Since the band – which features brothers Kyle (bass) and Chris Hernandez (guitar) and guitarist Chris Voss and drummer Greg Hein – released its last album, The Great Destroyer, in 2012, the band has mostly remained in the shadows. That’s about to change, however, with the release of their new album The Devil Made Whiskey.
The band is still taking cues from their influences (Big Star, The Replacements, The Pixies) but are also pushing their sonic boundaries. They will celebrate the release Friday at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn with openers Trolley and Lack of Reason.
“I moved back to Milwaukee from Chicago three years ago and it’s certainly tightened up the band, and I think that new record kind of reflects that,” says Kyle. “We’ve gotten some nice comments to the same from bands that we’d played with in the past, like Trolley, who I think immediately saw the live show tighten up once I was able to get back here and do more regular practices … We’ve been able to practice on a weeknight instead of cramming things in on a Saturday or Sunday.”
The Devil Made Whiskey is the result of years of writing and hashing out songs together, says Kyle. Chris Hernandez and Chris Voss have taken on the songwriting duties, though everyone chips in with arranging the songs.
“The guys just regularly bring in songs to practice and we hashed things out over the few years after The Great Destroyer was released and enjoy kind of passing those out as a band when someone brings in the new song,” says Kyle. “And honestly, I think we had way more songs than could fit on the record. And I think that’s the impetus. The band is always writing. Even though if we’re a little slow to put out a product, we’re always writing new songs.”
The band has a habit of doing things on their own, hence things taking longer. For the album, the band reunited with Shane Hochstettler, who had produced The Great Destroyer, at HOWL Street Studios.
“I think we spent a lot of time with this record with Shane Hochstetler, tracking extra guitars, months after the initial tracking, and then spent a lot of time with Shane mixing,” says Kyle. “And that was our choice. And I think because we don’t put out a record every other year, we’re happy to take a little more time with the recording and mixing. So certainly, the recording and mixing process took a little longer than most bands. But I think we put a lot of care into the songs and got some nice layers in there and made it a little bit more than just the live recording.”
Working with Hochstettler again was an easy decision since “he’s got great ideas for the band.”
“When we’re probably maybe beating a dead horse, he’ll let us know to move on,” says Kyle. “Especially since we are very detail-oriented on this record. He gets just a great sound in the studio and is very easy to work with. And I think that comfort level mixed with our additional layering of ideas in tracking and mixing, kind of comes through and makes us jump off the record more than Great Destroyer.”
As a result of this comfort, the band took more sonic risks.
“It was through Shane’s recommendation that we had Leroy Deuster add pedal steel guitar to two tracks,” says Kyle. “Shane has worked with Leroy in the past. Leroy lives in the greater Milwaukee area but frequently traveled to Nashville and we emailed him the tracks. He put his pedal steel on it and sent it back to us. And I think taking more risks can really be seen in being comfortable to add and pedal steel guitar to a couple of the songs as well.”
Having multiple songwriters helped them craft a diverse set of songs.
“That can surely add to a mixture of song styles and sounds,” Kyle says. “But even on this one with the two Chris’s writing, it’s cohesive as a whole, but the songs do sound different from one another largely. And I think that’s actually a benefit for the listener and I think we do it very well.”
For example, he pointed to the song “I Don’t Drink Much (About That).” “[That song] made us grow as a band and took the elements that we’ve always had, traditional rock, maybe some roots element added to it, and melodic songwriting from my brother Chris.”
“Bass Guitar” was also another song that shaped the album.
“My brother came up with some of the first lines of the lyric, and then Chris Voss ran with it and finished the song,” Kyle says. “And it has a little bit of a Pixies feel, and reference to it. It’s a really great song, and I think the band may have shied away five or six years ago from referencing one of our musical heroes, and we’re much more confident as a band now and I think that song really shines through.”
The album’s title is partially a reference to a bit of the band’s connection to Chicago, according to Kyle.
“I think we had a couple songs about drinking on this album, and the shots on the bar, that’s the cover,” he says. “I actually think those are shots of Malört down at the Red Line Tap in Chicago, when we used to do the International Pop Overthrow Festival.”
The album is released on their Cuba Libre Records label, which the band’s been developing for many years. It’s their fourth release on the album.
“It’s all a learning process doing it yourself,” Kyle says. “This time around, we also had Carl Saff mastering, and Carl Saff is with the recommendation of Shane. Carl Saff has done Guided by Voices and he is based out of Chicago. Carl mastered our seven-inch vinyl record back in the Great Destroyer era. I remember spending a half hour on the phone with Carl, back six years ago, talking about how they do a vinyl record and each step of the way. And it’s a great learning process for us all. And so, we’re doing it ourselves and hope to build up that Cuba Libre name in the future.”
The band is looking forward to touring the album around the state and beyond.
“Our goal is really getting our live show out there regionally between Chicago and Wisconsin and continuing to record original songs,” says Kyle. “We’ve already talked about new songs in the pipeline, and hopefully getting them out there quicker than every seven years this time. But I think we’re really happy with this record. We want to play a few shows behind it, keep writing, and see what happens in the next few months.”