Week in Pop: Bruiser Queen, Fielded, Telethon

Post Author: Sjimon Gompers


Telethon hanging out in front of a mural, from left, Nathaniel Johnson, Kevin Tully, Alex Meylink & Jack Sibilski; photographed by Danielle Huey.

Telethon readies to release their grandiose concept record The Grand Spontanean available September 29 through Halloween Records & proudly presents us with the music video world premiere for “Succinct, the Optimist” directed by Pedro Cerda & the Unmade Productions crew. The Milwaukee band has come up with a concept album that includes a lineup of special guests featuring the likes of Laura Stevenson, Chris Farren, Franz Nicolay (of The World/Inferno Friendship Society, The Hold Steady), Roger Lima from Less Than Jake, Peter Hess (also of World/Inferno Friendship Society) & production from Jack Shirley that tells a story about the importance of happenstance & spontaneity that involves a whole cast of made up characters.
Case in point is the Pedro Cerda/Unmade Productions video for “Succinct, the Optimist” that involves a PowerTalk™ delivered by Telethon that more than unlocks hidden, latent potential. From Kevin Tully’s mirror rehearsed motivation that then breaks into the board room (head strap power mic & all) illustrates projected lyrics as if they were a Power Point presentation of blah-blahs. From here onward the passion gets heated as Erik Atwell interupts the employee empowerment meeting of the minds with a confounded fidget spinner that steals Tully’s attention before returning to a projection of the ubiquitous blue screen of death. And that’s everyone’s cue to rock out, as Nathaniel Johnson immediately starts rocking out with a super snazzy synthesizer solo, which in turn creates a dualling situation between Jack Sibilski’s shredding guitar rips as Alex Meylink’s bass lines bring in the rhythm component, as Atwell takes to the drum kit to complete the entire band as one big happy ensemble. Telethon breaks out of the business mold with an ultra-beat performance piece that pierces the corporate veil with that overwhelming feeling that the band truly can solve any & all conundrums that might arrive along life’s way.

We had the opportunity to catch up with Telethon’s Kevin Tully in the following interview discussion session:
We want to know everything that is amazing happening in Milwaukee right now.
Milwaukee’s awesome. There’s art happening all around every night. Music, theatre, film, visual arts, everything. The music scene, in our experience anyway, is kinda fragmented but in a really inspiring & cool way. The shows we get around town always have interesting bills. A couple months ago we played at this great bar called Frank’s Power Plant and the bill was composed of us, a local pop-punk band called Man Random, and a local video game jazz three-piece called Mechanical Life Vein wherein one of the members plays classic NES games on mute while the rest of the band plays both the soundtracks and the sound effects of those games on their instruments. Their act wasn’t falsely advertised. They do their thing and they do it really well. And then a couple weeks later we played a show at the Cactus Club with two touring southern rock/Americana bands who sounded like the Drive-By Truckers. To us that’s really rad. From our perspective there doesn’t seem to be a hell of a lot of cohesion but there’s a lot of friendly midwestern people, a plethora of great small venues, etc. We love Milwaukee. We grew up around here and the city keeps showing us new sides of itself. We also just started our own label/recording co-op called Halloween Records, running out of our band house in Bayview [Milwaukee neighborhood]. Hit us up.
Tell us all the notes of interest about working with Laura Stevenson, Chris Farren, Franz Nicolay & more along with how they all contributed to the visions involved on The Great Spontanean.
We got in touch with almost all of the people on the record for the first time just by emailing them. We’d never met them before except maybe as fans at their shows. We essentially told them, We’ve got this vision for a huge rock opera, do you wanna play a character in it? and, to our surprise, these heroes of ours responded and said they’d be down to do it. With every single “yes” we got, we collectively flipped out. It’s a strange and uniquely modern sentiment, but getting those emails are some of the fondest memories I have of making this album. Every guest we got on board kept piling on to the pandemonium and made the record feel like more and more of an epic undertaking.
All the folks recorded remotely except Franz Nicolay, who actually flew out for a couple of days to do additional instrumentation in the studio with us. We emailed him out of the blue and said we wanted to add Hold Steady vibes to a few songs, and that he was the perfect dude to do it, He ended up contributing a ton more because he plays so many instruments. He also introduced us to his good buddy, the mastermind that is Peter Hess, an instrumentalist and composer who lives in Brooklyn. He arranged and recorded a bunch of additional orchestral parts on the record which added a whole new level of grandiosity to several of the songs. He was essential. But it’s a crazy domino effect in that if we hadn’t asked Franz to help us out, he would have never told us about Peter, and then there would likely be no orchestral shit on the record, and it would sound significantly different than it does today.
How did Jack Shirley further impact the record?
We worked with Jack on our last record Citrosis and realized that any more records we made simply had to be made at his studio. It’s a magical place. This record was a very different, longer, more maximal beast yet Jack handled it all in stride. I remember on our first day, out of 10 days, recording, we were like three or four songs in out of 30 total and Jack said to me; Is it safe to say we’re making a rock opera? and I said, That’s the vision, man, and from that point on there was no doubt we were going to do the damn thing. It was a completely stress-free experience. I’m not even exaggerating. Every idea we tossed at him, he found some way to make it happen without over-thinking it. I think with a different producer/engineer, making a 30-track concept album could have taken months, but Jack’s outlook of doing shit live and not worrying too much about the minutiae works so incredibly well with us that we we were able to finish the thing with time to spare. We love Jack. He is the coolest dude ever and a true master of his craft.

Hanging around on the play-set with Telethon; photographed by Danielle Huey.

Describe the growth, discovery & learning lessons that you all have experienced since Citrosis.
First off, we started writing as a band more. Citrosis was largely the product of solo acoustic songs being transformed into full band songs. I lived in California at the time so it was hard for us to truly write together. I’d record a demo, send it to the guys, they’d chop and screw it in their own way, we practiced it a few times, and laid it down in the studio for the record. On this album, though, we were in the same general vicinity and were able to write and practice and make demos together. That helped so much in evolving the sound from the last album. Citrosis was also small-ish by design. It was a day-in-the-life album, whereas this new one treads much wider thematic and musical ground. We were listening to a lot of Springsteen and Meat Loaf and Jesus Christ Superstar while writing it, so that should tell you a lot.
Give us some thoughts too on the inspirations behind the song “Succinct, the Optimist” and insights on the Pedro Cerda & Unmade Productions visuals.
“Succinct, The Optimist” is a fairly serious song about avoiding and objecting to getting help when you really need it, but we took a nod from the old Foo Fighters playbook and made a totally stupid, goofy video for it. When I lived in the Silicon Valley, I attended a bunch of ridiculous, sad TedTalk-esque meetups/seminars, so we tried to make this video caricaturize that sort of thing. One of the most overpowering themes across all our music, and especially this new record, is our disillusionment with modern technology and all the lifestyle adaptations we’ve made to accommodate it—so this video is pretty on brand I guess. We also knew we really wanted shots of the whole band playing the last chorus with a big cool light up sign that says our name behind us, so we squeezed that in there too. Pedro and the Unmade Productions crew were amazing. They took our vision for the video, plussed it up, and figured out how to make it all happen. They even built that light-up sign from scratch. We banged the whole video out in like three hours and then ordered like six pizzas.
Two fun facts about it:
1. It was super hot in the room we filmed in. So our keyboardist Nate’s pit sweat is actually real but it also fit perfectly with the character he’s portraying. So as he kept getting sweatier and sweatier we just kept getting more and more excited about it. By the end of the shoot he was sweating through everything (check it out in the final shot). It was gnarly.
2. We filmed the final scene of us all playing our instruments a couple times and at one point I mistimed my walk to the mic stand and had to put my guitar on really fast. So if you pay attention, you’ll see that I put the guitar strap on like a total idiot. I kinda freaked out when I first saw that I did that, but now we all think it’s funny. Pretend it was intentional, okay?! Or better yet, don’t notice it at all.

Telethon take to the swings; photographed by Danielle Huey.

What sorts of take aways from the DIY process of making the new record are resonating with you all & what other projects/conceptual works are in the pipeline?
Practically speaking: It’s still a totally uphill battle to get anybody to notice, but it’s less exhausting this time around than it was the last time. Creatively speaking: to put it simply, we’ve learned to just go for it. We all listen to a ton of different music and take influence from a ton of different places, so we’ve started integrating that in a much more noticeable way than we ever have. We’ve stopped saying “no” to ideas. We try everything and see through any idea that had legs, something that is super evident in this new record. It’s nice because we only have to hold ourselves accountable, there is nobody breathing down our neck or telling us what kind of music to make. With our new Halloween Records studio set up, we also can experiment with sounds &ideas a lot more liberally than we could before. It’s a bit like Forrest Gump getting his leg braces off.
Hopes & wishes for fall/winter?
We all deeply want people to hear this behemoth we created. It’s an hour-and-a-half’s worth of music and we’re super proud of it. We also, of course, want people to come see us on tour and at the end of October when we play FEST down in Gainesville. We already have ideas for LP #4, conceptually and musically, so I’m hoping we get a couple songs ready for that by the end of 2017. Maybe we’ll email Jack Shirley and solidify some recording dates in his book. But above all else, we want people to hear The Grand Spontanean.
Telethon’s upcoming album The Grand Spontanean will be available September 29 via Halloween Records, pre-order available here with future releases planned as a boxset featuring playbill with lyrics & various other odds & ends pertaining to the concept record’s narrative. Catch Telethon taking The Grand Spontanean on tour with an appearance slated for Fest 16 October 27-29.

cover for Telethon’s The Grand Spontanean.