The Maniac Named Juiceboxxx
MIlwaukee's rising star, the subject of a new book, was as crazed as ever at Riverwest show.
Monday night was a busy one for certain music lovers in Milwaukee. You could chose between Milwaukee-raised musician Juiceboxxx playing at Riverwest Public House and Toronto noise rock band METZ playing at Cactus Club in Bay View. I was sitting on my roof reading The Next Next Level a new book by Slate reporter Leon Neyfakh, which is about his relationship with Juiceboxxx, and listening to 91.7 WMSE when an interview with METZ came on. I set the paperback on my lap and listened in. METZ sounded like a crew of cool Canadians and were one of the most talked about bands when I lived in Montreal, but I still passed on their Cactus Club show. The Thunder Zone was calling.
What is the Thunder Zone? It’s a frame of mind, it’s a record and culture label, it’s an energy drink, all curated by Juiceboxxx. Who is Juiceboxxx? That’s a good question. It’s one that New Yorker and Rolling Stone readers have been asking themselves recently.
I discovered Juiceboxxx early last year when an appearance of his on Channel 4 WTMJ’s Wisconsin Tonight went viral. It’s a terribly produced local TV news clip that caught him off-guard with an almost inaudible backing track. Despite the mistakes by Mike Jacobs’ crew, Juiceboxxx came off as a goofy yet intriguing character. So I sampled his archives. A performance on the all-ages Chicago cable access show Chic-A-Go-Go of “Never Surrender Forever” grabbed me. I became a fan. His high-octane blend of pop, punk, noise, rock and rap is urgent, daring, and catchy, if often misunderstood.
At the end of last year Juiceboxxx headlined a show at Hotel Foster, which also had WebsterX, my favorite local rapper, on the bill. I watched from upstairs with a bird’s eye view as Juiceboxxx poured a beer on his head and raged through a wild set. As with WebsterX, I was taken by his energy.
There are plenty of reasons why Juiceboxxx might take umbrage with Neyfakh’s book. It’s difficult for an artist to be dissected, labeled and lose control of his narrative. But the fact remains that the book gave wider exposure to an anti-hero from Wisconsin. Plus, his latest single, “Open Up Your Life,” suggests he was, at some point, okay with the prospect of being a subject in someone else’s story.
Juiceboxxx’s magnetic performance last night was no fluke. He is a seasoned performer. He’s done shows in Australia, Canada, Europe and Japan, not to mention all over the USA. When he thanked the opening acts he named off each member of Holy Shit!, who are godfathers of the Milwaukee DIY scene. The first thing he told the crowd was that he was “feeling minor-ly concussed all day,” due to an injury he suffered the night before at a punk bar in Cleveland, which explained the bandages on his forehead and the bloody pictures on social media.
The wound didn’t slow Juiceboxxx down one bit. In fact, that kind of stuff fuels his freakout ethos. He jumped on the bar, riled up the crowd, ran on and off stage, and looked downright possessed during some songs. His stage antics could be described as psychotic flailing, but I see them more as power moves he’s gleaned from his idols and peers. His band was tight and featured some awesome guitar riffs by Milwaukee’s own Willy Dintenfass, who was the original link between Juiceboxxx and Neyfakh.
I showed up a little late and missed the opening New Boyz Club/Airo Kwil split set. (Though I’ll be sure to catch them at Company Brewing on Saturday during Center Street Daze.) When Holy Shit! started playing I saw Juiceboxxx snake his way through the crowd to the front. He looked unassuming in a black jacket, wearing glasses and a hat, like Clark Kent before he becomes Superman. Sure enough, by the time Juiceboxxx was onstage he was without glasses or hat and sporting his signature denim coat. At the the end of his set he was bare-chested, dripping with sweat, and made a beeline to the merch table.
For those who read The Next Next Level Juiceboxxx will simply be a symbol of a life bullishly dedicated to art, energy, and the open road. On paper his message to never stop fighting for your dreams might seem trite, but to experience his chaotic, anthemic, out-of-body live performance is inspiring. In many ways Juiceboxxx is still a messed up suburban kid, but behind the music and madness lies a humble, kind and thoughtful man. His work ethic is undeniable, his new album, Heartland 99, is his best yet, and he claims our city as his own, despite a complex relationship with Milwaukee. That fact alone will keep me cheering for this provocative and prolific “outsider.”