When they gave their 5-year-old son Robby a Smurf drum set, Neenah's Mark and Cindy Schiller could little have suspected that two decades later he would be the King of Pop - or at least the songwriter, singer and de facto leader of Madison's best original rock 'n' roll band, Blueheels.
The first thing that gets you about this group is The Voice, startlingly twangy, quintessentially American, eccentric, expressive, weird. The last time a voice stopped you in your tracks as Schiller's does was 30 years ago, in the opening bars of "Wuthering Heights," which Kate Bush sang as though full of helium. It suggests that the Dust Bowl extended all the way up to Neenah.
Just as it earlier seemed to have extended all the way to Hibbing, Minnesota. Like Bob Dylan's in his Woody Guthrie-channeling period, The Voice seems affected, as Schiller's speaking voice bears little resemblance to it. Or does it? "When he yells for his dog, he sounds like when he sings," says Justin Bricco, the 'Heels' ursine lead guitarist.
"I guess it's a volume thing," the emaciated, bewhiskered ragamuffin that is Robby shrugs. "Maybe the two would sound more alike if I talked as loud as I sing." He confides that his fondest wish for himself as a vocalist would be the ability to croon "Don't Worry Baby" as prettily as Brian Wilson did nearly 30 years before his birth.
People began telling him he sounded like Dylan before he'd actually heard Dylan. He sought out some of the great man's work, loved what he heard, and then made a point of ceasing to listen to it, lest he come to remind people of him even more vividly. The fact is that his singing is very much more musical than his progenitor's. And once you learn he also likes Billie Holiday, you begin detecting fleeting traces of her influence too.
After The Voice, there is the band. Eternally topped by a cap that falsely suggests an affinity for Bolshevism, Bricco plays with as much taste as passion, and you've rarely seen anyone more passionate on stage. He shakes the neck of his guitar as though trying to revive an unconscious loved one. Adam Cargin, whom Bricco claims can play circles around him on guitar, is a terrific drummer. "There isn't a level of dynamics that Adam can't achieve," Bricco marvels - a good thing for a band that delights, as in "Stupid Little Smile," in going from near-silence to gale-force fury in the blink of an eye.
To deploy an ancient paradigm, these boys can rock like mad, but they can also lilt, and even swing gently, as in such new songs as "Elephant Joke," which benefit from the recent addition of keyboardist Teddy Pedriana. They seem to have a knack for attracting bass players with no interest in showing off, and who are content to provide a nice thick, rich sonic bottom.
After the band, there are the songs, a lot of which, like the band's very name, have to do with Schiller's spirituality. "People have odd ideas about being a Christian. To a lot of people, it implies a sort of spiritual high ground. 'La di da, look at perfect me,' and all that bullshit. But what I get out of it is there's a God who loves you just the way you are, who says, 'You're beautiful and I will love you for eternity even if you don't get the tiniest iota better.'"
"Interesting that you refer to God as he," murmurs the soft-spoken Bricco, the sort of guy who, when offered tea at someone's home, scrupulously rinses out his cup before going home.
Schiller doesn't apologize. "Humanity is the woman," he says, "and God the man. God enters into your life and changes your desires. You can choose either to let God affect your decisions or to deny him. In a typical day I go back and forth a million times."
If Schiller has a favorite theme as a songwriter, you'd have to say it's stupidity - usually his own. "'Stupid Little Smile' is me yelling at myself for my poor decision-making, for drinking too much too often and staying up until four in the morning, for throwing bottles off the roofs of buildings, that sort of thing."
Growing up in Neenah, in which most either worked in a manhole cover or paper factory or supervised others who did, this son of an airplane mechanic listened to the Clash and turned up at Neenah High only when the spirit moved him. The spirit irregularly moved him. His dad introduced him to the music of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and a friend, noting his interesting voice, taught him a couple of guitar chords and suggested he try to write a song.
Hosting an open-mike night at the Blue Moon coffeehouse, he met another Neenah kid who played guitar and liked both punk and country. Half a dozen years Schiller's senior, Justin Bricco had become a father at 18, and was the son of a psych tech in chemical dependency units who on weekend nights played James Burton- and Clarence White-style lead guitar in country bands. Bricco's own tastes ran as much to Guns N' Roses (at least until his indignant dad snatched it away and replaced it with Led Zeppelin II) and Milwaukee punks Compound Red.
Schiller spent most of his high school years ingesting whatever hallucinogens he could get his hands on, listening to music, and reading the Beats. "It wasn't that I didn't like learning. It's that I've always had a hard time with somebody telling me what to do, with their saying something like, 'Read page 90 of your history book.'" He couldn't wait to get out On the Road himself, though he would learn too soon "how not-glamorous it can be, being homeless in a strange town. Sleeping on a park bench or in the woods loses its flavor pretty quick."
At his first opportunity, Schiller got as far from Neenah as it's possible to get, accompanying a couple of young Pentecostal missionaries of his acquaintance to Indonesia. Having had bands throughout adolescence, he'd intended to take a break from music and to concentrate primarily on trying "to figure out where I sat with God." But he'd hardly been in the country 10 minutes before the fellow who'd sponsored the visit had stuck a guitar in his hands. He was able to put it down long enough to help dig wells and talk to the locals about being Christians in one of the world's most fervently Muslim cultures.
After three months, Schiller came back to the U.S.A. via Australia - to New Mexico, where his sister lived, rather than Wisconsin, having fallen in love with the desert. "I admire a place where things have to work so hard to survive," he muses quotably. He formed a group, Shipwreck, to perform his songs, only to discover he wasn't as in love with the desert as originally suspected, and couldn't relate to his new bandmates on anything but a business level. "The prospect of spending years driving around with those guys wasn't a very pleasant one," he reveals, "and I thought, 'What am I doing here when there are fantastic musicians back in Wisconsin?'"
Bricco, one of the fantastic musicians he had in mind, was meanwhile busy spending his 20s playing in the Airborne Burn Victims with drummer Adam Cargin, getting himself certified as a substitute teacher, volunteering for paid research studies, pumping gas and working for an organic vegetable farmer. As his 30th birthday approached, he was back living with his mother.
On the evening of Oct. 18, 2004 - a date that one day will be recognized as having no less importance to Wisconsin popular music history than July 6, 1957, does to the Beatles (because Paul McCartney met a drunken John Lennon that afternoon), Schiller and Bricco exchanged nods at a performance by their friends the Obsoletes.
A couple of weeks later, their paths crossed anew, at the oft-renamed coffeehouse where Neenah's hipsters loiter. Schiller had a bunch of new songs, Bricco an ancient Panasonic boombox with a record function. He made a cassette of Schiller singing and went home to Mom's to work up guitar parts. Having done so, he and Schiller recruited a rhythm section, named themselves Blueheels after a passage in Genesis in which God warns Eve that the Serpent will bruise her heels, and got themselves booked to perform at...the coffeehouse.
They played five shows that whole summer, and agreed that their drummer, whose dynamic range extended from too loud to much too loud, needed replacing. Bricco's old fellow Airborne Burn Victim Adam Cargin seemed the obvious choice. Bassist Brett Jannusch and harmony singer Rebecca Krafft, who had a daughter together, came to be Blueheels too.
They played wherever they could play Schiller's songs - at T's Roadhouse in Tomahawk, at Peabody's Ale House in Oshkosh. Sometimes it seemed as though they were the house band at Cranky Pat's, a popular pizzeria in Neenah, henceforth the Wisconsin answer to Liverpool's Cavern. Jannusch and Krafft took a powder, and bassist Justin Perkins joined up.
Calling on his experience selling organic sugar snap peas, Bricco worked the phones hard. The band began to play in Madison, whose mayor declared himself a fan. A self-important formerly famous music critic recently relocated from London anointed them the city's most notable band. The weekend after the anointment, they drove down to play in Chicago, slept on a fan's floor, and came home with $39 between them. The big time!
After 30 hours on an Amtrak train, they arrived at their next gig in Boston feeling like newly uncaged wild animals - and just about swallowed the audience whole. "We had them from the first note," Schiller rhapsodizes. "The whole set, they were laughing and cheering at lyrics. It was a whole roomful of perfect strangers just shoveling energy up at us. Then, at the end, they were screaming for an encore even though we were only the support group."
But every silver lining has its cloud. In mid-October, Bricco had received an email from Perkins whose title line ominously read "The future...." It turned out that the bass player was being offered more lucrative audio engineering work than he could continue to decline, and intended to leave the band. The 'Heels were alternately depressed and frantic. "Justin Perkins is a bass player most bands would trade a brother for," in Bricco's characteristically generous assessment.
Cargin began playfully/not so playfully emailing his friend Landon Arkens, who'd since relocated to Manhattan to pursue his own career as a recording engineer, saying, "So when are you going to come back to Wisconsin to join Blueheels?" Lo and behold, the week before Christmas, he emailed to say yes, and "the great dark cloud [that had] moved upon our house," in Bricco's uncharacteristically King James-ish words, blew away. "Every time I see him," the guitarist is unashamed to confide, "I tell him, 'Thank you; you saved my life.'"
Robby Schiller spends his days dumpster-diving, without embarrassment. "Other people may think it's degrading," he says, "but I take pride in it. I don't like to feel that I'm too good for anything, and I believe people like me provide a valuable service preventing waste."
Mainly in the market for scrap metal, he often finds instead otherwise worthless stuff he can use at Blueheels shows, truckloads of Halloween and New Year's decorations, for instance, or 60 pounds of candy to toss to audiences as though from Mardi Gras floats.
"One of the things I love about it is that it's like treasure-hunting. Every morning, I ask God to help us find good dumpsters. On any given day, you might find absolutely nothing in 12 hours, or go out for an hour and a half and make enough to pay your rent."
You might suppose that Mark and Cindy Schiller had something very different in mind when they gave their toddler those toy drums.
"If they worry," Schiller says of his parents, "they don't let on. They try to come to our shows in Madison, and they're always there in Neenah, with my dad right in front dancing like a crazy person. When I had bands in high school, I never once said, 'You guys should come to the show.' I think they're just overjoyed that I'm finally doing something I'm willing to share with them."