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Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009

Will Phalen and the Stereo Addicts’ Modern Americana

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Will Phalen spent years driving south from Milwaukee to Chicago to visit friends, but these days he’s making that drive in reverse. The Milwaukee native has moved to Chicago, but he makes regular trips back to his home city, where the rest of his band, the Stereo Addicts, remains.

That familiar 90-minute drive down I-94, with its succession of small towns and long stretches of nothing, was a primary inspiration for Middle West, the sophomore album from Will Phalen and the Stereo Addicts.

“For this record, we were really examining what it means to be from the Midwest, and the drive over the Illinois border really sums it up in some ways,” Phalen says. “Chicago and Milwaukee are these urban metropolises separated for the most part by farmland and rural countryside. It’s just a fact of Midwestern life that, whichever city you’re in, be it Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago or Minneapolis/St. Paul, you’re never that far from the rural areas. I think that has a lot to do with the whole essence of the Midwest.”

That fusion of the rural and the urban, and the traditional and the modern, is central to the Stereo Addicts. The group is indebted to essentially the same ’60s and ’70s influences as almost any other folk-rock band—Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield—but its execution is decidedly modern.

“There’s a lot of amazing music coming out of the Americana/folk-rock genre today, but a lot of it isn’t necessarily new; it’s a rehashing of the same sounds and themes we’ve seen before,” Phalen explains. “So we attempt to bring new sounds and perspectives to those fairly traditional sounds. The essence of our music is revisiting the past—because that’s what folk music is, music that’s old and traditional—while pushing that music forward.

“So we incorporate a lot of new technologies and new sounds into our music,” Phalen continues. “We’re always looking for ways to expand our sonic template. We do a lot of messing around with odd instruments, lots of toy keyboards, toy glockenspiels, stuff like that. On our latest record we have a friend who plays some analog synthesizers. That’s in addition to our banjo player, Doc Holliday, who plays banjo and violin, which are some of the oldest instruments in American music. We’re using those instruments next to the electronic sound of Moog synthesizers.”

Though Middle West, which the band released early this summer, is the Stereo Addicts’ second album, it’s their first recorded as a true band.

“For our first album, I had a bunch of songs I wanted to record that I had planned to record myself before some friends got involved, and from that, a band just sort of formed,” Phalen says. “So with that first album, we’d never performed the songs live before; we just went into the studio and recorded the songs. To be honest, most of the band wasn’t even in the room at the same time; there were a few members who had never even met each other after the album was done.

“But with Middle West, we had the luxury of performing most of the songs live for a while, so we had a chance to let those songs grow and evolve a little bit,” Phalen adds. “We all had the opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other. This one was more of a collective effort.”

Will Phalen and the Stereo Addicts top a 10 p.m. bill at the Cactus Club on Friday, Oct. 2, with The Vega Star and Doc Holliday.

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