Gauss Blur The Boundaries Between Punk and Pop
Milwaukee’s basement punk scene is one of the city’s great renewable resources. Even as it turns over every few years, as members gradually move after reaching drinking age, it never stops producing vital new bands. It operates almost entirely independent from the city’s bar-centric music scene, yet it’s also one of the best farm systems for local talent. Many of the city’s most distinguished musicians cut their teeth playing for underage crowds in unventilated Riverwest basements.
It was those shows that laid the groundwork for the Milwaukee septet Gauss, whose members have played in an array of short-lived punk bands. “Most of the bands we started playing in were pretty heavy, with a lot of screaming,” says singer/guitarist Eddie Chapman. “It wasn’t even really a style that I enjoyed that much, to be honest, but that’s what the people I fell in with were into—and really, it felt like the best music to be playing, being underage and not wanting to go to the bars.”
From their beginning as a traditionally noisy bass/guitar/drums trio, the group gradually expanded. First they brought on a trumpeter, John Larkin of the late, jazz-addled math-rock trio YLLA, who was soon joined by fellow YLLA alum Brandon Miller on keyboards. The band’s final addition was violinist Eric Ash, formerly of Alta, one of the most ideas-rich Milwaukee hardcore bands in recent memory.
You can hear Gauss try to figure out how, exactly, to navigate their peculiar lineup almost in real time on their 2014 album Electromagnetic Fields Control Our Lives, a raw but promising set of post-rock dirges that’s exhilarating at times and tedious at others. It teases a very different band that the group could have become.
“At first we wanted to do something that was slow and long and heavy and loud, but melodic and pretty,” Chapman says. “We were influenced particularly by a band called Duster for our early material. But eventually we got sick of playing long, repetitive, boring songs. Even though it was fun, we wanted to incorporate more melody, more pop elements like choruses.”
That approach pays dividends on the group’s latest EP, Thalweg, which does even more than its predecessor in about half the time. Especially in its opening stretch, its songs are quick and jumpy. The horns and strings take the lead on opener “Deeper Than Blue,” which kicks off the record with the sunny spirit of so many hooky mid-’00s indie-pop records. “Stakes are the Same” and “Stumbling Block,” meanwhile, recreate the frenzied, spastic energy of Dischord Records’ short-lived Q And Not U/Faraquet era.
There’s still an edge to the album, a certain intentional obliqueness, but it’s a much more personable listen than Electromagnetic Fields ever tried to be. Chalk it up the inherent appeal of hearing a trumpet and violin over something hooky, perhaps, but it’s not hard to imagine Gauss stumbling onto a much, much wider audience if they continued dialing up those poppier elements.
Drummer Andy Grygiel admits that’s a weird thing to think about, especially coming from a punk background (he also plays in Absolutely, an awesomely inventive punk trio that, for all their gifts, are unlikely to make waves too far outside of their bubble). “I think it’s something that could be cool, if we did reach more people, but I don’t think it’s something we’re deliberately aiming for,” Grygiel says of Gauss. “We were just trying to challenge ourselves to bring a little more melody to things. We could continue to head in that direction, but I think whatever we do, we want to keep pushing ourselves to be in place that’s not as comfortable. We just enjoy pushing ourselves to do things that are unfamiliar.”
Chapman echoes those sentiments, saying he enjoys playing with the boundaries of what is and isn’t traditionally considered punk.
“I think our ultimate goal is to make a full, fleshed-out musical statement, a full-length album with a diversity of sounds and messages and movements, but also a thematic unity,” he says. “Something that holds together as a cohesive statement, something that’s meaty enough it gives listeners something to grapple with, but also something that’s really nourishing and fulfilling on first listen, too. I think we can do it. We never know how long we’ll be able to do this band, so nothing’s guaranteed, but that’s the main goal. If we did that, I think we would be satisfied.”