In the years between the stock market crash and World War II, Milwaukee city officials found themselves faced with a gruesome, reoccurring controversy: people kept purposefully falling to their deaths inside City Hall, climbing over the waist-high railing on the eighth floor and dropping to the atrium below.
Each suicide, seven in total, is its own tragic story. The first jumper had recently lost custody of her 15-year-old son; another tossed his hat over the railing before following it down; the last, a brazen copycat, frankly asked, “What floor is it most of these people jumped from?” then proceeded to climb the eight stories and take the same plunge as the six before him. (Shortly after this one, the city finally installed netting to prevent future suicide attempts. The deterrent was eventually removed in the ‘80s.)
These incidents form the lyrical narrative for “City Hall,” the penultimate track from Midnight Reruns’ fantastic new power pop album, Spectator Sports. The song—far from somber—showcases singer Graham Hunt’s innate knack for melodies, twisting the inherently morbid story into a sing-along tune you’ll want to put on at every party.
In advance of Midnight Reruns’ album release party on Saturday, April 29 at Mad Planet (part of the Arte Para Todos festival), Hunt discusses the origins of the song, writing music about real-life events and the time he himself walked up to the eighth floor of city hall.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2003110376 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=859045598]
When did you first find out about City Hall’s history of suicides? I remember hearing about it on the radio a year or so ago—on 91.7 WMSE, I believe.
Yep, that’s how I heard about it, too.
What compelled you to write a song about it?
It affected me immediately. I had to stop what I was doing and turn the radio up. I think I found it interesting that so many people decided on the same spot. Were they trying to make some kind of public statement, or was it simply for the practical reasons of it being easily accessible and high up enough? I made a note of it in my phone, and came back to it later when I had the melody.
Do you normally find yourself interested in the history of Milwaukee?
I am when it comes up, but I don’t usually seek it out on my own.
How much research did you put into writing the lyrics for “City Hall?”
There’s not a whole lot of information out there. If you google “Milwaukee town hall suicides” there’s a Shepherd Express article and that’s it. So I pretty much took all my material from that one source.
You include the real stories of four of the seven jumpers. They all are certainly tragic, but is there any one fall that stands out to you as particularly heartbreaking?
There are two that stand out to me. Leo Kraemer had 13 kids and was blind. Someone had to help him get up to the eighth floor. He had to feel around for a half hour before he found the railing. You would think in all that time someone would have realized what he was doing. The other one involves this guy Harry Kumelski, who hit the ground next to a milkman making a delivery. The milkman was so freaked out that he also died a few hours later.
Did you find this song easier to write because it relied on true events or was it harder to fit all the pieces together?
I’m often overwhelmed by options when writing, so having a clear direction for the subject of a song is helpful. For me, songwriting is all about fitting pieces together. Whether it’s finding connections in a mess of scattered thoughts and ideas in my notes, or plagiarizing a historical document and fitting it to a rhyme scheme, it all feels like the same process. This song is one of a few others on Spectator Sports inspired by true events. “Cicada 3301” is about an internet mystery involving a secret society, and “Warm Days” is about folk singer Karen Dalton.
Have you been to the eighth floor of City Hall?
I was there to get my bartending license last year and decided to check it out. There are no offices or anything up there, just an attorneys’ library. It was deserted, and the guard rail doesn’t even go up to my chest. Eight stories is much higher in person than it sounds like. It was pretty freaky.
I think the lyric “Kill yourself/ Just don’t do it here” uncovers an underlying reason on why this story is so sad. Can you explain what’s meant here?
That line comes from how some politicians were using the issue to score votes. It sounded like they didn’t care about people dying as much as advancing their career.
You can currently stream the entire album on the group’s Bandcamp page.