Photo by Corey Rusk
Keith Brammer interview by Dave LangFollowing up from last issue’s lengthy - and probably often gruelling - run through Milwaukee’s highly esoteric yet enthralling punk/noise/space/experimental music scene of the 1980's, which featured the histories of Die Kreuzen, Boy Dirt Car, F/i, and Vocokesh, I was contacted by Mr. Keith Brammer himself, he being the bass player for both Die Kreuzen and Boy Dirt Car back in the day.
Being highly flattered that he was regarding the article - and being highly flattered myself since he remarked that my article nailed the history of that time down almost to the letter - I figured I couldn’t let this mutual-appreciation society go to waste. It was time for the follow-up interview! For an introduction into who on earth I’m talking about, I suggest you read the article in question; for myself, I’ll simply state that Die Kreuzen are responsible for some of my all time favourite music and it’s a thrill to get the story from one of the men behind such inspiring sounds. Read on...
PSF: Where/when were you born and what were your formative aesthetic influences (music/film/people/etc.)?
Born June 14, 1962 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, and grew up in Brookfield, a suburb about 20 miles out of the city. A very typical suburban upbringing (with all of the middle-class mainstream-ness that the term implies), but my reading habits (which included Ray Bradbury, Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) led to my discovering and accepting things which many kids in my position neither knew nor cared about. Musically, my friends and I (including Die Kreuzen drummer Erik Tunison) listened to some of the typical stuff - Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath - but also things like Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Eno, and Lenny Kaye's Nuggets compilation. And then there was punk..
PSF: When did the punk rock thing hit Milwaukee and how did it hit you?
The fact that I read magazines like Hit Parader, Creem, and Rock Scene voraciously from 1975 onward meant that I was aware of a lot of the early punk stuff before it was actually available anywhere (at least, where I was). And when I finally heard the Ramones in 1976, that was it. It's kind of hard to explain, in this day and age, exactly how exciting and different it seemed, but believe me, it was. Since, with the exception of trips to the record store and the occasional concert, I didn't actually start going into the city until later ('79-'80) I don't know what it was like there, but in Brookfield there were virtually no other people who knew or cared about punk rock at all. But that was part of what made it cool - the aspect of a private, secret club.
PSF: Tell us about the beginnings of Die Kreuzen. How did it come about?
By the time Die Kreuzen started there was a pretty strong "scene" going in Milwaukee, which centered around two clubs and encompassed an incredible variety of musical styles, ranging from avant-garde to garage to pop. Dan Kubinski and Brian Egeness had moved up from Rockford, Illinois (about 60 miles from Milwaukee) with a bunch of other people, and were playing under the name the Stella's. Through hanging out at the same club, with the same people, we naturally became acquainted, and I recommended Erik (with whom I had played in a previous band) as a candidate for their vacant drummer position. Before long, their bassist left, and I joined. We were the first band to take inspiration from the (at the time) new hardcore attitude, listening as we did to bands like the Germs and the Circle Jerks (in addition, of course, to Wire, Rush, etc.). The funny thing, in retrospect, was the fact that much of the "scene" was fixated on New York or England as the Meccas for music, and initially we were regarded in the way one would imagine the rock dinosaurs regarded the first punks - as young upstarts.
PSF: What was it like being a punk rock band in Milwaukee? Was the reaction hostile?
There was no hostility, really, but we didn't go out of our way to play for people who would hate us either. The kind of macho attitude and the violence that went with it was never really present in Milwaukee. Especially in the early days, people took punk for what it was originally supposed to mean, which was doing your own thing - more of a bohemian, nonconformist attitude. There weren't that many of "us," and as a rule it was the more creative, open-minded, intelligent part of the population that gravitated toward punk in the first place.
PSF: How did the deal with Touch & Go come about?
We had run into Corey Rusk when he came through town with the Necros, and later, when he decided to start branching out (beyond the Detroit area) with the label, he gave us a call and said "Let's do a record." We didn't have to think twice. Corey's attitude was (and still is) that he only releases things that he likes - not things that he thinks will sell, or things that are "hip." He just purely loves music. That sort of honesty and trust (we never had a contract with Corey - we trusted him and he trusted us) was what made the early hardcore scene so great. You could set up your own tours by contacting friends, who would set up shows, feed you, let you sleep on their floor, etc.. People did it for us, and we did it for other people. The important thing wasn't the money, it was just being able to go out and play, even if it was only to thirty (or ten, or two) people. If this sounds kind of utopian and idealistic, well, it was, especially compared to the predominantly businesslike attitude of the modern music scene.
PSF: Any partictularly memorable shows?
I could list 100 and still be missing some. The European tours were especially great, primarily because it was so amazing to us to have made it over there.
PSF: Were there any bands you felt a real kinship with?
Actually, quite a few. Husker Du, who started at just about the same time we did, and with whom we played a couple of times a year until they broke up; Sonic Youth, who we toured with several times and who were always very supportive; the Offenders from Texas, who were a great band and good friends; Drivin'n'Cryin' from Atlanta (whose leader Kevn was an old friend from Milwaukee) . . . the list goes on. There was something about the whole D.I.Y. aspect of the underground scene at that time that encouraged identification and camaraderie - closeness through adversity, as it were.
PSF: Do you know how many records DK sold?
Not offhand. I think the most important thing is that they are still selling. Although it would have been nice to sell a million records, I myself feel that longevity is far preferable to instant success, followed all too often by equally instant obscurity.
PSF: Die Kreuzen's style of music changed quite radically over time; how did this come about? The latter sound had a more metallic texture - like some sort of avant-garde metal - yet I distinctly remember you saying that you never liked metal (that was in Marcy mag/1991) in an interview. Did you have a sound you were after? What were you listening to at the time (October File/Century Days) that influenced your sound.
The primary reason that our sound changed was that we never, ever wanted to do the same thing twice. It took us forever to write songs because we would automatically reject anything that sounded like something we had done before, or (especially) something that someone else had done. We discarded far more parts for songs than we ever used for that very reason. For us, the songs were the point, not the albums. Once we had enough songs, then we would go into the studio - we never rushed things just so we could get an album out. Another reason that the songs and albums are so varied is that while we, as a band, had some common tastes, for the most part everyone listened to different kinds of music and had different ideas in regard to how songs should sound. Consequently, you had four different viewpoints, or combinations thereof. I might not have liked metal, but others in the band did; and the fact that the band was a democracy meant that anything could happen. It made for rough going in the practice room at times, but I think that in the end the results justified the somewhat laborious means of creation.
PSF: Did you tour much? How did the ’87 tour with Boy Dirt Car go? Is it true that Biafra wanted to sign BDC?
We toured constantly, especially early on. We quickly realized that it was pointless to stay in Milwaukee (especially after playing Chicago, Minneapolis etc.), so we took the initiative, got in the van, and played wherever we could. Like every other "hardcore" band at the time, the early tours ('81 - 85 or so) involved playing wherever we could - clubs, basements, VFW halls, frat houses, parks - and sleeping on floors, in the van, or at campgrounds. As long as we had enough money to get to the next town, and to eat (which was not always the case) we were fine, though. For a period of a few years we were out of Milwaukee more than we were there. As time went on the tours got less freeform and more standardized (playing in clubs and staying in motels for the most part), but until the end it was still just us and a soundman (no roadies, no tour bus). Certain areas we visited more frequently than others - NY and Texas, for example - but all told, we probably traversed the US 10 times, and, as mentioned previously, went to Europe twice.
The tour with BDC was a hoot - imagine seven people in a very small van, along with equipment, luggage, and whatever interesting scrap metal we could pick up along the way to enhance the BDC performances. Audiences were surprisingly receptive to the BDC experience, although many of them, I think, didn't know quite what to make of it.
If Biafra wanted to sign BDC I certainly never heard about it - to the best of my knowledge he never saw us perform.
PSF: How do you feel about so much of the early '80's hardcore punk being so reverentially viewed by even the mainstream media these days, especially since it was so reviled in its time? Thru the looking glass of history, how do you feel about the original hardcore explosion? Do you feel like it was worth it, like you 'won' (since it’s now given respect)?
I guess I didn't realize that any reverence (as such) existed. It's just like any musical movement that gets "genrecized" - you see the same two or three names (Minor Threat, The Minutemen, Black Flag) brought up constantly, and it's hard to figure out if the people writing about them are actually familiar with what the bands have done or are just working off what they've read. When someone writes about the Replacements being a hardcore band, it's kind of difficult to take it seriously. However, to the bands that were around at the beginning, I really don't think the concept of "winning" or "losing" even enters into it. Bands like us, and the Huskers, and D.O.A. were playing the way we did because that's what was exciting to us - not because we craved notoriety or success. If that was our goal, we would have been idiots, because it just wasn't there. Playing, and having people appreciate it (people in other bands, more often than not) was the whole point. It's not that there wasn't a desire for success on our part, but stronger than that was the feeling that the individuality of what we were doing was more valuable in the long run.
PSF: How do you feel about the music being made these days? ie. - the proliferation of teeny-bopper punk, knucklehead 'moshcore,' rap-metal, and all the underground trends as well. How does the underground scene fare in comparison to 15-20 years ago? Do you listen to much contemporary music?
To be honest, this is a soapbox you probably don't want me to get on, because we'll be here forever. However... the music scene today is pretty much the same as it has been since I started listening to music seriously in the mid-'70's. There's a lot of stuff, and no matter what style or classification you choose, most of it is garbage. The main thing to remember is that, no matter how bleak it might seem, there are good things out there. It might take time and effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, but if you really love music it's worth it. Comparing today's underground scene to that of 20 years ago is like comparing apples and baseballs.
I think the thing that annoys me more than anything is the elitism that so often accompanies the term "underground." The popularity or obscurity of a particular band or style of music has less than nothing to do with its intrinsic worth as music. A good song or a novel idea is just as valid whether 10 or 10,000 people are listening to it. Sure, lots of popular music is crap... but so is a lot of "underground" music. To me, the saddest thing is people who fixate on a certain style or era of music to the exclusion of everything else. No matter whether you're listening to the "coolest" stuff on earth, a closed mind is, to me, the antithesis of what music is about. Speaking purely for myself, my musical tastes are more diverse now than they've ever been. I listen to just about everything I can get my hands on (there are exceptions, but not for want of trying). Current contemporary favorites: the soundtrack from Josie and the Pussycats; Radiohead Amnesiac; the Dickies All This and Puppet Stew; China Dolls 2001; Steve Earle Transcendental Blues; Idlewild 100 Broken Windows; Cinematic Orchestra Motion; and the Go Go's God Bless.
PSF: How did you first come to join Boy Dirt Car? Were you into the industrial scene at the time?
When BDC started there was no "industrial scene." BDC were another example of creative people (Darren Brown and Eric Lunde) with a desire to do something different, rather than fall into some kind of readymade "scene." Once again, Milwaukee's relatively small musical community meant that we traveled in the same circles, more or less, and at one show (an art opening at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as I recall) they said "Come on up and play if you want." As usual, that was all the encouragement I needed, and it was so exciting to be part of something that inventive that I continued until the end.
PSF: I asked the same question of Richard Franecki years ago: how do you account for Milwaukee having spewed up all these unique bands like DK, BDC, F/i, etc. that tapped into some weird punk-hardcore-noise-psych vein?
I really don't know. It's easy to theorize about the working-class atmosphere, non-cosmopolitan ethic etc etc but I suspect that if you look closely enough at any city you'll find a certain segment of the musical population that does its level best to follow its own vision, rather than getting co-opted into whatever appears to be the next big thing. It may have been easier in Milwaukee because, despite the size of the city, attention was never focused on it the way it was on Chicago, or Athens GA, or Seattle. With those three bands in particular, though, I think the similarity of their mindset (because any musical similarities are tangential at best) arises more than anything from the fact that it was people of roughly the same age and background being in the same place at the same time.
PSF: When exactly did Die Kreuzen break up, and why? Is it true you had some big major label interest?
At various times in Die Kreuzen's career, we were approached by major (or semi-major) labels. We were always open to negotiation, but the fact that a) the label would have to offer us something that Corey and Touch and Go couldn't, b) we had to trust them as much as we trusted Corey (a nigh-on impossible feat), and c) we had no intention of relinquishing any control over what we were doing, combined with the lack of an obvious "selling point" or "image" on our part (other than our music) conspired to render any talks ultimately fruitless.
We finally broke up in 1991; for the reason, I would suppose, that most bands eventually do. After 10 years, people develop different opinions on which options are the best ones to pursue (in both business and personal aspects of life), something which is especially difficult to deal with in a democratic situation. Additionally, in the music business one tends to focus on reaching the "next level," in terms of sales, or audience size, or press response, and that just did not seem to be happening. So, rather than court bitterness, we decided to call it quits.
PSF: How did you feel about the big 'grunge' breakthrough around ‘91-’94? Did you feel that maybe you’d done everything a little too early? Like, 'that coulda been me'? (I may be totally off the mark here).
I thought the grunge thing was funny, personally. Most of it just sounded like rehashed bad '70's metal to me, but I guess that's one of the benefits (?) of age. I guess I could see where we might have fit into that somewhere, but in the end I would rather have Die Kreuzen be remembered as innovators (or precursors, or whatever) than be lumped in with a misbegotten "movement," no matter what the immediate financial rewards may have been. The most humorous thing to me was the popularity of the flannel shirt as a fashion statement - this was something I (and all of my stoner friends) had worn all through high school. It was a functional thing in Wisconsin, where it's cold most of the year - Die Kreuzen wore them so often early on that it was almost like a trademark - and when we first went to California people laughed at us for it.
PSF: What did you do when the band called it quits? Were you holding a day job anyway?
We had always had day jobs of one kind or another (I was working in a record store) because the band wasn't making enough to support us, that's for sure. Once Die K. was finished, Dan, Erik, and I put together another band called Chainfall with a local guitarist named Charles, and practiced for the better part of a year, writing an entire new set of material. We managed to record a few songs and play a handful of shows before Charles abruptly decided he wasn't interested anymore. At the same time, I was playing with another band called Carnival Strippers, something I had been doing on and off since before Die K. broke up, and we got a deal with Fox (as in 20th Century...) Records. It sounded great - major label, big advance, records, videos, etc. (For the record: one album, Reveal, a brief tour with Dave Edmunds, and a song in the Keanu Reeves movie Speed). However, what it turned out to be was a crash course in What's Wrong With The Major Label Mindset. Far too long of a story to get into here, but suffice to say that I appreciated Touch & Go, and the DIY ethic, even more after it was all over.
Since then I've played occasionally, including a stint with Dan and Erik (again), along with Dave Szolwinski (sometime member of BDC) in a band called Fuckface. I write for a Milwaukee-based website called http://www.milkmag.com, and for the last four years have been diligently working on completing my Bachelor's degree in English and Film Studies. Dan is still playing - his latest band is called Custom Grand, and are quite good. Erik moved to Amsterdam and opened a cafT in the Milkweg (large entertainment complex/venue). Brian has been concentrating on production work and other sound-based activities.
PSF: Any last comments?
Thanks to everyone who took the time to arrange and read this. It's amazing and gratifying that people are still interested in what we did. Any comments, questions, etc. can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
See some of Keith Brammer's favorite music
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