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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012

Sugar Stems: Amps and Moxie

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A self-described “poppy, fun rock ‘n’ roll band,” Sugar Stems will release their second album, Can’t Wait, at a Dec. 21 show at the Cactus Club. They hope it won’t be their last day on earth.

“It’s the end of the world show,” the band’s drummer, Jon Heibler says, explaining that the 21st is when the pages run out on the Mayan calendar. Googly-eyed prophets have predicted that this equates the apocalypse.

“Hopefully it’ll happen after our set, because we’re really excited to play,” says Betsy Heibler, Jon’s wife, who plays guitar, sings and writes most of the band’s songs.

The Heiblers started their band in 2007, adding their friend Stephanie Swinney Conard on bass and later second guitarist Drew Fredrichsen. The four were well acquainted with each other. Jon and Drew used to play in a short-lived band called The Browns, while Betsy and Steph were part of an all-girl garage ensemble called The Flips.

“That’s what all of us did on the weekends—went to basements and bars to see bands play,” Betsy explains.

Sugar Stems’ first album, 2010’s Sweet Sounds of the Sugar Stems, was put out by the local label Dusty Medical Records and also issued by the Austrian label Bachelor Records, which helped the band develop a league of fans in central Europe. The new Can’t Wait album is being released by a German imprint, Screaming Apple Records. The Germans have long been digging Milwaukee’s music scene, according to the Sugar Stems. They note that Screaming Apple also put out a record by one of Fredrichsen’s old bands, The Leg Hounds. To add to the band’s international appeal, Japanese label Dream On has issued CD versions of both Sugar Stems albums.

Despite this success abroad and in Milwaukee venues big and small, the band struggled with a show last year at a bar “up north” in Wausau.

“We were asked to stop playing because we were too loud,” Betsy says.

“Most of their acts were acoustic, the type that pulls out a binder and says, ‘OK, let’s go to page four and play this Dave Matthews Band or Phish song.’ Then we came in with amps and moxie,” Fredrichsen explains.

“Too much moxie,” Betsy laughs. She says that besides the band’s entourage, there was only one Wausau resident who was into the music. “He was completely wasted, literally falling on the floor. His girl was trying to get him on his feet. Everyone else left because we were too loud.”

The night grew stranger.

“After we played we were getting ready to leave but then these guys walked in with a Bucky Badger wooden log statue that they stole from someone’s yard, so we stayed and posed for different lewd pictures with that for a while,” Besty recalls as the rest of the band laughs.

The band then witnessed a fist-fight outside the bar over possession of the statue and decided to make a retreat further into the northern woods.

“We went to a karaoke night at a dive bar. It was a ‘dress as your favorite rock star’ party and there were a handful of north-woods townies dressed as Slash and Axl Rose,” Betsy says. But here, according to the band, they found an appreciative audience for their singing, even if it wasn’t the sweet sounds of their own material.

The release party for
Can’t Wait at the Cactus Club (496 S. Wentworth Ave.) on Friday, Dec. 21, will feature performances by Sugar Stems, Slow Walker and Delphines.