The last time Milwaukee’s Modern Machines played the Bay Area, after ripping through a set of their shaggy hard-pop, they got into a shoving match over whether to paint the tour van. “I claimed, ‘I’m through, I’m outta here,’ and walked away in my socks down some street in San Francisco,” recalls frontman-guitarist Nate “Nato” Paisano. Later, the band capped the night with some shoplifted beer and a hazy game of hide-and-seek at the Berkeley Marina Adventure Playground. If that’s not precisely the comic-romantic image of taking on the world in an Econovan, then nothing is.
But Modern Machines are not living out some zany version of the rock ”n’ roll dream in vain; they’re as serious about their music as they are about their beer. Wednesday, June 21 at Annie’s Social Club in San Francisco, the trio carries on the Midwestern punk tradition of melody, heart, and a ton of personality, as demonstrated on its new album Take It, Somebody.
Like Minneapolis’ Replacements and Hüsker Dü, the two bands to which Modern Machines have been breathlessly and repeatedly compared in the punk press, the band was born into teenage hardcore. Bassist Danny Zajackowski and drummer Jon “Hands-On” Hanson responded to a classified ad placed by Paisano and former guitarist-singer Ben Woyak, now in their mid-twenties. Christening themselves the Shrubbers, they regaled Washington County (northwest of Milwaukee and, according to Paisano, “the most George W. Bush-supporting county in Wisconsin”) with jackhammer tempos and lots of shouting.
On the goofball/geek meter of punk bands, Modern Machines rank second only to California’s own defunct Descendents. “Hanson does a crossword puzzle everyday, Dan was a high-school history teacher, and I read biographies for fun,” Paisano says.
Musical change began to creep in from the influence of the aforementioned bands, which Nate read about in an interview with REM guitarist Peter Buck. “The library had a couple of Replacements CDs, but when you’re fifteen, sometimes the Replacements don’t make sense — it just sounds kinda like rock,” he recalls. “But Hüsker Dü was loud enough that I got them right away.”
By the time they’d moved from Bush country to Milwaukee, the Shrubbers had become Modern Machines. With the release of the blessedly messy 2003 debut album Thwap!, the band had stretched out enough to embrace melody and lyricism. Considering the snatches of barroom blues and folk that show up on the album, they’d also evidently grasped the Replacements. “Their Midwest-sounding songs are so consistently well written that this release no doubt will be considered a classic,” Punk Planet raved. “Fuck yeah,” Maximum Rock and Roll applauded.
Take It, Somebody — the band’s first album released on a label with an actual publicity staff, Seattle’s Dirtnap — takes a step out of the pigeonhole carved by Thwap! and its blazing follow-up, 2005’s Taco Blessing. Woyak’s guitar is missed, but compensated with bigger vocals by Paisano, who writes and sings about 70 percent of the band’s repertoire of bright power-pop, Nuggets-ish raveups, and an actual folk song.
Some hometown love still appears in Hanson’s “Pay Off the Hangman,” but the Midwest feel of Take It, Somebody is more subdued. On “Treadmill Waltz,” Paisano anthropomorphizes Wisconsin as a worker struggling to pay the rent, working in some vivid metaphor and wordplay, sung with quiet conviction: If there’s a will, then there’s a way/If you believe the old cliché/But is there always a way, when there’s a will/Or will we still waltz the treadmill. In “What I Be Leavin’,” he sings, I grew up in a weird little town with a lot of Republicans around/Moved down to a rusty city, all the old factories were pretty. “I put some stuff in songs that really couldn’t happen in any other part of the country,” he explains. “This is where there used to be all this industry and now there’s all these abandoned brick warehouses and factories.”
Among those rusted Milwaukee factories are the remnants of the once-great Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery, former makers of the Modern Machines’ key nutrient — beer. They get their recommended daily allowance by shopping at an establishment they’ve dubbed “XBS” (“expired beer store”). It’s an avocation reminiscent of the Replacements, as is the all-or-nothing ethic of a relatively unknown band that made its last album for $200 in a basement, yet tours three times a year.
“There have been times that we’ve played in a city where we thought more people would come out, and that makes you occasionally wonder why you do it,” Paisano says. “But there’s no way we’d stop. I’d be writing these songs and singing them to whatever unfortunate person hears me, no matter what.”