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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Cowboy Winter combine Detroit's soul and garage-rock traditions
Motown mash
Fiery theatrics meet stone-cold sincerity.

Cowboy Winter take a novel approach to soul and R&B on their debut album, Magic or Tragic. Instead of polishing their Motown influences like a session band would, the local group give them the bare immediacy of garage-rock. Lead vocalist Kevin Willmott declaims songs like "The Difficult One" with both achy sincerity and theatrical screams.

The four musicians have been playing together for a little more than a year, which shows in some of Magic or Tragic's more aimless moments. Then again, there's something endearing about the band's scrappiness. Willmott, bassist and singer Andrew Greenwood, guitarist Jordi Hipple, and drummer Brandon Winterle met up with me to discuss the album, which they unveiled in late April.

Did you know you wanted R&B to be a prominent part of the band when you got together?
Greenwood: It's always been my favorite era. I don't really listen to much current stuff, but I love Sam & Dave, old Motown, early soul and early garage-rock.
Willmott: The reason it spoke so much at the time, in the '60s, was because it wasn't cookie-cutter.

But there was kind of a machine behind it - a business machine, a session-bands machine. Winterle: But the best parts of it always carry over.
Greenwood: Some of the best soul musicians and singers, they weren't virtuosos. They were just raw enough and real enough.

Beyond Otis Redding, whom you mention as a big influence, who are some other vocalists who capture those qualities for you?
Willmott: Isaac Hayes. Gil-Scott Heron is probably my favorite artist.

On your song "Meet Me Halfway There," there's this call-and-response vocal between Kevin and the rest of the band. Where did that come from?
Winterle: It happened pretty naturally during a practice, and we kind of built it up.
Willmott: We were like, "Yeah, let's do a scream-shout thing."

The call-and-response thing, and little spoken parts in the middle of a song, are a really fun element of R&B that gets forgotten sometimes.
Greenwood: I love the Ink Spots, because they would do the same intro on every song, and then the same exact structure on every song, and then about two-thirds of the way through, the low-voiced guy just talks about whatever they're singing about. It's such a great formula.
Willmott: You look at Boyz II Men and all these other groups later on, and it's still a part of it, that monologue.

What other sounds would you like to incorporate in the future?
Greenwood: I'd really like to try to incorporate some middle-period David Bowie funk stuff.

Like Station to Station? With the prog right next to the really perfect funk track "Golden Years"?
Greenwood: That's my favorite album right now. The prog works perfectly with the funk-disco.

To bring up another artist who reworked R&B, some of your songs, especially "Only Human," seem influenced by Elvis Costello's Get Happy!!
Greenwood: I learned to sing from Elvis Costello albums.
Willmott: People actually called me "a black Elvis Costello." I never know how to accept that compliment.

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