By now, any fan of Milwaukee music has heard of Klassik, and any fan of Klassik knows a bit about his life story. Kellen Abston is an artist who makes no attempt to hide his past or his opinions, and the journey from his 2012 debut full-length In The Making up until today has been one of the most fascinating and musically rewarding careers this city has ever seen. At the same time, Abston has been outspoken on all manner of societal issues. One gets the impression that the man could not possibly run out of things to say.
Local writer Joey Grihalva set out to profile Klassik in 2020, and the conversations soon led to a much bigger endeavor than anticipated. The pandemic project involved interviews with many of the local creative scene’s most noteworthy names; David Ravel, Jordan Lee, Marielle Allschwang, Monique and Chauntee Ross, and many more are woven into the narrative of the new book, The Milwaukeean: A Tale Of Tragedy And Triumph.
Grihalva doesn’t take us on a simple linear path; he weaves past and present together right from the start. The book still feels like a biography at first, but the story soon expands into a larger narrative about trauma and what follows from it, and Grihalva doesn’t mince words with regard to politics or social commentary. The book flows almost like a lengthy roundtable conversation between the author and his interviewees, and while it’s centered on a definitive Milwaukee experience, these are broadly relatable topics. The bonus for us locals is that we’re bound to feel like we’re a tiny part of that conversation, and we’re bound to learn something about this city we call home in the process.
Grihalva and Abston will celebrate the release of The Milwaukeean Friday, June 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Boswell Book Company with a book signing and Q&A. The event is free of charge and open to the public but requires registration.
Milwaukee Record: This is a book that begins as a biography, albeit nontraditional in format, let’s say. Then it gradually develops into something much more expansive. Would you say the same about your conception of it, or did you plan it this way all along?
Joey Grihalva: This project was originally conceived as an extended magazine profile, something you might read in The New Yorker, hence the title homage. The plan was to make it a D.I.Y. zine. But as the pandemic pushed on, our conversations got deeper, I started talking with other people, and the web spun wider. My partner Kristina Rolander, who used to work in publishing, said to me one day, “I think you’re writing a book.” And so it was. Part biography, part pandemic journal, part cultural criticism, all labor of love.
MR: Tell us briefly about how you and Kellen first got to know each other.
JG: We ran cross country together in high school. This was back in the fall of 2003. I was a senior and he was a freshman. We connected through a mutual love of hip-hop. I left for college and lived abroad, but kept tabs on his budding music career. We first sat down for a proper interview in March 2013, a few months before I moved back home. He had just gotten back from South by Southwest and seemed ready to leave Milwaukee.
Seven years later, he’s still here, he’s accomplished, he’s gone through some shit, and he’s starting to open up about his father’s death. I had been writing about Milwaukee music for a few years, yet I hadn’t profiled him in any significant way. When the pandemic and BLM protests shook the world, I recognized that though Kellen’s story is singular, there are ideas, experiences, and difficult truths that might resonate with anyone who has dealt with trauma. It felt like an important story of and for our time, something that deserved a place on the page, not just floating in this ephemeral digital debris.
MR: What did you learn in the process of writing and putting out your first book, Milwaukee Jazz (Images Of America), that helped you in creating your second one?
JG: The research and interview process was similar, but everything else was new this time around. Milwaukee Jazz is mostly pictures. There are captions and brief chapter introductions, but this new book was a whole different animal. I guess just knowing that I could do it, because I’d sort of done it before, albeit with a national publisher behind me, was helpful in terms of motivation.
MR: Do you know how many people you interviewed for this book? What was the most surprising thing you learned, and from whom?
JG: Not counting Kellen, I interviewed twenty people specifically for this book, plus I incorporated an interview I did with jazz singer Adekola Adedapo for Milwaukee Jazz. She worked as a teacher’s assistant at Kellen’s elementary school. She helped hook him up with local jazz legend Berkeley Fudge, who took him under his wing.
That was surprising, especially when I first heard about it, because I wasn’t interviewing her about Kellen. She was just telling me a story about hearing incredible sax sounds in the hallways of Lloyd Street School. She actually thought it was Berkeley teaching a class. She immediately took Kellen to the principal and told him he had to get whatever parent permissions were needed so she could take Kellen to the Heath Brother’s workshop later that week. When they got there, Berkeley was resistant to taking Kellen on as a student, but he relented after hearing the gifted 10-year-old play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
MR: Your writing really takes me back to some of my favorite years of the Milwaukee music scene, sort of the explosion of the eclectic, multi-venue local festivals—Riverwest Fest, Bread Fest, Arte Para Todos, etc. What do you miss most about that era?
JG: A feeling of community. It wasn’t always reciprocal or genuine, but it often felt like we were in it together, trying to lift each other up. I think there’s been an overemphasis on the power of the internet to connect us with bedroom musicians in far flung corners of the globe, which is totally cool, don’t get me wrong. But I think the magic of sharing space and coming together for something greater than yourself has gone under-appreciated. Perhaps the pandemic is helping us see that again. At least that’s my hope.
MR: Do you have an all-time favorite Klassik performance that sticks out in your mind?
JG: It was April 2015 at The Grain Exchange, this gorgeous historic spot in downtown. I don’t think they have many live performances there. The vibe is more of a fancy catering and events type space. But that evening members of the Milwaukee Ballet did a collaboration with Klassik and the band Three. Stacks. Eliot.
The main reason it sticks out in my mind is because my stepdaughter, who I had met only a few months prior, was three and a half years old, super cute and crawling around on the red carpet, totally enthralled by the dancers and Kellen. That answer may be influenced by a very family-focused frequency I’ve been on this week, considering it was the series finale of This is Us and my stepdaughter’s 5th grade graduation.
MR: Part of the process of putting this book out was starting your own publishing company, correct? Why and how did this come about?
JG: As I said before, my partner used to work in publishing, so she knows how to do layout and design. She is the one who believed in this project becoming a book, rather than simply a zine, and she made it happen. She deserves the credit for the beautiful artifact you can hold in your hand. (Also, big shoutout to Kelly Michael Anderson for the incredible photography.)
Instead of shopping it around to random publishing companies where we don’t know anyone, we figured we could expedite the process, plus have total creative control, by starting our own little imprint. There’s barely any money in it, but it’s something we love to do. I’ve got more projects in the pipeline, as does she, so it felt like the right move at the right time.
MR: Do you anticipate Twin Arrow Books to be primarily a personal venture, or will you be taking on outside projects?
JG: As of right now, primarily personal. Our schedules would have to open up quite a bit to have the headspace to take on outside projects. I am a full-time teacher and stepdad, which takes priority over my writing and the business. If we were to take something on, it would have to happen organically with someone we know, trust, and believe in. We definitely aren’t soliciting.
MR: You mention that you have more things in the pipeline. Can you give us any information about what we might expect from you next?
JG: It’s been a decade since I finished journalism school and began my writing career in earnest. I’m putting together a collection of my best stuff with little introductions for each piece or section. You can expect essays, features, profiles, my Eaux Claires festival coverage, and some unpublished pieces as well. I also plan to include my full interview with Scott Hutchinson of the band Frightened Rabbit, who died a few months after we sat down in his tour bus outside The Pabst Theater. That’s the idea for the next release.
MR: Beyond this look into Kellen’s life and the community surrounding him, what are you hoping readers will take away from this book?
JG: Ultimately, this is a book about healing. Multiple trauma narratives are woven into 162 pages: Kellen’s father’s death, the pandemic, racism in America, and 9/11. There are many wounds, both collective and personal, that require healing. As a family, that’s what we’ve been focused on these last couple of years. Our hope is that this story will help others start or continue on their own healing journey.
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