Cutting the Fat: Surgeons in Heat’s Lean New Album

Clocking in at 25 minutes, Surgeons in Heat’s new album “Disaster” is breezy, laid-back and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The best records always keep you wanting more. There’s nothing that derails a decent album quite like too much padding. It’s the equivalent of buying an expensive burrito that’s stuffed with handfuls of rice. (Get that other stuff in there, burrito-artist!). What instantly grabs your attention about the new Surgeons in Heat full-length, Disaster, is that there’s no unnecessary padding. Two of the first four tracks on the record clock in at under two minutes. The opener just barely squeezes past the two-minute mark. The entire album is only 25 minutes long.

Or in other words, there’s basically no rice.

You’d think Surgeons in Heat just put out a swift, fierce punk record, but it’s nothing of the sort. Disaster is a breezy, laid-back album with plenty of sugary hooks, one that begs to be enjoyed with a particularly fruity and deceivingly strong cocktail. But singer and guitarist Johnathon Mayer, who also plays in Jaill, sees no need to add any extra space.

“I came from a mindset that a song should be elaborate and always change and have all these movements,” he says. “I came to a point where I came up with the parts and I tried to add other stuff to it that I didn’t like, so I just cut the fat.

“There are so many bands that have that approach to songwriting where you’re not dressing it up—Guided By Voices or Cleaners from Venus—so many bands that just have short, succinct songs,” he continues. “I think that can have more of an impact. Some of them I just cut because I don’t overstay my welcome. If that’s the song, do I really want to repeat that again if the person can just play the song over? I don’t want to be redundant.”

Disaster is the band’s first release since 2012 and it presents a change in a direction. Mayer’s R&B falsetto is mainly thrown by the wayside, and the soulful grooves make way for more chilled-out pop songs.

“It was like when an artist goes through a period,” Mayer explains of the band’s original style. “I was listening to a lot of R&B at the time.”

The three-year-gap between releases was due to a multitude of factors. Mayer had touring duties in Jaill. The band had completely turned over, going from a four-piece to a three-piece. And while new bassist Ryan Reeve and Mayer both resided in Milwaukee (everyone except Mayer had previously lived in Madison), drummer Shawn Pierce was still 80 miles west. That , however, attributed to the album’s relaxed feel.

“The record was made pretty loose,” Mayer says. “We hadn’t really practiced them a lot. ‘Let’s turn the headphones on and press record. That sounds great. Don’t even think about it. Use that take.’”

That fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants philosophy can seem terrifying, but in the right hands can work wonders. “I’ve been playing drums for a long time,” Pierce says, so picking up the songs wasn’t too difficult, “and we’re not playing prog rock.”

Perhaps the most interesting song on the record is “Baby Your Mine,” which was originally recorded in Madison but then completely reworked in Milwaukee with producer and Jaill bandmate Vincent Kircher.

“Everyone in the house I live in played on that song,” Mayer says. “We switched around the instruments. Vinnie played bass, I played drums, my downstairs neighbor Neil played guitar and my upstairs roommate played keys. So it wasn’t Surgeons in Heat at all. But Vinnie for some reason wanted to do a track like that to add a certain freshness to it and see what comes of it. And it worked.”

Mayer wanted to slow down the beat, but Pierce was all the way out in Madison, so Mayer took matters into his own hands. Pierce admits that he was surprised with the results.

“In terms of the drums, I was skeptical,” Pierce says. “I don’t think sloppy is the right word, but it was really loose. But it just worked. So, I didn’t want to play on that song; I wanted to keep his drums. That’s one of my favorite things on that record—him playing drums on that song.”

Surgeons in Heat celebrates the release of Disaster on Friday, May 1 at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn with an absolutely stacked bill of Milwaukee openers, including The Fatty Acids, Canopies and Sat. Nite Duets. Doors open at 9 p.m. with a $10 cover (which includes a download code for the album). Due to a production delay, the vinyl record won’t be ready for the show, but you can still preorder the album here.



Kevin is a freelance writer residing in Milwaukee. He’s contributed to The Shepherd Express, Third Coast Daily, Pop Matters and the sadly now-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee. He looks forward to forging a deeper connection with the city’s impressive music scene during his gig as a Music Notes blogger. His talents include music criticism, riding a bicycle, drinking tasty beers and a crafty croquet swing. His weaknesses comprise Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, professional wrestling and his ever-growing record collection. He’s in desperate need to find more physical (and hard drive) space for the exceptional albums Milwaukee musicians keep churning out.