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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Call Me Lightning's Long Road to 'Human Hell'

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Call Me Lightning’s new album Human Hell arrived this weekend. That news comes as some relief to the band, since as of just last week, its release was uncertain. The independent Minneapolis label releasing the record, 25 Diamonds, ran into some issues pressing the vinyl, and though label head Ian Casey had been shooting for a rescheduled early March release date, he was careful not to make any hard promises. “Honestly, with a tiny label,” he admitted, “a release date doesn’t really mean a whole lot.”

Human Hell’s production delays were just the last in the long line of hold ups stalling the Milwaukee rock trio’s first album in four years. With singer/guitarist Nathaniel Lilley now living in Chicago, drummer Shane Hochstetler busy managing his Howl Street Recordings studio, and bassist Tyler Chicorel dividing his time between several bands, it took Call Me Lightning nearly a year to finish tracking the album. The project was further postponed by an ear infection that rendered Hochstetler deaf in his left ear for more than a month, and thus unable to mix the album—or anybody else’s, for the matter, leaving him with a whole lot of make-up work at the studio. And last month brought with it more news that pushed Call Me Lightning even further to the backburner: Howl Street’s landlord sold the building, meaning Hochstetler will be spending the foreseeable future tearing down his studio and rebuilding in a new location. That pretty much killed whatever remaining hopes the band had of playing any Human Hell release shows this winter.

“Years of being in a band have taught me to have a lot of patience,” Lilley said while waiting for the record last week. “But honestly, at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if the truck that was delivering the records to us blew up and it wouldn’t come out for another year.”

All in all, Human Hell’s release was actually been a breeze compared to the hurdles the group’s last album faced. The group recorded 2010’s When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free for their then-label Frenchkiss Records, which opted against releasing it, spurring a battle over the masters. The label offered to sell the album back to the band for the price of recording it; the band objected that it didn’t have that kind of money, and harsh words were exchanged all around. Months after those bitter negotiations, the label relented, mailing Lilley the masters without any notice or explanation. To this day, he’s still not sure whether that gesture was meant as a peace offering or a final F.U., but the band and label haven’t had any contact since. “It felt like a long friendship that tragically disintegrated,” Lilley says.

Ultimately, the band partnered with Milwaukee’s Dusty Medical Records to release the album, which was greeted by the group’s strongest reviews yet. An audacious rock opera in the spirit of The Who, only with more piss and vinegar, When I Am Gone cemented Call Me Lightning’s reputation as one of Milwaukee’s most vital bands. No other current band in Milwaukee’s punk scene inspires such hero worship and devotion, and after a decade as anchors of the scene, nobody can say Call Me Lightning hasn’t earned that standing.

The irony, though, is the band is hardly around anymore to enjoy that good will, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. With their schedules making even a one-off release show for Human Hell difficult to book, a full-scale tour behind the album is all but impossible for the time being.

“I think this album is the best stuff we’ve done, but sadly we’re going to be the least active we’ve ever been about promoting it,” Hochstetler says. “We’d all like to, but for me to just say, ‘Fuck it, let’s tour for a month or two’ is out of the question when I have a studio back home that’s booked two or three months out. How things have usually worked with this band is we’d go in the studio and make a record and be done in two weeks, three weeks tops, then we’d go out and tour like teenagers, but this time everything has been different from how it used to be. Things have changed.”

Call Me Lightning’s
Human Hell is available through 25 Diamonds at 25diamonds.com. Stream it below.