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Interview: Chief Warrant Officer
It doesn’t take much to boast Wisconsin’s growing reputation as a breeding grounds for excellent music. One merely need mention the likes of Bon Iver, Cory Chisel, The Ragadors, The Daredevil Christopher Wright, etc, etc, etc… and any dissenting opinions will be silenced. And now, there’s one more reason to be proud of the dairy land. Chief Warrant Officer is creating thoughtful and catchy music that should (if it’s not already) be playing on your audio device.
HL: Tell me about the beggining, how you started playing music, and where you are with it currently.
CWO: Like a lot of kids I picked and put down a couple of instruments when I was really young, first the classical guitar, then the saxophone. When I was sixteen, and more heavily into listening and collecting music (I had a formidable collection), I got an electric bass for Christmas. I played around in some bands, a couple whose members went on to become talented career musicians (check out Headlights on Polyvinyl – they’re great). At seventeen my step-dad bought an acoustic guitar when he was in Alabama for military flight school. When he came back I commandeered it and started learning every Pixies/Frank Black song I could. I started my own band several months later under the unfortunate name Telstar 5. We played a few shows, but I took it seriously enough to trade my ’63 Corvair in for a ’79 Strat and a Fender Twin amp. The band broke up, as young bands do, and I moved from Central Illinois to Door County, Wisconsin.
It was there that I found my first real collaborative partner, Zak Baker. He and I attended audio engineering school together and became hooked on home-recording. Our band was called Pfeifer Sam. It was Zak, me, and Zak’s brother Drew, and we had a rotating cast of friends that contributed tracks. We recorded an EP and an LP and released them on a small Madison label, 23 productions. Our reviews were good and we seemed poised to break in some direction, but my health issues got the better of me, and I had to put things on hold. I have major depressive disorder and at the time I had no handle on my treatment. Life went on, the boys got married, got jobs, got lives. I continued to bounce around, making tracks here and there on my own.
This year I started getting consistent treatment for depression, and Chief Warrant Officer became part of my therapy. I wasn’t using it to work through issues, more just to prove to myself that I could accomplish something. I started to work alone because I didn’t trust myself to work with other people. I thought I might bail on them, which had happened before. But it turned out that working alone was just what I needed. I had to learn so much more about music to accomplish the sound I was setting out to achieve; that meant finally getting a grasp on theory, improving my guitar technique, and refining my recording skills.
HL: What’s your writing/recording process like?
CWO: I usually start with a progression and groove, and then I go from there. Sometimes I’ll write the progression on guitar, other times I’ll notate a piano piece for Sibelius and run it through reason. Then I figure out the vocal melody and lyrics, usually it will be some lyrical fragment that gets the ball rolling. After that I start playing around with virtual instruments, and guitar licks. Bass guitar is my favorite instrument so as soon as that’s locked down I feel pretty good about where the song’s going. I finish when I feel the song has successfully communicated its message. In the past I’ve had the tendency to over-produce; I’m shying away from that now.
HL: How do you feel about doing everything yourself. (writing, recording, mixing, promoting…) Is it worth it for the artistic freedom?
CWO: The great thing about doing it all yourself is that you have no one to blame but yourself if the track totally fails. Also, I work really fast, so it’s nice not to get bogged down in the collaborative process, which can be very time-consuming. However, I miss the camaraderie and my music lacks the depth that multiple perspectives would give it. Composing alone in the way that I do also means that I’ve got no band to back me up for live shows. That’s a big bummer. There are pluses and minuses.
HL: What gets you writing and/or gives you inspiration for your music?
CWO: Inspiration always comes in like a hot ember in my shoe. It’s there, it burns, and I can’t ignore it or it’ll set me on fire, or, even worse, go out. I draw my lyrics from my life and from the culture I consume. On Hotspur, there’s a fair balance of fact, fiction, and homage. Two of the songs were based on books, The Horatio Hornblower series, and Tolstoy’s Master and Man. On the digi-single: Parallel Lines is completely personal and Citron is from the recent Danish WWII film, Flame and Citron.
HL: Since you are in the semi-early-ish stages of the music thing (at least with CWO), where do you see Chief Warrant Officer going? Basically, are you shooting for world domination or intermediate fame and fortune?
CWO: Right now I want to push my abilities as far as I can take them. My genre is probably not well suited for world domination, but I strive for a little universalism in my work, so who knows? Composition, theme, performance: these are my points of focus right now. I want to shock my listeners and myself by taking giant strides forward with every release.
HL: How are shows playing out for you right now?
CWO: I haven’t played a show in two years. I am strategizing on how I can make shows possible. My songs don’t seem to translate well into the singer-songwriter folk form, so I’m contemplating using backing tracks and Karaoke-ing my little heart out. That might be a disaster. We’ll see.
HL: What’s your ideal show setting? (laser light shows, fireworks, and large orchestras are completely acceptable in this answer)
CWO: Ideally, I’d like to have the Motown studio band, The Funk Brothers, backing me: twenty pieces with three guitars, two drummers, a piano player, a synth-jockey, string quartet, backup singers — the works. It would look like a Neil Diamond show! No pyro, though. I like theatres, not stadiums.
HL: Upshots of being a resident of the great state of Wisconsin? Also, favorite cheese?
CWO: Wisconsin’s a great place. I truly love the cold, so I’m down with the extended winters. Wisconsinites are also really great people. I’ve heard it said that people are the same everywhere, but that’s not true. Cold climate dwellers are different: solid, romantic, and melancholic in just the right way. We’re like Norwegians or Russians; we’re humble but we have gravitas.
As for the cheese? Renards 7-yr cheddar. What can I say? I’m a traditionalist.
HL: What’s Sturgeon Bay like for music? How has the local response been towards your music?
CWO: I’m pretty sure the Sturgeon Bay music scene barely knows that I exist. I live in the woods south of town and am about as hermitic as hermitic can be. I’ve watched shows here and there. Sturge definitely has a strong folk vibe. I’m not really sure how I’d fit in.
HL: What’s the plan for future music? When can the world get their hands on a new release?
The last two releases are pretty fresh, 4 months and two weeks, respectively. March 15th, look for another digi-cassette single. In the meantime, I’m working on a concept album. I know… I know… but I promise it contains no dragons or robots. It’s called The Great Midwestern Drought of 1988, and it’s highly auto-biographical. I’m approaching the process lyrics first, which is new for me. So far things have been going great with it, so I’m pretty hyped to see where it ends up.
Check out Chief Warrant Officer’s music here. Both releases (Hotspur and digi-cassette #1) are available and you can name your price for the download. All funds contributed will be put into the Chief Warrant Officer Equipment Paucity Fund. Can’t get any better, right?
Sex or the Saw (feat. Jus-Seif)Dark Humor feat. Jus-Seif
Just finished mixing/mastering the bonus tracks (mostly old demos) for Dark Humor’s “Sick Sick Six” EP. The leader singer will release it any day now… :)
Our ode to the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre films will be track 3 on the 6-song EP