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.
A few months before Traps was dropped in the middle of a crowded field of big-name summer music releases, Kircher was dealing with a more immediate issue: A pig has been holding him captive in his own home for almost a year.
Kircher is not crazy about the pig – its name is Piggles – which was adopted by Kircher’s live-in girlfriend as a mere piglet. Since then, the inconsiderate houseguest has dug in its hooves. “I thought it was going to be a foster situation,” Kircher says with a resigned sigh. “But he’s kind of stuck around.”
Considering the range of possible reactions to having a farm animal freely roaming through every room of your domicile, Kircher is relatively unperturbed. His home is already filled with two dogs, two cats and a lizard that Kircher says likes to watch him lift weights from a nearby aquarium. When asked for the lizard’s name, Kircher pauses. “I don’t know,” he finally musters.
Kircher walks out to his second-floor patio and takes a seat. It’s an unseasonably warm afternoon in April, and it seems Kircher would rather do anything but talk to a reporter about his band. It’s the first press interview he’s conducted for Traps, he announces. Does he like interviews? Kircher smiles. “Does anybody?”
With that, he commences the dirty business of dissecting his creative process. Jaill started recording Traps in January 2011, a mere six months after the release of That’s How We Burn. It was frigid in Kircher’s basement, but Jaill gathered two or three times a week to write songs, lay down tracks, re-do tracks, warp tracks, erase tracks and fiddle around as the music slowly took shape. It was a far cry from how Jaill made Burn. On that record, the band went into actual recording studios (Bay View’s Howl Street Recordings and Mystery Room Mastering and Recording). Jaill worked with a producer (respected local engineer Justin Perkins) and a prepared set of material that was banged out in a matter of weeks. The idea with Traps was to get back to how Kircher and Dutmer used to make Jaill records: on their own and at home, where they could let songs reveal themselves over time without an endlessly ticking studio clock. “It was such a wide-open canvas,” Dutmer says.
After Traps was turned in, Sub Pop enlisted Nicolas Vernhes – a Brooklyn-based engineer who has worked with indie-rock heavy hitters like Deerhunter, Dirty Projectors and Spoon – to make the record more palatable for a mainstream audience. “It sounds professional now,” Kircher says. “It didn’t sound professional when it left our hands.”
Knowing how they made the last two Jaill records helps explain their differences. That’s How We Burn is all business, ticking off a series of fast-paced, three-minute pop-rock songs that proceed, more or less, in an orderly verse-chorus-verse fashion. Traps meanders a little more. Backward guitar solos layer on top of woozy keyboards. A Motown groove meets up with a gorgeous Beatles-esque melody, then falls into a fumbling beat that sounds like it’s being played by a hyperactive preschooler.
If Jaill was worried about its record contract during the making of Traps, it’s not apparent in the music. While not a radical departure from Jaill’s signature sound, Traps clearly is not a record made with any current commercial trends in mind. (The catchiest song is called “Everyone’s a Bitch,” so good luck getting that on the radio.)
“There are no busy chord changes that are indigestible,” Kircher says at the suggestion that Traps is less direct than its predecessor. “We’re definitely not writing songs that people won’t want to digest.”
But for Dutmer, it’s a left turn, and a welcome one at that. “We always want to be a little bit weirder than last time, if not a lot weirder,” he says. “This record was going back to where we started, which was putting weirdness on weirdness, and then taking away some of the superfluous stuff.”
Along with being his musical partner, Dutmer is, in many ways, Kircher’s biggest fan. They met at a bus stop when they were both college students: Kircher, a native of Rochester, Wis., went to Marquette, and Dutmer, who hails from Rockford, Ill., attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through a mutual friend, they connected and started playing music together, first in a band called The Detectives and then in Jaill. (At the time, it was known only as Jail; the extra “L” was added when the band signed to Sub Pop to resolve a conflict with another group that had the same name.)
What Dutmer calls their “little marriage” has held together for more than a decade, even as Jaill appeared to flounder at selling records and drawing live audiences, and even after Dutmer joined Harris in the more successful (at the time, anyway) The Goodnight Loving on its first three albums. “I guess we always thought it was a matter of time,” Kircher says of this period, which lasted for most of the ’00s. “Just keep hacking away, and we’ll get there.”
Dutmer’s faith that Jaill would eventually get noticed stems from his unshakable belief in Kircher’s songwriting. “I think there’s something undeniably, objectively great about what he produces, in terms of lyrics and music,” he says. “He’s still a very well-kept secret. He’s a brilliant songwriter, and he’s a completely underappreciated, brilliant songwriter. I’m just waiting for people to realize that.”
If anyone has a rightful claim to having realized that, it’s Tony Kiewel, Sub Pop’s head of A&R. He read a blog post about There’s No Sky (Oh My My), bought the record, loved it and set the wheels in motion for getting Jaill signed.
Kiewel remembers getting the record – which was only available on vinyl at the time – and being charmed by the packaging, which consisted of some hastily assembled photocopied art. “There’s that sort of odd disconnect between a band that makes a record sound that good and pays the expense of putting it on vinyl, and then tapes the art to the vinyl sleeve,” he says by phone from Sub Pop’s headquarters in Seattle.
As for the music, it was obvious to Kiewel that Jaill was a band capable of finding an audience, with the right help. “There were so many songs on that record that were instant mixtape classics,” he says. “It was crazy to me that there were only 500 copies of this with photocopied art. It’s not like it was a noise record. I felt like lots of people could appreciate what Jaill was doing.”
Locally, media coverage had an unmistakably incredulous tone at the time of the Sub Pop signing. Time and again, Kircher was asked the same question: How could this band, of all Milwaukee bands, end up on the label that kick-started grunge and made millions off of the indie-folk movement?
“They were never big self-promoters, never the band that plastered cafe walls with show flyers or hounded the press for coverage,” says Evan Rytlewski, who covers music for local alt-weekly Shepherd Express. “They also have a bit of a disheveled, ’90s slacker air to them, and their records tend to be lo-fi, which can easily be mistaken for lazy. Bands that are actually career-minded tend to have better websites, better clothes, better posture. But Jaill never appeared to care about those things. They still don’t, really.”[PAGE]
The lazy perception annoys Kircher, who was surprised and then wearied by the idea that he really didn’t care all that much about getting signed. Of course he cared. He was just waiting to make a record that he thought other people would want to hear. The catchy and immediate There’s No Sky was that record: It’s filled to the brim with Kircher’s twisty-turny melodies and delivered with rubber-band tightness and gut-level directness. It was slicker than Jaill’s previous records and dance-worthy bouncy.
“Everybody believes that we’re lazy and not trying,” Kircher says. “But it was that record that made us want to jam it down people’s throats, not knowing that shoving it down people’s throats is the way to be.”
Jaill dutifully set about sending There’s No Sky to labels (though not Sub Pop) and music writers, and positive blog notices started to come, including the one Kiewel spotted.
“If we’re slackers in any way, it’s that it took us eight years to realize that you have to put it in the hands of bloggers or people that write about music,” Dutmer says. “Lo and behold, we got really good reviews. That’s what Sub Pop saw.”
Kiewel’s interest is notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because Sub Pop rarely signs new bands. Despite recent success with breakout acts like the folksy The Head And The Heart and the electronic group Washed Out, the label typically only takes on new talent every few months says Kiewel, who’s been with Sub Pop for 12 years.
Still, Dutmer understands the local skepticism. To a point. “If bands were snatched up all the time, it wouldn’t seem so glaring,” he says. “I was as shocked as anybody else.” But when local discussion veered toward disrespect, Dutmer felt stung.
“It was at the exact same time that Kings Go Forth was getting signed, and everyone was heaping praise on what a great signing that was and how great it was for the town,” he says. “But for us, it was, ‘Huh? Those guys, too?’”
Even now, Jaill probably won’t win any Milwaukee popularity contests. In 2011, the band garnered its first-ever nominations in the annual RadioMilwaukee Music Awards operated by local nonprofit station 88Nine RadioMilwaukee. It lost for best video to The Fatty Acids, most memorable live show to rapper Prophetic, and best song to The Wildbirds. That’s How We Burn wasn’t even nominated for album of the year, which went to Kings Go Forth’s The Outsiders Are Back.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Any attempt to retroactively cast Jaill as hometown heroes would seem “really disingenuous in a lot of ways,” Rytlewski says. From the start, Jaill has been an underdog band in an underdog city.
“They were the last band anybody thought would land a real record deal,” Rytlewski says. “For over half a decade, Jaill played shows for small to virtually nonexistent audiences, never earning a fraction of the attention some of the city’s more popular bands did. Nobody expected them to build a national audience when they couldn’t even grow one at home.”
Aftertalkingforan hour about Traps, his band’s future and whether Jaill signing with Sub Pop will help other local bands get signed (No, he says, and “to say otherwise would sound douchey”), Kircher is finally free to return to his basement studio.
He has to push himself to be social after hiding out down here for so many months. Sometimes he gets lucky, and people come to him, like Johnathon Mayer of Surgeons In Heat, who has stopped by before his CD release show later that night. Kircher promises to attend the gig, though he’s not crazy about venturing all the way from Riverwest to Turner Hall a few miles away Downtown.
Mayer and Michael Skorcz (of John The Savage) have been recruited as backing musicians for the Traps support tour, which would start about a month later. But Kircher is already ribbing Mayer about the “Your Body Is A Wonderland” connotation of his name. Jaill apparently has a thing for sensitive singer-
songwriters: The band’s That’s How We Burn-era lineup featured a guy named Ryan Adams. If you’re a local musician named Jason Mraz, there might be a future spot for you.
Jaill played around 60 shows in support of Burn, and it will likely do the same for Traps. Kiewel, for one, is hoping to get Jaill on the road to spread the Traps gospel one show at a time. And Kircher is determined to enjoy every second of it, milking his band’s current situation for all it’s worth.
Sub Pop seems to be fully behind Jaill at the moment, but Kircher knows that it might not stay that way forever. “This is our second album with Sub Pop, and I think our relationship with them is really awesome,” he says. “Let’s try not to rush out of this.”
If there’s pressure on the band to sell more records or take the strangeness out of its music, it’s not coming from Kiewel or Sub Pop. “I want those guys to make records they’re proud of and that I’m proud to market,” he says. “Most of my ambition lies with those goals because those are goals I have some control over.”
Although both parties describe the relationship in good terms, the decision to re-sign Jaill remains unresolved. Kiewel says it boils down to more than just record sales. He insists that “a big, big, big part” of whether Sub Pop chooses to work with a band is, simply, “Are these nice people?” When it comes to Jaill, the answer is definitive.
“They’re genuine. Their music and everything they do comes from a real place of honest intentions, which is something I find very important. They’re ambitious, but their ambition isn’t rooted in fame-seeking or anything gross like that.”
But there’s still not a new contract.
Jaill has come a long way and has a long way to go, with two solid records for a great label that haven’t sold one-tenth as many copies as they probably should. It’s a predicament Kircher sums up with the economy of a good pop song: “We’re both successful and terribly unsuccessful,” he says.
And there it is – a true statement that sounds like a joke.