The Rise of Soul Low
The Milwaukee band’s three members are in their early 20s, but they’re winning fans with their assured sound.
Soul Low guitarist and lead singer Jake Balistrieri was running a little late the first time I met him. Turns out he was finishing up a few college term papers. Up until that point in my conversation with bassist Sam Gehrke I had forgotten how young the band’s members are. Sam’s dapper mustache and professionalism might convince you otherwise, but they are babes on the Milwaukee music scene.
“Can you believe they’re that good and that young?” is a common refrain from older music heads. Despite their youth, Soul Low have been playing music for almost a decade and have covered more ground outside of Milwaukee than many of their peers.
I met up with Sam and Jake at Riverwest Public House a few weeks ago, which is close to their apartment. Sam likes how young the neighborhood is compared to Bay View, where they grew up, but he misses certain things, especially Anodyne Coffee. Sam and Jake are childhood friends going back to preschool. Their saxophone player Sean Hirthe has also been a part of the crew since kindergarten. At age 11 Sam picked up the bass, which was about the same time Jake started playing guitar.
When trying to describe the Soul Low sound I lean towards “Modest Mouse meets an edgier Vampire Weekend.” There’s a far more obvious comparison that escaped me until Sam mentioned that Milwaukee’s own Violent Femmes were an inspiration. Aside from their sound, the Femmes famous busking exploits influenced Sam and Jake. From age 12 to 19 the boys busked at the South Shore Farmers Market. In the early days they were playing bluesy jams under the name Informal Blues. They always wanted to be in a rock band but never found the right drummer. That was until Jake met Charlie Celenza at Pius High School.
With the addition of Charlie on drums the rock trio known as Soul Low took shape. In the summer of 2010 they recorded their first EP (no longer available) in Jake’s parents basement. They recorded their second EP, Beauty By Contrast, later that fall, in their senior year, which is still available on their bandcamp. Though the band was picking up steam, graduation loomed and the three were going away to different colleges. They weren’t happy with the songs they were writing and decided to break up instead of being a long-distance band. Jake went to Madison, Sam to Stevens Point and Charlie was at UWM.
During college Sam and Jake stayed in touch and always made time to play together when they were back home. Jake continued to record demos and send them to Sam, who would layer a bass line. In the autumn of 2012 they kicked around the idea of doing a road trip out East during a winter break.
“There wasn’t any real thought of getting back together and working on an album, it was more an excuse to do something fun,” said Sam.
The road trip idea evolved and they thought it might be more fun to play shows while traveling, so Sam strung together some gigs and they met up with Charlie for what became a 14-day tour, the band’s first. (Sam toured as the bass player for Ethan Keller and actually played with him at Turner Hall on the day of his high school graduation.) In New York City their car got towed and by the time they got it back and made it to Philadelphia, they arrived just minutes before they were scheduled to play.
During that first tour they were performing songs that would eventually land on their debut full-length, Uneasy. With the success of the tour and them feeling like a band again, Sam and Jake decided to move back to Milwaukee in April 2013. Once they recorded the tracks for Uneasy, Sam reached out to bloggers and music writers in town. The response was overwhelmingly positive and by the time the record was released in July 2013 they were in demand.
Soul Low was all over Milwaukee in 2013, averaging five shows per month for half a year. Sam and Jake were only 19 at the time so every bar show they booked was a shot in the dark. They performed at all-ages venues whenever they could, and still prefer them.
“We try as often as we can to play the all-ages shows because it’s almost always better. The kids are having so much more fun and they always go so hard. Those audiences are so interested, dedicated and they really care. It’s a bummer that they’re underrepresented in Milwaukee,” said Sam.
The guys found it hard to handle all the attention they got after Uneasy and eventually burnt out by the end of 2013. They shrunk into themselves and went on hiatus for a few months. But just like when they were in college, they couldn’t stay away for long. They played the summer circuit in 2014 and began thinking about their next project. This led to the Kind Spirit EP, a collection of four songs that were each accompanied by a music video. With a new product in hand they planned another two-week tour for winter break, this time heading down south and out west.
Like their first tour, the 2015 edition was a mix of house parties and bars. In Salt Lake City they played a converted meat locker, which was set up by an Italian fan studying abroad. They had a better idea of how to promote their shows and turned out good crowds. Despite getting screwed out of money in LA, the band came out ahead. Sam feels the tour forced them to get their act together and seriously think about the follow-up to Uneasy.
I first saw Soul Low at their homecoming show at the end of this latest tour. It was a Thursday night in January at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. The bill was stacked with the Fatty Acids, Whips, and Jamaican Queens in from Detroit. It was also the same day WebsterX (who featured on a track off the Kind Spirit EP) dropped his video for “Doomsday.” Despite the cold, there was a special energy and buzz in the air. The venue was packed before the second band took the stage. Road weary Soul Low played an excellent set and finished with a rowdy cover of Lil’ John’s “Get Low” that got the crowd up on their feet.
As soon as they returned home Soul Low went to work on their new EP Sweet Pea, which was released today. It’s a more cohesive effort than Kind Spirit and serves as a primer for their sophomore album due out this Fall. They’re playing a release show on Friday at Cactus Club where you’ll be able to hear a number of those songs. Gloss Records (Milwaukee) and Dark Circles Records (Chicago) are putting out the EP, though Gloss wasn’t an easy sell.
“I’m friends with Harry over at Gloss and he told me that Joey (Turbo, who started Gloss records) was on the fence after listening to us, but then he came to our Cocoon Room show last month and was really impressed. It’s cool to see a local label period, but also cool to see one that is so thoughtful in how they present their products,” said Sam.
The temporary tattoos that come with each Sweet Pea cassette and cover the band members bodies in the album art was an idea Jake had last Fall. Sam wasn’t super into it at the time but Jake went ahead and bought 200 temporary tattoos on Amazon for $10 when they got off tour, insisting that they use them for something. They recruited photographer and singer extraordinaire Lex Allen to do a photo shoot and it became the EP design. The official EP is four songs. Rather than having the program repeat on the other side of the cassette, Sam and Jake decided to include five of their favorite unreleased demos from Jake’s extensive collection.
Sweet Pea kicks off with a driving track, “Always Watching Out,” that builds and crashes in a frenzy of rock bliss. It closes with a breezy gem, “I Can Write A Poem,” that features the rap stylings of Lorde Fredd33.
“That track was a demo Jake made back in 2012 that we never knew what to do with. After working with Sam (WebsterX) we started thinking more about collaborating. I think Cam (Fredd33) is one of the best performers in Milwaukee right now. We sent him the demo, he swung by one of our practices, worked on it for two hours and then knocked it out. It’s not us trying to play hip-hop and Cam is just doing his thing, but it works,” said Sam.