Weird music by weirdos, for weirdos: Chatting with Milwaukee-via-Oakland musician Conan Neutron
Despite the decentralizing power of technology, there still exists the un-killable notion of musicians leaving whatever flyover states they grew up in and “making it” on one of the coasts. Conan Neutron has it all wrong: Last June, the Oakland, California punk musician packed up after 22 years in the Bay Area and moved to the Midwestern climes of Milwaukee, taking the spirit of his band (if not all the members), Conan Neutron & The Secret Friends, with him. A revolving super group of sorts (the current recording lineup features Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover, and former Coliseum and Trophy Wives member Tony Ash), Neutron and company are no strangers to Milwaukee, with the singer-songwriter’s former band, Victory And Associates, once a part of Milwaukee’s Latest Flame Records. But now, as much as any group with members spread throughout the country can be (other Secret Friends call Athens and San Francisco home), Conan Neutron & The Secret Friends are officially a Milwaukee band.
This Friday at Club Garibaldi, the group will celebrate the release of their first “Protons and Electrons” split seven-inch, backed with a track from Trophy Wives. Eleven more seven-inches will be released over as many months, eventually adding up to a full album. Before the tour-kickoff show (which will also feature sets from Body Futures and Guerilla Ghost), Milwaukee Record spoke to Neutron about his music (“Weird music by weirdos, for weirdos,” he says), moving to the middle of the country, and doing other “stupid” stuff.
Milwaukee Record: So let’s get the big question out of the way: Why move from California to Wisconsin? What are your ties to Milwaukee?
Conan Neutron: Basically, they’re all from touring. My old band, whenever we’d come through town, we would always play Milwaukee and have a great time. Some of my closest friends are from touring, a large portion of which live in Milwaukee. The IfIHadAHiFi guys being some of them.
We didn’t leave the Bay Area because we disliked it, it was pretty much a matter of being priced out. It was a choice between having a life where you can really lay into the things you really want to do, or fight as hard as you can just to stay above water. Moving to a place with a lower cost of living makes it easier to do that kind of thing. Especially for me, with my main creative pursuit being Conan Neutron & The Secret Friends, we’re all spread out anyway, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to stay in Oakland, especially with everything skyrocketing. So we narrowed it down to a bunch of different cities, and Milwaukee was definitely attractive because we had an existing base of friends. There’s a lot in common between Oakland and Milwaukee—there are a lot of differences as well—but that’s how we ended up heading east from the Wild West. [laughs]
MR: What are some of those differences and similarities between the two cities?
CN: The Bay Area is very concerned with technology, with apps, and with things along those lines. That’s where all the energy is focused, whereas actual art…The Bay Area is world-renowned, for good reason, for being a hotbed of different types of art, whether its visual, comics, music, etc. But the focus in the past decade has changed toward tech, and there’s so much going on at any given moment in time, that there’s almost too much of everything. Which, by the nature of availability, kind of devalues the experience. Not necessarily devaluing playing for the sake of playing, but it makes it a different kind of thing.
This isn’t a new thing. I think most bands, or most bands that tour, will say, “People didn’t really get into us until we got bigger around the country.” That’s a pretty common refrain, and it’s that way for a reason. Outside validation. There’s a record label named World Famous in San Francisco. And that’s totally a thing. [laughs] It happens in a lot of areas, where a local band is very well known. But the World Famous in San Francisco attitude is hilarious because it’s so true, because people don’t even go to Oakland for shows, or go to Berkeley for shows. That’s kind of against my mindset.
I’m a communitarian at heart. I got into punk rock to give back a little bit, to give back to something that’s given to me in so many ways. I don’t consider it a musical genre as much as a lifestyle ethos. I don’t mean liberty spikes and bullet belts, but critical thinking, looking out for a community, etc. It increasingly became known to me that I could do a lot more good out here than I could back in the Bay Area, and provide a better life for ourselves while doing it, and have more resources to actually do those things. More resources to tour, more resources to put out records.
MR: You mentioned in an email that people are always confused when you tell them you moved here from California.
CN: [laughs] People are always looking for a specific reason. “Oh, I moved out here for a job,” or, “I moved out here because of a long-distance relationship.” But nobody ever asks that in California. Nobody ever asks, “Why did you move here from Wisconsin?” There’s always the soft tyranny of diminished expectations that comes from being a working-class, Midwestern city. But it’s like, what are you talking about? There are plenty of reasons to live here! It’s great!
MR: How does a band that’s spread across the country function as a recording unit versus a touring unit?
CN: There are two distinctly different things. By nature of my name being on the marquee, so to speak, this is more my thing than any band I’ve ever been in. As a recording thing, it started out with me writing a bunch of songs. I was inspired by my old band that was not doing anything and was kind of taking a break. I was getting really frustrated. I kept seeing all my friends’ bands, a lot of them out here, just really killing it and stepping up their game and putting on great shows. I was very inspired, but I had no outlet for it. So I decided to write and arrange a record, and if it sucked I didn’t have to tell anybody about it. [laughs]
And then I put together a band to do it. I decided that a band starts with a drummer. Good drummer, good band. I was kind of blue sky-ing stuff, starting at the top and working my way down. Dale Crover is one of my favorite drummers in all of rock and roll. So I asked him, my number one choice, and he said yes. And I was like, “Oh! I didn’t expect you to say yes!” [laughs] Tony played in Trophy Wives, who were label mates with my old band on Latest Flame. When I thought of who fit these songs, I kept thinking of Tony. And that immediately became the core of Secret Friends.
The original idea I had was that it would be a different lineup for every record. And then we immediately upped the stakes and did a second record. It was better, deeper, weirder, more messed up. And then I, at what in rock and roll is a very advanced age, realized that I can work in a way that I never expected to work. Part of it was me unlearning things. Stop being such a control enthusiast, when in doubt take it out, the first decision is usually right, etc. I found out I had good instincts, even though I used to second-guess myself and overthink things.
MR: And as a live unit?
CN: Live, Dale’s job is being in the Melvins. He’s a pretty goddamn busy dude. They’re one of the few bands in the game that tour for a living, and they put out a new record every year. That’s their living. He’s a father, there’s a mortgage payment, etc. So he’s not always going to be available.
From a live perspective, the songs come from me, and Tony is part of the core of the band, so the thinking was, “Why don’t we just grow and expand the lineup as needed and get whoever’s available?” We’ll get people who we know are total badasses who will treat the material with respect and put their own take on it. I’ve seriously lost count of how many lineups there have been. [laughs]
Don’t get me wrong: Nobody gets invited in that doesn’t fit the oeuvre, or schtick, if you want to get more vulgar, of the thing. I don’t know. I keep trying stupid stuff and it keeps working!
MR: Speaking of that, what was the thinking behind releasing twelve seven-inch singles over the course of a year?
CN: You mean why do things literally the most difficult way possible? [laughs] You know the pain in the ass of doing one release? Yeah, let’s do twelve of them and then compile them all into one!
The “Protons and Electrons” series is a series of twelve split singles, digital and on seven-inch, where the b-side is a band that’s important to the story of Secret Friends. The reason for the name is protons and electrons and neutrons make the atom. We recorded all of our sides all at once, literally the day after our current President was elected, which was a pretty surreal time to be…well, to be doing much of anything, like drawing breath, but especially to be making music.
For people who are into the Pokemon aspect of collecting them all, you can buy a subscription to “Protons and Electrons.” When they’re gone they’re gong. Some of them are going to sell faster than others. And for people who don’t care about any of that you can listen to it all on Bandcamp or Spotify or whatever the hell people listen to these days. And for people who like albums, but they’re not single people, at the end of all of it, it’s going to be compiled into two records, “Protons” on one side, “Electrons” on the other. It’ll be a Secret Friends record on one side, and then a really cool comp of the other bands on the other.
Our second record, The Art Of Murder, is a concept record about Hannibal Lecter and the world around him. Because of that, everything about it, including where the songs sit, and certain things that happen, all kind of happen for a reason. They all happen in a certain sequence to reward someone who likes the experience of listening to an album beginning to end. “Protons and Electrons” is totally the other way. The conceit of this is, “Let’s have a noisy song, a poppy song, a psych song, songs just all over the place.” Each song has to get in and get out. A real “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” situation. [laughs] They all have different facets of what this band does.
Conan Neutron & The Secret Friends kick off their “Protons and Electrons” tour at Club Garibaldi Friday, March 16 with Body Futures and Guerilla Ghost. Vinyl copies of the first single will be for sale. The show starts at 9 p.m. and tickets are $7 at the door.