected. In fact, none of it really went the way I thought it would.
My first few months in Milwaukee were extremely difficult. I was lonely, homesick, and isolated (I’d made the mistake of moving to Shorewood before it essentially became one big outdoor shopping plaza). Other than some freelance writing gigs, job opportunities weren’t exactly bowling me over. Between those frustrations and most of the bands who’d initially brought my attention Milwaukee’s way either winding down or breaking up by the time I’d arrived, I was left to look for reasons to believe in my new city. Luckily, I found Red Knife Lottery.
As I was trying (and failing) to settle into life in Milwaukee in 2009, the young band followed up its impressive So Much Drama EP with a full-length called Soiled Soul & Rapture. By this point, Red Knife had fashioned something of a local reputation for itself, though I was unaware of them. Between releases, they’d incurred lineup changes, but seemed poised for bigger and better things. After spending time in a Dallas studio with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (of the pAper chAse), the up-and-coming outfit had 10 quality songs. The release drew apt comparisons to bands like The Blood Brothers, garnered attention from Alternative Press Magazine, bolstered their local status, and found the band playing out often.
Early in 2010, I forced myself to stay in town for a full weekend, at which point I saw Red Knife Lottery at Cactus Club. With Ashley Chapman’s magnetic stage presence, emotional and deeply personal lyrics, and the incomparable screams that cut jagged lines through her otherwise smooth vocals, the singer led an aural experience. Joining her was instrumental backing that was powerful, fun, and danceable all at once. I was instantly hooked. I bought the new CD and put it into regular rotation in my Saturn…which is one MySpace reference from being the most 2010 sentence ever composed. Soon, I became a fixture at Red Knife’s shows.
Over the months and shows that followed, the band’s members (whether out of increased familiarity or straight-up pity for this weird newcomer from Menasha) were among the first people to make me feel at home in Milwaukee. I was welcomed into the orbit of their friend group and things finally started to fall into place. I had some new friends now, I finally felt familiar with Milwaukee music, and I slowly started to feel like I might actually belong here.
Though I won’t soon forget the kindness and acceptance its members (namely Chapman and Christian Hansen) showed me almost a decade ago, Red Knife Lottery needs no personal attributes to be enjoyed. Yes, some of the material can be timestamped to that distinct period in music, but much of Soiled Soul holds up. I still throw it on from time to time, and my favorite song changes with each listen. Ultimately, I choose to remember Red Knife Lottery with “The Good Land” because it illustrates Chapman’s vocal range, it showcases the band’s musical acumen, and its title is a nod to the city the band helped me love.
Red Knife Lottery called it quits in late 2010. However, the end of one great band resulted in far better things for its members. Chapman (now Ashley Smith) married drummer Ryan Smith, opened Alive & Fine, and currently fronts Whips (which features Hansen on guitar). Hansen and bassist Joe Kanack play together in Hot Coffin. Guitarist Dan Yingling is in Chicago-based Cut Teeth. I have no doubt they’ll all hate that I wrote this article reminding people about the band, but I’ll always remember how—in both the musical and personal sense—Red Knife Lottery welcomed me to the Milwaukee music scene on their way out of it.