Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009

Sometime Sweet Susan Talks Atomic Reunion

By Evan Rytlewski
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Although Sometime Sweet Susan are little remembered beyond the Milwaukee audiences that witnessed them first hand, the trio's albums hold-up as prime examples of the region's early-'90s underground rock. Their mercurial noise-pop was shaped the tuneful fuzz of Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and many of the same SST acts that laid the foundation for Nirvana, yet marked by a biting, emotional edge that was distinctly Midwestern.

"They were my all-time favorite band for a while in 1993," recalls Josh Modell, a longtime Atomic Records employee who edited the Milwaukee music zine Milk before becoming an editor for The Onion. "They were actually the cover stars of the first issue of Milk.

"I discovered them when I was just out of high school," Modell says, "so they were probably the first local band that made me realize, 'wow, local bands can be great.' They were the start of a really, really green period of local music in Milwaukee, an immediate precursor to the whole Promise Ring/Compound Red wave of Milwaukee bands."

Sometime Sweet Susan dissolved well over a decade ago, but like many of the several other storied alums of the city's music scene has reformed to pay tribute to the soon-to-close Atomic Records as part of a benefit concert this Saturday, Feb. 14 at the Miramar Theatre. In advance of that show, the Shepherd caught up with Susans singer/guitarist James Warchol.

Why did the Susans break-up in the first place?

We had a lot of ups and downs - lineup changes, label hassles, you name it... after our last album was released in late 1995, we started sensing things were amiss at Futurist, the label we were on. They were changing direction and becoming a metal label, and we were not in their plans. In 1996 we had an entire album of material written, with Damian [Strigens, bass] and Dan Hanke [drums], but the label got weird and then Damain announced he was leaving to become a father ... it just felt like the right time.

Do you revisit the old Susans albums often?

I had not listened to them in a long time until a couple of friends kept bugging me to hear them a couple of years ago. At first all I was hearing was the imperfections-guitar flubs or a vocal track I wish I would have redone-but after more listens I let it go and felt really proud of what we did on some really tight budgets. It's pretty cool that we got to record with [Steve] Albini before he got hugely in demand post-Nirvana's In Utero.

Since you guys broke up before the Internet became widespread, you didn't leave behind much of a legacy beyond your albums. Are you alright with that, or do you wish you'd have had larger reach?

I guess we're all right with that because we always just let the music speak for itself. It wasn't until this show started coming together that I decided to finally put up a MySpace page and Facebook page for the band because before that it didn't really serve a purpose, other than perhaps nostalgic reasons. But now we will also be re-issuing the albums ourselves on iTunes, eMusic and Rhapsody as well in the next couple of weeks so people can download them.

As a band during the early '90s alt-rock explosion, did you guys feel like you had a fair shot at finding a bigger audience, or did that seem like a lofty goal for a Milwaukee band back then?

It was a lofty goal for any band, because at the time there were a lot of labels and each one wanted to find the next Nirvana, and if they didn't find a band that hit big, that label had an easy tax write-off instead. Milwaukee bands still had it tough, because any success then always needed to involve lots of touring, which was something we never could fully put together. I think of all the indie Milwaukee bands at that time, The Promise Ring probably broke through the most and that was because of lots of hard work touring.

How does the Milwaukee scene seem different today that it was during the Susans' run together?

It seems really vibrant now. There are a bunch of great bands like Juniper Tar, Brief Candles, Collections of Colonies of Bees, Celebrated Workingman, plus great venues like Cactus Club, Mad Planet, Stonefly and even Turner Hall that seem really supportive. I sincerely hope the days of playing in front of 20 people at The Unicorn and getting paid $6 and several assorted bottles of beer for your efforts are long over for these new bands.

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