John The Savage’s final hurrah
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Over the past five years, few Milwaukee bands have eluded simple genre classification as well as John The Savage. The six-piece band knows when to get heavy and when to get quiet, hurling listeners into its strange but wonderfully vivid world of sounds—a circus of classical, punk, polkas, waltzes, and other noises. While these styles would theoretically conflict, the band has worked them into its own kind of language that’s anchored around lead singer Michael Skorcz’s Tom Waits-like growl. On Dec. 21 at Riverwest’s Rio West Cantina (as part of Riverwest Fest) and Dec. 28 at Cactus Club, the band plays its final shows before calling it a day. Putting an exclamation on the celebrations is a new album, a collection of nine songs that chronicle the past few years of the band.
While there are definitely no hard feelings, the band felt it was time to move on. “It’s been a lull of us playing shows lately because we’ve been busy with other things,” Skorcz says. “We just wanted to end things to evolve as better musicians and people. We all love each other. It’s all great.”
For what initially seemed like an odd combination of instruments and players, John The Savage not only found a way to make it work, but has been a constant source of creative ideas. For upright bass player Paul Fleming, the band is going out in full stride. “The thing with John The Savage is that we’ve done what we’ve wanted and became a band and became family,” he says. “It just seemed like a lot of us had to start fresh. We didn’t want to make it so we were dragging this on endlessly. We did what we did and made great music. We’d like to cherish it.”
Like the rest of his bandmates, Skorcz has learned a lot from being in the band. While he played in other bands prior, John The Savage presented the first opportunity to write full songs and sing in front of other people. “I got comfortable with sharing ideas and working with people, and using music as a language,” he says.
Around 2007, Skorcz asked his roommate at the time, Rita Szopinski, who plays keyboards and violin, to join him at open mics. “I asked her to play some stuff with me on drunken nights of ‘Okay, let’s pick up these instruments and try stuff out.’ We did that for a little bit, and within a week we were calling up people saying, ‘Hey, maybe this might work as a band,’” Skorcz says.
The traditional drums, bass, and guitar didn’t really cut it, so Skorcz and Szopinski searched for others who played different kinds of instruments. This included cello, mandolin, accordion, synthesizer, piano, organ, violin, and viola. “We would all play in this little room up at Rita’s house, and we would pack in all these big instruments with the piano and everything,” Skorcz says. “It all clicked right away.”
Everyone from the band brought their own influences, ranging from punk to classical. “We had all just met and there were a ton of styles. It was all over the place and it was cool that we all got to agree on one band,” Skorcz says. “It was neat that it clicked right away and everyone wanted to play something different. Everyone wanted to expand their music and their abilities, and it seems we all stepped it up since we met each other.”
Part of that success came from the band putting together a musical language they all could understand. “I don’t really know music theory, and I was working with people that knew theory,” Skorcz says. “We had to work out some kind of language, something to keep us going.”
Since then, the band has played pretty much every corner of Milwaukee, winning over new crowds with its raucous live sets. “It’s one time I can let loose and not think about anything,” Skorcz says. “I’ve never experienced anything crazier than that. I’ve been hooked since I was little. It’s like being a wild man. I just want to let it out, everything that’s going on around me in life, and let it out on stage.”
In between touring, the band produced one full length, Kitchen Voodoo, as well as a few EPs, though none were official releases. The group’s upcoming album is a collection of music four years in the making. “We’ve been in the studio for a very long time,” Skorcz says. “We did four songs and then did more touring and then came back and did five more songs.” Fleming adds that the band probably has two albums’ worth of music and jams that haven’t been officially released or recorded.
Thanks to the band’s tenacious mindset live and in the studio, Skorcz and the rest of the band feel they’ve left a unique musical mark on the community. “Every style that anyone wanted to touch on, we would work out and try it our own way instead of being a revival band or something,” Skorcz says. “We did everything ourselves. It was a complete experience. Do whatever the fuck you want right now.”
“Let’s not pigeonhole ourselves into one certain category and make it like a business deal. We’re not trying to sell vacuums; we’re trying to create something and explore our minds.”