It’s possible the universe didn’t want The Calling to get released. Midway through recording, the album’s producer had a health issue, and The Milwaukees guitarist, Jeff Nordstedt, suffered a broken shoulder and wrist — on two separate occasions. In between everything — fatherhood, their day jobs, and a drummer parting ways with the band — somehow, The Calling, the band’s sixth album, was completed, and the New Jersey rockers, who first debuted with Sunset and Sunrise in 1998, were back.
“Once the smoke cleared, we mentally decided it’s time to focus on trying to get songs together for a new record if it was going to ever come to fruition,” says vocalist Dylan Clark on the band’s unintentional, seven-year hiatus since 2013’s American Anthems, Vol. 2, the second half to the band’s bare bones rock of Vol. 1 (2007). While the band continued to play live in the years following Anthems, new material never materialized until four years ago.
“I just started writing, and we started playing as we normally do,” says Clark. “Things took a little bit longer, because we have different commitments with things with our own personal lives.”
Tapping producer Tom Beaujour, who has worked with Nada Surf, Julianna Hatfield, and Guided By Voices, The Milwaukees — Clark and Nordstedt, along with bassist Donovan Cain and drummer Austin Faxon — had the missing piece to The Calling. Nordstedt first connect with the Beaujour when he sat in on him mixing a song for a friend’s band. “I was in the room with Tom for about 20 minutes before I was like, ‘okay, this guy is a Milwaukee,’” says Nordstedt. “He knows how to talk the way we talk. I could just tell he was a kindred spirit, so I ran it past the guys.”
After working on some demos with Beaujour, The Calling started unraveling. “We felt really free and inspired when playing with him,” says Nordstedt. “He got excited about the stuff that we get excited about, and it just fell into place.” Clark adds, “We’re also too old to work with somebody who’s not a good hang. Tom is so cool, and fun to be around, so it was a pleasure.”
When they finally started hitting a groove recording, everything halted when former drummer Pat Fusco decided to moved to San Diego. Finding his replacement would be another two-year process. They didn’t just want someone to come in and sit at the drums. They wanted a “Milwaukee” and found Austin Faxon.
“We wanted to get Austin [Faxon] in and play some shows with him first,” says Nordstedt. “We wrote some new material with him originally, so that the stuff he plays on he was part of writing. We had enough material at the time to finish earlier, but when we knew Pat wasn’t going to be around, we wanted to let it settle and be representative of the new unit.”
Recorded around New Jersey, including Union City’s Water Music and the Magic Door Studio in Montclair, NJ, with later mixing done by Beaujour in Hoboken, The Milwaukees pushed through many tribulations to reach The Calling.
“We’re a pretty resilient bunch,” says Clark. “The inspiration with all the songs is what life, at this point, looks like for all of us. Everybody’s going to have to face adversity, but we do our best. Everybody’s struggling to be the best version of themselves or trying in some sort of way.”
The title says it all. The Milwaukees have always had the calling, and despite nearly a decade between albums, and all the ups and downs since the band first formed in 1998, they’ve always regrouped, and remained a rock band.
“It was a great title, because we still continue as a band,” says Clark. “This is our calling, and it’s not about money, and it’s not about anything else involved with rock music. It’s just about playing and what you’re meant to do, and we’ve all decided for the last 20 years that we want to be in a band.”
The Calling is a blissful romp of rock n’ roll finding The Milwaukees in a more expansive space of sound, unfurling guitar-bending melodies and peeling back heartfelt lyrics in more refined arrangements.
On “No Way Out,” The Calling opens at attention, then shifts gears on ballad “Wild Heart,” a song Clark says is based on a deep friendship that met a painful end. “It’s one of those things where you get older and some people in your life are going to disappoint you,” shares Clark, “even people who you thought were going to be there with you ‘til the end, or somebody that you love letting you down to the point where you can’t really go back.”
Covered in anthemic bursts from “Stay Gold” and the reflective narratives of “Proud of Me” and “Burn & Shame,” The Calling gets is send-off in the title track.
Clark says that while most tracks are contemplative, he generally doesn’t get too wrapped up in the meaning when writing. “I don’t really get uplifting,” says Clark. “My favorite part about songwriting is when people tell me what they think it’s about, because many times they’re right, and I didn’t even realize it.”
Crafting guitar melodies around tracks before they’re even complete, Nordstedt can often pick up on the feel of a song during its earliest inception. “I often like to stay somewhat blissfully unaware of the lyrics,” says Nordstedt. “Usually I have the chord progression and the melody and rhythm, and I know what the song means, as far as I’m concerned, even before there are lyrics.”
Once tracking was wrapped up, Clark had the album’s title. “Maybe it was by design on his part, but to me, suddenly we looked back, and we realized that was sort of a line through everything,” says Nordstedt of The Calling. “It was all these stories of people finding a way to navigate all the stuff that they deal with, based on what drives them—whether they’re called to be musicians or whatever—it all ends up being stories of people figuring out what they have to do.”
The concept of The Calling revealed itself over time, unlike the band’s American Anthems volumes “We might’ve named that [Anthems] before the session started, or maybe in the middle of the session on the first volume,” says Nordstedt. “Not only did we know what it was about for record one, but we knew it for both—all at once.”
On The Calling, The Milwaukees have come a long way from their more jagged ’90s beginnings. Albeit, they were in their 20s then. “I might have heard [John] Mellencamp say this, but young men are pretty dangerous,” says Clark. “All the problems in the world pretty much come from young men.”
He continues, “I think that goes for bands. That’s what makes them great. The way the story of rock and roll normally goes is that when the bands are young, they kick ass and then they get older, and it doesn’t have that same stuff… that danger. I don’t think that we’re a dangerous rock band anymore. I don’t know what we are, but then again, we really don’t think about it too much.”
What Clark does know is that The Milwaukees can play a much better show now. “I’ve grown up in the way of, I take better care of my voice,” says Clark. “When I was in my 20s, I would drink 40 fucking beers a night, and then I would stay up until five in the morning, get up the next day, play a show and was shocked when I lost my voice.”
Now, The Milwaukees are in a new musical spectrum. “It comes down to the fact that we know what we’re doing now,” says Clark. “We know how to put on a good show. We always did, but I think we were either hot or cold back in the day. You’re not going to catch a shitty show anymore, and we’re going to light the stage on fire, and there’s not going to be a fight.”
In their evolution over the past two decades, Nordstedt says he also fell in love with playing guitar for the first time. “Personally, I discovered that I love to play the instrument,” he says. “I performed rock music with a guitar for so long, and then one day I actually said, ‘holy shit, there’s music in this thing.’ I fell in love with the instrument and the craft in a different way.” Nordstedt adds, “I shifted my enjoyment from just blazing and ‘no one is going to destroy this room more tonight than me’ to actually doing something musically. I found a new reason to do it and actually like playing as opposed to just crushing.”
When asked about reading music, Nordstedt jokes that they haven’t gone that far. “Now, let’s not get crazy.” Clark adds, “I think that all of us maybe came to the conclusion that like we’re pretty lucky to be able to, to do this and still put out music.”
As The Milwaukees ready the release of The Calling with no tour in tow, they still believe it’s the perfect time to make their return.
“Maybe there’s something to all this talking to one another through screens and shit that will reinvigorate people to explore some of the more visceral styles of music, which is what we have honed our craft in for the last 20 years,” says Nordstedt. “I’m not going to pontificate and say that somehow coronavirus is going to bring rock and roll back or something like that, but I do feel like there’s something organic about four people just playing music and doing what we’re doing. I’m hopeful the music feels a bit refreshing for people after what we’ve been dealing with.”
Even though it took years to weave together The Calling, the music still resonates in the current climate. After all, at the heart of The Milwaukees’ songs are tales of people’s struggles in relationships with themselves and with each other—something most are wrestling with during these uncertain times.
“I think our songs mean more than the sum of the words, which means that they feel like something,” says Nordstedt. “When you use music to communicate, it speaks to you in a way that words can’t alone, and I think that, especially in this time of isolation, being able to experience each other and sort of wrestle with the experiences of dealing with each other and getting through it in a beyond-verbal way might be some relief or respite, or something that people can connect with.”
Right now, The Milwaukees are home in New Jersey and dipping back into rehearsals, and anticipate playing live again once venues reopen. In the meantime, they’re ready to let The Calling loose.
“Even getting people to listen to it and getting some feedback will inspire us to keep going,” says Nordstedt. “Creatively, we were thinking that until we put this out, we’re not going to be able to start figuring out what sounds good to us next. Then we thought of everybody else postponing albums right now. But ears still exist, and humans still like music. Maybe it’s an opportunity for us to crack through this overcrowded music media landscape for a second, because everybody else ran for the hills.”
Nordestedt jokes, “What’s the worst that’ll happen? At the end of the day, all we care about is continuing to make music, so the worst thing that happens is we put it out and keep writing music.”
That’s The Calling. Everything over the past seven years led The Milwaukees here—to stay.
“We’re like the cockroaches of New Jersey,” jokes Clark. “Pandemic or no pandemic, we’re not leaving. We’re not going anywhere.”