Smile Politely

Punk without boundaries

Tenement are the Yo La Tengo of Midwest DIY. They’ve been around for longer than most. Their sound is a potpourri of music from all over the map, from pop punk to experimental jazz. Let me repeat that: pop punk to experimental jazz, and everything in between! Sometimes all together, seamlessly incorporated into one song. And everybody likes them. With a show at Skeletal Lightning Fest impending, I was eager to call up Amos Pitsch, guitarist, singer and songwriter, to talk about upcoming Tenement releases, being a breakout band of 2014 and playing the bells.

Smile Politely: What has Tenement been up to lately?

Amos Pitsch: We’re just pretty much recording. I’m at home right now trying to write string sections for a song on our record and it’s taking forever. We’re doing a double LP right now but we’re not done recording it, we’re just finishing it up pretty much. We’re doing that and we’re recording another LP at the same time. So we’re not playing out that much right now – I think we’re gonna tour in June next and that’s it. We’re gonna put out this double LP and then we’ll probably do some heavier touring around that.

SP: Is the double LP the one that’s gonna be on Don Giovanni?

Pitsch: Yeah, that one will be on Don Giovanni and then we’re doing a single on Deranged shortly thereafter.

SP: How does working with Don Giovanni compare to how you’ve worked with labels in the past?

Pitsch: It’s really not much different, I mean, Don Giovanni is pretty much two guys. It’s the same as any other label we’ve worked with where it’s one or two people. The only difference between Don Giovanni and any other label we’ve worked with is they work with bigger distributors and so everything’s a little less casual, a little more like…they have due dates and stuff because the bigger distributors need to know when the record is coming out. It’s a bunch of silly shit that we’ve never dealt with before but it’s not really too much different. It’s not like they function like a major label or anything.

SP: CMJ called you a breakout “Artist To Watch In 2014,” do you think that will happen once you release the new albums?

Pitsch: [laughs] I don’t know, I guess that’s up to anyone’s interpretation of what “breakout” means, but I don’t really think that we’re the type of band that’s going to suck up to the right people to be that kind of band.

SP: Most DIY punk bands can’t really say they’ve been together for as long as you guys have, but you’ve just held it together, balancing that sort of success while still remaining a DIY band.

Pitsch: I don’t really know how we’ve stayed together so long because we kind of beat the odds as far as that goes. We all live a few hours away from each other and we don’t get to practice much and we don’t write music together; I write it all and then we learn it to play it live. It’s strange to me that so many bands can’t keep it together and somehow we can.

SP: There’s no secret?

Pitsch: [laughs] No we don’t have a secret.

SP: What was it like starting the band in Wisconsin? Did you play a lot in the scene around there or go on tour immediately?

Pitsch: When we started playing, we played pretty much basements, where we live and Milwaukee, but I think our mission from the beginning always was to go on tour. We started in 2006 and then by early 2007 we’d already begun planning a national tour. ‘Cause we always looked up to these DIY punk bands that did the same thing, they went on tour all the time, and they would go on tour for a month at a time. Being in a band from Wisconsin I feel like it’s a little difficult…people are a little skeptical of you and there aren’t a whole lot of bands you hear from around Wisconsin. It was a little hard to get shows right away. I think it’s a little easier saying you’re from New York City or Chicago or something than just saying you’re from Appleton, Wisconsin.

SP: As someone from there, would you say there’s a lot of good music going down in Wisconsin?

Pitsch: I don’t know if it’s really at its peak right now but there was a period of time when there were a lot of great bands. There’s a few great bands from Wisconsin right now but I can’t name a whole list of them off the top of my head.

SP: Do you also play in Technicolor Teeth? How’s it going with that band? Are you making a new album?

Pitsch: We’re recording that right now too, but we’re kind of waiting to finish it until the Tenement record is finished cause we’re kind of recording both of them at the same place. I don’t really know how to tell you were the direction of that’s gonna go cause it’s a little more dictated by us as a group than it is by me. I can tell you that the songs, I feel like, are gonna be a lot poppier and maybe a little less noisy, I don’t know.

SP: One thing I notice about Tenement is that you’ve got that real pop-punky sound but also diverge from it a lot, and you’ve got an experimentalism that other pop punk bands don’t bother with. How do you stay experimental and keep it fresh?

Pitsch: I think the main reason that we play music that’s a little unique to the scene we exist in is that we all listen to a lot of different kinds of music and we’re all constantly learning about music. I don’t think any of us really listen to any pop punk, as far as I know. When we were younger we listened to a little bit, like the Descendants and the Ramones. We got into like Dillinger Four and stuff like that when we were younger but as we get older we keep diving into more and more different kinds of music…like, Jesse’s obsessed with jazz music…I feel like a lot of pop punk bands you hear that sound like everything else that was puked up before them, they just listen to every other pop punk band that came before them and they begin to regurgitate the style, but we’ve never done that.

SP: I’ve got a question about your live performance. What inspired you to play the bells?

Pitsch: Well, I’ve been collecting bells and bowls and glass bowls and metal bowls for a while and I kind of got really fascinated with the atonality of a lot of bells and the way that some bells – how they’re cracked or how they’re tarnished or what condition, how old they are — some of them don’t play real notes, they play microtones and half-tones. They play all these weird tones that you can’t get out of a guitar. You can get it out of a piano but you have to treat it that way. I started just going around and collecting bells and they all sound completely different and when you have a whole bunch of ‘em playing at once they sound amazing cause they’re playing notes you might never have heard before.

SP: Awesome.

Pitsch: With some of our newer music that we’ve been writing we’re trying to include some parts in new songs that kind of like, stray away from big heavy rock guitars and move in the direction more of just experimenting with sounds that isn’t just typical rock, metal, punk, whatever.

SP: So the new albums are gonna be even more experimental?

Pitsch: Yeah, at times. There’s gonna be a lot of pop songs on it but there’s gonna be at least one side of the record that I don’t really know whether it’s gonna go completely over people’s heads or whether people are gonna be into it or not, but it was something I really wanted to do, so, I did it (laughs). But there’s a lot of weird stuff, yeah.

SP: What kind of music have you been drawing from lately?

Pitsch: I’ve been listening to a lot of third-stream jazz stuff, stuff like Yusef Lateef and Duke Ellington and Sun Ra, people that took classical music and took jazz and they took experimental music and they tried to make it into one genre of music. That fascinates me ‘cause Charles Mingus, when he started, he called his music “jazzical” because he didn’t really like the term jazz and he didn’t play classical either, he wanted to make the two one. I guess that’s kind of what we’re striving for in the end is to not just be a punk band or be a rock band or whatever but to just have our music be our music.

Tenement close out Skeletal Lightning Fest on Sunday night, April 13th, at the IMC in Urbana. For more info, check out the Facebook event.

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