Andy Turner
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Tenement Is a Tale of Two Cities

The band’s three members are based in Milwaukee and Appleton. And its sound is weirdly eclectic.

By - Jan 21st, 2015 05:13 pm
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Tenement

Tenement

Even though two-thirds of Tenement now resides in Milwaukee, “Appleton band” still feels right, says lead singer Amos Pitsch. But “Wisconsin band” might be an even better label for the punk trio.

Pitsch, who formed the band in 2006 with bassist Jesse Ponkamo and still lives in Appleton, says most of the material Tenement writes is still conceived and recorded in his home town.

“Living in Appleton affords me virtually as much time as I please to be a musician and an artist,” he said. “I’m not a rich man by any stretch, but my cost of living is so low that it almost makes me feel as such at times. I concern myself as little as possible at this point in my life with the pursuit of money, but time is a valuable resource and I treat it as such.”

During its eight-year history, Tenement has developed a deep discography, mostly on 7-inch records, that shows the group’s far-flung influences, ranging from Black Flag to the Staple Singers and all points in between. Pitsch says to be a member of the group, one needs a “bull head and a good record collection.” Townes Van Zandt, Cecil Taylor’s “Air,” Benjamin Britten’s string quartets, and Allen Toussaint’s “entire career” have gotten heavy airplay in the Pitsch house recently.

The group has a long list of upcoming releases, including a double LP for New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records recorded with Justin Perkins in Milwaukee, which is due out this spring, and two volumes of singles collections tentatively entitled “Bruised Music” to be co-released by Grave Mistake Records (based in Richmond, Virginia) and Toxic Pop Records in Baltimore.

Pitsch and Ponkamo grew up in Neenah, where they attended high school together and bonded over music that no one else seemed to know about.

“We wanted to start a band that joined those interests, and it wasn’t really possible to do that with anyone else,” Pitsch said. “So in the pre-internet, blog, Facebook, blah, blah, blah era, it was unusual to see a 16-year-old (in Neenah) wearing a homemade Gauze or Mummies or Urban Waste shirt or reading Maximum Rock’n’Roll.

“We weren’t concerning ourselves with the stuff on TV that people were calling punk, we were digging for the obscure and the strange and the dangerous, and that’s what we continue to do. These days, that usually means digging through crates of old records to find some obscure classical or jazz or country music that has long been written off and out of vogue, in order to continually challenge our perception of the music we hear and create.”

Ponkamo remembers meeting Pitsch as a sophomore in high school. Their connection went beyond music, but it’s still the foundation their friendship is built on, he adds.

“I’d already formed an interest in punk music, and he was one of the few other kids that was interested in the music.  But really what formed our friendship was that he seemed to think I was funny and tolerated my insanely annoying behavior. Over the years we continued to have a shared interest in the music, and this manifested itself in many ways.”

Ponkamo noted that drummer Eric Mayer, who now lives in Milwaukee as well, also is from a small Wisconsin community: Hartford.

“Not to say that Hartford and Appleton are completely interchangeable, but the smaller Wisconsin town has imparted something onto us which I suppose is then translated into the music on some level,” Ponkamo says.

But with Pitsch living several hours away from the other two members, it makes playing live, not to mention practicing, difficult, Pitsch admits.

“When we’re not on tour regularly, our shows become loose and sometimes unhinged, and many people are attracted to this element of danger or mystery — and some are not,” he said. “Though even when we’re rusty, we always know what we want out of a performance, so I don’t think it ever quite becomes the lazy, meandering affair that you can sometimes experience from other under-practiced bands.”

The band’s main songwriter, Pitsch typically writes while recording, starting with a drum or basic rhythm track.

“Eventually I compile all of the music for consideration for an LP and give the material to the other guys,” he said. “Sometimes they end up playing on the recordings, sometimes they don’t. There are maybe three or four songs on any of our records that we’ve written together. It’s sometimes a gratifying experience, but not always the most practical due to our distance from each other and my often low level of income.”

For more information about Tenement and upcoming shows, go to http://tene-ment.tumblr.com/.

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