Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
Vinnie Kircher is looking for a hit.
The wiry, darkly handsome 31-year-old is standing in the basement of his Riverwest home, where the makeshift studio and rehearsal space that birthed Traps – the latest album by Milwaukee’s highest-profile rock ’n’ roll band, Jaill – was fashioned in a cramped swath of space. Sandwiched between a concrete wall on one side, and a furnace and water heater on the other, it doesn’t look like much, but working like this has gotten Jaill further than most bands, local or otherwise, ever will.
It started 10 years ago, when Kircher and longtime bandmate Austin Dutmer, 31, recorded the first Jaill songs on crappy equipment in Vinnie’s bedroom. There were 15 in all, four of which came out as a 7-inch with a pressing of only 400 copies. The band has gone through more lineup changes than Kircher can keep straight, but in 2006, Andrew Harris, a prodigious musician and songwriter also known in Milwaukee music circles as a member of the late, great garage-punk band The Goodnight Loving, joined and stuck.
In June, Traps was released as Jaill’s second album on Sub Pop, the label that introduced the world to big-time bands like Nirvana, The Shins and Fleet Foxes. With any luck, Sub Pop will eventually do the same for Jaill.
For now, however, Jaill’s appeal remains – to quote Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith – a bit selective. The band’s first Sub Pop album, 2010’s That’s How We Burn, sold 3,000 copies, Jaill’s top tally and three times that of its next-best seller, 2009’s There’s No Sky (Oh My My). But those are not blockbuster numbers.
It behooves Jaill if Traps does at least as well as Burn, in the interest of capitalizing on Sub Pop’s support (Burn and Traps satisfy a two-album deal signed in 2009) and, perhaps, maintaining it. “No chance in hell we want this record to do as well as the last one,” Kircher says. “We want to be a lot more successful.”
But the hit he’s seeking today isn’t for Jaill. It belongs to Don Henley, the cheesiest, smarmiest and most hateable of all the Eagles. Kircher is a huge fan of Henley’s 1984 solo record Building The Perfect Beast, and he’s trying to determine which of the album’s tracks ended up on the pop charts. To his ears, they all sound like singles. “Was ‘Not Enough Love In The World’ a hit?” he asks, singing a bit of the chorus. (It was. But not as big as “The Boys Of Summer,” “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” and “Sunset Grill.”)
Kircher has to be joking, saying he likes a lame baby boomer music icon because Building The Perfect Beast happens to be a pretty (though unintentionally) hilarious album title. But Kircher insists that’s not the case. “I don’t like his image, and I don’t like his voice,” he says, “but his songs are incredible.”
It is perfectly understandable that Kircher would appreciate a mid-1980s AOR record. A listen to Jaill makes it clear that Kircher is obsessed with well-written, snappy rock songs. See Jaill live, and it’s equally obvious that Kircher has no idea how to be fashionable or cool. Seven years ago, Kircher wrote and recorded a song called “Everyone’s Hip” (which was later remade for Burn), and “everyone” clearly didn’t include himself.
But even though Kircher is completely sincere, he appears full of it. This disconnect between what Kircher means and what he seems to mean is partly due to his delivery. Everything he says rings of a bone-dry one-liner or the least consequential statement of all time. He could make a eulogy sound like ordering a pizza.
And therein is the crux of Jaill’s perception problem: No matter how methodically Kircher works on writing songs and overseeing the recording of Jaill’s albums – Traps took most of 2011 to complete – he’ll still be viewed by many Milwaukee music scene watchers as a snarky stoner dude screwing around in his basement.