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The Sensationalists’ Expectations-Free Pop-Rock

Jun. 16, 2010
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When you really think about it, most of your favorite bands can probably be traced back to the members’ middle- or high-school days. There, in some finished basement or cul-de-sac garage, the pimpled rockers of tomorrow struggled through basic chords, belted off-key lyrics about breakups that never actually occurred, and harbored hope of a record deal—or at least getting that special girl in their study hall to notice them.

The origins of upstart Milwaukee band The Sensationalists are no different, but at some point between the myriad of bands and ever-changing lineups emerged a group of musicians who just want to have fun, write the best pop-rock songs they can and play them to anyone who cares to listen.

The Sensationalists’ lead singer and guitarist Jackson Kesy spent much of his middle- and high-school days playing in bands such as In Debt, Seven Hours Wasted and Drago, all of which included drummer Skot Worby and some of them lead guitarist Dustin Mayer. Now in his mid-20s, Kesy recognizes his new band’s collective change in perspective.

“When we were younger, we would tend to focus more on impressing people,” Kesy says. “Now we all kind of sit back and listen to each other. Nobody tries to dominate a song.”

The band came together in autumn 2008 when Kesy and Worby, who’d just dissolved longtime band Drago, fell into a project with Mayer, bassist Ben Green and auxiliary player Brian Tapola, who themselves were fresh off previous stints as Nightlife and Arms of Versailles.

Tapola, too, says the members are taking a different, more mature approach in The Sensationalists.

“We stripped away any pretenses we've had in the past to just focus on songwriting,” Tapola says. “No one's boner is bigger than anyone else's in the band, and we're not competing. It's all about serving the song.”

Together with a like-minded, music-first implementation, the five-piece has spent its first year and a half largely secluded from the stage, playing only about a dozen shows. They’ve put more focus on crafting and recording material they’re proud of and taking the time to learn to play better together.

“It’s definitely easier than the last few projects I’ve been in because the writing process is a little more collaborative,” Kesy says.“I used to write every part of a song and just tell people what to do.Now, I bring a song in and everyone suggests parts and changes. I don’t have to worry about writing other people’s parts because everyone is better at their instrument than I am.”

The collaborative concept resonates throughout the band. Each member does their part to instill the greater good in terms of the band’s sound.

“In other bands there was always competition, or compensation for someone else's mistakes or lack of whatever, but in this band I have nothing to worry about when preparing to play,” Tapola says. “We just let one another do what we do and The Sensationalists is what you get.”

The Sensationalists seems to be the positive and productive endpoint to numerous failed, half-baked or flamed-out projects that came before it. And while many of the ingredients haven’t changed, the recipe seems to have improved with time.

“I think we all understand how bad it can get playing in a band.The highs and lows are so extreme that you have to just tune it all out,” Kesy says. “We often remind each other that we’re doing this as a distraction from our mundane little lives.Now we just drink some whiskey and have a good time.”

The Sensationalists play at the Bay View Brew Haus on Friday, June 18.


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