Professor Jon Kahl is an unashamed Alice Cooper fan.
“I go to Summerfest typically, I’d say, between one and three times every summer because I like seeing the bands and it’s just a great, fantastic thing that we have right here where we live,” he said. “I went (last year) to hear Alice Cooper. I’m not embarrassed to say it.”
This year, Kahl’s hoping to attend Summerfest again, but this time as a performer.
Watch: Unclear on the Concept. (View full size at http://youtu.be/DqFTTeVwhxg)
Kahl, a faculty member in UWM’s Atmospheric Sciences program, is the lead guitarist of Unclear on the Concept, a UWM-centric alternative rock band that has a chance to play on a Summerfest stage this year. Dubbed the country’s largest music festival, Summerfest will feature more than 1,000 performances played on 11 stages over 11 days in Milwaukee.
Unclear on the Concept is gearing up for the final round of a battle of the bands competition that has drawn contenders from across the metro-Milwaukee area. The winner will play at Summerfest. The final round is scheduled for Sunday, May 4, though that date could change.
“We are confident. We think our songs are good. We play them really well,” Kahl said.
His bandmates include UWM alumni Josh Hart and Jonny Flamboe, both graduates of the School of Education, and UWM Physics professor Xavier Siemens. The group came together about two years ago, though Flamboe was a later addition after Unclear on the Concept’s previous drummer, Rolando Olivas, Kahl’s PhD student, graduated. All have day jobs and none of the four are what you’d call musical professionals.
“We really do this just 100 percent for fun,” Siemens said. “It’s an activity which is completely different from anything else we do here. It’s like a little vacation we take once a week at rehearsal.”
The group regularly plays at Milwaukee venues like Vintage, an eastside bar, and Conway’s Smokin’ Bar and Grill, a bar near Marquette University. This is the first time they’ve had a chance at a gig like Summerfest, though. Unclear on the Concept entered the contest at the behest of Hart, who found the opportunity buried in the piles of emails the band receives on a daily basis. The other band members agreed, not least because Hart would have to be the one to handle coordination and communication with the contest’s organizers.
The first of three rounds of competition in March wasn’t quite what Siemens thought it would be; the competing band was a group of 14-year-olds.
“It’s kind of funny because it seemed like a lose-lose. If we win, then we beat some 14-year-olds. If we lose, then we lose to some 14-year-olds. It’s really terrible,” Siemens said with a laugh.
Fortunately, the band didn’t have to find out how either scenario would play out; the other group forfeited. The
semi-finals on April 13 were a different story. Unclear on the Concept beat out local heavy metal band H1N1 to advance to the final round.
Unclear on the Concept plays a mix of covers and original songs, the majority of which are written by either Hart or Kahl. Songwriting is a mix of individual hard work and organic collaboration; the writer comes in with lyrics, a melody and some chords, and then the rest of the band gets their hands on it.
“Then everybody kind of makes up their own part based on what they see and what they personally would like to hear. Then you do that over and over again until you just always do, more or less, the same thing,” Siemens explained.
Kahl draws the inspiration for his songs from his life. One of his favorites, “Carmelita,” was written about the natives of Ciudad del Carmen in Mexico, where Kahl leads a study abroad group each January to do field work. Another song,
“Julian,” was sparked by another UWM professor.
“It’s a song about the famous British lute player Julian Bream, and it was inspired by a lecture given by John Stropes, who is a faculty (member) in the School of Music,” Kahl said. “I was impressed by some of the things John said. He talked about the quirkiness in this classical lute player’s personality. So ‘Julian’ is a whimsical song about Julian Bream.”
Fans can hear those songs and others on May 18 at Club Charlies at 320 E. Menomonee St. at 7 p.m. when Unclear on the Concept competes in the final round of the Battle of the Bands. The event is free and open to the public.