Some might say it would be damn-near impossible to manage a career and a family, while attempting to play music for a living. Some might say your passions in life have to change toward a greater egalitarian position. But, some (most), haven't heard of Tyson Allison, a Milwaukee family man, day-job worker, and member of three (3!) bands, and founder of his own Emperor Penguin Records.
Allison's personal style can be most readily compared to the likes of The EELS and Elliot Smith, showcasing overtones of bold darkness coupled with very subtle, soft beauty. He currently performs in the Minneapolis folk band, Swallows; the Milwaukee experimental band, Heavy Pedal Cello; as well as his own solo project that operates under his name.
Tyson shows a unique drive, equated to any famous musician. He might as well be called the poster child for MUSE MKE, as he exemplifies how passion and inspiration in music and art exists no matter the situation. Although the majority of his time is spent working 9-5, he finds the will within himself to keep fighting - making music, putting himself out there, and not giving a shit what anyone thinks.
You can catch Tyson Allison at Fixture Brewing Company in Waukesha, WI on Friday, Jan. 29th with The Alyce Hart Band and The Big Spoon.
Read below as we take an in-depth look into Tyson Allison's musical musings.
MM: How are you doing?
TA: I'm doing good, and enjoying this mild winter! I'm letting my hair and beard grow, and enjoying the world of tea and flannel pajamas at night. As for what I've been up to, most of the time I'm with my son, Eli, and my wife, Michelle. There are endless projects to do around the house, and I'm trying my hand at cooking in a half-ass kinda way. I work at a bookstore, and I just finished reading Kim Gordon's autobiography, "Girl in a Band." I recently saw The Hateful 8 and Star Wars, and next up is The Revenant and The Big Short. What's been on my mind lately is space travel, creation myths, and certain aspects of the human condition. I feel like I'm always having to plan for something and there's not enough time in the day, but when we can manage it, a friend and I like to grab a beer and shoot some pool. Oh, and more sleep would be nice!
MM: You have been involved in many different bands and projects over the years, from Heavy Pedal Cello, to The Sleeper Pins, to Swallows, and your own solo career. Could you tell us a little about these groups and how you manage to consistently create in different musical environments?
TA: The Sleeper Pins began as an acoustic duo in Minneapolis and eventually expanded to become a 5-piece band. I was the lead singer and songwriter while also playing rhythm guitar and occasionally other instruments. We put out two records and did some touring in the midwest. The songs were mostly kinda moody and somewhat sparse, but I liked that there was always space in the arrangements. As a listener, I think you had to give those songs a few spins and have patience with them; the lyrics, textures, and subtleties needed time to cozy up to you. It was kinda along the same lines as Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." After I moved away from MN we kept the band functioning off and on for awhile, but eventually I decided to pull the plug on it in order to pave the way for a fresh musical mindset in Milwaukee.
Although it took awhile to start it up, I got the idea for Heavy Pedal Cello the first time I went to Aaron Kerr's house to hear him play cello. I saw that he had some effects pedals, which I wasn't expecting. He didn't use them that day, but I wondered what it would sound like if we hooked his cello up to all of my guitar effects pedals and just let it rip. A few years later, we found out! Heavy Pedal Cello is the perfect side project. It's just the 2 of us, and completely based on improvisation. Aaron plays electric cello through my effects pedals, and I twiddle knobs and manipulate his sound while also adding in some drums when I can. Neither of us know what we are going to do, so there is never any need for rehearsals. When we perform, we communicate through eye contact, body language, and hand gestures. The rest is just us reacting to what is happening. No show is ever the same, and although we put out a record we will never play anything on it again. It's pure, in the moment instrumental, avant-garde experimentation and it's fun as hell! When we made our first record, "October" we booked a weekend at a studio, set everything up, got the levels, then just laid down 20 tracks. We kept the 10 that we liked the best, and that's what you hear on the album.
Swallows mixes elements of rock, blues, americana, and old-world folk into traditional music with somewhat non-traditional themes. We're a 6-piece band and Jeff Crandall is the lead singer/songwriter and we're based in St. Paul, MN. We've put out 2 records and an EP, and we're waist-deep into recording our 3rd full length, "In the Shadow of the Seven Stars". We've toured the midwest and received numerous reviews and radio plays across the U.S. I totally dig my role in this band as their "utility man." I'm a multi-instrumentalist, and in the course of a Swallows set you'll probably hear me play guitar, piano, melodica, percussion, sing back up harmonies, and maybe a little bass and xylophone as well. It just depends on the setlist. Since I live in WI now, I can't make all the shows and practices, but I go up to MN about once a month to contribute and it works out. Luckily for me, several of the guys from The Sleeper Pins are also in Swallows, so even though The Pins are no longer active, I still get to make music with these great musicians who are also my close friends.
Once I got to WI, I started playing solo shows. I don't mind doing it, but I know I really prefer to collaborate with people, or have a band. It's taken me awhile, but recently I've met a few musicians that I like playing with and things are starting to happen. The slate is clean and it's a good feeling. The possibilities help keep me creative, and the sounds and talents that other musicians bring to the table are a constant stimulation. Then there are the particular parameters of the projects I'm in--each project has a unique sound and requires different instrumentation from me, so I'm always handling fresh perspectives and challenges. It's never boring, never goes stale. The feeling I get from creating parts that work in a bigger picture, or bring something to life through sound that used to only existing in my head, is part of what I live for. To me, songs are like buildings, and I'm happy laying down the foundation of one or being the decorator of another one. Like any type of artist, once one project is finished I can't wait to start another one.
MM: You recently announced the official (state registered!) status of your independent record label, Emperor Penguin Records, but the idea has been around since 2003. Can you give the story of how EPR got started, and where do you see it going in the future?
TA: In 2003 I was in my late 20s and living in Minneapolis. I had made a couple EPs with an old band and had sent out demos to established labels and either received no response or rejection letters. I was at a transition point. I was about to start a new band and I thought if no one else would help me then maybe I could help myself. I began reading books and researching the internet on how to start and run an indie record label. I wanted a venue to release my material and to also help out some other local bands I liked. The catalyst to getting it off the ground was my friend Amanda deciding to help me out by combining my label idea with a project she had to do at college. She designed the logo, made T-shirts, business cards, keychains, posters, etc. while I did all the necessary steps and legal paperwork to get a business license in MN. By the end of 2003, E.P.R. was up and running and we had released the first album by my new band, The Sleeper Pins. Between then and 2009, E.P.R. released more records by different artists and projects I was in, too, while the internet and technology made it easier and cheaper for indie labels to be operational. In 2009 I moved to Chicago and shut the label down, but I always paid the dues to keep the rights to the name and the web address, knowing I would start it up again sometime. It took longer than I planned, but here we are in 2016 and E.P.R. is officially up and running again. I've got new projects, and I'm working with some other artists, too. I've never been able to quit my day job while doing this, but that would be my ultimate goal for myself and the label--to make enough money to support my family and have these various music projects be my full time gig; and to help my musician friends do the same. We'll definitely have some new releases coming out this year!
MM: Your music is dark and elegant, perhaps even subtly mystical and reminiscent of Lou Reed and a darker Devotchka. Did your overarching style come from any place in particular or is that just what comes naturally?
TA: Both. I kinda think that because it comes from a particular place that that is what comes naturally. I think the place is my background, or life story, which shaped a disposition for me. Let me lay down on the psychiatrist couch here, haha. My Dad died when I was really young, and I was always afraid that something might happen to my Mom, too. I was a happy kid, but anxious, too, and always feeling some kind of fear or awareness of something missing. I grew up in the 70s, and my Mom was working hard to take care of us, so I spent a good chunk of time alone, which made me become pretty independent; and I often read books or entertained myself, which I think helped to build up my imagination and creativity. As I've gotten older I've moved around a lot, so I've had to in effect say goodbye to a lot of friends and some family members over the years, while simultaneously being the "new kid in town" wherever my new home was. This made me an outside observer of things, looking for details and ways to fit in to each new puzzle. I believe all this put together has made me gravitate toward the melancholy side of things, with a dash of sentimentality. I think there is room and a way to find comfort and a certain happiness in there. I'm attracted to the works of other artists that have found that space and can express being there in evocative ways. There is a magic that can happen when the right words and music intertwine and imagery transforms into emotion--that's what I'm trying to capture. The bittersweetness of things. But I'm not all doom and gloom haha; I find ways to balance it out.
MM: Any love story you'd be willing to share that perhaps inspired some of your songs?
TA: My wife's parents have a cottage on a lake up north that we like to go to and unwind a bit. One morning I got up while Michelle was still sleeping. I went outside and it was already hot and beautiful. I went back in, grabbed my guitar, and walked out onto the dock to sit on the bench at the end of the pier and strum some chords.The water was calm and lots of birds were flying around the birdhouses nailed to the trees. "Bird" is my nickname for Michelle, and I got an idea for a song for her. The first verse came quick, just writing about the morning and being together at the cottage. By the time Michelle got up and came outside I had the bones of the song done and I played some for her. She loved what I had so far and was happy I was writing a song for her. Later that evening we lit up a bonfire and sat together in the glow, and that became the basis for the second half of the song. I finished it a few days later and called it, "Bird Song." I've got more for her, too, but I'm keeping those a secret until the time is right!
MM: Anything you want the world to know?
TA: Listen to Baz Luhrmann's song, "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)", and then read, "This is Water" by David Foster Wallace. That pretty much sums it up without getting too pretentious or preachy.
MM: Favorite spot/thing to do in MKE?
TA: I've only lived in Milwaukee for 4 years, so in some ways I feel like I'm still finding spots and things to do here! But right now my favorite spot and thing to do is to go for a walk around the large pond in Humboldt Park. It's a few blocks from our house, it's where my wife and I got married, and going there to hang out is a great way for me to clear my head. Sometimes I'm by myself, and sometimes Michelle and Eli come with me. Summertime is best; people are walking dogs, birds are chirping, and I like to bring a few slices of bread with to feed to the ducks and geese. There is a beer garden at the pavilion, and a taco truck across the street, so that's a bonus, haha. In winter the pond freezes over and I like to walk on the ice. I would also say that I enjoy living by Lake Michigan as well. I like driving on the Hohn Bridge at night and seeing lights, buildings, and activity on the city side and the dark wall of nothing stretching out forever on the lake side. It's like we live on the event horizon of a black hole and we're all just hanging on. That's pretty cool.
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