Juniper Tar is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based band creating some some really beautiful melodic rock. Their 2010 Howl Street EP consists of four tracks filled with spacey, dreamy guitars, haunting melodies and three-part harmonies. There’s an underlying melancholy to this album, but enough serious guitar work to bring this album back to earth and remind you that you’re listening to a rock band.
I’ve become a fan of these guys and the EP has been on heavy rotation in my world for the last few weeks. I recently interviewed Juniper Tar’s bassist Ryan Schleicher. You might (should) know his voice as one of the two Ryans who host the (almost) weekly podcast from the impeccable Muzzle of Bees. He can also hold his own in a Google chat match-up. An approximate record of our IM chat follows.
How are you?
Yep. What should I listen to right now?
Let’s play iPod Roulette. Hold on…Lucero. That’s just a numbers game, though.
Not bad. Not bad.
Do you know William Elliot Whitmore?
AA Bondy? Christ. My iPod is a cliche.
I think I’ll grab some Richmond Fontaine on emusic. I was just listening to Bondy’s Daytrotter Session. Ryan Matteson [of Muzzle of Bees] and I have helped bring him to Milwaukee twice. Nice guy. Doesn’t talk much.
I saw him like a month ago. It was pretty, but a touch boring for a Friday night.
I can see that. I’m a huge fan, but every time I see him there’s always a moment where I find myself realizing why others might not be enjoying it. You are all wrong, but I at least understand.
It would have been great for a Sunday night, or at a seated show, but there was a bunch of us out who just kind of wanted to talk and drink, so we moved to the bar.
I have American Idol on, btw. Horrible, but I can’t look away.
Oh, I turned away for a second so I didn’t see what you just said.
That’s for the best.
Ok. Tell me about your day job.
I work for WMSE 91.7FM –the community/college station in Milwaukee.
I know this about you from the Muzzle of Bees podcasts. I also know what your voice sounds like, so I’m reading all your answers aloud in that voice in my head. What’s your job there?
I’m the promotions director.
Is that as cool as it sounds?
A lot of the time it is. I get to write and think a lot. It’s a lot of work though. We only have four full-time staff, so we’re all pretty over-extended. But it’s always a plus to work for something you believe in. Good music, community, public radio.
The station is free-form radio 24 hours a day, with all volunteer hosts and a different host every three hours. There are no repeats. It’s real free form. There are not a lot of those stations left.
How does a station like that stay afloat?
Very carefully and with a shoestring budget and people like me willing to work for little money.
So what’s the music scene like in Milwaukee? Actually, what is Milwaukee like?
I love Milwaukee. It’s both a really easy and affordable place to live, but one that offers most of what you want from a metropolitan area.
Are you from Milwaukee?
I moved here in 1999. I grew up about an hour south of here.
A nice Midwestern boy.
Yeah. Hardworking and drunk and all that.
I’ve spent almost no time in the Midwest. It seems so…landlocked.
We are right on a Great Lake, you know.
Oh…(I consult a map).
How did Juniper Tar come to be?
Juniper Tar formed loosely formed in 2004 and solidified after I came back to Milwaukee after Katrina.
You were living in New Orleans?
I lived right across the Mississippi from the French Quarter. I went back a few months after the storm to get my stuff but haven’t been back since.
Tell me about the band and the guys and how you got together.
We’re friends first, and that’s really important. Jason and Aaron, who’s my older brother, had been playing together in a different band. They broke up and after a while, they wanted to play again. When I came back, they asked me to be a part of it. This was also soon after our friend Tuc came back from San Francisco, so it all just came together. Chris joined the band around 2008 to add keys on the quiet stuff and a third guitar on the louder stuff. Chris also has his own band.
So it’s been a few years. It seems like you guys are starting to gain some momentum.
Yeah, about four years. But it wasn’t until recently that we started taking it all that seriously. I actually told them when I agreed to join the band that I didn’t want anything out of it. But then I think we all realized we were good and wanted more, wanted to really try.
So what is more? What’s the goal for a bunch of guys who aren’t 20 years old (and I mean that in a good way) and have day jobs?
Not to have day jobs.
What’s the music scene like in Milwaukee?
The music scene has really blossomed in the last five years. There is really good music across all genres. The hip hop is great. The harder stuff is great. The indie scene is getting there. We’ve had a few national signees in the last year. Jaill to Sub Pop, Kings Go Forth to Luaka Bob, the label started by David Byrne, .357 Band is getting international attention, I think it’s now final that Heidi Spencer & the Rare Birds signed to Bella Union.
Whenever I’ve dated guys in bands they hate being asked “What kind of band are you in?” So what kind of band is Juniper Tar?
A rock band. In the same way that Neil Young was a rock band…not Americana or folk rock or whatever. Those terms are just too narrow.
I’ve been thinking about this EP and the closest I’ve come to pinning you guys down is to say that if Midlake and My Morning Jacket had a baby, it might sound like Juniper Tar.
Our friend Tim from Strand of Oaks said it was the record he always wanted Jay Farrar to write but never did. I have no idea what that means.
Hmm. Maybe if Jay Farrar learned to rock. Like if he went down Jeff Tweedy’s path. Cause Jay Farrar is boring as shit these days, frankly.
This is where I’m obligated to say “no comment”, right?
The record will show you were very diplomatic.
Where did the name Juniper Tar come from?
Grateful Dead style? You just opened it up and pointed?
Not quite. Jason reads and writes a lot and always has a dictionary on him. In the process of reading or writing or something like that, he came across “juniper tar” and liked it.
I like it. I was hoping it had something to do with gin, though.
We’ve definitely embraced the name since. We have a bunch of old, old juniper tar bottles…old medicines and such. And gin of course.
Juniper Tar has one full-length, To the Trees, and the new EP. Why did you decide to put out an EP this time?
The songs just fit together that way. Lyrically, Jason wrote most of the songs coming out of a divorce and into a new relationship. There are a lot of new beginnings themes. Plus, we really wanted to get something out.
There’s a certain sadness to these songs.
There is a lot of sadness, yes.
But you wouldn’t call it a depressing EP, would you? Or would you?
I would not. I think that it has really sad moments, and it triggers some emotion, but then the guitars really kick in and it’s a rock album again. And I am the queen of depressing music, so you can take that on authority.
I will trust you completely then.
Well, I wouldn’t do that.
I will trust your assessment during this chat, then.
You’re heading to SXSW for the first time. What else is the band up to?
We’re working on full length that should be out by summer’s end. We were on hold for a while because Jason cracked his skull sledding.
With all the rock band stereotypes, he got hurt doing something as wholesome as sledding.
Awww. How many of the rock band stereotypes do you guys actually fulfill? You’ve already told me a lot of girls are getting pregnant….
Wait, wait. They’re not becoming impregnated by us, just after our shows. So that doesn’t count.
We drink a lot and my brother Aaron and I argue a lot, but that’s probably it as far as stereotypes.
You guys aren’t trying hard enough! Keep applying yourselves.