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 met the band’s vocalist, Kyle Smith, while he was bar backing at a café on the East Side about a year after Scowler had played its final show on September 19, 2014. As he polished pint glasses behind the pine, he overheard my friend and I talking about a show I was playing later that night at Cocoon Room, an all-ages DIY space in Riverwest that’s now occupied by Rockhaus Guitars & Drums. He was personable and kind, and unlike the usual suspects who make small talk and empty promises about attending local shows, he actually showed up.
When I found out that he had done vocals in a defunct screamo band, it was something that I had to hear to believe, given his calm and gentle demeanor. I loaded up Scowler’s Bandcamp page, clicked the play button on the opening track of the How To Find Light, and was floored.
“Tell Us, Mr. Sir” greets the listener with heavy feedback and a foreboding bass line. But before you’re given the chance to get comfortable, Smith’s shrill screams and guitarist David Algrim’s siren-sound guitar riffs sporadically kick in, setting the unpredictable pace of the remainder of an album that’s full of anxiety-inducing tonal shifts and angst-driven outbursts. Taking a pages out of the playbooks of bands like At The Drive-In and Glassjaw, Scowler was a hyperactive mesh of punk-tinged genres with an short attention span outlook on song structure. It was something that I immediately felt the need to witness live, even though I knew it was impossible at that point.
Scowler formed in 2012, under the roof of a Riverwest punk house known by locals as The Michael Jordan Skram Dunk Arena. After organizing shows for several Milwaukee bands in Michigan, Smith and bassist Karsten Kelsey left their home state for a more appealing Milwaukee music scene and moved into the house. Tenants of the house played in bands like Alta, Arizona Wilder, and Moaded. As a result, it became a busy hub for DIY musicians—both in Milwaukee and coming through the city—to practice, perform, and party in. Algrim (who played guitar in Arizona Wilder) and Adam Heil (who played drums in Alta) began writing and practicing with Smith and Kelsey in the living room of that house.
Tyler Mantz, who also lived at the house and played bass in Moaded, recalls being taken aback when he first heard Scowler practice.
“Having lived with Kyle while he was writing a solo EP, I got really used to him practicing these really melodic and beautiful acoustic songs, and then they started practicing as Scowler and I would hear his really shrill and abrasive scream,” Mantz says. “I wouldn’t expect that to come out of him, but it did.”
Smith’s harsh vocals became an essential fourth instrument in the songwriting process. Whereas many heavier bands fit vocals into the frameworks of instrumentals already written, the vocals in Scowler helped shape and form the music.
“The bands that I’ve been in—the vocals kind of came along after the song structure was already written,” Mantz says. “Kyle being the songwriter as well, he spent a lot of time workshopping the songs and changing them to fit what he wrote vocally.”
Scowler began playing out around the DIY scene in Milwaukee, making its debut at The Michael Jordan Skram Dunk Arena. The band quickly gained notoriety in basement show circles for its high energy performances. Algrim could be seen finishing a set with his guitar covered in blood from his knuckles. Kelsey had broken a few bass guitars throughout the life of the band—a memorable moment occurring in at a house show in Texas when he disposed of his dismantled bass via bonfire like a funeral pyre. Smith’s easygoing, reserved side took a backseat to his wild stage presence. He would jump on audience members and deliver cryptic rants in between songs, immersing himself into the crowd at times and moshing with audience members. Heil’s intricate and relentless drumming became a spectacle to watch.
Listening to “Tell Us, Mr. Sir,” you can feel the intimacy and chaos that came with packing a musky basement with friendly faces to watch the sort of high-energy performance the band was known to put on. It’s the quintessential example of what so many people love about Midwestern screamo: The music is chaotic, yet it’s intimate, personal, and accepting. Experiencing a show makes you feel like you are really a part of something. It’s reflected in the unfortunately few live videos that exist of the band online.
As is typical with opening tracks, “Tell Us, Mr. Sir” thematically paves the way for the remainder of the album. Smith notes that much of the album deals with his struggles with depression. For example, the third track on the album, “Johnny Razor,” is about how his unhappiness at a job manifests into a small man that sits on Smith’s shoulder and stabs him while he’s at work. It’s a metaphor for a redundant and robotic job that he felt was slowly driving him insane.
Scowler would go on to release a split with New Hampshire-based screamo band Youth Funeral in October 2014, a month after the band played its final show at Quarters Rock ‘N Roll Palace. Kelsey moved to Texas and the band refused to continue without him. Before he left, the band recorded one last song, “Whatever,” but wouldn’t actually release it until 2016. The release of the song two years after the band’s end was a misguiding tease for some who longed to see it perform again.
The members of Scowler have since moved on to other projects. Algrim now plays in the Chicago-based Gentle Heat, which occasionally makes its way up to Milwaukee to perform at some of Algrim’s old haunts. Kelsey still resides in Texas and is writing poetry, which can be purchased on the 2fast2house website. Heil and Smith still perform together in Soniendo. Smith is also the front man in Social Caterpillar, a dark psychedelic-folk group that’s a drastic departure from his role in Scowler.
“I’ve definitely chilled out since Scowler,” Smith says.
Now, five years after the release of How To Find Light, independent Midwest record label Skeletal Lightning is pressing the EP on vinyl for the first time. The release serves as evidence that the band left a lasting impression that fans of the genre have longingly looked back on years after its end. The label goes so far as to say that Scowler was “undoubtedly one of the most exciting bands we’ve ever seen.” Popular California-based emo band Joyce Manor tweeted in 2015, “Anyone ever see that Scowler band? I saw ’em like a year ago and they were so fucking good. Sounded like some tight ass Antioch Arrow shit.”
Other notable emo names chimed in and agreed, including Cameron Boucher of Sorority Noise and Old Gray (who Scowler had toured with at one point). The vinyl EP will include photos from various points in the band’s existence and a letter penned by the band. It’s a great way for people like me, who were late to the party, to be able to re-experience the band and for those who had experienced it to look back on a Milwaukee band that burned bright and fast.
“As far as Milwaukee DIY underground screamo goes, there’s not a lot of it,” Mantz says. “But, they were a band that if people found out they were on the bill, you could expect a show to be well-attended. It speaks to their character as well–they all supported the community as a whole. They had a big impact that way.”