Formed in 2006, it might seem that Wisconsin band Tenement haven’t exactly been the busiest of bees – producing just two albums, 2011’s Napalm Dream and this year’s extraordinary follow up, the double Predatory Headlights – released on Don Giovanni Records. The truth is that frontman, songwriter and visual artist Amos Pitsch (now joined by Jesse Ponkamo and Eric Mayer) has been incredibly prolific, putting out music on the underground scene through a number of singles, split releases and compilations. State spoke to him and his cohorts about their roots, their expanding vision and why no-one seems sure whether they’re a punk, pop or hardcore band…
“We write pop music”, says Amos, “exist within the punk scene in America, and relate most to the feeling of hardcore as an expression of ourselves”. Jesse, on the other hand, thinks that “mainly as a function of our origins and immediate peer group I would some what comfortably say that we’re simply a punk band”.
Predatory Headlights seems to be an album designed to defy pigeon holing…..
Eric: “People seem to think that. I think it sounds like a band not wanting to do something they’ve done before, but in the meanwhile remaining in the same realm”.
Amos: “It’s as close to a complete portrait of my musical mind as we’ve released so far. It would be difficult to pigeonhole me as a music listener, so with that in mind I hope it’s difficult to pigeon hole the music that I create. We still get lumped in with the “pop punk” genre, but perhaps that’s guilt by association or maybe it’s just a bunch of cackling parrot music critics mimicking one another”.
All your records have had a touch of that though, haven’t they?
Amos: “Yes. Perhaps our music isn’t quite completely avant-garde, but it is experimental and we are always stretching its arms in new directions”.
Did all the singles / EPs give you the chance to develop from release to release?
Amos: “We wrote all of those in groups; most of them in one large batch that easily could have just been our first LP. I think we really started to develop as songwriters right before Napalm Dream came out. I started writing music not by memory but by recording ideas and writing them down and I think this is evident. We really started to get our fingers deep into the recording process in general”.
Is working with a variety of labels / other bands helpful?
Jesse: “Some more so than others…”
Amos: “The idea of collaboration is always exciting and can really enrich what we’re doing and how people perceive us. Maybe it’s a strange example, but I didn’t quite discover Richard Evans (American jazz bassist/arranger/producer) until I’d noticed that he played with Sun Ra. Then I started to realise how his work with Cadet Records as a producer and The Soulful Strings as a composer/arranger were really creative and innovative in a way that resonated with me. It took his association with another artist I loved to make my brain connect the dots”.
Was Wisconsin an inspiring place to be a young musician?
Eric: “There was nothing to do except learn music; long winters to keep you cooped up with your thoughts and ideas; no other distractions”.
Amos: “It was an easy place to lock yourself in your bedroom and study music and never come out as a young musician. While I loved every kind of live music I could find – which up until I was a teenager was mostly cover bands and polka bands – I couldn’t exactly go across town and see some future legend playing in a club. I spent a lot of time as a pre-teen sitting in my room listening to Black Sabbath or Lynyrd Skynyrd on my Fischer-Price portable turntable, or playing drums along to a Beatles cassette”.
Jesse: “Some of the isolation in a smaller town can let you focus on making music on your own terms. On the other hand, we’re still a largely obscure group in our own state. Take for instance that we’ve been a band for almost a decade with a new record that has more visibility than any of our prior releases and the bigger venue in town only gives us a brief mention as a band from Appleton, Wisconsin on a recent date”.
Does the mid-West have its own musical identity?
Jesse: “Yes, in the sense that all locals have their own qualities. I feel like where we grew up there was a pretty nascent scene so there could be sort of a cultural vacuum”.
Amos: “As far as punk goes, the Midwest United States very much has its own musical identity, which was probably founded in the ’80s and carried on through the generations from bands like The Replacements and Husker Du. These bands really spawned a whole sound. Of course there are other very popular groups like Negative Approach, Naked Raygun, Articles of Faith, Screeching Weasel, etc… but I think the Replacements and Husker Du really put a big midwestern paw print on the face of music. Wisconsin seems to have always struggled to find its particular identity. We’ve got Die Kreuzen, James Chance, The Violent Femmes, what else? A bunch of miscellaneous”.
Do you think that LA / NY get too much attention?
Amos: “It doesn’t matter to me at all how much attention New York and Los Angeles get. They’ll always be the stars of the show. That’s just the way it is. No one flocks to Appleton, Wisconsin to be a star; they try to get the hell out to be a star”.
Jesse: “It makes sense that larger city centres get more media attention. But honestly, a lot of that is being broken down with the internet age and as a band we’ve really seen that change happen through the course of our existence”.
In a way though, can that be a good thing – can artists benefit from not being in the media spotlight too soon?
Amos: “They can benefit by being chewed up and spit out later (if at all) instead of right away. Or maybe they can produce a really vast compelling and creative catalogue before being pressured into making that one boring commercial album because demand was high for a product. Yuck….man I don’t know. It hurts to think about sometimes. It’s a slimy business”.
Jesse: “I think nothing tests your metal like travelling and playing music; playing shows that aren’t the greatest far away from home”.
Who inspired you growing up?
Eric: “Nirvana, Green Day”.
Amos: “I loved Aerosmith. The Beatles. Country music and early rock and roll. I read a lot and loved Steinbeck”.
Jesse: “I think the Modern Machines were a pretty pivotal group in giving us the knowledge that you can travel and play music and be loud, etc… Not only that, but they were pretty supportive of us younger small town folk”.
Did Predatory Headlights always have such a wide scope or did it develop as you went along?
Amos: “The idea began as a double album and for all purposes, a double album is excessive, ambitious, and should really be a push in all of your directions. If it’s not that from the get go, than you might as well just write a single LP”.
Is it hard to fight for the idea of a fully rounded album in the digital age?
Amos: “It’s definitely difficult to get people to pay attention to something that isn’t the musical equivalent of a McDouble”.
Jesse: “It’s whatever you put your mind to. I don’t think you should let the prevailing media of today sway your creativity. The album at the end of the day is the most complete statement you could make versus a song out of context of a larger narrative played on YouTube because it’s catchy or something”.
You might the same about artwork of course……
Amos: “The artwork for this record was supposed to go hand in hand with the music and enhance the world we built with the music and maybe that’s fallen flat on people because the attention span of the 2015 music consumer is so shockingly short due to hyper-information. The people that have really experienced this record in its fullest are the ones that stopped and really paid attention. Not the folks that glanced quick and kept going – of course most of them have dismissed it…”
Having just returned from a US tour and receiving great review after great review for Predatory Headlights, Tenement look set to make a substantial breakthrough soon enough. Amos, though, has a healthy sense of perspective. “We jammed cross country with our buds Big Zit for three weeks”, he says, “played some sold out shows on the coast, played a house in Hazard, Kentucky to ten people, what else can I say? It’s great but we just keep moving on….”