LOCAL LOVE: RED STUFF
POSTED:: December 31, 2020
FILED UNDER:: Local Love
Red Stuff has been on the Milwaukee scene for over a decade, doubling in size and scope and getting trippier as the years go by. Starting out as the duo of husband-and-wife team Tom and Kelly Wanderer, they gained traction in the local scene over the years and Milwaukee rockers and psych aficionados have come to love them for their surf-y ramshackle garage-pop, their interesting instrumentation and their penchant for putting out awesome home-recorded and vivid, home-screen-printed LPs. Watching their live performances, too, has always been a fun, freeing experience, given that creative instrument usage and their relaxed-yet-punk attitude. And even though 2020 didn’t allow the band to give their album a proper release with a show, we’re truly hoping for a rain-check date. The now-quartet’s latest is simply called Bless Us and it’s a straight trip down “Strawberry Street”, filled with new ways to bend the psych genre. We talked to Red Stuff’s bassist, Tom [also known to you as WMSE DJ Tom Wanderer!] about the band’s trajectory over the past decade+ and the joys of home-recording.
How has Red Stuff progressed over the years from that first release back in 2008?
In the beginning, it was just me and Kelly. I was really eager to get back in a band at that point, but I had no idea how to construct a song from scratch. My grasp of guitar was also abstract at best, so our first songs were out of left field, musically. Kelly was extremely patient in the early days and she could provide the key criticisms that I was tone deaf to; making sure we were relatively in key, in tune, etc. After that, we were lucky to work with a great drummer, Peterson Goodwyn, and he showed us what we would sound like as a real band. That was a big confidence boost and also got us thinking about things like arrangement and structure. When Peter moved away, another good friend (Joe Scheltema) came over to jam on bass and ended up being our second drummer. This was the first time we actually had a solid lineup that did things like weekly practices and regular shows. Another big step. After Joe moved away we realized that we just wanted a long term band member, and that proficiency on the drums wasn’t as important as a willingness to hang out and make music regularly. So we recruited our best friend Steve Tiber and he really worked hard over the first few years and developed a solid style. I switched from guitar to bass in 2015, and the more traditional lineup of guitar/bass/drums both simplified and energized our songwriting. In December of 2018 I asked Morgan Engels to come over for our Friday night practices and make noise on a keyboard. It was something I had wanted to incorporate for a while and I had a new song idea. Morgan was practically in the band at that point anyway; at every show she would load in gear, hang out all night, basically everything except play with us onstage. Things clicked right away with her on keys and we invited her to join, put all our old songs aside, and spent about 14 months developing and rehearsing the music you hear on Bless Us. It was very satisfying and exciting to be a part of the new Red Stuff sound taking shape. We spent longer than usual hashing out these songs and I’m really glad that we took the extra time.
Tell me about some of the more unusual sonic elements of your group….
Kelly performs all the duties of the sole guitar player in a rock band, but she does it on a lap steel. To me, this is unique. It’s also become central to our sound. Most of the time when you hear lap steel in a song it’s used to punctuate certain parts here and there. It’s kind of spare and deliberate. She plays as though the guitar was a blank slate and shows that it’s capable of playing any kind of music; from solid rhythm stuff to blown out wah-wah solos. I think it’s unusual to hear that in any band.
This is our first album with keyboards. Morgan plays an early 70s Cordovox CDX combo organ. The enclosure is white fiberglass, kind of boomerang shaped. It looks like it’s from Star Trek or something. It has a very distinct sound. Like most old combo organs, it’s a pain to tune and it’s never quite perfect, but that adds another distinct flavor to the sound and kind of throws it back in time. It also tends to generate white noise, depending on where the settings are, and I absolutely fell in love with that sound when put through a phaser pedal. So much so that I recorded that sound independently and used it between songs throughout the album.
We’ve also used a tape echo on our last few records. We always have our vocal mics set running through one at practice and it tends to catch snare hits and percussive sounds. I can’t say exactly why we leave it in…I just like it. If something sounds cool, I try not to question it until it’s getting in the way.
Have you always recorded yourselves?
Yes. We would be interested in recording with someone else eventually, but our current set up is just too convenient. Recording ourselves is free, there’s no stress of being in the studio, and no deadline. The temptation to go back and redo is always there, but we are generally in consensus when we get something right.
Why use tape for the recording process?
It must seem like we have something to prove, right? It’s actually the total opposite. For us, tape is practical. I started getting into home recording in the late 90s when multi-track cassette and reel to reel was still totally viable. Digital home recording was taking off, but it was really cost-prohibitive at that time, so I learned on used 4 and 8 track tape recorders. I am lucky enough to still have a few machines that work great and a large supply of high quality tape stock. I am familiar enough with the equipment that I can set it up quickly and use it confidently, and, from a recording point of view, that’s all I really care about. The recording medium is really just a means to an end. I will continue with tape as long as it’s sustainable for me, but I know the move to digital is eventual. I’m just putting it off until it becomes necessary.
What are some unifying influences for your group, musically and culturally?
The first thing that comes to mind is Alice Coltrane. Without a doubt, her music is something we all love. When we get together, we are always listening to different stuff, but band practice is as much of a hang out as it is about getting down to the basement and making music. We would always get together on Friday nights, so it was just a great way to unwind after the work week. We all love to cook, so if we weren’t preparing a meal together we would be sitting around the kitchen table working on a snack platter just talking and joking while our dogs run around the house. Pleasant low lights, maybe some incense burning, a steady stream of records going on and off the turntable. Just a great way to spend an evening. We are all pretty low-key, so band practice would often double as our weekly social event.
What is the draw to create and record music for you, personally?
I get a real sense of joy from playing in a band. It’s like meditation or therapy or something. Being part of something bigger. I used to be more drawn by the impulse to “do” or achieve; to get the songs down and make the record and get it out as fast as possible. I’m happy to say that over the years I have been able to find much more contentment in the act of just playing the music. I still enjoy making the records immensely, but it has become more of a labor of love than a race to the finish line. I think that attitude only improves the music, too. When you’ve been self-releasing records that you made in your basement for more than a decade, you realize that there are never going to be people pounding down your door clamoring for them. You have to do it for reasons within yourself.
Has the pandemic set back your creative output or has it boosted it?
We finished recording the last song for Bless Us a week or two before the pandemic hit. That was pretty lucky. We haven’t practiced since March, so I don’t know what would have happened if we still had work to do on the record. It’s hard to stall a creative project for a long time. During the first month of the pandemic, we were listening to mixes and getting everything finalized. Then we were working on the album cover, which was collaborative. Morgan drew the lovely picture of the flowers and fruit. There were a lot of group texts and backyard meet-ups to make sure everybody was on board with everything. Then, there’s the insert design and the screen-printing and the time it takes to get the records pressed, etc. So, as I said, we were pretty lucky with the timing of things. We got 14 months to play together every week and the next nine to figure out the details. We really miss playing shows, but every band is going through that.
The song titles for this particular album seem like they’re out of a dream (or nightmare). Was “Death Is A Round Black Spot” influenced by any particular instance?
I’m glad you asked! “Death Is A Round Black Spot” is the title of a Doc Savage adventure. He was a character of pulp mystery stories from the 30s and 40s that I am a big fan of. That title in particular always stuck out in my mind as being so bizarre. I woke up in the middle of the night once with the chorus “death is a round black spot/you only see it from the top/it’s invisible from the side” fully formed in my head and I scribbled it down on a piece of paper on the nightstand. It was barely legible. Image Of The Beast is the title of a truly bizarre sci-fi detective story by Philip Jose Farmer. “Walking up and down the strawberry street” was an abstract comment Kelly made years ago that I jotted down. I believe inspiration can come from anywhere. I take a lot of notes.
Do you have anything special planned surrounding the album’s official release?
Well, the pandemic has really put a damper on that. We want to do a live-stream from our basement or garage as soon as we feel that it’s safe to play together again, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon. We are just trying to spread the word about this new record. We’re so proud of it. Nicolaus Ortiz made an incredible video for “Strawberry Street” that had it’s premier at the Cactus Club Beet Street music video showcase. He really did an amazing job and we were honored to provide the music. Check it out here.
Find Red Stuff’s new release, ‘Bless Us’ over at their Bandcamp page. Keep supporting (and loving) your local artists.