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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Calliope’s Retro-Groove Circus

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It’s no secret that the instruments a band uses help determine its sonic direction and can make a song work. In the case of Milwaukee band Calliope, one instrument—an organ—not only pumped energy into the songs of their self-titled debut album (out March 29) but also played a role in the band’s existence.

Singer Al Kraemer and guitarist Victor Buell had long been friends before Calliope’s creation in 2010 but hadn’t directly worked together musically. A casual conversation changed that. “I didn’t really know he played keyboards or know he was that musical necessarily,” Buell says. “He was talking to me one day and said, ‘Back home I’ve got this Farfisa compact combo organ.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, are you serious? Yeah dude you should bring that over sometime and we can mess around and jam.’”

Once they started jamming together, using Kraemer’s collection of vintage organs, the organ’s potential truly hit Buell.

“I wouldn’t say it was a life-changing event, but it was a momentous occasion in that I heard some of the sounds coming from this thing,” he says. “It’s this quintessential late ’60s British psych-pop sound. And it was really creepy sounding, dark circus like. I was like ‘Alright I know we have to make music using this thing.’ Because it’s just so badass. I think we got a noise ticket after that.”

While they didn’t really have a musical direction, they enjoyed writing “pseudo novelty revival songs” that sounded old. They picked the name Calliope, after the steam-powered organ often used at circuses.

Later they found a drummer in Eric Gomoll and bass player in John Larkin, who helped solidify the sound. That resulting sound, which Buell dubs “retro-groove,” finds the band swinging through a circus of psychedelic rock and blues sounds like acrobats. It’s a sound (along with the organ-led band setup) that brings to mind bands like The Doors, The Animals and Blue Cheer but Buell is quick to point out they're a well-oiled machine when it comes to experimenting.

“That’s when the sound really became cohesive and less novelty and more together,” says Buell. “We were functioning more as a unit. We were playing and experimenting on different parts. It was more of a collaborative songwriting process and that’s why our sound evolved into what it is today—a little more dynamic and eclectic and maybe not as cheesy sounding.”

In search of an option for their debut, Kraemer and Buell got prime recording experience in their other band, Delta Routine. After recording that band’s latest at a warehouse with the help of Mike Hoffmann and his mobile recording studio, the duo quickly realized this “on location recording in a unique environment” was perfect for Calliope’s debut.

Fortunately Kraemer had a perfect spot: his cabin in the northern woods of Wisconsin. Knowing it had great acoustics from the duo’s frequent retreats to record demos, they got the band together along with Hoffmann for a three-day recording at the cabin last fall, where they recorded the majority of the album.

Some of the songs they recorded were a few years old, while many were written weeks prior. For the older songs, the new members helped breathe new life into them. A few songs like “Mine, All Mine” came largely from Kraemer’s organ. Buell says the diverse tracks on the album were created through the band’s mashing together of their influences.

“In a way, to a certain degree, original Calliope music is almost like an analog remix of older rock, classic rock ’n’ roll, early garage stuff and other early psych-rock and blues—all put through a weird time machine,” says Buell. “I think of this organ setup that Al plays as our time machine. In a way it does transport us back to the sound of the late ’60s and early ’70s…. In the future we want to take other influences and run them through the time machine and see what comes out at the other side.”

Calliope release their debut album Friday, March 29, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn with Animals in Human Attire and The Zelda Routine. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the $7 cover includes a CD.