A.V. Club Milwaukee – Semi-Twang Feature
Semi-Twang finds new inspirations, returns to comfort zones on new album
Inspiration can be found in the most unexpected places, even for a veteran band like Semi-Twang. As the group wrote and recorded its latest album, The Why And The What For, the members found themselves rehearsing in a variety of places, including a friend’s terrace, an atrium, and the more typical house studios. But it was The Beehive Salon & Boutique in Milwaukee that may have been the most memorable.
Thanks to drummer Bob Schneider’s wife being the owner of The Beehive, the band found it easy to secure playing time there. Setting up their gear at the salon one Sunday afternoon, they quickly became aware of the strangeness of the mirror-laden location. But that strangeness quickly turned into an epiphany for singer John Sieger, guitarist/producer Mike Hoffmann, and the rest of the band.
“There’s a moment when you’re wearing headphones that it turns super glorious, and it lifts you,” Sieger says. “I had the phones on and couldn’t get over how great it sounded. It’s great to hear your songs come to life, because they’ve been in your head or [have existed as] scrappy little demos, and all of a sudden they sound lush and filled out.”
“It’s slightly out of body. It’s like you’re listening to a record but happen to be playing it at the same time,” Hoffmann adds. “You’re not aware that you’re wearing a pair of headphones.”
Since reforming in 2009 to play the 20th anniversary celebration of Shank Hall, the members of Semi-Twang have found it easy to slide back into the band they started in the late ’80s. Some of that ease is due to top-notch musicianship and a prolific writer in Sieger. Thanks to his writing, the band was able to release its second album, Wages Of Sin, in 2011. On March 23 at Shank Hall, Semi-Twang will celebrate the release of its third album, The Why And The What For.
“Everyone’s desire was to start cutting and sawing, and that’s the way the band initiated originally,” Hoffmann says. “It was a natural process for all of us. Everyone always reacted favorably to John’s compositions. And we were fairly quick about it. We slid back into all these comfort zones that we had established long before.”
Sieger says the group provided him with his first chance to be the songwriter of a band. “It was the first time of everyone being into my songs and being able to play them,” he says. “It was really a luxury. And it made it so that it was something I had to do, and it was hard to give it up. I had that feeling when we got back together. The band really knows how to play my stuff. And not everybody gets that, so I’m pretty lucky. It’s like having your own personal symphony orchestra.”
That “personal symphony orchestra” certainly knows what it’s like to record on both the big and small scale. In 1988, Semi-Twang released its debut, Salty Tears, on Warner Bros., a label that more or less signed the band to see what it could bring to the table.
“That was a big machine that we were put into. We were put into the meat grinder,” Hoffmann says. “In retrospect, we found we were more of a crapshoot for them. If it sticks, cool, but if not, they cut their losses. And that’s what they did. It took a while to bounce back, but it was a great experience to have.”
Sieger adds that Salty Tears would probably fit better now with the uptick in Americana, as it’s basically “Americana with ’80s reverb.” These days, while the band might not have an enormous big-label budget, it’s smarter with how it spends money. “My only regret is having the budget we had even for a video back then. I could make 10 records on what we spent on a silly and stupid video that did no good,” Sieger says.
The band is currently enjoying a more DIY and independent process. Unlike the year-and-a-half it took for the production of Salty Tears, Sieger says Wages Of Sin was pretty automatic and the “closest you can come to sleepwalking and making a record at the same time.” “We’re trying to do one per year. We’re never going to run out of material, but it’s just that hard to finish these things.”
The same was true for the making of The Why And The What For, with many of the songs first or second takes. The band recorded about 16 to 18 songs and selected the best 12. “It was very spontaneous that way, and we like the returns and the way it sounded. It’s kind of the way we’ve always been,” Hoffmann says. “That’s the one big difference between how we operate and what it was like to be a Warner Bros. big machine.”
This time around, the band was a bit more ambitious, letting out more of its influences. Bob Jennings, who normally plays keyboards, adds saxophone this time around, tilting some of the songs towards soul and R&B. Sieger says he enjoys playing and listening to both the Americana side of The Band/Dylan, and the soul side of things with Otis Redding and Al Greene, so it was natural to “bring those two worlds together.”
Sieger’s songs for The Why And The What For revolve around “the world leaking in,” and are more universal in theme. For several songs, he wrote with longtime collaborator Michael Feldman, host of radio show Whad’ya Know? The album also features a few special guests: The Delta Routine’s Nick Amadeus—Schneider’s son—joins on “Dark Out,” and longtime Sieger collaborator Robin Pluer sings on “The More She Gets The More She Wants.”
Some of the album’s songs are legacy songs, while and others were more recently written. Together they form a pattern and a journey for the listener. “When we worked on the final sequence, it just seemed to work together, and we wanted to put them in the right order and make a nice trip for somebody,” Hoffmann says. “And hopefully you go deeper and deeper into the album instead of standing around listening to individual tunes. Hopefully you follow this path.”
For Semi-Twang, the band’s return to the Milwaukee scene is a natural fit. “Milwaukee feels like it did 20 years ago when Semi Twang first played,” Hoffmann says. “It felt like Milwaukee snuck up on world.”