Spending some time with The Violet Hour
Is the Milwaukee-based band The Violet Hour named after the James Beard Award-winning Chicago cocktail lounge? Or perhaps it's a reference to T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem "The Waste Land"? Or maybe … it was just a random pick gifted to them by a random colleague. Sorry, fancy Chicago hot spots and pretentious literary references; you lose this round.
"The vice president of the company I worked for at the time actually offered up," said lead vocalist Karen Muehlbauer. "I'm pretty sure the Chicago lounge is where he heard of it, although a T.S. Eliot poem makes us sound a little more educated."
Thankfully, The Violet Hour's music is fittingly much more colorful than their name's relatively beige backstory. The quartet – featuring Muehlbauer, lead guitarist Kenneth Sabbar, Keith Bauer on bass and Ignacio Catral on drums – originally came together around 2012, rocking out White Stripes and Black Keys approved punky blues. However, for "Fragments" – the band's second album, getting a release party show at 9 p.m. Linneman's on Friday, May 29 – The Violet Hour moved away from that sound (and the trend of format of new blues rock bands with color-particular nouns for names) and toward the soaring guitar, moodily aethereal electronic soundscapes of Shoegazing indie rock.
OnMilwaukee.com sat down with Muehlbauer, Catral and Bauer to chat about the change in musical direction, the new album, their affinity for ping pong and how one of them is secretly a Sarah McLachlan fan.
OnMilwaukee.com: You started as a blues-punk band in that Black Keys and White Stripes mode, and for this latest album, you've mixed it up. What was the motivation or inspiration for that?
Keith Bauer: The impetus for that really was the new ideas we were coming up with were really more in this vein of shoegazing, indie rock. That's what kind of brought on our new guitar player, who's been with us for about over a year. Our guitarist at the time was much more into hard rock; he liked what we were doing, but he could sense that the direction we were going in was different. It was very amicable.
This was over a year ago, so we were looking for a new guitar player and tried out various people. Ken was the last one we auditioned, kind of a last minute thing, and it turned out to beautiful what we did and what he brought to the table. And that's really where we took off from there. We played some of our old stuff for him and then some of the new ideas. He added what he thought sounded good, and it sounded great. So we just kind of built off of that.
Ignacio Catral: It wasn't like a conscious decision to change styles. It just happened organically, that the newer songs that we were coming up with were like this. Karen and Keith do most of the writing in the band, I would say. Keith brings bass riffs to the table, Karen brings from a riff to a complete finished song with lyrics and then we do our thing over that. It wasn't a drastic change.
KB: Nobody ever said, "We need to change our sound." It was just what we were coming up with and feeding off of each other.
OMC: Were there any bands you were listening to or coming to mind during that phase?
IC: Some Tame Impala came to mind. Actually, I wasn't aware of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club until Keith brought it to the table. Spoon …
Karen Muehlbauer: Portugal. The Man. More indie rock influences.
OMC: Were there any concerns about alienating your fans at the time with such a shift?
KM: A little bit. I don't think we really talked about it, honestly. I think we just started writing these songs, and they felt good. Things just seemed to fall into place. Up until that point, it was pretty piecemeal in terms of how we were writing. Someone would have a song idea that was a little more blues oriented, and then the next person would write one that was a little more punky. So we were trying to meld these things together, and I don't think we ever really found our specific sound until after we put out that album and we were writing some new songs. We just kind of fell into it.
KB: That was one of the things we wanted to try for this new album. We sat down as a band when we were looking for a new guitar player and kind of made our own goals, and that was a part of it: writing a cohesive album, where the songs really seemed to fit together.
The first one, like Karen mentioned, was we had some songs, and then we wrote some more songs and just kind of threw them together on an album. There were punk songs and blues songs, and it was more a collection of songs than a real work. This time, we were focused, and we figured this was the direction we were going to go; let's try to keep our creativity between these lines.
OMC: And you had a meeting to figure that all out?
KM: There was an actual band meeting. At Spin. (laughs)
KB: We actually all play ping pong too, so it was nice. We had been auditioning people and we wanted to make sure that, before we made a decision, we were confident in the direction we were going in.
OMC: I thought you were going to say that you had a meeting to make sure the new guitarist was good enough at pong to join.
KB: (laughs) Maybe that should have been a part of it!
KM: I thought I was good until I played against these two.
IC: We take it a little serious. (laughs)
KB: It's good, fun competition.
KM: Well now I feel like we should put Ken to the test! We brought him into the band without any test. He could be terrible. Poor guy's not even here to tell us.
KB: He'd probably smoke us. (laughs)
OMC: How was the recording process for "Fragments"?
KM: The first word that comes to mind is long. (laughs) We probably started in August or so, because we were kind of writing songs and recording as we went along. Ken knows a ton about sound engineering, so we decided to have him do it. In Keith's basement, which is also our practice space.
KB: We call it "The Cellar." We turned it into a recording space, which worked out fine. I was a little concerned about the limited space, but Ken was very good about the micing techniques.
Initially, we thought we were going to do an EP as a release – we only had three songs at the time – but as the ideas were flowing, it seemed possible that we could do an album. But then we had to come up with more songs (laughs) which drew out the process a little bit. But it worked out really well. We were able to, last summer, get Ken into the mix, do some live shows and get comfortable, and then fall came around when we laid down some tracks.
KM: Considering Ken just started about a year ago, the songs really flowed quickly. So I guess it feels long, but it's really not that long. (laughs)
KB: It seemed to come so easy early on probably because we had some of these ideas before we started recording anything. Those came real quick, but for the last several songs, we still had to work the ideas. That's what lengthened the process. But here we are.
OMC: Odd final question: What is something on your iPod that you listen to that you'd be guilty to admit to your bandmates?
KM: I love that question! (laughs)
KM: Where to begin! (laughs)
IC: I have a young daughter, so there's a lot of crap ends up on my iPod. "All About That Bass" from Meghan Trainor.
KM: This is sort of embarrassing, but one of my favorite artists legitimately is Sarah McLachlan. (laughs) I think a lot of people would make fun of me for that, but I really do like her a lot. Paula Cole ...
KB: Hey, I have Paula Cole on my iPod! (laughs)
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