Soul Low Make Existentialism Fun on "Cheer Up"

It’s easy to understand why Soul Low has quickly become one of Milwaukee’s most cherished bands. Since their first full-length release just four years ago, the band has actively cultivated an impressive discography – three LPs, two EPs, one live album, and a handful of singles along the way. Their energetic live shows consistently draw eager young audiences who know the songs as well as the band themselves. Their fans dance and enjoy themselves, providing a refreshing alternative to other Milwaukee rock shows that can at times be pretty daunting.

On the surface, Soul Low’s music is fun, straightforward, easily accessible pop rock. It could fit in well blaring over the speakers at an American Eagle or playing during the credits of an irreverent MTV reality show. It sounds fine whether or not you choose to pay attention to it.

Soul Low, however, makes music worthy of your attention, containing plenty of elements that set them apart from their less memorable contemporaries. Take singer Jake Balistreri’s signature nasally croon, for example. It’s one of those polarizing voices you’ll either love or hate, not much unlike Billy Corgan or Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano. Not surprisingly, Soul Low is often compared to the latter.

Cheer Up, the band’s third full-length release, is easily Soul Low’s most focused work to date. While it can be very easy for rock bands to fall into a trap of blandness, Soul Low’s newest effort boasts a diverse tracklist that explores a wide array of styles and emotions.

The first few tracks on Cheer Up are the album’s lightest and brightest. “Bad Set of Moods” is the opening track, a catchy, dance-a-long reminiscent of Soul Low’s legacy as a party band. Don’t let the irresistible, feel-good power-pop fool you, though – it’s merely a glimmer of hope in an album that’s largely full of anguish.

The bright lights start to dim during “Could Be Nothing”. Though the track still bears the skeleton of a pop song, the dark lyrics reflect on existentialism and death. Soul Low has an admirable ability to drown their sorrows underneath an ocean full of hooks, almost to distract from the misery. “I am a man who knows he’s nothin’ / Trying to get through but sometimes it’s hard to / I wanna stick my head in the oven” Balistreri sings with an audible level of emotion. The track is intensely earnest – it feels like confiding in a close friend.  

The album’s standout track “Sad Boy Freestyle”  is very much on brand for Soul Low. The song is equal parts goofy and grim, and the band’s collective songwriting abilities are showcased with a slow and steady buildup that leads to a cathartic finish. Keeping with darker lyrical themes, the album also has a track dedicated to infamous serial killer and Milwaukee resident Jeffrey Dahmer. This is no ode to a murderer, though – the track is written from the perspective of an anxiety-ridden child whose fear of Dahmer consumes his innocent thoughts.

“Do you wanna die? So do I,” asks Balistreri in the album’s closer “Cheer Up”. The bleakness comes to a halt when he comforts listeners, reminding them that “everything is fine”. The track is a climactic ending to an album filled with many emotional highs and lows. Soul Low possesses a millennial nihilism that is often imitated, but very rarely duplicated. Their dark sense of humor lightens some of the album’s heavier lyrical themes, turning songs about death into an engaging listening experience.

The album’s transition from joyfulness to darkness indicates the band has seriously refined their craft as artists with consistently excellent and musicianship and songwriting skills. The constant references to the final track throughout the album gives Cheer Up a puzzle-like complexity; the payoff comes once the pieces are all fit together.

Cheer Up could easily be an album that defines the sound of Milwaukee music in 2017. It’s dreary,  but still a good time. Milwaukee knows how to make light of a shitty situation, and Soul Low sure as hell does, too.

Jay Som's Melina Duterte on self care, songwriting and sudden success

Melina Duterte aka Jay Som. Photo by Marc Fong.

Melina Duterte aka Jay Som. Photo by Marc Fong.

By: Dan Agacki

Jay Som is the moniker of Oakland's Melina Duterte. Her music career started on a whim, with nine demo tracks posted to Bandcamp. The songs quickly gained traction and were eventually re-released by Polyvinyl Records. The demos, reissued as Turn Into, were a home recorded batch of shoegaze indebted rockers. Her follow up, the newly released Everybody Works, shows a leap in songwriting as well as recording without losing the unbridled charm of her demos. In an 18 month span, Duterte has gained quite a buzz and experienced an unexpected whirlwind of success. Through all of these happenings, she has managed to stay grounded and cling tightly to her humility.

With Turn Into and Everybody Works you recorded and played entirely on your own. I know people who can play numerous instruments, but having the mindset to do that and record it as well seems so ridiculous.

It kind of is pretty ridiculous when you think about it, but it's all just practice really.

I can't really think of women who've done that in the past. There's probably someone obvious I'm overlooking.

There are a couple out there. I know there's Grouper who does that. I love Grouper. She does all of her stuff. Also – I forgot her name, she's a DJ but she also produces and mixes her own shit, and it's really good. I think it's insane how small the number of female producers are out there. Hopefully it starts picking it up.

Do you write your songs on guitar?

Usually I start out with an idea, record it on my voice memos and come back to it, get a scratch guitar and then just build from there.

Do you ever start writing songs on other instruments first?

I tried doing that with piano but I'm not a very good piano player, so I usually just stick to the guitar or bass usually. Whatever's easier, you know?

I guess I kind of assumed you didn't try to write songs on trumpet.

Oh no [laughs]. That's too crazy.

Are there any instruments that you want to learn?

Definitely the violin. I tried learning that. My Uncle gave me a violin as a present from Australia. He gave me one of those Dummy books, like Violin For Dummies. I tried to do that but I was really bad so I just gave up. I don't know, maybe something crazy like the bagpipes would be chill.

Were all the songs for the new album written after the previous album?

There weren't any leftovers. I started doing demos after Turn Into was released on Bandcamp, and that was back in March before I started getting managed or before I even signed to a label. I kind of sat with those demos for a couple months. After I came back from tour [with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast] and moved into a new place, I took half of those demos and then wrote new ones on the spot while I was recording. So it was a really crazy process.

It sounds like an outpouring of creative process.

Oh yeah, that's why coffee exists.

How was your approach to writing this album different to writing the songs on Turn Into?

I took a more traditional approach. I think I was a lot more focused, more serious about what I was doing, but also trying not to be too serious. Kind of just wanted to stick to my roots of the way I write songs and arrange them. Since it was such a short and stressful period, I didn't really have time to reflect on what I've made, so I'm still figuring out what it means to me I guess. It's a weird feeling.

Was there anything you were trying to achieve or improve upon while working on this album?

I think I spent a lot more time trying to make everything sound more organic. I did a lot of one take recordings where I just wanted to play the entire thing through. I didn't do a lot of punching in. So there are a lot of mistakes on the record that I really wanted to keep in. I'm not a super big perfectionist when it comes to that. I think that was a pretty intentional thing I wanted in the record.

Mistakes give personality to the recordings.

Yeah, yeah.

Were there things you wrote that ended up getting thrown away because they didn't seem to fit?

“(BedHead)” was the song that went through the most changes. It originally had drums and bass. It sounded way more aggressive than it does now. I kept experimenting with it and nothing positive came out. I wasn't really feeling it and I kept throwing the song away. But I eventually came back to it and I finally found the right sound that I wanted for that song.

That was one of the songs I had written down as one of the outliers. That and “One More Time, Please.”

Oh yeah. “One More Time, Please” was written very fast. I think that was one of the last songs and I rushed it because I got too excited about what I was doing and I got scared I would lose all the ideas. I preformed them and recorded it super fast. I kind of regret doing that because I wanted to spend more love on it, but I like the way it turned out, I guess.

Have you had a moment where you thought “This could be something, this could be a career”?

I think I had that recently, like last year. After I went on those tours it really solidified that sort of thought because it was more like a trial run. Like, I'm getting opportunities. This is cool, I got signed, but can I do it? Up to now, I realize that it's very possible. And it's a very weird thought too, because I feel so young but I feel old at the same time.

Preferring to do things solo helps a lot because then you don't have to worry about money as much.

You don't have to deal with other people's feelings and their shit versus you, you kind of have to trust yourself. And it's also kind of nice. It's kind of like a form of self care, trusting yourself, which is one of the most important things. I feel like I've just started to get a grip on that.

Is this your first headlining tour?

It's like a co-headlining tour, for our Courtneys tour. Yeah, basically it is.

What are your future plans?

I think I'd like to just continue for now, like this year, do the full touring experience. Just do that for a while and think about what's going to happen with the next record. That's the thing, I don't know, everything keeps happening so fast that I sometimes don't have time to think about what I want to do because it's already happening. I just want to take it how it comes and see what's up.

All of a sudden one week I saw you were on Pitchfork: Rising and a week later your record got Best New Music.

Yeah, I don't get it. It's great, but it's also like what? [laughs]

Jay Som will be appearing at the Cactus Club on 3/23 alongside The Courtneys and Dogs in Ecstasy.

Patience, Noise and Chicken : Catching up with Doubletruck

Doubletruck from left to right: bassist Zach Lewis, vocalist Zeb Hall, guitarist Miles Harbury and drummer Doug Mellon.

Doubletruck from left to right: bassist Zach Lewis, vocalist Zeb Hall, guitarist Miles Harbury and drummer Doug Mellon.

By: Dan Agacki

If you consult Men's Fitness's list of the Top Ten Most Superstitious Athletes, you will find former Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs at number five.  His daily routine included numerous superstitions, namely eating chicken before every game.  With a career spanning 2440 games in 18 years, that's a lot of chicken, which led former teammate Jim Rice to dub him “Chicken Man.”    Obviously, Boggs loved chicken – so much so that he co-authored (along with his wife, Debbie Boggs) the book Fowl Tips: My Favorite Chicken Recipes.

Milwaukee's Doubletruck has been quietly active for the last two years.  “Two years and two shows,” joked bassist Zach Lewis.  “Two with chicken, two dozen without.” singer Zeb Hall quickly added. “See, that's how long we've been a band, I already forgot my first stage gimmick – eating rotisserie chicken.”  With the insular humor that friendships manifest, a band was born.  “I was wearing a Wade Boggs jersey.  The chicken man, chicken joke,” Hall explained.  “We also had a song called 'Bruce Rooster,' so there was a running chicken theme early on.”

If you ask the members of Doubletruck what their name means, the answer can vary wildly from member to member.  “[in faux Southern accent] The only thing cooler than a truck, is a double truck,” said Hall. “We were listening to a lot of Butthole Surfers and Country Teasers around the time we started the band, so I feel like I was on a real faux Hee-Haw kick.”  Before arriving at Doubletruck, the band threw around names like Butt Mountain, Butt Hunter, and Butt Wizard. “We settled on the most stupid,” Lewis said.      

As much as humor plays a part in the Doubletruck narrative, their music is nothing to joke about.  Their songs present a take on Black Sabbath style heaviness, with the lurching qualities of the early Melvins records.  “I'll write a riff and Miles [Harbury, guitarist] will make it stupider,” said Lewis.  “Then he'll write a riff and I'll try to make it stupider. So it becomes something we [individually] couldn't think of.”  

Vocally, Hall's approach brings to mind the belligerent styles of Birthday Party-era Nick Cave and Scratch Acid's David Yow.  While there's no shortage of Sabbath/Nick Cave/Melvins comparisons being bandied about as of late, Doubletruck's approach presents a freshness and virility that separates them from the riff and swagger copping con artists that comprise much of modern heavy music.

Contrary to their laid back demeanor, Doubletruck skipped the usual practice of releasing a demo, emerging with a cohesive album length cassette in 2015.  Recorded with a single microphone, the primitive process captured an electric performance.  The album shows a range among its 14 tracks-from the slow angular riffs of "B.M.B.M" to punk-y rocker "Killer Die".  Throughout, the lumbering smear of a cowboy drawl is spewed over the top.  It all ends with a distant piano on "Machine", the album's closer.    

Even in a relatively short two year existence, the members of Doubletruck recognize that their band is already evolving.  “It's more thoughtful now” said Harbury.  “Not to say it wasn't before, but it was a little bit loose and free.”  “Anything goes when you start a band, and now we try harder.” added Lewis. With the added effort comes a greater complexity in song structure.  “[The songs] were weird, but almost like song-y songs,” said drummer Doug Mellon.  “Now I almost feel like they're three songs in one sometimes.”  The band credits the changes to members growing confident in their roles within the group.

With their second album nearing completion, the members are unsure what they will do with the finished product. The band hinted at plans for more releases beyond the new album, but nothing that has been made official.  They are happy to keep their future plans on an attainable level.  “That's the gold at the end of the rainbow, if we can get to where those Soup Moat guys are,” said Hall.  “I love those guys.” 

As a band that grew out of inside jokes between friends, Doubletruck understand that their band isn't solely for its members.  “We get all our friends, then you also get some guy I've never seen at a show before wearing all camo and he's like 'Doubletruck, alright brother!' you know,” said Hall.  “Not to sound like a total ego maniac, but when you get praise from a stranger, it is exciting.  It's even more exciting when you get it from two very different types of strangers.”  As a testament to the band's inclusive nature, Harbury said, “We like to put the fun we're having onto other people.”

Doubletruck play High Dive on March 12th with Rash and Sufferhead. Click the link for more info.

The Explain Podcast: EP 04 - Klassik Talks Tribe UNCOVERED

By: Sahan Jayasuriya

The influence of A Tribe Called Quest cannot be understated. From 1990 to 1998, Tribe helped usher in the East Coast renaissance in hip hop, crafting unique sampled-based albums that sound just as good today as they did two decades ago. Last year, the group released We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, their first album since 1998's The Love Movement. A fantastic addition to the group's discography, the album's release was also marked by tragedy, with the group's founding member Phife Dawg passing away earlier in the year.

After announcing the end of the Alverno Presents concert series last year, Milwaukee was pleased to discover that not one but two new "Uncovered" concerts would be coming in the new year. One of them, TRIBE Uncovered, pays tribute to the music and influence of A Tribe Called Quest on January 20th at Turner Hall Ballroom. We sat down with the show's curator, Kellen "Klassik" Abston to discuss the show's origins, his relationship with A Tribe Called Quest and the deconstructing the deconstructed.

This podcast was engineered by Sahan Jayasuriya and mixed by Tim Baltes. Stream it below.

The Explain Podcast: EP 03 - The Year In Music

The Explain Team (from left to right) : Ali, Quinn, Steph, Sahan & Evan

The Explain Team (from left to right) : Ali, Quinn, Steph, Sahan & Evan

2016 was a fantastic year for music, both nationally and and locally for us here in Milwaukee. For this special edition of the Explain Podcast, Ali, Steph, Evan, Sahan and Quinn sat down to discuss their favorite moments in 2016 music, as well as to look forward at what the new year will bring. This podcast was recorded earlier this week by us and mixed by drummer extraordinaire, Tim Baltes.

We'd like to take this time again to thank all of the readers, listeners, viewers and artists who helped make 2016 a successful year for Explain. Expect even more from us in 2017!

Listen to the podcast and read a streamlined list of our picks below. Thanks for reading and we'll see you all in 2017!

-Ali, Steph, Evan, Quinn & Sahan


Favorite National Releases:

Deftones - Gore
Ab-Soul - Do As Thou Wilt
ASAP Mob - Cozy Tapes Vol. 1
Gojira - Magma
American Football (LP2)

Childish Gambino- Awaken, My Love!
Chance The Rapper- Coloring Book
Warpaint- Head Up
Twin Peaks- Down in Heaven
High Waisted- On Ludlow

Isaiah Rashad - The Sun's Tirade
Kevin Abstract - American Boyfriend
Frank Ocean - Blonde
No name - Telefone
Anderson .Paak - Malibu

Autolux- Pussy's Dead
The Du Rites- J Zone and Pablo Martin are the Du Rites
Danny Brown- Atrocity Exhbition
Chester Watson- Past Cloaks
De La Soul- ...And the Anonymous Nobody

Whitney - Light Upon The Lake
Thee Oh Sees - An Odd Entrances
Hoops - Self-titled EP
Lemonade - Beyoncé
Noname - Telefone

Favorite National Singles:



Da$h- Shaded

Code Orange - Forever

Blink 182 - Bored To Death

Schoolboy Q - Tookie Knows PT 2

The Sword- Empty Temples



King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard- Gamma Knife

Vic Mensa- 16 Shots

Kanye West- Fade

Princess Nokia- Brujas

The Orwells- Double Feature



Earl Sweatshirt (Prod. Knxwledge) - Balance

Rae Sremmurd - Black Beatles

Kanye West (ft. Chance The Rapper) - Ultralight Beam





The Avalanches- Because I'm Me

Carly Rae Jepsen- Higher

J Dilla & Nas- The Sickness (Prod. Madlib)

DJ Shadow feat Run the Jewels- Nobody Speak

Esperanza Spalding- One



Whitney - No Woman

A Tribe Called Quest- We the People...

Hoops- Cool 2

Queen Tut- Dominion

LVL UP- Naked in the River with the Creator





Coasting - Summertide EP

Psychic Abi - Sleepy Hollow (Prod. Tony Tambien)

Wit's End - Last Rites EP

BoodahDARR - Sour (Prod. 808 Louie)

Chakara Blu - Activation



Thane- Topia

Ugly Brothers- 16 Tiny Mountains

The Rashita Jones- Wide Eyes/Alien Ocean

Slow Walker- Robert Plantain's Grunge Lords Vol. 1

The Pukes- Revenge of the Pukes



Lorde Fredd33- Dead Man's View

IshDARR- Broken Hearts & Bankrolls

Mike Regal- Premonitiions

Trapo- Shade Trees

KennyHoopla- Beneath The Willow Tree



Cairns- Current EP

Lex Allen- Mama's Boy

Scallops Hotel- Too Much of Life is Mood

Vincent Kircher- Am I Ghost

Tenement- The Self Titled Album



Scallops Hotel- Too Much of Life is Mood

The Wheels- Ye Lang Zi Da

Zed Kenzo- Touchdown

Slow Walker- Robert Plantain's Grunge Lords Vol 1

Joey Dadass- 17th Century (prod. Mammoth)



Quinn: Midnight Reruns, Zed Kenzo & Juiceboxxx & Riverwest Public House

Evan: WebsterX Homecoming Show @ The Miramar & Trapo Homecoming Show @ The Majestic

Sahan: Mike Krol at Cactus Club 5/5/16

Steph: Twin Peaks @ Thalia Hall & Calliope, Slow Walker, Moon Rats and Shogun @ Boone Row

Ali: Mike Regal Record Release Show @ Miramar Theatre


Explain Staff Pick Album of the Year:

Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love!

Most Anticipated Release of 2017:

Ali: Gorillaz

Steph: The Orwells - Terrible Human Beings

Evan: Nas

Sahan: Pissed Jeans-Why Love Now?

Quinn: Dogs In Ecstasy

The Explain Podcast: EP 02 - Fifteen Years Of Holy Shit!

The Explain Podcast: EP 02 - Fifteen Years Of Holy Shit!

Fifteen years ago to the day, Holy Shit! made their live debut. To celebrate the anniversary of the hardcore punk four piece, Sahan Jayasuriya sat down with the band to discuss international touring, playing for apathetic college students, the secret to longevity and more.

The Origins Of FREESPACE; An Ongoing History

The Origins Of FREESPACE; An Ongoing History

FREESPACE has evolved from an after-school hang out space to a tight-knit community where the collaboration of young artists is crucial to its survival. The energy that fills the room incites epic jam sessions where each artist feeds off vibes flowing from the audience who surrounds the small black-and-white tiled stage at the Jazz Gallery.