Wisconsin Punk Heroes Tenement Break ThroughDon Giovanni
One of my favorite albums of 2015 is Predatory Headlights, a restlessly inventive double LP by the nonconformist DIY punk group Tenement. About half of Predatory Headlights is made up of heavy-riffing ragers with catchy, melodic choruses — precisely the sort of music that earns Tenement the “pop punk” tag, which the trio’s 27-year-old frontman, Amos Pitsch, despises. The other half of Headlights demonstrates why — it is far more exploratory, veering into haunting piano dirges, extended ambient interludes, and lo-fi junk-store pop tunes that teeter on the brink of sonic disintegration.
In a laudatory review published when Predatory Headlights was released in June, the New York Times acknowledged that many have likened the album to punk’s twin canonical double-LP tentpoles, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, and then added a comparison to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. for good measure. When I suggested that Big Star’s jittery anti-masterpiece Third 1 seemed like a more fitting influence, Pitsch agreed, though the musician he referenced most during an interview earlier this month at his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, was, interestingly, the avant-jazz artist Sun Ra.
“Something I really liked about early Motown and a lot of the earlier Sun Ra records is that the recordings are just so dense and murky — there’s all this stuff going on,” Pitsch said. “It just becomes this really crazy world in your head. That’s kind of what we were going for. So many bands just stick mics in front of amps and do it the way everyone else does it. It just gets boring after a while.”
While it wasn’t conceived as a concept album with a narrative arc, Predatory Headlights does have an emotional throughline that evokes a struggle between beauty and noise, light and shade, and optimism and despair. The first batch of songs — “Side 1” in the parlance of vinyl lovers like Pitsch — barrels forward with the album’s most immediate and straight-forward hooks. After that, the music turns stranger and more inward. On Side 3, the floor finally drops out on the self-explanatory nine-and-a-half-minute instrumental “A Frightening Place for Normal People,” which resembles the industrial noise soundtrack from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. From there, the album rises from the ashes with the winning indie pop “Hive of Hives” and the Beatlesesque rocker “Afraid of the Unknown,” a happy ending that doesn’t completely shake off the earlier pangs of unresolved dread.
Growing up in a place where lush and humid summers inevitably give way to frigid and unyielding winters has conditioned Pitsch to expect intense, body-quaking changes on a quarterly basis.
“It’s something I’ve always been really fascinated with — like, a really high contrast of things,” Pitsch explained. We were talking in his kitchen, and he had just put on a record, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, the one with the knockout rendition of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” later covered by the Rolling Stones. While it was a muggy July night outside, Pitsch was just now removing his dark blue jean jacket.
“It’s like this record cover. I love the way his face is lit up, but everything around his face is so obscured and dark,” Pitsch said, gesturing at Cooke’s pensive smile on Night Beat’s LP sleeve. “The darkness surrounding that fascinates me. What else can be in there, you know?”
In certain pockets of the underground punk world, Tenement is a big-time band — not as popular as some groups, maybe, but it ranks among the most respected, a reputation earned after nearly a decade of touring the basement-show circuit and bolstered by Predatory Headlights, one of the most accomplished and big-eared albums of its kind to be released this decade.
“They were one of the best bands I had ever seen or listened to,” said Joe Steinhardt of the New Jersey–based indie label Don Giovanni, which signed Tenement in 2012 and has put out records by Waxahatchee and Screaming Females.
Don Giovanni once worked only with local bands, but the label started branching out beyond the New Jersey–New York nexus “basically because of Tenement,” Steinhardt said. “They were one of the first bands we talked to. It just took a long time for the record to come out.”
It’s been four years since Tenement put out 2011’s Napalm Dream and its more experimental companion piece, The Blind Wink. Pitsch had enough material for another album when Steinhardt approached him, but Steinhardt had grander designs. He wanted Tenement to make Predatory Headlights a double LP, promising Pitsch that Don Giovanni would foot the bill.
“I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know. That sounds like a strange move,’” said Pitsch, who exudes a mix of earnestness and self-deprecation common among talented Midwesterners. In spite of his early misgivings, Pitsch dutifully set out to make the most sprawling record possible.
“[I wanted] to have every mood that we could possibly have as a band,” Pitsch said. “Because it’s a double LP. It’s such a huge thing, you might as well show your whole self.”
The first time I heard Predatory Headlights, the world that Pitsch creates on the album seemed instantly familiar. This is partly due to Pitsch and I both residing in the same town. In fact, I live less than 10 minutes away from him — as little as five if the traffic lights work in my favor — and while we had never met before our interview, we have many mutual friends. In a close-knit community like Appleton, separation between strangers rarely extends beyond a few degrees.
Pitsch recently moved to a spacious house by the paper mill on the north side of town. I had unknowingly driven past it countless times. Pitsch had set up a recording studio in the basement, and stocked his bedroom with “four or five thousand records.” This is where Pitsch spends nearly all of his time.
While Pitsch is affable and funny in conversation, he’s something of a hermit. He prefers listening to his records to hanging out in bars. Living in Appleton — which is about a half-hour’s drive from Green Bay and has a population of around 74,000 — guarantees that Pitsch remains isolated from most other bands, along with every other remnant of the music business. He hasn’t done all that many interviews, even though Predatory Headlights has garnered raves from national outlets.
Pitsch seems genuinely guileless in this regard: I’ve heard countless musicians claim to not care about publicity, but Pitsch’s lifestyle makes him authentically inaccessible. All he cares about is music — hearing it, studying it, writing it, recording it.
“That’s kind of what I conditioned my life to be from when I was 6 years old [and] learning to play the drums,” he said. “I had already decided when I was in fifth grade that I wasn’t going to college, that I was going to be in some band or something.”
A hardcore record geek, Pitsch is like most Wisconsin musicians I’ve known in that he goes out of his way to not be a music snob. While his current listening habits tend toward jazz and classic soul, one of his all-time favorite bands is Aerosmith, which he has loved since childhood and still stumps for.
“I remember when Nine Lives came out, that was as important to me as anything else,” Pitsch insisted, referring to one of Aerosmith’s less distinguished ’90s records.2 “There aren’t many bands that top Aerosmith to me still.”
Pitsch lives just blocks away from where the BFG house — a hovel where he and some friends hosted hundreds of DIY punk shows in the ’00s and early ’10s — once stood. Pitsch hosted shows there out of necessity — there was no place else to play. For a punk in New York or L.A., being a self-starter can seem like a principled stand. But small-town musicians like Pitsch don’t have the luxury of DIY being an option. The only choice is to invent a culture where it didn’t previously exist, along with the infrastructure that sustains that culture.
Running BFG was galvanizing, but also exhausting. A small cadre of locals appreciated and supported what Pitsch was doing, but the venue also attracted burnouts more interested in partying than music. After the city condemned the house, Pitsch left that part of his life behind and focused on exploring those crazy musical worlds in his head.
“I still really enjoy a lot of bands that my friends are in. But at some point I did move on from paying attention to a lot of DIY punk,” he said. “A lot of it really isn’t that ambitious at all. It’s either formulaic or it’s got a ceiling — a ceiling of creativity.”
Even in a scene of outsiders, Tenement stands out. Many of the punk bands Pitsch grew up loving didn’t fit comfortably with other punk bands, either. When Pitsch entered his teens, he started listening to Wisconsin groups like Modern Machines and Yesterday’s Kids — muscular, blistering, and yet insistently melodic outfits that were grouped under the punk banner but still proudly waved the flag for other kinds of music, even the least fashionable forms of classic rock.
“At the time I was really into the Exploited and Black Flag and had that state of mind that kids have when they just get into punk, when they’re like, Fuck all this other shit. All I listen to is this now,” Pitsch said. “And then a band like Yesterday’s Kids reaffirmed that it was OK to like Aerosmith and the Beatles and all these bands. There’s just this feeling with great Wisconsin punk bands that are obviously great pop groups. None of those bands really conformed to any popular trends. Which was probably also their downfall as far as getting to be very popular national acts.”
More than classic records by Hüsker Dü and Minutemen, I see Predatory Headlights culminating a continuum of Wisconsin punk from the past 15 years. I refer to should-be touchstones like Yesterday’s Kids’ 2002 swan song Can’t Hear Nothin’, the Obsoletes’ 2004 debut Is This Progress?, 3 the Goodnight Loving’s 2007 sophomore LP Crooked Lake, and Call Me Lightning’s incredible 2010 album When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free. Tenement is more ambitious than any of those bands, both in terms of its artistic aims and popular reach — no matter how modest the latter might seem at this point, it’s pretty amazing for an Appleton band to be reviewed in the New York Times.4
Now Pitsch is pondering where Tenement goes from here. Other record labels — including companies much larger than Don Giovanni — wanted to sign Tenement before Predatory Headlights. But Pitsch worries about losing control of how his music is presented and contextualized. For instance, one of the labels Pitsch turned down is famous for working with pop-punk groups, and he worried about the association rubbing off on Tenement.
“A lot of career-oriented bands seem to go down one path — you either shoot off into the sky or just fail miserably,” he said. “I feel like we’re really a stubborn band artistically. And it’s really difficult to figure out how we fit. Because we would probably have to sacrifice a lot of things to actually make it work.”
Pitsch sighed heavily. “I don’t know. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, but I haven’t come to many conclusions.”
For now, Pitsch just wants to make great records and operate slightly off the grid. A band like Tenement is practically predestined to fall through the cracks. But Predatory Headlights shows just how the fertile the cracks can be, so long as people are still willing to look.
“It’s almost like living here has given us the space and time and everything we need to decide exactly who we want to be without any outside influence,” Pitsch said, as Sam Cooke testified in the background. “We’re influenced by nothing except for what we actively seek out. I think that’s what’s made us unique as a band.”