An Interview with…
In 2023, The Hometown Foundation is excited to bring various musical talents to stages around Washington County. We are looking forward to another year of our annual Homegrown Music Festival on July 9 as well as the debuts of two new festivals – the Homegrown Blues Festival on May 21 and the Homegrown Bluegrass Festival September 24. We also will be continuing our Thursday night Regner Rocks Concert Series at Regner Park (West Bend). You will see many talented folks who call Wisconsin home. Joshua M. Miller interviewed Joe Wais of The MilBillies, who will be featured at the Regner Rocks Concert Series
Josh: The band started in 2018. How did the band originally get together?
Joe: The MilBillies were actually founded by our mandolin player Matt Bray and our bass player Pat Zimmer a few years before 2018. But as we stand today in our current lineup, with Evan Flood on guitar, me on fiddle and Dan Shaw on banjo, that group all came together in 2018. So, the MilBillies, as they exist today and as we’ve grown, the band really did start in 2018, basically as a new band, but under that name that had existed for a couple of years prior.
What do you think brought everyone together?
We all met at a bluegrass jam that happened in Milwaukee every Sunday at the bar in the Riverwest neighborhood called The Gig. Matt and Pat were putting together the band and they found the rest of us at that bluegrass jam. So, we were all playing music together every Sunday. And eventually just moved the five of us over to our banjo player, Dan’s garage, and started writing songs and playing gigs at little dive bars all around Milwaukee County and just went forward from there.
What does that mean to you that the band's been playing for five years now?
Oh, it means the world. It’s crazy that five years has gone by, but also it feels like yesterday we were just playing little shows and in Cudahy, but the guys, we’re total family. We’re a band of brothers now, and we’ve gone all over the country, and we have no plans of slowing down. In fact, we’re going to be releasing our second studio album this year, later in the fall.
How would you describe the band's sound and chemistry?
Definitely a high energy, good time on stage. We sort of coined a couple terms to describe it mostly as a joke early on, but you’ll see shirts that say “Hot Dirty Bluegrass” out there. I think that’s one of the good ways to describe the sound is just smacked right on that shirt that started as a joke, but ended up being something that people use to as connotation for our sound and what we do on stage.
What do you think makes it stand out from others that have a similar type of sound?
We just write about the things that are around us and, and then put it together as a band to form our own sound. We all have different musical backgrounds. We didn’t necessarily grow up listening to Bluegrass. A few of us got into it a little later in life. Like me, along with our mandolin player, Matt, are really into punk music and, and hip-hop and our bass player’s really into sixties garage rock. And our guitar player is into pretty much anything under the sun. And really our banjo player is the only one who came up with a traditional Bluegrass background. So, I think combining all of that in, in writing unique songs that have elements of the music that we grew up listening to or the music besides Bluegrass music that we really like, comes together to form a pretty unique punk tinged, bar room sound.
What are some of your favorite accomplishments of late from the band?
A big highlight is that we were a showcase band in 2021 at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual [World of Bluegrass] festival. So, we got to go to Raleigh, North Carolina and do a whole tour down there, and represent our area, our region, city, and state on a global stage for our genre. So that was a big deal. In 2022, we went down to the John Hartford Memorial Festival in Indiana and entered the band contest. And we won the whole band contest out of a great slate of bands from all over the country. So, we’re really proud to bring that home too. And really what we’re just excited about is to continue recording, writing, and playing all of the festivals around our region and around the country that we only ever got to attend before and now we could go back as artists.
What's one of your favorite concerts that the band's played?
Anything that we do in our hometown in Milwaukee is really extra special, and we love to bring bands in from out of town. So, for the past two years, we’ve done a little one night only winter mini festival with three bands. And just this past year we were able to bring Buffalo Galaxy in from Minnesota. IN the year prior, we brought Good Morning Bedlam in from Minnesota and High and Rising, just a lot of friends that wouldn’t normally get to come down and play in Milwaukee. Also just playing the big stages here in Milwaukee with some of our friends. We just played at Turner Hall with Armchair Boogie and The Last Revel. We were fortunate enough to play the Riverside Theater with Chicken Wire Empire, who basically are our brothers in Bluegrass here in Milwaukee. So, anything in our hometown is just extra special.
The band's most recent album came out in 2020. What was your goal with that album?
Our goal for that album was just to establish ourselves and it kind of takes a snapshot of who we were as a new band in 2019 and how we were growing, the sorts of venues that we were playing, the, the people that were around us. And, if you listen to it, you’ll notice there’s a lot of songs about being in bars, a lot of songs about drinking and having a good time with your friends. But it really was just an exploration of that time, putting ourselves together in a room and, and just figuring out what was going on, what songs we would like to play in those certain venues. So, I think that’s really just what our goal was, is just to kind of capture who we were as a band at that time. And then just build off of that.
The following year the band released another single, "Katie Up The Street."
Yeah. So, we followed [the album] up with a single in 2021, “Katie Up the Street”. We ended up recording that in a completely different way. Something that isn’t super common for bands like us, where we did a full multi-track recording for that. So, we didn’t do it live, we did individual takes for that, so we got to experiment in the studio quite a bit with that song and have a lot of fun with it. But also, that song is definitely a deep dive into our love of punk music too. So, you’ll hear a lot of elements of that song that have a lot of references to the punk music that we all love.
The new album is titled Capital B. Can you talk a little bit about what people should expect from the new album?
We’re expecting to release it at some point later in the fall this year. We haven’t set a full release date yet, but this album really expands upon what we started in the studio with our first album and our single. And it’s really a Bluegrass album at its core, but it’s also not a Bluegrass album. There are elements of so many different types of music we have. You’re going to hear things that aren’t Bluegrass instruments on it, which I think is pretty awesome. You’re going to hear piano, you’re going to hear pedal steel, you’re going to hear a horn section on some of the songs too. It’s a diverse album. There’s a lot going on and I’m just really excited to get it out in the world.
Where did you record the album, and did you have someone produce it?
Yeah, so we recorded at Wire & Vice Studios in Waukesha with our studio engineer Ian Olvera and Samual Odin from Horseshoes and Hand Grenades is producing the album.
Any special guests that people can look forward to hearing?
Yeah, definitely have a few special guests on there. And we’re kind of finalizing that right now, so I don’t want to spill too many beans, but definitely something to keep a watch out for, to see, um, to see who all we’ve got on the album.
Is there a story behind the album’s title?
Well, it’s kind of funny actually. In our name, The MilBillies we capitalize the B just to specifically show our delineation for Milwaukee. So, even though it’s one word, we see it as two separate words. So, if you want to know us then, or if you do know us, then you definitely know that it’s a capital B. So, it’s sort of a little in your face reference to sort of like the punk style music that we do.
What were the most surprising songs to write and record for the new album?
Anyone who’s seen us live has definitely heard our song, the short title of the song is “Annie.” But the long title is “Annie and I Drank Beer All Day.” It’s sort of like this slow meandering kind of silly country song about an ex-girlfriend and just going through the motions of breakups and stuff like that and all the thoughts and emotions that go behind that. But you’re going to find some surprises on that track. Some different instruments that you wouldn’t normally hear, like I said, but just recording a song like that after a lot of people having a sort of connotation of us being a fast grass band playing, playing really fast bluegrass music. But getting in there and recording this song that’s so slow, drunken, and meandering and just layering different elements through it, I think is going to be something really, really cool ultimately once it’s finished.
How has Milwaukee and Wisconsin most influenced you and the band?
I think it’s the people and the places and it’s getting to know everybody, not only in our city, but around the state, taking the band all over the place and getting to know everybody. And not only the bluegrass scene, but the overall music scene has been really, really influential for me and for all of us. But also, it’s the places that you hang out with those people too that are just as unique as the people. It’s the separate clubs, it’s the dive bars, it’s the breweries and all of that sort of combined culture is just a perfect place to just draw some influence, to get your influences from the social aspects of the culture. Which I think is just so much fun.
What are the band members' most surprising hobbies outside of music?
Hmm. Well, let’s see. We have a couple of our guys who are really into lifting weights and working out for sure. We’ve got a couple guys who are pretty into gardening, and I do know that our guitar player, Evan, is now coaching his daughter’s soccer team, so that’s going to be a new experience for him as well. Which we’re all pretty entertained by. <laughs>
For me, I spend most of my time playing music these days, either writing it, recording it, or playing gigs. I have several different side projects, Sugarbush, which is a little combination with some of the Chicken Wire Empire guys, where we do different Bluegrass nights, different shows, lots of traditional bluegrass in that band, which is a nice change of pace from what we do in The MilBillies. We have a weekly music series that we host on Tuesday nights at a place called Nashville North on Brady Street, Milwaukee, which is called Bluegrass Whatevers. We host different musicians, different bluegrass pickers from around the region and around the country. We’re rolling through town, and we just get up on stage and figure it out as we go. Hence the name Bluegrass, Whatevers. I have a little duo that I’m doing with a girl named Laura Bomber called Valley Fox. That’s definitely a slowed down, more folky, Americana, focus on boy-girl harmonies that’s been getting a lot of traction lately too. So spent a lot of time doing that. And, otherwise, I also have my own garden, and love growing vegetables and getting outside and hanging out as much as possible.
Why is the Hometown Foundation's mission to help local artists important to you and the band?
We are local artists, and all of our friends are local artists and we all band together to make a music scene, to bring live music and recorded music from your neighbors and friends to life. Any foundation, especially the Hometown Foundation, that does work to do that, is absolutely vital to, to not only us, but basically everybody that we know.
The band previously played a Hometown event at Sandy Knoll a few years ago. What you been to Regner Park before?
I’ve been to Regner, but we have not played it yet, so we’re very excited to bring the band out and kick off a really good season