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Friday, August 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Fair
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Extreme accordion
Modern-day players find new uses for a traditional instrument

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On the last Friday and Saturday nights of most months, you can hear Steve Meisner play traditional accordion polka music at the Essen Haus on East Wilson Street. But if you happened to stumble into the Frequency on a recent Friday night, you would have seen the accordion played in a very different way.

There, Celeste Heule played alongside a bass, lead guitar and drums in the Madison indie rock band Sleeping in the Aviary.

Accordions may be old-school Wisconsin. The polka, after all, is the official state dance, and the accordion's presence here dates back to the folk traditions of the state's 19th-century European immigrants.

But the accordion is also newly relevant. The instrument has been embraced by leading national indie rock and indie folk bands, including Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, DeVotchKa and Beirut. Here in Madison, local pop acts have likewise begun to incorporate the accordion with youthful glee. The new generation of local players includes Celeste Heule, 25; Randall Luecke, 26, of Crane Your Swan Neck; Mike Cammilleri, 29, of the Kissers (the Irish rock band that formally broke up last year but performed here as recently as last month); Rick Burkhardt, 39, of Prince Myshkins; and Matt Williams, 24, of STEEZ.

Whitewater's Meisner, meanwhile, is the son of the late Milwaukee accordion legend Verne Meisner, who was inducted into the International Polka Association's Hall of Fame in 1989. Between father and son, the Meisners have been playing accordion in Wisconsin for 60 years. The area's other accordion icon is Lou Berryman, 62. She and her sidekick, Peter Berryman, have been playing their droll folk music around the country since 1977.

Recently I asked all seven of these local squeezebox players some instrumental questions: What inspired you to start playing? What's unique about standing onstage, pulling and pushing bellows? Do you perceive the accordion as being suddenly popular among young musicians?

Here's what they had to say.

Celeste Heule
Sleeping in the Aviary (indie rock)

My dad bought an accordion at a rummage sale when I was younger. It lay around our house until one Christmas Eve a few years back when my family decided to learn how to play "Silent Night" for the Christmas gathering the next day. My brother grabbed the musical saw, my dad hung some rusty metal pieces on a hanger to hit, my mom had some blocks of wood and my sister had the oven rack. I grabbed the accordion.

When I think of accordions I think of that scene in the Herzog film Stroszek where the main character, Bruno, plays accordion in this weird, wet little dead-end alleyway to drunkenly relax. Later in the film, the accordion gets ripped apart by some pimps and it's this really significantly scary scene. Accordions can feel both really pretty and powerful in that way, and maybe that is what indie rock has embraced.

Mike Cammilleri
The Kissers (Irish rock)

Kari Bethke, the fiddle player for the Kissers, called me back in December of 2006 and asked if I'd be interested in trying out for the Kissers' accordion spot. From that point I was playing the accordion every week up until we disbanded in June 2008.

The single biggest difference an accordion makes for any "keyboard" player is the mobility factor. Being able to stand and run around. This is evident in the over-animated accordionists you see in bands like the Dropkick Murphys. Guys who are anchored behind a keyboard instrument or forced to sit and play are all of a sudden a moving rock star with the accordion. They exude an obnoxious stage presence.

The accordion also looks odd. I can't quite explain why the sight of an accordion makes so many people excited, but it's visibly noticeable at shows. What can look more odd than a guy standing there pumping air through a box covered in buttons?

Lou Berryman
Lou and Peter Berryman (folk)

I grew up in Wisconsin during the time when traveling salesmen went around selling accordion and lesson packages to families. My father and my brother both played. I was never invited to play. But if they had invited me, the thing they played would have squashed me flat.

I went out and bought a $100 accordion at the ripe old age of 30, in 1977, when Peter and I had already been playing with two other musicians in a little acoustic group we called the Kitchen Band. Though I'd played guitar and banjo in other bands in the past, I was looking for something new to add to our foursome.

A couple of years before that, when Peter and I were living in British Columbia, we'd met a charming and talented Danish guy who played the accordion and sang. Peter had written a goofy little polka, and I thought it might be a cool thing if I learned a couple of accordion songs and played them in our group, just as a novelty. Well. Our two other musical pals suddenly weren't so interested in playing with us anymore. Was it the accordion? We'll never know, but in just a few months, Peter and I were a duo.

About six months later we landed the gig at the Club de Wash, and the rest is, as they say, history.

I have loved the gradual popularization of the accordion. But I'm pretty sure that all these folks that picked up the accordion, as I did, for a lark, a joke, a song or two, have found, as I did, that they couldn't put it down.

Randy Luecke
Crane Your Swan Neck (indie rock)

I think the concept of orchestral rock is the perfect environment for the accordion because it can easily switch between melody and chords, which other portable reed instruments can't necessarily accomplish.

For a fair amount of the songs that I play with a full band, it's actually a traditional instrument. Many of the songs that I wrote initially were very much influenced by Latin and Eastern European folk music. For other songs, I employ a "use where it fits" mentality, which I think just adds an interesting, fun flair to otherwise nontraditional accordion songs.

I really like just handing a piano player an accordion for the first time and watching them fall in love as well. I think once you hear one that is not playing polka, you want one. It's all about the reed sound!

Steve Meisner

In the U.S., the downturn of the accordion was mostly due to the electric guitar's popularity with youths for the last several generations. The accordion became an iconic instrument identified with parents and grandparents and looked upon as a skunk, an antiquity or a complicated gadget.

Not so in most of the rest of the world, contrary to popular belief driven by the U.S. stereotype. I believe that this false taboo is part of what drives the indie interest as artists look for something different to bring freshness to their music. For the most part, polka music or any accordion-based music is not accepted by the U.S. masses due to the population's narrow vision of music.

I'd love to see a rock artist make the accordion the staple of their music instead of a guitar. I think it could work if the artist was proficient and understood the accordion as a rock artist understands his guitar. Unfortunately, I think the accordion is being used by today's artists as more of a novelty than a staple. Which will, in the end, be a phase.

Matt Williams
STEEZ (funk)

I use to do a lot of antique mall shopping, and after I got tired of buying Star Wars figures I finally bought the small, red-fur-lined, old-school accordion that had been sitting in the same spot for months - and kept dropping in price while the Star Wars figure prices continued to climb.

I have always been a keyboard player and always have been quite curious about the funny little squeezebox. I'm pretty sure the first time I became aware of the squeezebox was in some old Disney cartoon. It always looked like a very comical instrument to me. Not as serious as the classical grand piano and just something more associated with carnivals, beer drinking and an all-around good time. People always seem to start laughing as soon as I pick up the thing. And the smiles usually last despite the awkward, raspy, nasal sound.

Rick Burkhardt
Prince Myshkins (satirical political cabaret folk)

I've always thought that if I'm going to write topical songs about war and greed and the insane economic system we live in, I'd better write music that sounds fundamentally askew somehow, to express how twisted the topics themselves are. Three-chord songs are great and everything, but to me they always have a tendency to make the stuff you're singing about sound beautiful and right.

If you look at a picture of a union rally or a street protest from the 1930s, you'll almost inevitably see that someone amidst all those serious faces is holding an accordion.

I don't think there are necessarily more young accordionists now, but I think there are more people looking around in the shadowy parts of music history for traces of musical cultures that got lost in the shuffle-play of the 20th-century hit-making market, and I think people are looking for alternatives to music that only comes through wires. Once you start seeking out music like that, you're going to find accordions.

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