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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fever Marlene’s Milwaukee Good Fortune

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If Milwaukee ever launched a P.R. effort to lure more bands to the city, no band would make a better poster child for the campaign than Fever Marlene, the alt-rock duo that relocated to Milwaukee from Chicago in 2006.

"It's just so affordable here," explains singer Scott Starr. "We found a real cheap studio loft here that we could build a studio in, and still afford to play Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison whenever we wanted, or to go out to Los Angeles or New York whenever we needed to, because we were saving so much money."

But low overhead isn't the only comfort the duo of Starr and drummer Kevin Dunphy has enjoyed. The group arrived during a transformative period of renewed interest in the city's music scene, and more than any other act, they've been the biggest beneficiaries of Milwaukee's newfound support system for local music.

It began when the city's venerable alternative station, FM 102.1, having re-branded itself to play up its independence from Clear Channel-owned modern-rock stations, championed Fever Marlene with then unheard-of (at least for a local band) regular radio play of the band's debut single.

"[DJ Brian] Kramp was playing an unmastered version of 'Red Fire' before our CD had even come out," Starr recalls.

Around the same time, WYMS 88.9 had relaunched behind an eclectic format heavy on Milwaukee music, and the station selected Fever Marlene as an early symbol of its commitment to local artists, not only airing the band's tunes, but also trumpeting the group through in-house spots for the station.
And shortly after, the Pabst Theater Foundation began booking concerts at the Turner Hall Ballroom, with the explicit promise that Milwaukee musicians would have a strong presence at the repurposed venue. As one of a handful of local acts with enough draw to play the cavernous ballroom, Fever Marlene have become staples at the venue.

To be sure, though, while the group has thrived because of opportunities that weren't available to Milwaukee musicians just a half-decade ago, Fever Marlene have earned their success, writing sticky dream-pop singles that take on a strident, punk-rock edge, courtesy of Starr's adenoidal sneer, and marketing themselves with a proficiency few local peers can match (Starr runs an advertising firm, and deftly handles all of the band's graphics, videos and Web material himself; the group even screen-prints its own T-shirts).

They've also proven unusually prolific. This week they'll release their third album in less than three years, a live disc called Febrile State that they recorded this fall, fittingly, at the Turner Hall Ballroom, during a show that paired them with a slew of guests from the Milwaukee music scene, including The Cocksmiths' Joey Carini, Northern Room's Andrew Jonathan and On a Sun's John McWilliam.

"It was a one-time-only concert," Starr says. "We rehearsed with those guys for probably a month as they learned all our songs and some new ones, so we felt like we needed to put it on tape and capture the moment, since we've never played with such a big band before-it's usually just the two of us. Our producer [Jack LeTourneau] recorded it, so the album is just this big rock 'n' roll record that sounds like a studio album only with this wild audience; it's great."

Fever Marlene return to the Turner Hall Ballroom for a CD release show Saturday, May 16, at 7:30 p.m. with The Melismatics and Slo-Fi.

For more local music coverage, visit ExpressMilwaukee.com.