Painted Caves step out of the shadows and into the light
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Fans of Milwaukee music are accustomed to debut albums springing up, usually from some corner of the underground rock scene, to a burst of glowing press. So it was more than a little refreshing when the self-titled album by Painted Caves popped up last year and almost immediately became one of the most-played new releases on the WMSE airwaves. The brainchild of local songwriter Ali Lubbad, Painted Caves is a unique blend of Middle-Eastern folk and ambient pop, alternating in moods between contemplative and infectiously beat-driven. For Lubbad, the opportunity to make the record had been a long time coming.
“For years I had hoped to meet with musicians who were interested in Arabic music,” says the 41-year-old multi-instrumentalist, who was raised in the West but spent time immersing himself in his paternal heritage in the ’90s, even living with relatives in Palestine for a few months before relocating to Milwaukee. “After playing my songs alone at open microphones and such, I heard about a guy who was half-Palestinian like me and heard that he played the oud.”
That guy was Mike Kashou, a name that might be familiar to local music nuts for his work with the Violent Femmes, as well as ’80s Madison goof-punk band Swamp Thing. “I met Mike after doing some looking around and tracked him down to the basement of the Village Bazaar store where he makes and repairs Arabic drums,” Lubbad says. “I played him the song ‘Morse Code’ on my guitar and he responded by picking up his oud and falling into the music like he was made for it. We have been playing together ever since.”
The project got a boost in profile thanks to the help of local luminary Paul Cebar, who headlines tonight’s show at Shank Hall with his band, Tomorrow Sound. “I heard about Paul Cebar through other people in Milwaukee, and always heard his name spoken in the context of his helping someone or other,” Lubbad says. “I decided when I wanted to start playing music again after not doing it for years, I wanted to talk to someone who had been doing it and was kind enough to approach.”
Evidently, working with practically every musician in the Brew City helps to build an impeccable reputation. “It’s all true: Paul is one of the most beautiful, quality people I have ever met,” Lubbad gushes. “He ended up on the album through our friendship. He had just come down to a recording session to have a listen and was nice enough to offer his incredible voice on a few tracks.”
Tonight at Shank Hall will be Painted Caves’ first weekend-night live show, but Lubbad began performing the songs last year in a somewhat unusual setting: the Milwaukee Art Museum. On a few Saturdays over the past several months, Lubbad and Kashou have set up in Windhover Hall to perform stripped-down versions of Painted Caves songs. “The space is massive and transports me every time I enter it,” Lubbad says. “I choose to play there when the museum allows it.”
As word has spread, the free midday shows have begun to attract a diverse audience. “The ‘museum crowd’ is starting to include hula-hoopers, hippies, yoga instructors, beatniks, tattooed misanthropes, and J.Crew catalog models,” Lubbad muses.
Based on the myriad of influences evident in Lubbad’s music, it’s no surprise that his listeners would come from different backgrounds. Still, many of Lubbad’s personal musical heroes aren’t immediately apparent in the Painted Caves sound. He mentions The Oh Sees, The Mermen, Rapeman, Sebadoh, Fela Kuti, Marcel Khalife, Abdel Halim Hafez, James Brown, The Flaming Lips, and Black Flag when asked about what specific artists he’s been enamored with lately. But despite the very old roots of his music (he has referred to it as “primitive music for modern machines”), there’s no mistaking its current pop character. “I believe the sensibility is that we are all in this together, and both the entrance and exit to this life are in fact the same door,” he says. “Or maybe just being honest and generous with what you choose to express is the ‘tie’ through history. I deeply respect interesting repeating patterns in a song.”
Lubbad is looking forward to the new challenge of performing with a full band in a more conventional setting. “It will be a little less meditative and a lot more danceable,” he predicts, “with bass, drum set, screeching ouds, and amplified monster didgeridoo solos.”
With any luck, the extra exposure will lead to a busy year for the band. “I want to share the music with more people,” Lubbad says. “Maybe play outside of Milwaukee a few times, hopefully be invited to play new places for new audiences.”
Considering the nearly universal acclaim for what he’s done so far, these modest goals seem well within reach.