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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cherry Cake: Back From the ’80s

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The '80s are far enough away for nostalgia to set in. For Milwaukeeans involved in the '80s alternative scene, it was a decade of great promise, a time when bands such as the Violent Femmes, Die Kreuzen and the BoDeans appeared poised to conquer at least a corner of the world outside. Atomic Records was a hub of Milwaukee's alt scene in those years, and when it closed earlier this year, some of the record shop's fans felt especially nostalgic. Eighties bands regrouped to play an Atomic wake at the Miramar. One of them, Cherry Cake, decided to stick around.

Although Cherry Cake was never poised for stardom like the Femmes or the BoDeans, they were popular on the East Side and included many of the city's best rock musicians at one time or another. The focus amid the chaos and shifting lineups was always Steve Whalen, a wild man behind the microphone who raised the roof with his gleefully screamed lyrics. Cherry Cake's 2009 rendition came together easily.

"I get to play with my best friends," Whalen says. Bassist Keith Brammer adds: "We've all played together before and kept in touch over the years. It's not a hired-gun situation. At this point I'm not interested in being in a band if it's not fun. I'm not trying to get a recording contract or even have a MySpace page."

As a member of Die Kreuzen and Carnival Strippers, Brammer has seen recording contracts come and go. "We're all the same age. We have full-time jobs and marriages. We practice when we can practice. There's not this great focus on touring, playing South by Southwest, blah, blah, blah," he says.

Not unlike the Cherry Cake of 20 years ago, the band has a wild rocking sound drawn from the example of The Rolling Stones, fronted as always by Whalen's fervent vocals. Most of the songs still date from Cherry Cake's previous incarnations, but the oldies are being phased out in favor of new material. Keyboardist Bob Friedman explains the writing process. "[Guitarist] George [Morales] starts playing some chords and Steve might jump in with words and a melody. Someone will come up with one part and someone else another part. It's as collaborative as it can get." Rounding out Cherry Cake's new lineup is drummer Kirk McFarlin.

"I'm a hopeless romantic. I believe in the power of rock 'n' roll-of music, actually," Whalen says. "I'm blessed with people who understand my music. I'm playing with the greatest musicians who inspire me to write good songs and get out there to entertain a crowd."

Cherry Cake performs at the Cactus Club, April 24, with Knit Delicate and The Pugilists.