Keith Brammer interview by Dave Lang
Following up from last issue’s lengthy - and probably often gruelling - run
through Milwaukee’s highly esoteric yet enthralling
punk/noise/space/experimental music scene of the 1980's, which featured the
histories of Die Kreuzen, Boy Dirt Car, F/i, and Vocokesh, I was contacted by
Mr. Keith Brammer himself, he being the bass player for both Die Kreuzen and
Boy Dirt Car back in the day.
Being highly flattered that he was regarding the article - and being highly
flattered myself since he remarked that my article nailed the history of that
time down almost to the letter - I figured I couldn’t let this
mutual-appreciation society go to waste. It was time for the follow-up
interview! For an introduction into who on earth I’m talking about, I suggest
you read the article in question; for myself, I’ll simply state that Die
Kreuzen are responsible for some of my all time favourite music and it’s a
thrill to get the story from one of the men behind such inspiring sounds. Read
PSF: Where/when were you born and what were your formative aesthetic
KB: Born June 14, 1962 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, and grew up in Brookfield, a
suburb about 20 miles out of the city. A very typical suburban upbringing
(with all of the middle-class mainstream-ness that the term implies), but my
reading habits (which included Ray Bradbury, Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe's
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) led to my discovering and accepting things
which many kids in my position neither knew nor cared about. Musically, my
friends and I (including Die Kreuzen drummer Erik Tunison) listened to some of
the typical stuff - Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath - but also things like
Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Eno, and Lenny Kaye's Nuggets compilation. And then
there was punk..
PSF: When did the punk rock thing hit Milwaukee and how did it hit you?
KB: The fact that I read magazines like Hit Parader, Creem, and Rock Scene
voraciously from 1975 onward meant that I was aware of a lot of the early punk
stuff before it was actually available anywhere (at least, where I was). And
when I finally heard the Ramones in 1976, that was it. It's kind of hard to
explain, in this day and age, exactly how exciting and different it seemed,
but believe me, it was. Since, with the exception of trips to the record store
and the occasional concert, I didn't actually start going into the city until
later ('79-'80) I don't know what it was like there, but in Brookfield there
were virtually no other people who knew or cared about punk rock at all. But
that was part of what made it cool - the aspect of a private, secret club.
PSF: Tell us about the beginnings of Die Kreuzen. How did it come about?
KB: By the time Die Kreuzen started there was a pretty strong "scene" going in
Milwaukee, which centered around two clubs and encompassed an incredible
variety of musical styles, ranging from avant-garde to garage to pop. Dan
Kubinski and Brian Egeness had moved up from Rockford, Illinois (about 60
miles from Milwaukee) with a bunch of other people, and were playing under the
name the Stella's. Through hanging out at the same club, with the same people,
we naturally became acquainted, and I recommended Erik (with whom I had played
in a previous band) as a candidate for their vacant drummer position. Before
long, their bassist left, and I joined. We were the first band to take
inspiration from the (at the time) new hardcore attitude, listening as we did
to bands like the Germs and the Circle Jerks (in addition, of course, to Wire,
Rush, etc.). The funny thing, in retrospect, was the fact that much of the
"scene" was fixated on New York or England as the Meccas for music, and
initially we were regarded in the way one would imagine the rock dinosaurs
regarded the first punks - as young upstarts.
PSF: What was it like being a punk rock band in Milwaukee? Was the reaction
KB: There was no hostility, really, but we didn't go out of our way to play for
people who would hate us either. The kind of macho attitude and the violence
that went with it was never really present in Milwaukee. Especially in the
early days, people took punk for what it was originally supposed to mean,
which was doing your own thing - more of a bohemian, nonconformist attitude.
There weren't that many of "us," and as a rule it was the more creative,
open-minded, intelligent part of the population that gravitated toward punk in
the first place.
PSF: How did the deal with Touch & Go come about?
KB: We had run into Corey Rusk when he came through town with the Necros, and
later, when he decided to start branching out (beyond the Detroit area) with
the label, he gave us a call and said "Let's do a record." We didn't have to
think twice. Corey's attitude was (and still is) that he only releases things
that he likes - not things that he thinks will sell, or things that are "hip."
He just purely loves music. That sort of honesty and trust (we never had a
contract with Corey - we trusted him and he trusted us) was what made the
early hardcore scene so great. You could set up your own tours by contacting
friends, who would set up shows, feed you, let you sleep on their floor, etc..
People did it for us, and we did it for other people. The important thing
wasn't the money, it was just being able to go out and play, even if it was
only to thirty (or ten, or two) people. If this sounds kind of utopian and
idealistic, well, it was, especially compared to the predominantly
businesslike attitude of the modern music scene.
PSF: Any partictularly memorable shows?
KB: I could list 100 and still be missing some. The European tours were especially
great, primarily because it was so amazing to us to have made it over there.
PSF: Were there any bands you felt a real kinship with?
KB: Actually, quite a few. Husker Du, who started at just about the same time we
did, and with whom we played a couple of times a year until they broke up;
Sonic Youth, who we toured with several times and who were always very
supportive; the Offenders from Texas, who were a great band and good friends;
Drivin'n'Cryin' from Atlanta (whose leader Kevn was an old friend from
Milwaukee) . . . the list goes on. There was something about the whole D.I.Y.
aspect of the underground scene at that time that encouraged identification
and camaraderie - closeness through adversity, as it were.
PSF: Do you know how many records DK sold?
KB: Not offhand. I think the most important thing is that they are still selling.
Although it would have been nice to sell a million records, I myself feel that
longevity is far preferable to instant success, followed all too often by
equally instant obscurity.
PSF: Die Kreuzen's style of music changed quite radically over time; how did
this come about? The latter sound had a more metallic texture - like some sort
of avant-garde metal - yet I distinctly remember you saying that you never
liked metal (that was in Marcy mag/1991) in an interview. Did you have a sound
you were after? What were you listening to at the time (October File/Century
Days) that influenced your sound.
KB: The primary reason that our sound changed was that we never, ever wanted to do
the same thing twice. It took us forever to write songs because we would
automatically reject anything that sounded like something we had done before,
or (especially) something that someone else had done. We discarded far more
parts for songs than we ever used for that very reason. For us, the songs were
the point, not the albums. Once we had enough songs, then we would go into the
studio - we never rushed things just so we could get an album out. Another
reason that the songs and albums are so varied is that while we, as a band,
had some common tastes, for the most part everyone listened to different kinds
of music and had different ideas in regard to how songs should sound.
Consequently, you had four different viewpoints, or combinations thereof. I
might not have liked metal, but others in the band did; and the fact that the
band was a democracy meant that anything could happen. It made for rough going
in the practice room at times, but I think that in the end the results
justified the somewhat laborious means of creation.
PSF: Did you tour much? How did the ’87 tour with Boy Dirt Car go? Is it true
that Biafra wanted to sign BDC?
KB: We toured constantly, especially early on. We quickly realized that it was
pointless to stay in Milwaukee (especially after playing Chicago, Minneapolis
etc.), so we took the initiative, got in the van, and played wherever we
could. Like every other "hardcore" band at the time, the early tours ('81 - 85
or so) involved playing wherever we could - clubs, basements, VFW halls, frat
houses, parks - and sleeping on floors, in the van, or at campgrounds. As long
as we had enough money to get to the next town, and to eat (which was not
always the case) we were fine, though. For a period of a few years we were out
of Milwaukee more than we were there. As time went on the tours got less
freeform and more standardized (playing in clubs and staying in motels for the
most part), but until the end it was still just us and a soundman (no roadies,
no tour bus). Certain areas we visited more frequently than others - NY and
Texas, for example - but all told, we probably traversed the US 10 times, and,
as mentioned previously, went to Europe twice.
The tour with BDC was a hoot - imagine seven people in a very small van, along
with equipment, luggage, and whatever interesting scrap metal we could pick up
along the way to enhance the BDC performances. Audiences were surprisingly
receptive to the BDC experience, although many of them, I think, didn't know
quite what to make of it. If Biafra wanted to sign BDC I certainly never heard about it - to the best of my knowledge he never saw us perform.
PSF: How do you feel about so much of the early '80's hardcore punk being so
reverentially viewed by even the mainstream media these days, especially since
it was so reviled in its time? Thru the looking glass of history, how do you
feel about the original hardcore explosion? Do you feel like it was worth it,
like you 'won' (since it’s now given respect)?
KB: I guess I didn't realize that any reverence (as such) existed. It's just like
any musical movement that gets "genrecized" - you see the same two or three
names (Minor Threat, The Minutemen, Black Flag) brought up constantly, and
it's hard to figure out if the people writing about them are actually familiar
with what the bands have done or are just working off what they've read. When
someone writes about the Replacements being a hardcore band, it's kind of
difficult to take it seriously. However, to the bands that were around at the
beginning, I really don't think the concept of "winning" or "losing" even
enters into it. Bands like us, and the Huskers, and D.O.A. were playing the
way we did because that's what was exciting to us - not because we craved
notoriety or success. If that was our goal, we would have been idiots, because
it just wasn't there. Playing, and having people appreciate it (people in
other bands, more often than not) was the whole point. It's not that there
wasn't a desire for success on our part, but stronger than that was the
feeling that the individuality of what we were doing was more valuable in the
PSF: How do you feel about the music being made these days? ie. - the
proliferation of teeny-bopper punk, knucklehead 'moshcore,' rap-metal, and all
the underground trends as well. How does the underground scene fare in
comparison to 15-20 years ago? Do you listen to much contemporary music?
KB: To be honest, this is a soapbox you probably don't want me to get on, because
we'll be here forever. However... the music scene today is pretty much the
same as it has been since I started listening to music seriously in the
mid-'70's. There's a lot of stuff, and no matter what style or classification
you choose, most of it is garbage. The main thing to remember is that, no
matter how bleak it might seem, there are good things out there. It might take
time and effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, but if you really love
music it's worth it. Comparing today's underground scene to that of 20 years
ago is like comparing apples and baseballs.
I think the thing that annoys me more than anything is the elitism that so
often accompanies the term "underground." The popularity or obscurity of a
particular band or style of music has less than nothing to do with its
intrinsic worth as music. A good song or a novel idea is just as valid whether
10 or 10,000 people are listening to it. Sure, lots of popular music is
crap... but so is a lot of "underground" music. To me, the saddest thing is
people who fixate on a certain style or era of music to the exclusion of
everything else. No matter whether you're listening to the "coolest" stuff on
earth, a closed mind is, to me, the antithesis of what music is about.
Speaking purely for myself, my musical tastes are more diverse now than
they've ever been. I listen to just about everything I can get my hands on
(there are exceptions, but not for want of trying). Current contemporary
favorites: the soundtrack from Josie and the Pussycats; Radiohead Amnesiac;
the Dickies All This and Puppet Stew; China Dolls 2001; Steve Earle
Transcendental Blues; Idlewild 100 Broken Windows; Cinematic Orchestra Motion;
and the Go Go's God Bless.
PSF: How did you first come to join Boy Dirt Car? Were you into the industrial
scene at the time?
When BDC started there was no "industrial scene." BDC were another example of
creative people (Darren Brown and Eric Lunde) with a desire to do something
different, rather than fall into some kind of readymade "scene." Once again,
Milwaukee's relatively small musical community meant that we traveled in the
same circles, more or less, and at one show (an art opening at the University
of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as I recall) they said "Come on up and play if you
want." As usual, that was all the encouragement I needed, and it was so
exciting to be part of something that inventive that I continued until the
PSF: I asked the same question of Richard Franecki years ago: how do you
account for Milwaukee having spewed up all these unique bands like DK, BDC,
F/i, etc. that tapped into some weird punk-hardcore-noise-psych vein?
KB: I really don't know. It's easy to theorize about the working-class atmosphere,
non-cosmopolitan ethic etc etc but I suspect that if you look closely enough
at any city you'll find a certain segment of the musical population that does
its level best to follow its own vision, rather than getting co-opted into
whatever appears to be the next big thing. It may have been easier in
Milwaukee because, despite the size of the city, attention was never focused
on it the way it was on Chicago, or Athens GA, or Seattle. With those three
bands in particular, though, I think the similarity of their mindset (because
any musical similarities are tangential at best) arises more than anything
from the fact that it was people of roughly the same age and background being
in the same place at the same time.
PSF: When exactly did Die Kreuzen break up, and why? Is it true you had some
big major label interest?
KB: At various times in Die Kreuzen's career, we were approached by major (or
semi-major) labels. We were always open to negotiation, but the fact that a)
the label would have to offer us something that Corey and Touch and Go
couldn't, b) we had to trust them as much as we trusted Corey (a nigh-on
impossible feat), and c) we had no intention of relinquishing any control over
what we were doing, combined with the lack of an obvious "selling point" or
"image" on our part (other than our music) conspired to render any talks
We finally broke up in 1991; for the reason, I would suppose, that most bands
eventually do. After 10 years, people develop different opinions on which
options are the best ones to pursue (in both business and personal aspects of
life), something which is especially difficult to deal with in a democratic
situation. Additionally, in the music business one tends to focus on reaching
the "next level," in terms of sales, or audience size, or press response, and
that just did not seem to be happening. So, rather than court bitterness, we
decided to call it quits.
PSF: How did you feel about the big 'grunge' breakthrough around ‘91-’94? Did
you feel that maybe you’d done everything a little too early? Like, 'that
coulda been me'? (I may be totally off the mark here).
KB: I thought the grunge thing was funny, personally. Most of it just sounded like
rehashed bad '70's metal to me, but I guess that's one of the benefits (?) of
age. I guess I could see where we might have fit into that somewhere, but in
the end I would rather have Die Kreuzen be remembered as innovators (or
precursors, or whatever) than be lumped in with a misbegotten "movement," no
matter what the immediate financial rewards may have been. The most humorous
thing to me was the popularity of the flannel shirt as a fashion statement -
this was something I (and all of my stoner friends) had worn all through high
school. It was a functional thing in Wisconsin, where it's cold most of the
year - Die Kreuzen wore them so often early on that it was almost like a
trademark - and when we first went to California people laughed at us for it.
PSF: What did you do when the band called it quits? Were you holding a day job
KB: We had always had day jobs of one kind or another (I was working in a record
store) because the band wasn't making enough to support us, that's for sure.
Once Die K. was finished, Dan, Erik, and I put together another band called
Chainfall with a local guitarist named Charles, and practiced for the better
part of a year, writing an entire new set of material. We managed to record a
few songs and play a handful of shows before Charles abruptly decided he
wasn't interested anymore. At the same time, I was playing with another band
called Carnival Strippers, something I had been doing on and off since before
Die K. broke up, and we got a deal with Fox (as in 20th Century...) Records.
It sounded great - major label, big advance, records, videos, etc. (For the
record: one album, Reveal, a brief tour with Dave Edmunds, and a song in the
Keanu Reeves movie Speed). However, what it turned out to be was a crash
course in What's Wrong With The Major Label Mindset. Far too long of a story
to get into here, but suffice to say that I appreciated Touch & Go, and the
DIY ethic, even more after it was all over.
Since then I've played occasionally, including a stint with Dan and Erik
(again), along with Dave Szolwinski (sometime member of BDC) in a band called
Fuckface. I write for a Milwaukee-based website called
http://www.milkmag.com/, and for the last four years have been diligently
working on completing my Bachelor's degree in English and Film Studies. Dan is
still playing - his latest band is called Custom Grand, and are quite good.
Erik moved to Amsterdam and opened a cafT in the Milkweg (large entertainment
complex/venue). Brian has been concentrating on production work and other
PSF: Any last comments?
KB: Thanks to everyone who took the time to arrange and read this. It's amazing
and gratifying that people are still interested in what we did.