Scene Report: Milwaukee
By Peter J Woods
museum. This is a picture of our gross ass lake.
It’s a filthy city, grimy and decidedly unpretentious, filled with violent crime and enough racism to make segregated schools feel like home. It’s just an hour and a half north of Chicago, so most people don’t even bother with it, either moving away or never even stopping by in the first place. Despite all this, I like the place and am happy to call it home.
This is Milwaukee, and this is what it has to offer.
While the scene around here is currently pretty small, the people making noise are extraordinarily focused and inventive, shying away from a definitive Milwaukee sound that can plague (and at times also heighten) a scene in an attempt to develop singular and unique voices. For every attempt at nailing down the sound of this city, there’s at least one counter example, which, in my opinion, isn’t half bad for city with only a dozen or so active local noise artists.
For what its worth, the best I can come up with is that people here like it HARSH and, more importantly, have not forgotten their industrial roots (this was the city that spawned Boy Dirt Car, F/i, and a host of other industrial giants, after all). The biggest name nationally in this sector of the current Milwaukee underground is Climax Denial, a purveyor of filth-ridden, industrial based power electronics with a penchant for fetishism and female sexual domination of all sorts. Lesser known, but equally as awesome, acts include Anal Hearse (synth based p.e. from James Moy of BLOODYMINDED fame), Custodian (Minimal, screeching harsh feedback manipulation), Reptile Worship (Industrial guitar drone duo who hold the award for loudest Milwaukee noise group) and Blessed Sacrifist (Raw, emotional, dynamic p.e.).
But again, this isn’t a city defined by a single sound, because people like Jon Mueller have to show up and ruin the party. Mueller is a percussionist and composer, creating very intricate works of minimal drone (except when he busts something out like “Metals” or “Physical Changes,” which is non-stop aggression in the form of a 2/4 beat). Then you have weirdos like Mildew and Lucky Bone coming completely out of left field, which happens to be painted some very strange colors. Mildew are the longest running noise group in the city, comprised of two brother creating harsh, psychedelic goodness with a carefully constructed lo-fi aesthetic while newbie Lucky Bone develops stunningly beautiful pieces through tape collage and circuit bent cassette players, avoiding the usual murk that often comes with the technique.
Bon Iver can do cool shit too.
The one place where people can reliable get their fill of the dissonant in this city, you ask? Why, The Borg Ward, of course! For the past two years, the Borg has been the place for Milwaukee DIY shows, noise or otherwise. Playing host to everything from hardcore to ska to singer-songwriters to all night dance parties, the space refuses to shy away from just about anything. Unfortunately, most other venues in the city shy away from a lot of stuff, so that’s why the Borg has become the most reliable space in the city. One part art gallery, one part venue, one part artist studios, one part practice space, it’s a haven for creative expression and extremely weird conversations. It serves as the host of the annual Milwaukee Noise Fest (more on this later) and has hosted such notable acts as Astro, Pedestrian Deposit, Nightmares, Yellow Tears, Tralphaz, Ettrick, Boy Dirt Car, Burial Hex, Cock ESP and many more.
Outside of the Borg’s walls, a few spots have garnered the courage necessary to host the occasional noise-based rager. The Cactus Club, a recently renovated local dive with the best sound system in the city, has been known to open the doors for a noiser or two. Daniel Menche, Bastard Noise, Burning Star Core, Z’ev and Illusion of Safety have all graced the stage. The Cream City Collective, the city’s only anarchist infoshop, has been kind enough to hold down a show or two as well between various workshops and discussions about political action and the current economic state/structure.
While shows happen here on a regular basis, the big blow out that everyone looks forward to every year is the Milwaukee Noise Fest. Wrapping up its fourth annual iteration last September, the festival has grown from a two day, twelve act event into a three day, thirty act monstrosity. The festival focuses on acts that reside in Milwaukee, drawing in both regulars and special guests, but also brings in some choice performers from outside of our city walls. BLOODYMINDED, Soup Purse, Ghost Ice, Juhyo, Monsters of Pot, Bacculum, Is, and a host of others have all participated, along with the first reunion show from industrial legends Boy Dirt Car.
Overall, the noise scene in Milwaukee is still relatively small. Most of those that attend shows here are also performers (and a lot of the time they will be playing the show as well), but that’s not to say that the shows here aren’t worth playing. While the crowds may be smaller (but only sometimes- I’ve seen some packed shows here), the energy and hunger that is brought by those in attendance is usually pretty large. People here come to shows to hear noise, not get wasted and hang out with their bros, although that usually happens along with the music (this is Brew City after all). If that doesn’t convince you, we do have one more secret weapon up our sleeves: Arvi.
While I give people here a lot of credit for being very generous with donation money and buying merch, Arve puts all of them to shame. A local character who comes to a large portion of the shows happening here, Arve will literally buy every single cd and piece of vinyl off a merch table as long as he doesn’t own it, and I mean EVERYTHING. The guy is an absolute fanatic and pretty much spends every penny he has on music (and more power to him for it). I’ve seen the guy drop close to $250 at shows and seen skeptical touring acts suddenly turn into the greatest fans of this city because of it. Not to mention he’s older than just about anyone in the scene and likes to remind people of it, which is both humbling and very amusing. He’s “been listening to this stuff since 1984, which is probably before most of the people [at any given show] were born” including myself.
So that’s Milwaukee. An unsung hotbed of incredible talent and a welcoming stop for bands on the road. An atmosphere filled with hunger for more noise and a group of rascals who will out party you after the show (myself not included- I value my sleep). It’s a small, but growing scene that hasn’t reached its full potential, but its getting close. When it does finally reach its zenith, watch out: it might just be dangerous enough to hurt someone.
Peter J Woods is a noise artist based out of Milwaukee and is the man behind both Raperies (Like Draperies) and Peter J Woods. He currently books shows at The Borg Ward and is the main entity behind FTAM.