By Ryan Penagos
While not intrinsically connected, rock 'n roll and comics have always shared a subversive connection to America's youth and pop culture. Whether they were being condemned for defiling the sanctity of American morality or emerging as highly influential and marketable aspects of entertainment (though in markedly different ways and times), there's no getting away from the impact or presence of either.
I started talking with Milwaukees about their new album, "America Anthems Volume 1," a few months back. Being a fan and acquaintance to the guys, talk of their songs and themes on the new album stirred up discussion about comics and Captain America, in particular. I asked guitarist Jeff Nordstedt to wax poetic on their new album, their influences and, of course, the Star Spangled Avenger. And as a bonus, the New Jersey quartet assembled their ultimate iTunes playlist, an iMix tribute to Captain America.
MARVEL.COM: Give us a little background on "American Anthems." How long have you guys been working on the record? What's the significance of the title?
The title "American Anthems" was lifted from a line in the verse of one of our songs called "Bullet Train." There is a kind of hip club in New York's East Village that we used to play fairly regularly. Once when we were loading in the soundman said, "Man, I love you guys. Every time I see you play I can't help but think of the E Street Band. Not that you sound anything like Springsteen, but you are just a great American Rock and Roll band." That was probably the best thing anyone ever said to us.
So after years of struggling to attach a name to the style of music we make, we had finally found one we're comfortable with, "American Rock and Roll." That thought was rolling around in my head when we were practicing one night and I heard Dylan [St. Clark, Milwaukees' frontman] sing, "There are no American Anthems, no American Girls in your bed." It struck me like lightning. We needed to bring back that Anthemic style of American rock and we had to call the record "American Anthems."
We generallly don't go too deep into deconstructing lyrics for people, but through most of the record there is a thematic thing going on. Lots of driving, lots of city names, lots of chasing the American Dream, a little bit of lost innocence and a bit of the ugly underbelly.
We also drew a lot of inspiration from some of the songwriting and the swagger of some of the great American Rock and Roll bands like Springsteen and the Heartbreakers. We even went through a big Elvis phase in the middle of writing. All of that stuff informed the sound and the choice of album title.
We actually have two records in the can at the moment, "American Anthem"'s volumes 1 and 2. Both were written and recorded over an obscenely long period of time—3 years, I think. We went through some ups and downs, but we maintained our love for writing and playing music, so we just kept at it. When we were finally ready to record we realized that we had about 3 records of new material. We recorded as much as we could and then made some very tough decisions about what would go on Volume 1 and what will go on Volume 2.
MARVEL.COM: Where were you the day Captain America died (March 7, 2007)?
No lie, we were in our rehearsal studio doing preproduction on the tune "American Girl." Which, by the way, doesn't sound anything like Petty's "American Girl." Ours is more of a nostalgic waltz kind of a feel. We really stretched ourselves on that one. It was still quite fresh when we recorded it. Though we didn't know at the time that Cap had died, I think he would have been proud.
MARVEL.COM: If Captain America is the spiritual avatar for "America Anthems," which Marvel hero (or villain?) would fit the bill for your other records?
"This is a Stickup" (2003)
Ooh, either Punisher or Ghost Rider. "Stickup" is pretty dark and defiant. I think we all had a chip on our shoulders when we recorded that. When I listen to it now I hear a band that was kind of pissed off and trying to prove something. In retrospect, I'm not sure what we were trying to prove. I think we didn't know at the time either.
"Missile Command" (2000)
Oh, totally Kitty Pryde. "Missile Command" is kind of like everyone's first kiss. Its kind of nice and pretty, innocent, exciting and maybe even a little corny, but everyone remembers it very fondly.
"The Bland Comfort of Life with Lloyd Justin" (2001)
This one's tough. A bit of Deadpool, dashed with classic Speedball, probably. "Lloyd Justin" is just kind of rambunctious. It sounds like a kid playing ball in the house and breaking his parents' china. We had just made this very polished alt-pop-rock record ("Missile Command") and I think we felt compelled to do something that was just the opposite of that. We played everything at light speed. It has all of the excitement and volatility of a kid with ADD.
MARVEL.COM: You've constructed an American/Captain America-themed playlist on iTunes. What were you thinking when putting these songs together? Break down the songs you guys chose and why.
1. "My Hero" the Foo Fighters
- I think this one is pretty obvious.
2. "Fortunate Son" Creedence Clearwater Revival
- When we were thinking about it, we decided that Captain America would be a proud American hero without necessarily being a flag-waving, rah-rah, patriot blindly supporting the government. That is a position we sympathize with, and I think that Creedence is the ultimate in proud American bands that aren't afraid to be critical.
3. "Highway to the Sun" the Milwaukees
- This is our take on the great American road song. Its kind of about this very American notion of Manifest Destiny.
4. "Born to Run" Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
- You can't find a more anthemic American rock song. This really is the ultimate. Lots of driving and regional references. Its a classic.
5. "I Can Help" Elvis Presley
- It would be very difficult to put together a list of music for the ultimate American super hero without including the King. This song seemed fitting. Though it was a coin toss between this and Elvis' cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
6. "Pink Houses" John Mellencamp
- Mellencamp is like the Midwest's Springsteen. Pink Houses has that real good-time Americana feel. Not our favorite Mellencamp tune. We love American rock, but sometimes Mellencamp can be a little much. Still, we think that Cap would go in for it. I imagine super heroes are a little partial to some corny music.
7. "Hotel Arizona" Wilco
- I imagine Captain America's taste in newer music tended toward alt-country. Wilco's "Being There" double disc from some years back is one of the best (and underrated) American rock records of the last 20 years. Newer Wilco is probably (understandably) a little too artsy for Captain America, but this is in his homerun zone. Also, there's a little bit of loneliness in this song. I imagine that being a super hero can be a bit lonely. Kind of like touring.
8. "Jet Pilot" Son Volt
- This is kind of like an update of "Fortunate Son." A damn good one too. That's why it makes the cut.
9. "Chicago" Sufjan Stevens
- This would be the hippest thing on Cap's iPod. Hipster or not, it is a damn good tune.
10. "Louisiana Rain" Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
- This is probably the most beautiful song on one of the most perfect records ("Damn the Torpedes") by one of the best American bands ever.
11. "American Girl" the Milwaukees
- We were really stretching our boundaries with this rootsy ballad. WWII era lyrics about love and innocence in pre-Nixon America. If Captain America got married, this would be his first dance.
12. "This Ship's Going Down" Val Emmich
- Val is a friend of ours and he has that epic, chest thumping quality in his voice that I think super heroes would really get off on.
13. "Stuck Between Stations" The Hold Steady
- This is another band that is kind of updating classic American rock sounds. The band rocks a real Springsteen feel. The lyrics are pretty clever and the whole album seems to be about American youth. It's a little jaded, and I think that Captain America would cast a similarly suspicious view of American youth and Myspace culture.
14. "Barrio Superstario" Pilot to Gunner
- This is for when Captain America has to kick some ass. Pilot to Gunner really knows how to clobber you. Great band.
15. "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" ZZ Top
- This is just such a killer song. We couldn't leave it off. Who doesn't like this?
16. "Don't Stop Believing" Journey
- We figure you've got to be pretty optimistic to fight crime and the powers of evil. This tune is very optimistic and pretty corny, but still it is pretty American and I think that when this would come on the radio when Captain America was driving, he'd check to see that no one was looking, then he'd rock out to it.
You can stream "American Anthems Volume 1" in its entirety on the Milwaukees' website
or four songs on their Myspace page
. And be sure to check out the iMix on iTunes