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Music

4.3.2019

Moving Forward: A Photo Documentation of Midwest Music History

Although the Midwest is often categorized alongside cowboys, country, and folk, photographer Spencer Wells exposes the Midwestern DIY music scene in its true form: a breeding ground for experimentation. In his latest book, Forward, he presents a decade of documentation through photos, profiles, poetry, and more. Wells tells the unexpected electrifying story of Wisconsin’s music makers through their own lived experiences of renouncing genres and creating community. The book’s official launch and release will take place tonight, Wednesday, April 3, at Spring Studios in New York. 

We caught up with Wells to talk more about Bon Iver’s influence, his time spent at punk shows, and the ultimate goal for Forward below:

Congratulations on the release of your book Forward! It is a beautiful visual documentation. At what age did you start taking photographs?

When I was in early high school, around 14, I became obsessed with documenting my friends skateboarding, first on video and shortly after in photographs.This is also when I took my first photo class and fell in love with working in the darkroom, developing my own photos and making my own prints. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I started taking photography more seriously.

The book is a collection of five years of your work. Why did you feel compelled to compile this documentation of the Wisconsin music scene?

I was compelled by the amount of amazing music I had witnessed over those years that I felt had gone largely unnoticed in the national media. I also wanted to create a more permanent document to solidify this period, as the coverage that was received during this time was on music blogs, arts weeklies or social media, and a lot of that content got lost in the ether of the internet. I wanted to preserve what was happening in a cohesive publication that people can reference in the future.

Why and what did you want outsiders to know about these musicians and this particular subculture that grew?

One of the key points I wanted the book to convey was the diversity in the kind of music being created. Wisconsin music often gets classified as a woodsy, folky sound but there’s way more going on than that. I purposely chose artists who pushed the boundaries of multiple genres to showcase the variety of sounds coming out of one place.

At what point did you realize Wisconsin DIY had something special over other underground scenes?

Seeing the success of Bon Iver legitimized Wisconsin music as something truly unique to me early on. Before that I took it for granted a bit, but seeing someone from my hometown receive that much acclaim showed me that people outside of the local scene had an interest in what was going on. It really became apparent years later when I moved to New York and realized how much I missed that community.

Why were you personally attracted to the DIY music scene and how did you become involved?

I loved the spontaneity and intimacy I found in house shows and DIY venues, the feeling that I was seeing something that couldn’t be replicated on another night in another venue. From a photo standpoint it was infinitely more interesting for me to shoot performances up close and personal in unconventional spaces than under stage lights in a big venue. I also gravitated toward the overall community that organized and attended the shows, I ended up meeting people who are still close friends today.

What was the first show you attended?

I’m not really sure, I started seeing live music pretty early on, I remember my Dad took me to see Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson when I was 14 or 15. Around the same time I started going to hardcore punk shows in basements with my older friends after days of skateboarding, that was my first exposure to a DIY show. I was more interested in other musical genres, but I loved the energy of that scene.

You mention in the intro the social expectations and financial burdens of residing in coastal cultural capitals. Why do Wisconsin’s social expectations differ from these cities and how does this impact the music makers?

There’s less of a music industry presence, so generally musicians seem to make music more for the sake of it than as a career path. Audiences are more accepting, or at least more polite, to come out and listen to something they might not be familiar with. The cost of living is also a lot lower and the pace of life is a bit slower, leaving more time for experimenting with methods or sounds that might not be as commercially viable.

What was your process in selecting the people who told their stories?

The writers all have strong connections to Wisconsin and their subjects. I reached out to people I knew had been there alongside the subject and who would have a strong voice to bring to the book. This resulted in a pretty broad range of people and writing styles, which gives the book some variety while my photos remain the constant voice throughout.

Was there a particular person featured in the book you felt most connected to?

I’ve known Adelyn Strei the longest, we went to school together from a young age so I saw her music develop from the very beginning. However, Whilden Hughes and I spent a lot of time together working on DIY projects and we always related on a lot of levels when it came to ethos of what we were doing.

What is your ultimate goal with this book and the story it tells?

Ultimately, I wanted to create a starting point that anyone interested in music, Wisconsin or DIY culture, could pick up and get an idea of what was going on during the last decade. Hopefully it will introduce readers to musicians they may have missed out on and give them a new perspective on artists they’re already fans of.

Images courtesy of Spencer Wells

Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.

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