Never out of style

February 9, 2007


It's been a long time since the founding members of Milwaukee's cult legends Plasticland fit in with any of rock's prevailing trends.

Childhood friends Glenn Rehse and John Frankovic first played together in a mid-'60s garage band like those famously compiled on Lenny Kaye's "Nuggets" collection, and their musical progression followed the development of the genre itself, moving on to progressive rock and synth-rock. But in 1980, the two formed Plasticland, coining the name as "a modernized version of Lewis Carroll's wonderland," and building on the sound of '60s psychedelic pop heroes such as the Creation, Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd and the Pretty Things.

"We were not out to revive the Creation; we were out to write songs as good as those of the bands we'd fallen in love with years ago," bassist Frankovic told me several years ago. "What attracted us to those sounds were the excitement and the cultural ramifications that went with the music. Psychedelia to us was definitely a state of mind, not a drug. It was an art statement and a fashion statement: Dressing up and not dressing like a slob -- pointy shoes, real pants and well-cut Italian-style clothes."

Their ornate music and flamboyant fashions earned Plasticland a position on the fringes of the rock underground, especially in blue-collar Milwaukee; Rehse and Frankovic have plenty of stories about dodging insults and sometimes blows hurled by meat-and-potatoes heartland rockers as well as allegedly open-minded punks. But the group's devotion to its vision also earned a worshipful following around the world, with fans who cherish the albums the band made in the '80s --timeless discs like "Wonder Wonderful Wonderland" (1985) and "Salon" (1987) -- as well as more recent offerings.

Plasticland was featured on Rhino's "Children of Nuggets" box set in 2005, and last year, Rykodisc issued a hard-hitting best-of called "Make Yourself a Happening Machine." Few fans have ever had the opportunity to see the group onstage, however.

"We've always prided ourselves on not just being a band that shows up, plugs in, and starts playing; we like to have a sense of theatrics seeing a real performance, with the liquid light machines and that sort of thing," says Rehse, the band's guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter. "For that reason, and because everybody has commitments in real life that can get in the way, we've never really toured a lot. But it really seemed like this was the right time to get back together to start doing this again and trying to move it forward."

Plasticland never officially broke up, though there have certainly been long stretches in the last 15 years where it didn't seem to be doing anything. But Rehse says that he, Frankovic, longtime drummer Victor Demichei and recent addition Leroy Buth (formerly of Milwaukee's influential punk band the Lubricants) are trying to step up the pace, recording a new album and looking forward to performing live more often.

"I don't just want the band to be a rerun or something that gets together four times a year, and if we still aren't doing a lot shows yet, we are creatively active again now," Rehse says. "Getting this energy rolling again doesn't come overnight: When you have taken that much time away from it, you have to readjust to doing it all over again and figure out, 'What is this, and why are we doing it?' We feel that people have lost the essence of the big sound, and we want to bring it back. We know how to do it, we have made it before, and we're going to do it again.

"One of the reasons why Leroy is in this is that he and I had been talking for years about how I wanted to direct the new sound of the band to keep it interesting and progress without losing the essences of its past. To me, I look at those early pictures of the big mod rave-up groups like the Who and the Creation and then later the Yardbirds and ask, 'What was it that made that sound?' It was those big amps and the type of guitars they were using, so I wanted to get back to that. All of us felt, 'Well, this thing can either move forward or it can just stay a rerun of the past.' And we don't want to be that!"

When Rehse is asked if he ever thought he'd still be playing rock 'n' roll four decades after that teenage group with Frankovic, he doesn't hesitate for minute. "Actually, I'm one of those 'for life' kind of people with anything I do. It's just something that's a part of what I am as a person, and I had to take some breaks from it, but at the end of the day, I can't imagine not doing it. There are some days where you just don't have time to do it in the capacity that you had once done it, but you don't ever blow it out of your system. There's always something that nudges you back." 



Building on a completely different strain of psychedelic rock -- with influences more along the lines of the post-Barrett Pink Floyd of "More," otherworldly folk-rockers like the Incredible String Band and the very early Fleetwood Mac or Jethro Tull -- the Denton, Texas, quintet Midlake released its promising debut "Bamnan and Slivercork" in 2004. But the band really took things to a whole new level last year with a fancifully named disc that was one of my favorites of 2006, even if I never got around to weighing in with a proper review.

Released by Bella Union, the record label started by Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde, "The Trials of Van Occupanther" is the rare sort of record that creates a world all its own, with bandleader and vocalist Tim Smith unraveling strange and enigmatic fairy tales ("I caught an apple and she caught a fox/So I caught a rabbit but she caught an ox") over a lush, gorgeous setting of acoustic and electric guitars, flute, bassoon, keyboards, drums and bass. What's even more impressive is that I've twice seen the band succeed in recreating this mysterious backwoods vibe in very inhospitable settings -- in the midst of the always-frantic South by Southwest Music Festival, and early in the day on a side stage at Lollapalooza -- so given the much more inviting confines of Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, fans should expect nothing short of magic.

St. Vincent, Annie Clark's one-woman art-pop band, opens at 7 p.m. At press time, the show was sold out, but try calling (773) 525-2508.


  9:30 tonight
  The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
  Tickets, $8
  (773) 276-3600