If you're new to Madison, it can be hard to figure out where to start when it comes to local music. Sure, venues like the Frequency, the High Noon Saloon, the Majestic, the Orpheum and the Barrymore host acts that tour the country, but how do you get a sense of the homegrown scene?
Being a college town, Madison has a wide variety of musical talent at its bars and coffeehouses. On any given night you might stumble upon bluegrass jams, hip-hop shows, DJs, metal cover bands, country crooners, blues weepers or jazz improvisers. But what if you want to find something you've never heard before? Look to bands paying their dues, those that burn brightly for four or five years here, then shine on elsewhere. I'm talking about college bands.
Despite all the genres, sub-genres and labels out there, sometimes it's best to seek something that just rocks. Chuck Berry rocked, but so did Bob Dylan, with or without an electric guitar. Quiet music can rock, too. Here are five local college bands that rock, each in its own way.
If you're looking for something to listen to that's as comfortable as a porch in the country on a cool summer's day, Snouts is the band for you. Sarah Nelson and Martin Potter are a duo on and offstage, which lends their songs intimacy.
"Undoubtedly, our chemistry stems from the fact that we have been together for a few years, and most of our music is about each other, places we have been or things we have done," Nelson says.
In terms of style, think Beth Orton and Terry Callier, a less country Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, or Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine.
Potter graduated from the UW in May with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and psychology, and Nelson has one more year there to finish her master's degree in speech and language pathology. Nelson says the duo "dream of mountains," so they hope to move west once their schooling is complete.
"It took us awhile to amass material and rehearse it to where we were comfortable performing because we do so many other things together, but our friends have all been supportive and continue to come to shows," Potter says of Snouts' time in Madison. "We love the corner of the music scene we've stumbled into."
Snouts' music gained more emotional weight a year ago, when Nelson was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery, chemo and radiation.
"She stayed in school and kept playing shows even on chemo, which I think is a testament to her strength," Potter says. "She's in remission now, knock on wood. Some of our songs react to that struggle and relate it to the experience of everybody finishing school and leaving the city, state and country to start their lives."
It's difficult enough to stay in touch with friends you went to kindergarten with, but it's even harder to play music with them in college.
Guitarist Arren Alexander and drummer Isaac Hecimovich of local band Owls, Foxes & Sebastian have been friends and musical companions since the days of naptimes and finger painting. They picked up guitarist Aaron David in middle school and bassist Marcus Patterson in high school.
"The first time we all jammed together felt like a perfect fit," David says. "Over the last few years, we've gotten more serious, played numerous shows, and have recorded two albums, with a third in the works."
Alexander and David are currently studying voice and art at the UW. Hecimovich and Patterson are at Madison College, studying nursing and liberal arts, respectively.
You can hear hints of the Killers and Modest Mouse in Owls, Foxes & Sebastian's music, but there are also shades of Television, Local Natives and French Kicks.
David says the band's chemistry stems from years of friendship.
"We share a bond around music, the band, and doing things together," he says. "We're truly best friends first and band members second."
David says it's tough to break into the Madison music scene, but lately Owls, Foxes & Sebastian have found exciting opportunities.
"There are a lot more Madison bands than people realize," he says. "It's host to a good variety of talent, sounds and styles."
Though graduation typically brings big changes, David doesn't expect things to be much different when all the members of Owls, Foxes & Sebastian finish their studies.
"We plan to play together until our lives need something new," he says. "Ideally, we'd continue performing, touring and recording our hearts out."
Oedipus Tex is a familiar name to many people who have followed local music for the last few years. Originally a solo vehicle for singer-songwriter Eric Caldera, it's recently become much more.
"I've been playing as Oedipus Tex for over 10 years," Caldera says. "But in the past year this singer-songwriter thing has morphed into a band. Last year I released the first Oedipus Tex album, Borracho Corazon, which featured more than just me singing and playing guitar. That got me wanting to sing with a band again."
Traveling in the same sparse, atmospheric territory as Matthew Ryan, Red House Painters and Greg Dulli's quieter moments, Borracho Corazon was named one of Isthmus' favorite albums of 2012.
Rounding out Caldera's ensemble is baritone guitarist Karl Christianson, who also performs with Cribshitter and Icarus Himself; drummer Joe Bernstein, Caldera's bandmate in the instrumental group El Valiente; and organist Tony Messinger of Land of Vandals, who used to be Caldera's roommate.
"As far as piecing the band together, I just reached out to my homies," Caldera says.
Caldera is actually the only member of Oedipus Tex still at UW-Madison, but the rest of the band has some affiliation with the school.
"I started grad school in 2005, so I'm in, like, my one millionth year," Caldera says.
Will he be a part of the local scene much longer?
"I've really grown to love Madison," he says, "so I would like to try and stay in the area after I'm done."
The Sharrows have been playing together for a little more than a year now, but they've already taken their live show to Colorado and New York City. Among the diverse personalities on stage are cellist Sylvia Janicki, a recent UW grad; keyboardist Joe Hermanson; drummer Jacob Bicknase, a UW percussion major; Phil Sharrow, who does most of the singing and plays bass and guitar; and Matthew Smith, a UW student who plays lead guitar.
"We were all looking to play, and the timing was perfect," Smith says. "I think we have chemistry because of our music background in terms of listening. We all get our influences from great artists, and listening to them helps us understand how to function as a band."
Smith says the Sharrows' influences range from Wilco, to the Allman Brothers, to blues and other roots music.
Although they are relative newcomers on the Madison music scene, Smith says the band appreciates the sense of community in town.
"Everyone we have met is friendly, embracing and thoroughly interested in what we are doing," he says.
When all of Sharrows' members have graduated from college, they want to keep playing together and hit the road. And although they have recorded, Smith says they encourage audiences to check them out live.
"You grow so much from when you record your album to when you are playing a live show months later," he says. "Our live show is different than our album. We stretch things out and push it a bit."
Through last month, Dharma Dogs were living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, touring in America's heartland.
Guitarist Chris Joutras and drummer Nate Karls began playing together as a duo in 2010, and eventually bassist Adam Uselmann was brought in to fill out their sound. Joutras and Karls graduated from two different UW System schools, Stevens Point and Whitewater, and Uselmann is a graduate student at UW-Madison.
You can try to break their sound down into grunge, punk or garage rock, but in reality, they just rock.
"We went about that rock-band mating ritual of comparing what music we were into, shared interests, all that. Making friends, I guess," Karls says. "We found out that we shared a lot of the same touchstones musically: classic rock, weirdo art freakout stuff, punk rock. At some point, we decided to try it ourselves."
The band members think there are a lot of great things happening musically in Madison.
"It's mostly friendly and slightly competitive," Joutras says. "There are some good labels like Forward, Kind Turkey...and some hard-working touring bands like Fire Retarded, the Hussy, Zebras and Tenement...and some people that try really hard to bring good touring bands through, like Crucial Twat [and] Paint."
Joutras says Dharma Dogs intend to keep playing as long as they can.
"It's habitual at this point, and I don't feel right if I don't play," he says. "And there's nothing like playing live and getting all sweaty in front of strangers."