Interview by Jacob Boyardi | Photography by Jamie Strehlow
High school bands aren’t always the best to hear but they are almost always the best to be in. Every now and then there are exceptions to this when a band of youngsters in high school actually sounds like the best thing you’ve heard in a while and also maintains that sense of unified, fun, and friendliness that people often seem to lose as they get older. Modern Mod is one of those great exceptions. When you interview a band of high schoolers you don’t do it at a bar over drinks or some seedy backstage area. You do it at a coffee shop on a sunny spring day. That’s where I sat down with four out of the five members of Modern Mod: Emily Massey (vocals), Calem Pocernich (guitar), Alivia Kleinfeldt (bass), Ronnie Clarke (drums) (guitarist Maximilian Werner not present). We talked about what it’s like being a young, up and coming band and their vision for the future.
Jacob Boyardi: Modern Mod… I found out earlier you guys are all in high school. So that’s an interesting thing. How did the band form?
Ronnie Clarke: Oh, goodness. Livy, go for it.
Alivia (Livy) Kleinfeldt: No. You can start.
RC: Okay well, Livy and I were best friends in eighth grade. And we really wanted to join a band. It started out as a joke.
RC: And we were like, oh we’re gonna make a band and we pretended this weird employee from Hot Topic was gonna be in our band with us. It was super weird. It was super messed up. And one day we were just like
LK: You texted me
RC: I texted you?
LK: Yeah you were just like, we should make a real band. I’m like, yeah I want to. (Laughter)
JB: And did you know how to play music at this point?
RC: I did
LK: I played guitar for a little bit but I never touched the bass. But now I have…
RC: Now you do.
LK: Yeah, I do every day.
RC: And yeah. Then we just kind of recruited people from there. Strangers. We all were strangers.
JB: And that was in eighth grade so that was a ways away from now. How did the whole evolution of Modern Mod go?
RC: We’ve been through quite a few members. They’ve come and gone.
Emily Massey: You met people at the Foundry.
RC: We met people at the place where we take music lessons. Yeah we got a couple guitarists there. They didn’t really work out. We actually took one of our old guitarist’s best friend, Cal.
LK: and kicked him out… Which is kind of terrible.
LK: It was mutual though.
RC: It was mutual. He wanted to leave.
LK: Then our singer.
RC: She quit to pursue her pop-country career.
LK: Yeah. It’s a little bit different from us.
LK: But that’s cool.
RC: Then we auditioned several singers. We got this gem.
EM: You guys knew my sister. That’s how I found out about you.
JB: And how did the actual name, Modern Mod come about? Was that it from the beginning?
LK: Um. No.
RC: We’ve had some bad names.
JB: Did you go through a lot of different ones?
LK: A few.
RC: What was the second one?
LK: The first one was Shroptimus Prime.
RC: Oh. That’s right.
Calem (Cal) Pocernich: That’s the one I didn’t want to mention.
LK: We had a member named “Shrop.” We were just tossing out a bunch of ideas for a long time. Just trying to come up with something different. And then I don’t know. Modern Mod.
RC: It came up and I thought it was really cool and I don’t know. I thought about it but I thought it was kind of corny.
RC: And then I just kind of thought about it visually.
LK: Yeah, because I texted you the idea. Like I’m not sure if I really like it but then you came up with that visual and I’m like okay, yeah that’s cool.
JB: Visualizing what Modern Mod would mean?
LK: Like the logo.
JB: Well, you gotta think about that stuff. That’s branding. It’s actually really interesting that you guys are getting the notoriety that you are being as young as you are. That’s pretty cool. But obviously you just had your CD release party at the Loft. So you’re playing the all ages shows, obviously still. But I know, because I saw you for the first time at The Frequency so you’re playing some bar shows too. What do you think about the contrast there? Also, do you play anything else like house parties or anything?
RC: I’m not sure. Emily. Do you wanna take this one?
EM: Sure. Well, it’s definitely a lot more difficult to get our friends to come to our shows when we’re playing the, you know 18 and over stuff because most of our friends are younger than that. And yeah, I mean it’s cool that they have things like the Loft to do that kind of thing because it’s pretty much the only venue. It’s on a smaller scale but yeah. I don’t know how we’re really able to play bars actually. I don’t know how that works. We’re playing Genna’s. And so that should be really interesting because that’s 21 and older so we’ll have to try to pull a crowd from that. But we do see people being interested in our music that are around that age group, which is cool. But it is pretty different playing those shows. Mostly because there’s way less people.
JB: It seems almost like you’re getting a head start on what might be coming after you are all of age and maybe playing clubs on a regular basis but obviously graduation comes. Are there plans to stick together or is everybody going to just kind of wing it and do their own thing?
RC: We’re gonna stay together.
JB: There are plans?
JB: You just came out with this new album. How did that come together?
LK: Cal’s got the best description for our album.
RC: Oh, the title of our album. Yeah.
LK: Come on Cal.
CP: We named it “Tunnels” because we live far away from each other except for these two. And we just pretended that we went through tunnels to practice and see each other and stuff.
JB: So the album is called “Tunnels?”
LK: Yeah. Which is kind of weird because you listen to the album and it doesn’t really totally relate to tunnels.
RC: It’s an underground story. It’s because, okay, we wrote all that music underground.
LK: Yeah. In the basement.
JB: That was gonna be another question. Where do you practice?
LK: It’s the basement. We’re the basement kids.
EM: We were looking at some potential producers and studios that we could record a lot of our stuff and ended up getting in contact with Jack LeTourneau [E Labs Multimedia producer]. He’s a friend of my dad’s. And then we did some recording at The Exchange in Milwaukee. Did it in a couple days but the album itself took about a year to come into place. And yeah. Do we wanna talk about the songs? Some of them we wrote when we were like 14.
CP: More like 15 to 17.
EM: Okay. Yeah. Pretty young.
JB: What do you write about?
EM: We have three different writers on this album.
RC: At this point yeah. I write a lot. Some of our songs are about nonsense. They really have no meaning at all. But there are a couple that have meaning. Like we have one called “NYC” and it’s basically because I wanted to move to New York City and so I made that into a song. And then there’s a depressing one. “Eyes.” You can listen to that one. Yeah. [looking to the others] What do you guys write about?
LK: Well, I just have to have a really specific idea in mind and then it just comes naturally and then I can finish it.
RC: Is “Sluts” specific?
LK: About something with the sun.
RC: Yeah. Something with the sun. That’s not specific.
LK: Well, it’s a specific idea about a sun.
LK: Yeah, we have a song called “Sluts” but it’s not anything related to sluts.
LK: It’s kind of weird.
RC: Go, Cal.
CP: With “January” it was me just writing by writing what day it was and just going off the day I was writing it.
JB: What are your plans for the album now? Are you shopping it around or planning to do the DIY thing with it?
EM: Um, a little bit of both. You know – Self-promoting as much as possible around here. We made a list of smaller labels that were interested in around the country that we will be pitching to and I guess that’s pretty much it. And we sent out a ton of them to radio stations and we’ll see what happens with it.
JB: Do you look into getting an agent and manager at this point?
EM: Yeah. Hopefully. It would be really awesome to get a national booking agent but, I don’t know. We’re just gonna kind of look around. We don’t have many people around here.
RC: It’s also pretty hard since I’m still seventeen.
EM: Yeah that’s one thing.
RC: So I can’t really sign any legal documents right now.
CP: Hey cut that out of the interview. She’s eighteen.
RC: Yeah. What the heck. Well I’m eighteen. And I have nothing to say about that.
JB: As far as playing shows, do you get out of town much or are you planning on any touring or anything like that?
CP: I think our best shows are ones in Madison.
RC: At this point. Yeah.
EM: But we’ve played a couple. We’ve tried. Out of town.
LK: It’s hard.
RC: It’s hard when you don’t have an agent.
JB: I come from the punk rock scene where things at least used to be a little more tight knit so things might be a little different for you guys.
EM: That’s a good point. We don’t really have a specific scene that we belong to. Which would be nice because then there’d be probably a lot more shows. And then if the money ends up working out then a tour could be something.
EM: Yeah. You need money to go on tour.
JB: You do need money to go on tour.
RC: So if we end up winning the lottery?
JB: So, for two of you this is basically your first band.
RC: I’ve had bands that lasted like two weeks since I was nine years old. We only learned one song at a time. It was awesome. My first band we played sweet home… California?
RC: “Sweet Home Alabama.” We played “Sweet Home Alabama” and it was rockin’.
LK: That’s a good song.
RC: Yeah. It was rockin’ man.
EM: But this is the first real band.
RC: First real band. Yeah.
LK: Yeah. Mine was very short lived. We had a one day band.
RC: That was after though. That was after this band started.
JB: So I think we covered that. This is no ones first band then?
EM: Yeah. I played around with some other people but.
RC: Oh yeah. You were in another band.
EM: I played drums in a band for like, half a year and then we didn’t really go anywhere with it.
RC: Cal. You’ve played with friends. You showed us the video.
CP: Okay, but that’s not what I consider being in a band.
LK: Yeah. This is like, real.
RC: This is our first serious band.
JB: That’s a great way to put it. Do any of you have any formal training or do you just learn on your own?
RC: I’ve been playing piano since I was four years old.
EM: You’ve been playing classical guitar.
RC: You played classical guitar?
RC: Is it classical guitar though or is it just guitar?
RC: Really? I didn’t know. Oh, that’s cool.
EM: And you know bass.
LK: Yes. The double bass.
EM: You played cello.
LK: No. The violin.
RC: He played cello. Didn’t you play trombone?
CP: You can take more than one instrument in middle school.
LK: That’s true.
JB: So you have had some formal training. It sounds like you’ve all been pretty musically raised. What’s it like having parents who are kind of involved with the music scene?
CP: Over time we’ve kind of pushed them out more. Until now they’re not really doing much.
EM: Besides my dad.
LK: It’s mostly just advice and stuff though. Right?
EM: Yeah definitely. He’s always trying to give me a lot of advice and sometimes we butt heads on things. But he’s always saying that he doesn’t want me to make the mistakes he made as we’re trying to go for it and all that stuff. But overall I usually take most of his advice since it’s coming from a place where he has experience that’s good. And then your mom [motioning to Livy] kind of does a lot of stuff for the MAMAs.
JB: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened at a show?
RC: Okay. We were at this show. We were playing this really janky show in the basement of some store or something.
EM: Was I with you then?
LK: Yeah. You were there.
JB: And this is in Madison?
RC: No. This is in West Bend. They have a really cool scene in West Bend. So we were hanging around and we were like, “Oh wait. Where’s Cal?” Our lead guitarist [Max] went and he saw this guy who looked… He swore it was Cal. He was wearing similar stuff. He had the same hair. He just goes up behind him and slaps his butt and it ended up being the headliner of the whole show.
LK: It was extremely awkward.
RC: Max just walked away. He didn’t even say anything.
RC: It was good times.
EM: Do we have anything weird while we were playing?
LK: That’s it. But it’s cool. Not weird. You got to crowd-surf at East.
EM: Oh yeah. I crowd-surfed at my high school.
LK: Like I was saying, that’s cool.
JB: While you were playing?
EM: Yeah. We were playing some little show during lunch or something. I don’t really remember. And I crowd surfed.
JB: Excellent. So, if there’s one band you could go on tour with right now who would it be?
RC: Right now?
LK: Oh, man.
RC: And performing, right? We’re not like, being groupies.
RC: I don’t know. Let’s do older bands.
EM: You get one each.
LK: We had a list a while ago.
RC: Of bands we wanna open for?
LK: Yeah. Or like, tour with.
RC: Oh, we did. I wanna open for this band called Generationals because they’re my favorite band and they’re fantastic.
LK: That could work. They’re pretty chill dudes.
EM: They’re kind of like ‘60s vibey.
RC: Yeah, they can do that. They’ve got those backup vocals and everything. Oh, and Modern Lovers!
LK: Big. We prefer big bands.
RC: If you say the Strokes I’ll kill you.
LK: I wasn’t gonna say the Strokes.
EM: Nothing’s wrong with the Strokes. I would tour with the Strokes.
RC: Not right now. They’re really boring.
LK: Okay. Strokes, 2001.
JB: You have to figure, no matter how you feel about them you’re gonna be on a huge stage playing for tons of people.
LK: Yeah. Exactly.
RC: Yeah. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean everything.
LK: What about an older band? Like The Beatles?
EM: The Beatles?
RC: No. Get out of here.
EM: That’s too easy.
JB: Nobody doesn’t want to tour with The Beatles do they?
RC: I wouldn’t choose The Beatles. Like when they were playing, they had a bunch of teenage girls peeing their pants for them. It’s disgusting.
EM: We wouldn’t have to deal with teenage girls.
RC: It would be annoying though. It would be like being the opener for One Direction. It would just be a bunch of people who don’t give a shit about you. All these girls just waiting for the cute boys.
JB: But then you’re playing the percentage game. You gotta get that small percent that does care about the openers.
EM: That’s right.
RC: I’d rather have like a 50% with a smaller band than 1% with a big one. Does anyone else wanna choose? I chose two and you guys chose none.
EM: She chose the Strokes circa 2001.
LK: I just said I was not gonna choose the Strokes because I was gonna get yelled at.
EM: I think it would be fun to tour, even though you guys don’t really like them. There’s this band called Cherry Glazerr from LA.
EM: But they have the same vibes. And they’re also like our age.
RC: They don’t have the same vibes. They sing about their periods, which nobody wants that.
EM: The style of music though is kind of similar.
RC: Okay. Whatever.
EM: It would be kind of fun. It would be kind of like a girl power tour.
LK: I just wanna tour with a band that has a cool crowd. Just a cool, accepting crowd.
RC: Generationals. I swear. I went to their show in Chicago and they just had all these 20-something cool dudes.
LK: Which? The show in Chicago?
RC: Oh yeah. You were there.
LK: I’m like, you did?
RC: “Cinco de Quatro.”
RC: It’s Arrested Development.
EM: I haven’t gotten that far.
RC: I would choose the Modern Lovers because they’re awesome and really sweet. They seem like cool dudes.
EM: I’d do the Breeders.
LK: Whoever’s cool.
JB: How do you feel about the way the music industry is these days and trying to make it as a band?
RC: Ooooh. This could get dark.
JB: Are you going to come out with your album on vinyl?
EM: We have a 45.
LK: We don’t have the whole record on vinyl.
EM: Yeah. That costs too much. We did a Kickstarter campaign. And so that’s pretty much how we had gotten our money. We get paid very little to play shows.
RC: I think we got paid to play two shows ever in our life.
LK: Yeah. We got paid. We were supposed to get two hundred dollars and we got one hundred.
RC: Oh yeah. That was awesome. And no one was there too. Sweet.
JB: One more thing. What song has been stuck in your head most recently?
RC: (Gasping) The summer song. (Laughter) Have you seen that? It’s all over Facebook right now.
LK: It is?
RC: (sings) “It’s summer time. And isn’t it great. It’s summer time.” It’s not even a real song though. It’s like; I think it’s a family. They just recorded it.
JB: It’s just like a jingle?
RC: Yeah. And they act really nerdy and just… awww, it’s so good. They’re my heroes. I don’t know what it’s actually called. Do you know what it’s called?
EM: “Summertime.” (Laughter) Not a good song to have stuck in your head. Do you have any song stuck in your head?
RC: You had “Weekend” by Smith Westerns.
EM: I was just listening to that song.
LK: I have “Weekend” and I have that one really good Phox song… The other one…
JB: Have you guys played with Phox at all?
EM: No. That’d be really cool.
RC: We played with Monica [Martin].
EM: Yeah. She did a little solo ukulele thing. It would be really awesome to play with Phox.
RC: Yeah. Hint hint. Hint hint. (Laughter)
JB: Now there’s a shoutout. One more thought. What kinds of social media are you guys using to get yourselves out there?
RC: We have iTunes, Twitter, our website.
LK: We have an email – email@example.com
RC: The same as our website.
RC: Yeah. Pretty much everything is “Modern Mod Music” for us. Look it up on any of your favorite social media stuff. We’re on there. Except for like, Pinterest.
LK: We don’t even know what that is.
EM: We have an Instagram.
RC: But we haven’t used it in like a year. We have a Myspace somewhere.
LK: Our influences, I just don’t wanna even see those. Those were all kidding. I’m pretty sure we put Back Street Boys under influences on our Myspace page. And Taylor Swift.
RC: Oh my God. I wanna tour with Skaters.
EM: Skaters! I just saw. They’re this band from New York. They were in Chicago and we went to go see them and they’re really cool. That’s the song I had stuck in my head.
RC: Which one?
EM: “I Wanna Dance (But I don’t Know How).”
RC: Hmm. “Band Breaker” by Skaters has been stuck in my head for the past month. How about that? There we go.
At press time, Max is headed off to college; Modern Mod is currently holding auditions to find a replacement guitarist. Contact Modern Mod either via Facebook or email them if you are interested in auditioning.
08/20 WOOD CHICKENS w/ Sally Grundy, Plowtown, Villainy of Thieves 8 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
08/21 LIFEAFTERSIX w/ Wall of Funk, Dead End Moves 9 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
08/22 COWBOY WINTER w/ The Noise FM, Middle Twin, The Flavor That Kills 10 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
08/23 THE MADISON MUSIC SCENE featuring KYLE HENDERSON 5:30 PM, 18+, $6 / $9 under 21
08/23 MIDWESTERN CHARM w/ Heavy Looks, Little Legend 10 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
08/24 * BREWERS TRIP – BAR CLOSED *
08/25 THE RYAN MCGRATH BAND 8 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
08/26 BOB LOG III w/ Roboman 9 PM, 18+, $10
08/27 SYNAPPSIS DJ DUO (Hendrix Gullixson & Tanner Mclean) 9 PM, 18+, $5 /$8 under 21
08/28 THE RUNNER UPS w/ Butchered, Bedtime Bandits 9 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
08/29 THE FAITH HILLS HAVE EYES w/ EME, Fault Line Empires, The Frenetic 9 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
08/30 DARWIN AND DANA’S WEDDING BASH – PRIVATE EVENT
08/31 SLOTHTROP MUSIC NIGHT featuring Dan Kennedy, Sexy Ester, Jeff German & the Blankety Blanks, Marty Finkel, Eric Hester, Corinne McKnight 8 PM, 18+, $5 / $8 under 21
121 W. Main
Madison, WI 53703
By Fang VonWrathenstein, Lords of the Trident
Not everyone in the music business is an angel. And no, I’m not talking about those gritty, sleaze-rock bands called “Sex Angels” or “Dirrrty Sinners.” I’m talking about jerks who steal money from hard-working bands. For every one Fang VonWrathenstein, giving out free advice and asking nothing in return (*cough cough buy my album cough*), you have ten jerks trying to sell you false stardom. What am I talking about? Pay-to-play scams.
What is a pay-to-play scam?
They come in many different forms, but the majority of them ask you to purchase a certain number of tickets from a promoter ahead of time and sell them to your fans. Usually if you sell a certain (usually unreachable) amount of tickets – say, 20 tickets for $20 apiece ($400), you’ll make back the money you paid for all the tickets. And if you don’t, well – at least you get to share the main stage with a bigger-name act, right?
…not always. Many venues (The Rave in Milwaukee, WI is notorious for this) will put “pay-to-play” bands on side stages, bar stages, and the like. They’ll put them on very early, very late, or even while the headlining band is playing! Let’s say you’re a huge fan of Scar Symmetry, and you decide to play a side stage at their concert. How pissed would you (and your fans) be if you were playing the side stage while Scar Symmetry was playing on the main stage? I’ve seen it happen.
Some venues will not make you pay for tickets up front, but will expect you to sell a number of tickets to your fans. In some very rare circumstances this can work out in your favor. You should ask yourself (and/or the promoter) the following questions:
- Would enough of our fans buy tickets and travel to see (headliner band in question) and us?
- Are the tickets fairly priced?
- Are we playing the main stage, or some crappy side stage? If we’re playing the main stage, when are we playing?
- How many people can we expect to see us at the timeslot we’re in?
- Are there any additional incentives? For example, if the venue sells out all the opening bands make $100 or something like that?
- Based on the headlining band, the timeslot, and the ticket price, can we expect to make a decent number of new fans?
- Are we allowed to sell merch? Do we need to upscale our prices to meet the headlining band’s prices? For example – do we need to sell our $10 shirts for $25?
- Does the venue take any cut of our merch sales?
- What are the penalties for not meeting our ticket sale goal?
If enough of these points are in your favor, you may consider playing the show. For example, my band recently opened for HELLOWEEN in Illinois. Our fan base had enough interest in seeing us and Helloween that we were able to sell the required 25 tickets quite easily. We had the option of selling the tickets for $25 and taking a $5 profit on each ticket, or selling them for $20. Obviously we were more interested in getting rid of the tickets than profiting from the venture, so we sold them for $20. We played on the main stage, but at a crappy time slot. Still, we probably played to 100-150 people who were really into our music. All in all, it was a pretty good time, and we’ve established a good working relationship with the venue. They’ve also promised us a better time slot next time.
This is a rare example of pay-to-play working out well for a band. It is important to remember that this is not the norm! You have to be very selective when selecting these types of shows. If it smelly fishy, turn it down.
Even though the Helloween show was pay-to-play, at least it was a legit show, and we didn’t have to buy the tickets in advance. There are some situations where pay-to-play is a complete scam…
The worst of the worst – Gorilla Music
If you’ve been in a band for more than six months, you’ve no doubt been approached by someone from “Gorilla Music” or “Gorilla Productions” offering you a spot in a battle of the bands. These battles are usually on an off night (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday), and promise BIG PRIZES for the winner of the battle. The winner of the battle will be determined by “crowd participation” – so you’ll want to bring as many of your fans as you can in order to win. Did I mention you need to sell tickets to the event? And the tickets are usually priced at $10 apiece? But don’t worry about that – the winner will get $500 and 20 hours of studio time!
How much of that $10 ticket price do you, the band selling the tickets get to keep? You guessed it – $0. All of the money goes to the promoter to “cover expenses.” So, let’s break this down:
- The promoter tries to fill 10 band slots for the battle
- Each band gets 15 minutes to play
- Tickets sell for $10
Let’s assume that each band sells only 10 tickets. That’s 10 x $10 = $100. Multiply that by 10 bands and you have $1,000. Then the promoter randomly picks some winner, gives them $500, and walks away with $500 in his pocket. How much work did the promoter have to do to actually promote the show? Nothing!
Most bands that actually win these battles sell far more than $500 in tickets before they “win” their $500. And that 20 hours in-studio time? Mostly bought on the cheap from no-name studios who know that finishing anything will take far more than 20 hours of time. In a recording studio, 20 hours is nothing. There have even been reports of “winning” bands being promised the money in the form of a check in the mail (that never arrives), and the studio time at a studio that doesn’t even exist.
Just say no
“Gorilla Productions” (and companies like them) prey on young, inexperienced musicians. They fill their ears with dreams of stardom. They say the battles will be attended, on average, by 250 – 300 people. Ladies and gentlemen, the picture below is from an actual Gorilla Productions battle of the bands. Feast your eyes on the sea of people:
Yup, there are your 250 people. Most of the people in the picture are in the other bands that are competing. There’s no other way to say it – these guys are scam artists. And they’re stealing from musicians, for Dio’s sake! We already have no money! Steal from a multinational corporation or crooked lawyer, not from poor musicians. What’s a greater sin – stealing $1,000 from a rich person, or $25 from a poor person? If any of these guys contact you, tell them that you (and Fang) say they can go die in a fire.
If you want to read more about the “Gorilla Productions” scam, check out the very detailed page here: http://www.neverpaytoplay.com/Gorilla/&GorillaBOTB02.htm
Why spend $500+ to play for 15 minutes when you could use that money to set up and publicize your own show? When it comes to pay-to-play gigs, your first instinct should be to just say no. And your second instinct should be to hunt down anyone associated with these scams and light them on fire. And when you’re about to flick the match in their face, all “action movie style,” tell ‘em… “Fang sent me.”
Are you a band that owes your success to my pearls of wisdom? Do you wish there was some way you could pay me back? Well there is! Buy the Lords of the Trident’s album off AmazonMP3, iTunes, or BandCamp, watch our music videos on YouTube, and visit us online -http://www.LordsOfTheTrident.com.
Does this article look familiar? It should. It was previously published here: http://www.welovemetal.com/newsite/wordpress/2014/07/23/words-of-fang-pay-to-play/ Don’t worry; we have permission to share.
Featured image borrowed from www.montrealmusicscene.com.
Words by Máire Jacobs
Photos by Jeff Blankenship
It’s a Sunday night, and instead of occupying the usual spot on my couch with Netflix’s latest original series playing on the television, I’m standing in front of the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center, waiting for the first attendees of the Madison Area Music Awards to arrive. I’ve swapped my Sunday-night-sweatpants for a flamingo-pink cocktail dress; there is a new pair of ambitiously high heels on my feet, and I’m desperately trying to remember any interview I’ve ever seen before. “Do I ask people what they’re wearing?” I think. “Is that a thing?”
To say I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I volunteered to attend the Madison Area Music Awards with Project Famous would be a bit of an understatement.
I did my research, of course. When Project Famous first asked if I would like to attend the award show with them, I started looking into it. The Madison Area Music Awards is an annual celebration put on by the Madison Area Music Association, affectionately abbreviated to MAMA. MAMA is all about supporting local and particularly, youth music. They provide financial assistance and resources to youth music programs, raise awareness and promote support of such programs, as well as of the Madison music community in general. They also recognize the achievements of students, teachers, and Madison-area musicians. One of the ways they recognize these achievements is the Grammy-esque Madison Area Music Awards.
I myself had been to a show or two at The Frequency, a popular local music venue here in Madison, so I considered myself qualified to be a part of the event.
Arriving on the scene, expected to interview local musicians, I was seized with a panic. I didn’t know any local musicians. I hardly even knew what a musician was. Had I ever seen an instrument in my life? I couldn’t remember.
The scene in front of the Capitol Theater was this: a cluster of cameras and their operators were planted in the entrance like a grove of technological trees that had sprung up overnight. They were aimed at the specially erected Red Carpet, hosted by Project Famous, where the musicians were encouraged to walk upon arriving. This walk could be accomplished in about thirty steps, or half a dozen large jumps, but the presence of two interview crews along the way forestalled any potential attempts of leapfrog. The red carpet was flanked by the usual tables you find at an Overture Center event, local businesses and organizations with merchandise related to the show. The Madison Public Library had a table there, as well as Heid Music, which is a major sponsor of the MAMAs.
Straddling the line between attendee and crew, I was there early, so the red carpet walking had yet to begin. Having given several hours, dozens of text messages, and twice as many snapchats to the determination of an appropriate outfit for the event, I was curious to see the fashion choices others had made. To be honest, I was expecting the presenters and MAMAs executives to look like Hollywood stars at the Oscars, while I was expecting the musicians to all be wearing some combination of leather jackets, daringly-low or just fully open shirts displaying rows of chain necklaces, and painted-on skinny jeans. Apparently in my mind all musicians dress like Mick Jagger in the 1980s.
The first person I ended up talking to was technically a musician, but also happened to be the president of the Madison Area Music Association. This was Roy Elkins, founder and CEO of Broadjam, Inc, who shook my hand backstage while neatly stacking bottles of Vitamin Water on a tray full of ice. Elkins was jovial and friendly, and spoke with a lot of excitement and passion about the Awards. This was the eleventh year for the MAMAs, he told me, and he had a really positive feeling about it.
“There have been a couple hiccups, but that’s usual,” he said. “Overall, it’s going great.”
As Elkins continued to arrange the snack table in the backstage area (to make room for pizza, he explained) we also talked about the algorithm for voting in the award show that the Association has been working on perfecting for a while. It’s an algorithm that weights votes in certain categories so the votes coming from musicians have a little more impact than the votes coming from the fans. This is done to encourage more fair and accurate recognition of talent and skill, and is something Elkins learned from working with the Country Music Awards.
Elkins’ positive, welcoming attitude did a lot to soothe my nerves about being underqualified to participate in the event. As I made my way from backstage to the red carpet area, I heard snippets of conversations about local film, local business, about people’s kids and about what kind of drinks could be ordered from the bar. Everything and everyone seemed to embody a surprisingly elegant intersection of high-class industry professionalism, and down-to-earth Midwestern casualness.
The musicians began to arrive then, and I saw I was half-right about my Mick Jagger fantasy. Some musicians were in more traditional red carpet-style clothing like evening gowns and suits, some went more edgy or hip in plaid shirts, bow-ties, and jeans, and one band went full out with fantasy battle armor, complete with masks and cloaks. There was absolutely no indication that I didn’t belong there, and not a single person was demanding to know my local music credentials.
I inserted myself right before the red carpet, and was soon caught up in the giddy excitement that was permeating the room. I talked to the band wearing the fantasy armor and found they were Lords of the Trident, who would later that night be winners of the “Hard Rock/Punk Album,” “Performer,” and “Singer of the Year” awards. Their leather-plated, chain-mail-accented armor was paired with ties, shorts, and glasses that could have belonged to some college kid majoring in computer science and going to his first job interview. For all the conflicting whimsy of their outfits, Lords of the Trident were composed, relaxed, and friendly. They expressed honest appreciation for their fans and talked about the fun of performing, pausing in the middle of our conversation to stick their tongues out and make the rock-on sign for our photographer.
I also spoke to Kyle Henderson, one of the most experienced and prolific musicians there, performer at the awards show and winner of “Male Vocalist of the Year.” He was approachable and kind, and expressed his enthusiasm for keeping his music and performances interesting and exciting for the fans. Anyone who is familiar with Kyle Henderson and his work can see his dedication to this throughout his long and varied career. I asked him how was it being a musician in Madison, and received a glowing, genuine speech on the values of the city, its venues, and its music fans.
As everyone I approached was getting more excited and loosening up, so was I. I’d been practicing a ton of questions earlier that day, but I was hardly thinking of any of them at this point. This wasn’t an interview, this was a bunch of people hanging out together, sharing a love of music.
One question I started asking every musician was “What is your favorite venue in Madison to play?” I was interested in the answer to this largely for my own knowledge and benefit. Even before seeing many of these bands perform I wanted to know where to find them again. I was hooked by the feeling of it all, the sense of family and camaraderie that everyone from musicians to fans was happy to share.
The ranking of best music venues in Madison, as compiled from the answers of everyone I talked to, is High Noon Saloon, The Frequency, and The Inferno. It was Helen Feest of The Blue Sundays, winner of “Best Youth Female Vocalist,” who told me about the acoustics of High Noon Saloon, and the control it gave her over her voice. “And,” she added, “It’s just cool.”
Another successful, impressive youth group I talked to was Modern Mod. They were a bunch of cutely quirky eighteen-year-olds bubbling with excitement, but just like the other youth bands I spoke to they were mature, gracious, and articulate. Set to perform later that evening, they even dodged my zinger question with ease, which was, “If you all switched instruments right before you performed, what would happen?”
They exchanged glances, and laughed good-naturedly. “Probably not much,” they said. “We’d manage.”
Another incredible musician I had the good fortune to speak to was Annabel Lee. And by speak to, I really mean gush over. I had heard Annabel Lee’s name circling a lot throughout the night, and seen it on the list of MAMAs nominees what seemed to be close to a thousand times. I knew exactly who she was when she arrived at the Capitol Theater, dressed in a beautiful bird-patterned silk dress with retro-styled hair and makeup. This was a woman with control over the room, oozing charisma and confidence as she made her way to the red carpet.
I nearly knocked her over in my excitement to chat, tottering in my now pinching heels, and practically squeaked rather than formed words as I introduced myself to her. “Madison’s own Adele” was the first thought that popped into my head upon meeting her. “You’re an idiot,” was the second. “You have no idea what her singing sounds like. What if she just does animal impressions and screams a bit?”
(Annabel Lee, of course, performed later during the award show, and had a smoky voice just as powerful and engaging as Adele, though in her own genre – No animal impressions or screaming were done.)
Everyone seemed to know Annabel, dozens of people congratulating her, hugging her, shaking her hands. In the midst of the chaos she still made time to talk to me. We chatted about her gorgeous dress and hair, her favorite venues to play, and her impressive number of nominations. I had a list in my purse of the nominees, meant to be a sort of cheat sheet for myself, and Annabel asked to see it. She couldn’t remember all the awards she had been nominated for; there were that many of them. Clearly something of a local music celebrity, she was gracious and sweet, and when she whirled away into the adoring crowd, I had fallen a little bit in love.
Shortly thereafter, the award show began. The theater was full of people, and the people were full of enthusiasm and appreciation. Every nominee announced, every screen projected, every person on stage, elicited a raucous reaction from the crowd, unflagging bursts of whoops and claps. This wasn’t drunken cheering, but rather the same genuine excitement I had felt during the Red Carpet Pre-Show. This was intimate and passionate. Everyone in this room really wanted to be there, and really cared about what was happening. I imagine being on the stage as a performer or winner was something like getting a prestigious award from a world-respected organization that knows all of your work, but also like putting on an encore of the monologue from your high-school play for your loving grandparents.
This unique mix of prestige and familiarity continued for the rest of the night. There were a lot of hallmarks of a traditional awards shows, like a lifetime achievement award to Leotha Stanley, the founder of the University of Wisconsin Student Gospel Choir, the “In Memoriam” section, and acceptance speeches. There were also elements of what felt a bit like high school graduation, and everything was then scrambled together and presented at a cool local concert.
In my opinion one of the coolest things about the MAMAs is the focus on youth and youth music. As someone who in a public school music program was given the chance of learning a musical instrument that I would then play for the following ten years, I know the value of providing opportunities for music to youth. I had the chance to talk to two such youth, members of the band The Blue Sundays, later winners of “Youth Song of the Year.” They were killing it fashion-wise, classic but contemporary, one in a long blue dress, the other with a matching blue tie. They were mature, well-spoken, and tons of fun. I asked them how they had discovered the MAMAs and they talked to me about Launchpad, a music competition for high school students that offers, among other things, a grand prize of free studio recording time in Madison and a Summerfest appearance. This competition is presented by the Wisconsin School Music Association; many of its winners and participants were also receiving awards at the MAMAs.
The focus on youth was clear during the awards. There was huge applause from crowd during all the youth awards, and the care and passion of everyone from MAMA was apparent. All of MAMAs funds come from sponsors, member fees, and donations. Because of this no one was shy about asking for money. The honesty of those asking was refreshing. The youth and the youth programs were put front and center. It’s one thing to have someone say, “Please give us money,” and another thing for someone to say, “Please give us money and here is why” and then show you a bunch a pre-teen girls playing hip-hop songs on their violins. Incidentally, this performance from the Madison Music Makers Ensemble was a big favorite of the night.
While showcasing the youth and their current achievements, the awards also showed its audience the future these youths might have. Established bands like The Dang-Its, not one of whom were close to eighteen years old, gave an energetic, folksy performance, complete with banjos, tribal-patterned fabrics, and trilby hats. And of course Kyle Henderson rounded out the awards in big, bluesy fashion. Modern Mod performed as well, their surprising talent and stage presence a rather perfect bridge between the youngest of the musicians just entering music programs at their schools, and the well-established expertise of someone like Kyle Henderson. And who doesn’t love a female drummer and a female bass player?
The entire award show was saturated with a love for music, and a love for Madison. The word “community” has perhaps never been more applicable than when used to describe those performing, learning, teaching, and appreciating music in Madison.
Following the awards show was the after party, hosted by Project Famous at The Frequency, where we’d get to see performances by “Electronic Album of the Year” winner Midas Bison and “Electronic Song of the Year” nominee Joey Broyles. People wandered there in their own time, but nearly without fail everyone’s first ten minutes after arrival were spent at the buffet tables.
Upstairs Downstairs Catering provided the food, and a combination of it being delicious and many of the after-partiers being MAMAs crew who hadn’t had time for dinner, meant it was one of the biggest hits of the night. Immediately following the awards it was pretty much, “Hey, great show, right? Excuse me while I stuff as many of these stuffed mushrooms into my face as I can.”
Eventually once we’d handled our hunger, everyone settled in and began socializing, and Midas Bison stepped up to perform. The family feeling from the award show continued during the after party. Performers, presenters, winners, nominees, and attendees were mingled throughout the Frequency, sitting at tables, ordering from the bar, raiding those amazing buffet tables, and tearing it up on the dance floor. Modern Mod led that particular charge, dancing to Midas Bison and Joey Broyles with the same carefree energy they’d had all night. There were even people there who hadn’t been at the MAMAs, that had come in off the street. Possibly they had been drawn in by the spreads of free food, but they definitely stayed for the experience. As with the awards show, everyone was welcome.
I started the night feeling like maybe I didn’t belong. I ended the night as part of a group, as one of the cool kids, if the cool kids are members of a small but powerful music community who care for and support each other, and who know how to have a good time. (Trust me on this; those are most certainly the cool kids).
You want to get into the local music scene yourself? Stop by any music venue on a Saturday evening. Ask your public school what kind of music programs they have available for kids. Find out the name of the violinist totally jazzing up every farmer’s market so you can check out their website, send them an enthusiastic email, and buy their MP3s. The barrier to entry isn’t high; this is a big, sprawling family of all ages, with all kinds of expertise, growing and teaching the younger generation, celebrating and appreciating the older one.
This family’s house is always open; they’re happy to take in any kind of stray off the street, whether you’re a classically trained pianist or you thought The Inferno was the latest Spielberg movie.
And when this family throws a party? It totally rocks.
To see more MAMAs photos, go to http://bit.ly/MAMAs2014.
Photos by Daniel Atwater
Words by Simone LaPierre and Alicia McCanna
What to do at midnight on a Saturday in downtown Madison? Well, if it was the night of Rhythm and Booms, fans of Rocky Horror Picture Show packed into The Majestic for the Rocky Horror Show stage play. Jam-packed with excited fans and newcomers, there was an array of colorful lights and colorful people there to watch the film and experience the spectacle of all that is Rocky Horror. Whether you were a transvestite alien from planet Transylvania or just a small-town ‘virgin’ from northern Wisconsin, you were welcomed with flying flair, raunchy commentary, and lots of time-warping. We sent out one of our daring Project Famous members, who I knew to be a great fan of Rocky Horror Picture Show by the Tim Curry as “Dr. Frank-N-Furter” painting that hangs on her dining room wall. Alicia McCanna recounts the evening well:
I am ashamed to say as much of a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan I am, I had never been to a screening of the movie. The times I had viewed the movie had only been in the comfort of my own home; however, that changed when I went at the end of June with my best friend Simone. The movie was screened at The Majestic and featured the players of Velvet Darkness.
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I had heard stories of comments being said on the screen, shenanigans that “Rocky Horror virgins” had to complete, and of course, the “Time Warp.” Being a “virgin,” my interest was piqued as to what will occur. When the emcee called for the virgins to come to the front of the stage, I boldly went up there, expecting the worst. The emcee asked all sorts of Rocky trivia, which I answered under my breath while the other virgins tried to figure out the answer. I even volunteered for the “physical event,” which contained linking with other virgins and getting the hoola hoop to the middle. Our team won, and we got prizes; I immediately traded my bubbles for a glow ring that I wore as a crown the rest of the night.
The movie began, and I was pumped. I screamed at the comments I knew to make, and danced my fanny off when the “Time Warp” came on. The Velvet Darkness players were amazing to watch along with the movie, especially the gentleman playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Those are some shoes to fill, and he did it quite well. There was so much energy in the theatre; it was hard not to feed off of it.
I would definitely go see Rocky Horror Picture Show again, and this time around I would probably try to make sure I know more of the comments that were said during certain parts of the film. Otherwise, if you are looking for a good time, this will get anyone out of their comfort zone and into lots of mayhem.
Velvet Darkness is a group of local variety artists who specialize is the fanaticism of Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) and plan to bring it back around for many more showings. Please visit their website www.velvetdarkness.org to find out about future shows and how to get involved.