I don't fit in, in this stupid world
Interview with Tenement

Tenement is a band from Appleton, Wisconsin. I keep on playing all their records and I think they are probably my actual favorite band. Amos, their singer/guitarist, was kind enough to answer my questions for Cheesy Panties. 
Interview by Tony. Photos: Matt Stranger / Tenement

Hi guys! Can you introduce yourself and Tenement for our readers? What is the most important thing to know about you?
Tenement is Eric Mayer, Jesse Ponkamo, and I (Amos Pitsch). Whatever you might have heard about us being serious weirdos is true.

Tenement has been active for a while now, have you always been a trio?
We began as a quartet in 2006. After losing our original rhythm guitarist, we'd flirted with the quartet-style lineup a time or two, but always seemed to return to the power trio format. I think the three of us have finally learned to communicate with each other pretty well and bringing a fourth member into the equation is a difficult venture.

Your music has a bit evolved since the beginning of the band, from a "classic" pop punk sound to something really personal, with influences from different periods of time (90's grunge, garage rock, 60's pop, I even here some soul influence in Amos' singing style...). Are you conscious about that, is it planned or are you naturally evolving?
We're all very nerdy about our tastes in music, and the music we make together is very much evolving as our tastes evolve. The influences you described are probably all there somewhere, and the soul influence in my vocal delivery is right on the money. I'm sure it comes off very subtle, but the vocal style of people like Ray Charles, Alvin Robinson, and Sam Cooke, among many others, have really informed the way I use my voice. When we started this band, I think we were content with the niche sound we created in the punk/pop vein. We loved Black Flag and The Descendents and we wore it on our sleeves. We're still very much a punk band and a pop group, but as we grow older, I think we're moreso cutting our own path and creating a style of our own that transcends "pop-punk" or "punk rock". When I first bought John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" several years ago and read up about the man, his idea of "universal music" really struck me. Genres matter very little in the broad scope. We make Tenement music, and fans of our music will like it because it was birthed from our minds and spirits, not because we're intentionally aping some other band's sound.

Your LP "Blind Wink" probably shows the most the different moods of the band, can you tell me a bit more about this record?
"The Blind Wink" was originally a cassette that we recorded for a west coast tour in 2011. The tape had five or six songs that were recorded and mixed in one night. Nick from Cowabunga Records acquired a copy of the tape in Chicago and offered to put it out on LP, if we added more music. I recorded several more songs myself to finish off the record, and included a demo called "Hey, Soozie", which was written when the rest of the material on "Napalm Dream" was written. "The Blind Wink" itself was modeled after records like Big Star's "Sister Lovers", which switch mood and perception from song to song. If it sounds inconsistent and obtuse, it's supposed to.

I think it's cool that you do split records with various bands, like Cülo for example who sounds really different than Tenement. You're also on the "Welcome To 2013" comp, with a lot of great bands from various places/styles. Do you think you belong to a particular scene?
I'm unsure whether we belong to any one scene in particular or any at all for that matter. We work with people that we admire and that's the most important thing.

Your artworks are really strong, with a constant aesthetic, it's pretty hard to expect the music you're going to hear only judging by the cover. Is it a conscious choice?
It is a conscious choice. You ever see the packaging for The Band's "Music from Big Pink"? You wouldn't know what was held within those grooves without listening to it. I love that artwork.

There's a kind of nostalgia in Tenement (in your sound or your artworks), do you sometimes feel like you don't belong in this time? Would you like to have lived in a different era?
I don't consider myself nostalgic for anything other than possibly my childhood, which in my brain is just some sort of fuzzy colorful daydream complimented by country music and at times silence. I use a lot of material from the forties through the sixties in our artwork for the colors. Color and contrast I think is very important in artwork, and color can create such a perfect visual to compliment a mood in music.

I think your lyrics are really well written: sometimes they may be personal, sometimes they tell stories (like your song "Medical Curiosity"), there are also spoken words on some of your records... who does that and how important is it for you? What are you main influences?
I write almost all of the lyrical content of the records, and I think it shares equal importance with the music. I pull more influence from whatever I'm reading at the moment than any songwriters, really. Steinbeck is a huge influence. I wrote most of the words for the next Tenement LP while traveling, as I spent most of the past year on the road...and so most of it is influenced by visuals rather than literature. Immediate surroundings... America, really.

How do you compose the songs? I think Amos can play all the instruments, does he do the main composition or do you jam a lot?
We've written three songs together I think: "Viscous", "Senile", and "Freak Cast in Iron", which usually entails us getting together and writing a song around a melody that one of us brings to the table. Otherwise I've written most of the other songs, and Jesse's written a couple, too. I usually put them together piece by piece on some sort of portable recorder, then we re-record them properly, or I just do it myself at home.

I know you guys have other projects; can you introduce us to them?
Eric plays guitar in a fast hardcore punk band called Bored Straight. He was doing that long before he was ever in Tenement. I play drums in a noise pop band called Technicolor Teeth, and a punk/pop band called Chinese Telephones that was a band for several years before I played with them. I also play drums for the solo project of my good friend, Tim Schweiger, who was in a couple really great bands a few years ago: Yesterday's Kids, and The Obsoletes. 

Amos, I think your first instrument was the drums, right? What's the difference between drumming for a band and being the "frontman" (like being the singer/guitarist in Tenement)?
Playing the drums is very simple to me. Like riding a bicycle almost. I've been playing drums since I was six or seven years old. Not that I don't try to learn or challenge myself all of the time, but it's a very natural activity. I learned to play the bass guitar in middle school, then taught myself six string from there. As a guitarist, I think I play really percussive, which I think is in my nature. So that aside, playing guitar in a band is much more challenging to me than playing the drums. But no less expressive, I guess.

You've played with Paul Collins (of The Nerves, The Beat), how did you end up being in his band? How was the experience?
His drummer in Spain was originally from Appleton, Wisconsin. My friend Tim Schweiger was recruited to play lead guitar in the band through him, and when they needed a drummer for American dates, I was asked to play finally. It was a pleasure to play those songs... The Beat's first two LPs are a couple of my favorite power pop records. My association with him ended a little sour. I do still stay in contact with Peter Case (The Nerves, The Plimsouls), and have discussed doing some more touring/recording with him in the future.

Now a question for the tech nerds: what kind of gear do you use? Are you into that kind of thing (having a lot of pedals and stuff)?
In a live setting, I use a Sunn Model T amplifier, and a 6X12 cabinet. I don't use any pedals, and I am very into achieving sounds by coaxing them out of the guitar by physical means. Jesse uses a Peavey 400 series bass amp, which I think is the most underrated bass amp of all time. He doesn't use any pedals either.

As a French guy who's never been to the USA, I don't know much about Wisconsin. Can you tell me how life is there and how does it or does it not influence your music?
Wisconsin is a state, geographically, with a very subtle beauty. It's got a lot of rolling hills rather than mountains, lakes and rivers and streams rather than oceans, and deciduous forests rather than anything remotely tropical. I love that about it. I've always appreciated subtlety rather than excess in everything from the music I listen to, to the food I eat, to the place I live. Too much of a good thing can be oppressive sometimes. And too much of a bad thing, is, well, definitely oppressive.

Any book/movie/music recommendations?
Most recent book I've read: The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Most recent movie I've seen: Stuart Gordon's "Castle Freak"; Most recent record I've listened to: Stan Kenton's "A Merry Christmas".

What's next for you? What should we expect at a Tenement show?
We're currently working on a couple LPs and a split record with Madison, Wisconsin power-violence heavyweights, SFN. I would like to think you wouldn't know what to expect at a Tenement show. I'll keep it that way.

Thanks a lot for doing this interview! Do you have a special thing to say to our reader?
Thank you! We would love to see France soon! Someone buy us plane tickets, and we'll come stink up your country too.


LP :
  • The Blind Wink (compilation, 2011)
  • Napalm Dream (2011)

EP :
  • Freak Cast In Iron / Books On Hell And Sermons On T.V (2013)
  • Taking Everything / Daylight World (2011)
  • False Teeth EP (2010)
  • Icepick / Summer Street (2008)

Split :
  • with Cheeky (2012)
  • with Cülo (2011)
  • with Used Kids (2009)
  • with Friendly Fire (2009)