Named “Milwaukee’s Best Band” by the Milwaukee Journal in 1982, The Shivvers remain one of the city’s most cherished rock and roll groups. Often described as cult figures, the power pop five-piece never achieved commercial acclaim like some of their contemporaries. Over 20 years after their popularity peaked, the first Shivvers CD was released on Hyped2Death Records in 2006. The band’s timeless pop songs continue to attract new fans with their irresistible hooks and sing-along lyrics. We chatted with frontwoman Jill Kossoris about Milwaukee’s music heyday, The Shivvers’ legacy, and, of course, power pop.
Milwaukee Record: What are the bands that got you interested in playing music? Which bands made you want to play power pop?
Jill Kossoris: Oh, boy. You know when you’re doing something creative, you’re not really thinking about categories. I’ve been influenced by so many different kinds of music. My parents listened to everything. My sister listened to everything. They were all into power pop like Badfinger, Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies, Motown music. I liked really catchy, soulful, well-written songs.
MR: Eric Carmen of the Raspberries was a vocal fan of The Shivvers, wanting to produce the band’s first major label debut. What was your relationship with him like?
JK: I sent him a VHS of our video for “Please Stand By” and a couple of tapes. He called me up and thought we were really good and asked us if we’d gotten a deal yet. He was really supportive, and he was looking for a girl to sing the Raspberries’ songs. I still remember telling him this: I was 21 years old, and I said, “Eric, those are not just great songs. Those are great performances. I don’t think we want to mess with those performances.” Things just started to fizzle out. Nothing happened with the band, and I think a lot of it was because we were in Milwaukee. We weren’t in California, we weren’t in New York, there was no internet. It was very hard to spread the word. We really didn’t have management that understood us at all.
MR: I think that’s still a problem that exists in Milwaukee today. I think that’s why a lot of bands don’t really make it out of Milwaukee.
JK: Timing is so important, too. Your band hits a point where you’re going to make it or break it. You need that management. The Beatles almost broke up before Brian Epstein got involved with them.
MR: Can you imagine the course of music history without The Beatles? It’s crazy to think about.
JK: If they wouldn’t have found him and he wouldn’t have been as dedicated as he was, we may not have heard of them. Who knows what would have happened in music history? That obviously started a huge explosion. It’s amazing how important it is to have that outside, objective person who’s really on your side and really understands what you’re doing. We never really had that.
MR: I feel like if you guys were in L.A. around bands like Paul Collins Beat and The Plimsouls that your narrative would have been different.
JK: Absolutely. It would have changed everything. You can always look back and see how you could have improved your life in a lot of ways. But at one point, we were just so frustrated that we kind of imploded. You can really get stuck in that whole “bar band” thing. Back in those days, most bands played AT LEAST three- or four hour-long sets. Not to brag, but we were all pretty tight before we started doing that. We were all pretty seasoned musicians. Our time was there. We were ready. Everybody doesn’t get better by grinding it out on the club circuit for five years.
MR: What were your favorite Milwaukee venues to play? Do any of them still exist?
JK: The cool thing about The Shivvers is we could play almost anywhere. We could play the punk clubs and we could play the mainstream rock clubs. We were one of the only bands that did that. We played Zak’s, we played Starship. We also played The Palms and Teddy’s, which is now Shank Hall. We had our first gig at Zak’s.
When they changed the drinking age, it changed everything. The clubs were packed for local bands and local music. On a Tuesday night, you could walk into Zak’s and it was packed. It was very supportive. It was a very cool scene. A lot of people would come up to Milwaukee from Chicago. There were so many clubs [in Milwaukee] to play. It was such a good scene. We were quite fortunate that way.
MR: What do you think of The Shivvers’ status as a “cult figure” band that “never made it” but “should have been huge”?
JK: I’m ambivalent, I guess. It’s very bittersweet. It depends what day you ask me. On Monday, I can accept what life has dealt me. On Tuesday, I’m like, “Oh my God! You only get so many chances in life.” When you’re young, you think you’re going to have all these opportunities. When you’re in the music industry, you only get so many chances. Everything has to line up and work in progress, but it doesn’t always go that way. We’re in good company. Big Star is a cult band, so that’s always a nice feeling. But I would love to have had some hit singles. We wanted to be popular. Never believe any musician who says they don’t want to be popular. I’ve never met any artist in any medium who doesn’t want to share their work.
MR: Even bands like The Replacements have said, “We didn’t care. We went on stage drunk every night.” Obviously you cared enough for that to work for you because now you’re a pretty legendary band.
JK: If they went on stage drunk, they were probably just really nervous. It didn’t mean they didn’t care. Me, I couldn’t even have a glass of wine. I had to remember lyrics to so many songs!
MR: Usually people who are sensitive tend to be really shy, too. I don’t know if I could go up on stage and sing about my most delicate emotions.
JK: I have a theory on that. Being on stage and writing songs is one of the few places where you actually have control. In real life, you have no control. A lot of performers are really shy. I was really shy. It’s nice to be able to control one aspect of life.
MR: Right. You get to paint your own picture using your own words.
JK: I think that shy people tend to find their own way to communicate. When I was a little girl, I was so shy that my doctor told my parents to buy a piano for me so I’d have a way to communicate. My uncle owned a furniture store, so we put a huge upright piano in the basement. I think people who can’t communicate easily in other ways tend to be writers or performers.
MR: The Shivvers are often compared to bands like Blondie and The Go-Go’s. Do you agree or disagree?
JK: I can see why people say that. We were around the same time and there are women in those bands. I can see the comparisons, but I feel more in tune with The Pretenders.
MR: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You put out a solo record in 2001, and the Aimless Blades are a post-Shivvers project. Are any band members still involved in Milwaukee’s music scene?
JK: Most of The Shivvers are still playing in one way or another. Scott [Krueger] and I still write together a lot. If the Aimless Blades ever needed something on an album, I’d play on it, co-write it, things like that. I went to Nashville for years and wrote for publishers down there. We’re all pretty dedicated musicians. Scott and I are always working on songs. I hope that we can get something out in the next year or two.
MR: I’ve noticed a lot of people move out of Milwaukee but always end up coming back.
JK: When you’re young, you think “[Milwaukee] is square and stupid.” What Milwaukee has going for it is a lot of unique little neighborhoods and a pretty cool art community. It’s a little more interesting than people think.
MR: Do you have any favorite Milwaukee bands?
JK: There’s a band out now called Space Raft. My friend Jon is in that band. I like those guys. A band from Madison I’ve always loved is Spooner. Those guys ended up in Garbage.
MR: Spooner is cool. The documentary film The Smart Studios Story talks about Spooner and Butch Vig a lot.
JK: They were huge in Madison. They were a really interesting band. Their songs were well written, they had great dynamics. You know how a lot of bands really try really hard to be really cool? With them, it was really natural and laid back. Not a lot of posing or rock star manners.
MR: A lot of bands today aggressively try to NOT be cool, like they want to seem dorky. Spooner was definitely doing that way before it was trendy.
JK: There’s a lot of posing. People say, “[Music] wasn’t competitive.” Yes, it was. It’s very competitive. I had quite a few circumstances where people would verbally attack me after a couple of drinks because we were popular.
MR: Do you have any favorite gigs that stand out? I know you opened for Iggy Pop and Shoes.
JK: Iggy, of course, was really fun. It was so exciting to be able to open for Iggy. This is when he was wearing his little horse tail. The club was packed. We were at Merlin’s in Madison. When we were done, he came up to me and said, “You guys were so great! There was so much energy. It was so cool. I really loved it.” He asked me out for coffee, but our drummer Jim [Richardson] said, “She’s not going anywhere.” They were like my older brothers.
MR: Oh no!
JK: He still hung around us. He was very complimentary, a gentleman. Just a fascinating guy.
MR: Power pop’s prominence over the last few decades has really decreased. It seems like every popular power pop band is considered a cult band. Why do you think that is?
JK: Predominantly speaking, Tom Petty is power pop. He started out during that time. Is [power pop] a style? Is it an era? To me, power pop is just really well-crafted, passionate, emotional rock and roll. If you listen to early Dwight Twilley, there’s some real harmonic beauty that you don’t hear in a lot of rock and roll music. I think it’s still alive. I think it will always be alive as long as people continue to play melodic music aggressively.
MR: Do you think there’s any chances of a Shivvers reunion?
JK: Those songs are really about youth. Being young, excited, and loaded with energy. I don’t think I would be doing them a service. Now, I write songs that are kind of gritty and Rolling Stones-like. Not to be cynical, but I think it would be kind of sad if I was still singing that stuff at my age. I don’t think it would be a genuine reunion. It would be weird to sing “Teenline”
MR: Right. A lot of bands that I like are older, but sometimes I feel like some of them need to have more dignity, for lack of a better word. Most bands don’t need a thirty-year anniversary reunion tour. It can ruin their already existing legacy.
JK: You can’t go home again. You can’t go back to your first boyfriend. You have to move on. Some bands can get away with it. Roxy Music’s reunion was fantastic. I don’t want to put people down who do get back together. I understand why people do it, but I have respect for people who don’t.
MR: Power pop is such a universal genre. It’s a great mix of punk and rock and pop. I sometimes wonder why it’s such a niche music interest.
JK: Great pop music will always live. When I was putting the band together, I didn’t want to be afraid of popular music. Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s garbage. People can be so incredibly snobby. There’s a reason some bands are popular—because they’re good. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, they’re popular. But they’re still punks! They’re rebellious, they’re artists, they’re doing what they want to do. I’ve always loved ABBA.
MR: Me too! ABBA is one of my favorite bands.
JK: They were very uncool to like. We used to do “S.O.S.” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and people would just laugh. Those songs are so beautifully written and produced. They’re just perfect. They’re based on Swedish folk melodies. There’s a reason they get in everybody’s heads. They’re classic. I love to mix it up and play an ABBA song and an Iggy Pop song after.
MR: You should do an ABBA cover album.
JK: I really appreciate your enthusiasm [for The Shivvers]. I played the piano all day and all night. I worked on those songs until I could not work on them anymore.
MR: I think it’s definitely paid off. I’ve seen The Shivvers’ self-titled LP in record stores many times. People are obviously buying and listening to your songs.
JK: I’m kind of shocked that the music has lived this long. On the other hand, I’m not. We gave it everything we had. To know that these songs are living this long, people are appreciating them, and young people are discovering them really is a great feeling. Cult band or no cult band, it’s better to be remembered than forgotten.