This past New Year’s Eve, Milwaukee-based instrumental trio Pele reunited (after about a decade since their split) as an opening act for one of American Football’s hometown comeback shows. Guitarist Chris Rosenau, drummer Jon Mueller and bassist Matt Tennessen originally released three albums together during Pele’s 1997-2004 run, two of which were released by Polyvinyl at the time.
Often lumped in with wordless post-rock groups like Tortoise or Pan-Am, Pele brought upbeat, often driving musicianship to the table and steered away from ten-minute drones or overt seriousness, managing to appeal to both the art-rock crowd and fans of groups like The Promise Ring, all while slowly building a reputation as some of the best players of their ilk. Interspersed with his time in Pele, Tennessen was also a member of powerhouse quintet Paris, Texas (and prior to Pele, performed in Ezra Pound with members of Rainer Maria), but stayed out of music entirely after the break-up of both bands. Meanwhile, Mueller and Rosenau continued their partnership in Collections of Colonies of Bees, which eventually led to the formation of Volcano Choir with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Mueller has also pioneered Death Blues, a stunning and critically-acclaimed audio and visual project that addresses our communal understanding of mortality.
Their reunion continues with a Record Store Day pressing of 1999’s “Elephant” (via Polyvinyl; clear, and limited to 1,000 copies) as well as a performance on the night of RSD at Milwaukee’s Cactus Club. Recently, Modern Vinyl spoke to all three members and in this first portion of a two-part interview, the group discusses their formation, their experiences touring Japan and their eventual split.
Modern Vinyl: Chris, if I have the timeline right, it was yourself, Jon and Scott as the first incarnation of Pele. Is that right? And can you talk about those early days of how you got together?
Chris Rosenau: Yeah, it was me, Jon, Scott Schoenbeck (later of The Promise Ring and Dashboard Confessional) and Scott Beschta. Schoenbeck was in Alligator Gun and Beschta was in The Promise Ring. Alligator Gun had just broken up and Scott had all these leftover songs that didn’t make the cut.
Jon Mueller: Chris and I had talked about doing something. I’m curious how that even came up.
CR: Because that was after Sissy (an early band of Mueller and Rosenau’s).
JM: Right, but why?
Matt Tennessen: Was that when you guys lived in that apartment for a brief period?
JM: I know when it was. It was ’97-ish because we were doing Telecognac and we thought it’d be fun to just not do all this “stuff” and just do a rock band.
CR: Telecognac was something Jon had started…
JM: But it turned into this pretty large band of seven or eight people and Scott Schoenbeck was in that, too, in the live version. And we were doing kind of a folky mish-mash of dixieland jazz. So we had done Sissy prior to that and we just said, “Why don’t we do a rock band where I’ll play drums?” I wanted to play rock drums and I knew Chris could do rock music. And Telecognac seemed to be just running its course. That’s how the idea started, so we talked to Scott (Schoenbeck) and he said he had all these ideas from Alligator Gun.
MV: The first couple Pele releases sound vastly different from Alligator Gun.
CR: On that first record, Teaching the History of Teaching Geography (1998; Star Star Stereo Records), it’s hysterical. You could think “Eh, if you put Bill (Couture; Alligator Gun vocalist/guitarist) on this and changed it all over the place, you can hear it.” You have to listen for it, but it’s funny. And there was a time we asked Jon Lyman (vocalist of Compound Red) to sing, and Beschta was just out of Promise Ring and we thought “That nutcase can probably play keyboard or something. I mean, he’s got a keyboard.”
JM: Schoenbeck was already kind of in (Pele, as the bassist) but we just liked Scott (Beschta).
CR: We just wanted to hang out with him more.
JM: Everything seemed to just fall into place. If we tried that now, I don’t know if it’d work or not. The music was going well and at some point we said, “Fuck it” as far as finding a singer. And at that time there was a lot of instrumental rock music happening.
CR: Right, that was sort of a Chicago thing.
JM: It wasn’t a time where someone would go “Why don’t you have a singer?,” so it was sort of appropriate.
CR: We had always been in bands with singers up until that point.
MV: How long did that line-up go for until Matt joined?
CR: It wasn’t long. It must’ve been a year-and-a-half or two years.
JM: Scott Schoebeck got the deal playing with Promise Ring, and Scott Beschta got the deal with New Rising Sons, so Chris and I were like “Fuck. Now what?” Having those two guys leave was half the band. So we had done that session with Matt in Madison (for Tussin, a one-time recording of some ideas of Chris and Jon’s), and that Tussin session was a fucking great thing. Musically, it was great, but that was not Pele.
MV: So what was this first session with Matt?
CR: I used to work at Sleepless Nights (a former Madison, WI recording studio, now known as Megatone) and had some songs…
MT: (To Chris) You were recording Promise Ring.
CR: Yeah, I had recorded them, Alligator Gun, Compound Red…
MT: No, but, you were recording Promise Ring when this session happened.
CR: Yeah, there was time left, so I called Jon and said “Come record a bunch of songs.” And it was great but we needed a bass player. And that was the first time we had ever met (Matt).
MT: It was after finals but before winter break, probably December of ’95. You (Chris) called and said “Hey, what are you doing?” “Uh, nothing.” “I’m at Sleepless Nights with my friend Jon and we’re recording music, do you want to come and play bass?”
JM: I was so amped. Chris was like “This guy is fucking amazing,” so I was excited, but also, what if he said no, and then it’s not this complete thing. I thought “If all the pieces are there, and even if it’s just this recording and nothing else, at least it’s complete. At least it’s something. But if Matt didn’t show up, it would’ve been a lot of momentum and excitement built up recording Chris’s songs and then just like, “Oh, well.”
MT: That’s interesting, because my whole take was totally different. (I asked) “What are you guys playing?” “Doesn’t matter. Where do you live?” And then (Chris) picked me up in your weird red car. I walk in and Jon was in the live room playing drums. It was late, nobody else was there and I see this bottle of VSOP brandy and I thought “This makes a lot of sense. This is why you want me to do this because who fucking cares.” (Laughs) Jon started playing this stuff and I was like, “Wow! Who is this guy?” I had never met Jon before and he’s going Jon all over the drums to this recording of this rock music, and Chris had this Gorilla amp, this little shitty practice amp for fifty bucks, that was somehow getting this really ridiculous tone and it was just like “Yeah, this is what we’re doing.” I thought “I have no idea what’s happening but I am way out of my fucking league. I’m in some random studio, this guy Jon knows what he’s doing and this guy (Chris) is playing garbage but somehow making it sound amazing, both of them are probably drunk…”
JM: Right when I heard (Matt) jump in and do what he did with this, I was like “Oh my god.” That recording is definitely something and no one knows about it.
CR: Literally I think us three are the only people who’ve ever heard it. It’s so fucking good though.
MV: Matt, in the timeline, where does Paris, Texas fit as far as you being in both bands at once?
MT: I graduated in ’96 and Chris was back in Milwaukee at that point. I moved away briefly but came back to Madison, and I was expecting in the fall of ’98 to move out of Wisconsin again, but that didn’t really happen. When I moved to Milwaukee, I was just like “Well, what the fuck am I gonna do now?” It was unexpected, but I had been talking to Jon and Chris periodically, thinking “It’s too bad I live in Madison and don’t know what the fuck I’m doing because these guys are really creative and motivated to just do whatever the fuck they want to do with no pretense.” That was a time no one was making a good living (being in bands), but people were starting to be like, “Our bands are very important.” Chris and Jon were making music like, “We have jobs. Who fucking cares? We’re just going to make what we want to make.” I was like, “That’s awesome.” I didn’t know anybody who was like, “I’m going to play whatever I want to play.”
MV: It’s interesting because at that time, bands that people might put in your genre in Chicago were picking up steam but you guys as a crew seemed to not really care.
MT: All that Chicago post-rock stuff was all bossanova and “We’ve got vibraphones.”
CR: No, we wanted to play rock-and-roll.
MT: But because it was instrumental, we’d get “Oh, it must be that. It’s very serious.”
CR: We took writing the music very seriously, but we certainly didn’t take playing the music very seriously.
JM: The whole spirit was more rock-and-roll than smart jazz. Even though there are certainly jazz elements in all of our playing, it wasn’t to make some artistic statement. We liked all those bands, but that wasn’t the thing we were really going for, that smoothness. We were definitely more into the rough edge of things.
CR: There were other bands that had vocals, like June of ’44 or Slint. There was a lot going on where you didn’t have to be one of those things.
MV: I also felt that you guys never had any five, six, seven-minute songs, like other instrumental acts. It was very much “Three-and-a-half minutes, and get out.”
CR: Yeah, we wanted to be a fucking pop/rock band. We just unfortunately didn’t have anybody singing. It was very much verse-chorus-verse-chorus-break.
JM: And vocals are hard. If the vocals are no good…
CR: Right, then it destroys it.
JM: To find somebody who made sense with what we were doing, the pool in Milwaukee wasn’t big enough.
CR: And everyone was busy. Anyone who was great was occupied.
JM: Even if they were great, would it fit with what we were doing? That was the other trick.
CR: Because we didn’t have a vocalist, we all played so much and made so many melodies, so it was like “Well, now there’s no fucking place for any vocals to fit anywhere. Where the hell is someone going to sing?”
JM: And also, what are they gonna say?
CR: Then we’d have to title the songs with stuff that was talked about in the lyrics of the song instead of fucking great titles like we have. (Laughs)
MV: Matt, during your time between both Pele and Paris, Texas, do you remember if there would be a peak where one band was touring, you’d get a small break and then you’d go out with the other one?
MT: No, because at the time, both of these guys had real jobs and I was the only one without a real job and I had no responsibilities at all. I could drive to Madison and practice. For periods, Paris, Texas was more active and sometimes a little less active during school semesters, but Pele was doing extended weekend stuff or Chris and Jon would use vacation time for us to go out with Promise Ring. Like, “The Promise Ring wants you to come out, do you want to go?” “Yes! Yes, I do because that’s not going to be depressing.” Where as Paris, Texas was just like, “Let’s get in this van and hopefully it runs.” (Laughs)
CR: And it didn’t, ever. (Laughs)
MT: It didn’t. But it was good during things like CMJ. Because when we put out the first Pele record that I was on (Elephant, 1999; Sign Language Records), I thought that was great, but when Polyvinyl agreed to (put out The Nudes; 2000), then it was like “OK, when CMJ comes around, we’ll do that because (playing CMJ with both bands) will be fun and easy for me. I’ll feel like, ‘Oh, this is a big day for me.'”
MV: After The Nudes, what was the transition of adding Jon Minor (keyboards) to the band for Enemies (2002; Polyvinyl Records)?
CR: I think at some point we wanted to do a record with some other instrument besides the three-piece.
JM: After The Nudes, it just seemed like if we do another record like this, it’s going to be too much of the same. I think we really, and still do this day, feel like we carved this path. This urge to really do something different and I think, for me, it almost became a problem where it’s like, “Shit. We can’t repeat ourselves again. We got to keep moving.” Even though few people would really care, it just became a focus. Because we were into all this other music outside of what we were doing, we had to add some other elements and we were hanging out with Minor a lot. He had this whole thing going on with his electronic stuff and there was a whole scene around that in Milwaukee.
CR: It was definitely not a “Oh, shit. We have to get some electronics for this band” sort of thing. We just thought, “Well, Minor’s awesome.”
JM: It made sense because, again, it sort of catered more to that rock-edge thing rather than trying to add cello or something.
MT: The stuff that we recorded was the basic structure, but we would always add stuff to the records. So live it was like, “Well, none of that’s gonna be there.” Jon is a little unpredictable at times and you have to be on a roll with that. I don’t know what instrument that you could’ve added, but somebody like Jon Minor was like “I like weird shit. I like weird, glitchy electronic stuff and I can probably manipulate stuff on the fly. I can work with a live setting. It doesn’t have to be ‘Well, this is how this part is. Don’t fuckin’ stray from the beat.’ I can roll with this.” That was just his instrument and I think that made sense at the time.
MV: Chris, I’ve always felt your guitar flowed into that glitchy thing. Did you ever edit or chop up parts for Elephant or The Nudes?
CR: None of that is edited. I always have the loopers and delay that I’m tapping on to make weird sounds. You couldn’t fucking edit shit when we recorded those records. Elephant was on the cassette eight-track, and The Nudes was (Dan) Didier’s (The Promise Ring; Vermont) MiniDisc eight-track and then Enemies was on my weird hard disk, 16-track but there was no fucking screen. You can’t move anything around. At the same time, we were doing (Collections of Colonies of) Bees stuff and that was all weird manipulation in the studio, trying to get things as fucked up as possible with weird little tricks and no computers, like dumping the disc, running it back, skipping discs purposefully, all sorts of stuff like that. Some of that’s on Enemies. When we were bowing (Jason) Gnewikow’s (The Promise Ring) lapsteel, that’s on fucking four records, that sample. “This is fucking cool.” “Oh, we already used that.” “Who fucking cares?”
MV: I remember when Matt worked at Atomic Records, and I don’t know how it came up one day, but long before people could have their own music for ringtones, he had told me while Pele was in Japan that fans were playing their ringtones for you guys and they were Pele songs. This was well before smartphones or anything, so it was pretty mind-blowing. Can you talk a bit about the band’s times touring in Japan?
CR: That relationship happened with Hideki (Kobayashi) because we had released that weird Emergency Room Egg remix thing on Crouton (1999) that somehow made its way to Japan through Carrot Top (Distro) or something.
JM: Carrot Top had said one of their customers in Japan buys all Western indie-rock stuff, and he’s a big fan of Pele’s. He was going to buy almost all (copies) of this Crouton record, but he asked if we’d do a Japanese edition. And at the time, it was like, “That’s not possible. Are you joking?”
CR: These were all hand-dubbed on a CD burner.
JM: We said “We can do it, I guess. It can be a little different (from the US version) somehow.” And Carrot Top said “He wants it to be exactly the same. He doesn’t want it to be professional, just the same thing but a Japanese only version. I’ll let him know it’ll be an edition of 100.” We set up the price and everything and it was a done deal. So Chris and I made them, thinking “This is fucking crazy.” We sent them to Carrot Top, some time went by and Patrick (Monaghan, of Carrot Top) wrote me back and said “(Hideki) is interested in bringing Pele to Japan. Should I give him your email?”
CR: And there was no (way of understanding) communication. He can speak English well now, but back then there was nothing. So I’m telling (Jon and Matt), “I think we’re going to Japan?” But we still thought “This is never gonna happen.” And then I got the fucking airline tickets in the mail. From Japan. And it was just like, “Wait. What?”
JM: I remember getting them out of the mail and being like, “I can’t believe it.”
MT: It didn’t make sense. At all. That first time, we were there for two weeks or something, which seems insane.
CR: They treated us like fucking royalty. The whole deal, from where we’re staying and what we’re doing to how we’re getting there and the crowds and the people and the meals and the alcohol…
JM: Never having to think about anything. “OK, tomorrow we’ll meet in the hotel lobby at 11 and this van will pick us up.”
MT: It’s like if you get a package trip to Europe and it’s “all inclusive.” (Laughs) It was like, “Oh, we’re just gonna take the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train).”
CR: Oh, the bullet train tour! That was the first tour.
JM: I wanna tell a story, though, because this is one of the greatest memories: It was the first show on the first trip. I remember when we first got there, we met (the band) 54-71 and I remember there was a weird greeting. The bands that met each other were all super bow-y, and we were like “Oh, shit. Are we supposed to be doing that?” And then they’d come over to us and go “Hey guys,” shaking our hands. Everything was awkward. Anyways, we get to the show, it’s in a huge place and we’re like, “Well, this place is a little bit too large. Was it all they could get? This is going to be a let down for somebody, I’m sure.” We set-up, do soundcheck, which was super long and thorough, and we we’re out-of-our-minds jet lagged. We go upstairs, 54-71 were up there and some of them wanted to chat and (due to the language barrier) it was so hard to get a read on everyone. Plus, the jet lag.
But I remember sitting up in that backstage room and, at some point, everyone just hit a wall: I was on the ground sleeping, and woke up eventually thinking “Wow, we probably have to play soon. I feel like we’ve been up here a long time.” Chris wasn’t in the room, and Matt was laying on the floor, drooling… “Fuck, how are we gonna play this show? It’s kind of a mess.” Chris came in the room and said, “Hey, come here! You’re not gonna believe this!” So we go downstairs and there was this door or curtain where you could go on stage but also into the audience around the barricades — by the way, yeah, barricades — in front of the stage. We get this doorway and Chris is like, “Are you ready for this?” I was like, “What’s out there?” He opens the door and says, “Here’s what we’ll do: If we can, we’re gonna walk to the merch booth and hang out there for a bit and watch some of the opening band. You’re not gonna fucking believe what you’re about to see.” He opens the door and it’s this giant place just fucking stuffed with people. Asshole to elbow. You couldn’t even move. We got about a quarter of the way into this crowd and it just got awkward, almost like we were disrupting everything. It’s not like here (in America) where everyone’s going crazy. It’s packed in but just silent.
CR: The audiences in Japan will not start clapping until the fucking last note of the last thing has rung out to full completion, you’ve stopped and you’ve taken a breath. Then, it’s OK to clap.
JM: There was that time in Nagoya when Chris got a drink, we’re walking back to the place we were standing…
CR: During the (opening band’s) set! Between songs, as they were playing!
JM: We’re walking back there and the ice in Chris’ cup is clinking…
CR: This is no fucking joke. Jon is looking at me like, (in a whisper) “Shut the fuck up! Fuckin’ cool it out, man!”
JM: It felt like people were pissed. It was that quiet.
CR: But that first trip, and all of the subsequent ones, have just informed all of the music. It’s always been a goal. Like, “No one’s putting our record out? Well, we’ll just still do it. Maybe they’ll put it out (in Japan) and we’ll go over there.” (Laughs) We know so many people over there now and their such crazy good friends. It’s just mind-blowing.
MV: When you guys stopped playing after Enemies, was it a pretty amicable split at the time?
JM: We tried headlining on the east coast and it was pretty miserable. It just felt like, “What are we doing? It’s cool to go to Japan and play and do really well, but if we can’t do well here, is this worth taking our vacation time, to go out and just sort of be miserable?” And Paris, Texas had stuff going on…
CR: (To Matt) You were on the soundtrack and on Kimmel…
JM: We just said, “Let’s pursue the stuff that’s working.”
MT: (To Chris) You put out that initial Bees record because you had time. And then you kept putting them out, and it was starting to become a thing.
CR: Yeah, then at that point, it was like, “Maybe I don’t wanna be in a rock and roll band anymore. Maybe I wanna be in a fucking weirdo band.”
JM: Pele was done-done, and I remember talking to Chris about how maybe Bees could become like a real band.
CR: But there wasn’t some weird fucking blow up.
JM: It sort of felt like we had explored all the ideas we had to work with. We didn’t know what the next step was, and there were other things going on for people, so “Let’s just not force it.”
MT: I think that’s what a lot of people do.
CR: A lot of people don’t do that. They plow through it and everything’s garbage.
MT: It’s not like they run out of ideas, but they say, “OK, this is the dynamic. These ingredients kind of make this.” Both of you guys (Chris and Jon) know that if you work with different people, it pulls different parts out of you and your involvement pulls different things from other people. That’s just the nature of it and that’s not really a rock band thing to do, but I think that’s where your (to Chris) outsider music, for lack of a much better word, kind of plays into that. You’re not just like, “Oh well. Whatever. Kiss and Black Sabbath are still around, so let’s keep doing it!” (Laughs) All the shit I listen to, these people play in a million different versions of something, so why the fuck would I just keep chugging out the same shit?
CR: The goal was never to make it. The goal was to fuck it up as much as we could within a weird, instrumental, pop song context.
JM: It’s maybe good that it wasn’t more successful in the U.S. because then we probably would’ve felt compelled to keep doing it. Then it might’ve ended ugly.
In the second part of the two-part interview, Modern Vinyl discusses the band’s post-Pele projects, each member’s experiences performing on late-night television, and how the reunion and “Elephant” reissue came to be.