It was a special era, those mid-‘90s Midwestern summers. In between rewound samples of Dumb & Dumber, bone-dry sarcasm from bands like Cake, and dark, cold basements with SEGA Genesis hot to the touch from overuse, life moved a bit slower when rock veterans Slo-fi took a bite out of Milwaukee’s local rock scene as members of Pet Engine.
In its late-nineties prime, the group opened for Oasis, Collective Soul, and Lemonheads, and soon found itself busy readying demo deals for major labels, garnering healthy radio play in Milwaukee at the turn of the millennium.
Looking back, chief songwriter/guitarist Stephen Ziel, of Whitefish Bay, sees the band’s attractiveness as very telling in relation to the size of its audience.
“We were big enough that promoters wanted us on the bill to bring people in but not quite big enough to do our own Eagles Ballroom shows,” Ziel says about Pet Engine’s heyday.
When that functioning band stopped after its third Megahurtz in 2000, a hard-drive scan of demos and spare parts re-birthed Ziel’s interest in the group. Despite PE’s hiatus, Ziel realized he had a trove of “50 to 60 songs” he felt compelled to finish.
The lapse in recording and touring explains the mix-and-match results of his new band Slo-fi's brand-new Basement Symphonies LP, 21 cuts spanning eight years of collaborative offstage activity. For Ziel, there are less echoes of powerpop these days than before, and on tracks like “Nicolas Cage” and “Silent Song”, affinities for The Jayhawks and Elliott Smith punch through the mix, along with the occasional light-dark-light twists and turns of Neil Young (“You’re So Rok”) and the grunge-y-psych-pop of the Stone Temple Pilots (“Heartache”).
Ziel insists, however, that Slo-fi is no mere continuation of Pet Engine, and it’s shown in the PR department.
“We used to fit a bill, whatever that was back then, but at the same time what we’re doing fits in with what other groups are doing now. We’re established in the sense of Pet Engine’s history, but now we’re opening up to a new group of people who maybe haven’t heard Pet Engine before.
"With Pet Engine, we were always able to play with (alternative rock band) The Gufs, even though we felt edgier, heavier than them (and not quite as straightforward). But if we played a show with The Promise Ring (more ”indie” bands) or Into Arcadia, we’d sound poppier.””
On who he thinks the audience generally is, he paused with a bit of self-satisfaction.
“It’s interesting that a lot of newer bands playing now were Pet Engine fans when they were in high school, and are probably a bit older (now). Fever Marlene used to come to our shows when they were like, 16. I think our fans are just fans of great songs."
When Ziel unearthed the slew of unused demos, there was no plan in place for where they might eventually appear.
Oddly enough, the band chief’s songwriter enlisted a few new [musical] friends to the fold, a seasoned group that’s collectively backed everyone from Bob Dylan to the Smashing Pumpkins to the BoDeans (Kenny Arnoff, drums), in addition to contributions from Scott Schoenbeck (Dashboard Confessional, bass) and others.
On where Ziel plans to take his new band, he seemed to perk up remembering a kind of enjoyed post-concert fatigue.
“For a long time we played roughly 10 times a year…and what we’re doing now is a way of pushing these recordings out there. We’re prepping to be a functional band again, and in January we’ll be doing a CD release show of some sort.”
Ziel said he defines pop music differently than some, but the band’s “cross between Slayer and The Carpenters” preserves the kind of broad-reaching, lo-fi beauty they’ve emulated as often as they’ve adored it throughout their career.
Play “1996” and hear the Hendrix-ian wail (a la Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready), and chances are you’ll start to remember a few things.
Basement Symphonies will be available at upcoming gigs and through Stephen Ziel personally.