A few years ago, Joe Steinhardt–the founder of Don Giovanni Records–approached Tenement with an idea. He wanted the eclectic triad from Appleton, Wisconsin to “do something special” under the New Brunswick label. Entrusting a band with such an expensive and time-consuming project caught vocalist and guitarist Amos Pitsch by surprise, but after thoughtful consideration, he agreed to try at the very least.
Over the next three years, Pitsch and his bandmates worked to create that “special something” Don Gio yearned after; the result is a 25 song LP entitled “Predatory Headlights,” appropriately released on Independence Day.
The album came together while Pitsch toured the country with The Nerves, a 1970s power-pop trio from Los Angeles, California. As they rolled around America playing reunion shows, Pitsch drew inspiration from all that he saw. His observations formed the skeleton of what has been dubbed by music critics and writers as today’s “Zen Arcade” or “Double Nickels on the Dime.”
Comparisons to Husker Du and Minutemen instinctively categorize Tenement’s latest release as punk. Although the band’s foundations do rest on punk and hardcore, “Predatory Headlights” spans genres. The varying sonic and thematic influences present themselves with each flip of the record.
“In my mind, the record is actually four records and each side is its own little world. I feel like each one should be listened to in it’s own sitting,” says Pitsch.
“We wanted to apply a lot of musical thoughts that we hadn’t applied before because we had so much time and space to do it. We tried to pull from early twentieth century third-stream jazz music, to exotica to power-pop and soul music.”
The record begins even before the first note hits. Just through looking at the cover of “Predatory Headlights,” which Pitsch designed himself, listeners can gain a sense of what the next 78 minutes will entail. The album art features a combination of images that, in an abstract way, reflect the prominent Americana motifs that reappear across the LP.
“Something I’ve realized over the years is that collage is the way my mind works, in many different facets of art and music,” explains Pitsch. “A lot of our recordings and the music we’ve made are, in a way, collages. Everything is put together like I put together our visual art.”
On the front of “Predatory Headlights,” Pitsch situates two porcelain dolls between a skull, a running water spout, billowing smoke clouds, and an untamed ocean. In the forefront, a man excitedly plays the piano. The images sit frantically in black and white–an entirely opposite approach from the colorful collaged cover of their 2011 release, “Napalm Dream.” Like most artists, Pitsch intentionally crafted the album art this way.
“I pay a lot of attention to color and to contrast. It’s really important that the artwork itself somehow reflects the music in a way,” says Pitsch. “It could be in a pretty abstract way, but to me it has to feel like what I’m trying to represent with the music as a whole.”
Conceptually, Pitsch feels the cover reflects the dark sides of America, just as his lyrics and instrumentation attempt to do the same.
Given the time it took to come together, “Predatory Headlights,” showcases Tenement’s determination and precision. At times, that carefulness tends to wither away, particularly during their live performances, which take shape as improvisational and impulsive exercises. The dichotomy between the thoughtful dedication of recording and the spontaneous energy of performing live works well for Tenement. While Pitsch prefers to sit with songs and work them until they feel complete, the other two members of Tenement opt for the unpremeditated nature of plugging in and playing for an audience.
“I just kind of like taking things slow and really closely analyzing things and doing things very meticulously,” says Pitsch. “I think the recording process is naturally something that I’m drawn to compared to playing live, which is more spontaneous. It doesn’t mesh with my brain quite as well.”
The exactness that Pitsch has so adeptly honed in on is arguably what attracts people most to this band. Despite their growing audience, especially after the release of “Predatory Headlights” which climbed its way atop many “Best Of” lists in 2015, Tenement continues to operate under the do-it-yourself ethos. The appeal of the DIY scene is one that Pitsch doesn’t seem keen on abandoning.
“You don’t have to sacrifice. Everything can be in your hands, in your control. With every direction you take, you’re in control of your image and of your reputation. Nobody can tell you what you have to do.”
With that, the trio will continue to book their own tours and play in small, sweaty places. Luckily there seems to be an endless supply of gas in Tenement’s tank. After the trio released “Predatory Headlights,” they recorded a five song, self-titled cassette over a four day period. Even now, they have set out to write new material for a follow up full-length.
Pitsch tells BTR that the new album will mainly be written by Tenement’s other members, Eric Mayer and Jesse Ponkamo. Whereas the tracks on “Predatory Headlights” belonged to Pitsch, the future of Tenement resides in the hands of the band’s bassist and drummer. For a successful trio, this division of work feels strange, but it makes sense.
“We very rarely collaborate on the writing process. We’ve always lived a ways away from each other, so it’s been difficult to write together,” admits Pitsch. “We don’t really get together too often unless we are going on tour. If we sat and wrote each record together, it would take forever. We probably wouldn’t have any LPs out.”
Thankfully, Tenement have bestowed upon the public three quintessential albums and handfuls of EPs despite the distance. While more Tenement tracks find their way to our ears, Pitsch will also write songs for Dusk, a country and soul-inspired project. He tells BTR that it will become an equally prominent venture as Tenement.
Balancing multiple musical endeavors isn’t the easiest feat to manage, but Pitsch has dedicated his life to music, and he is moving forward with full force and an admirable amount of poise.
To hear the rest of our interview with Tenement, tune into this week’s episode of Discovery Corner.
Or interpret the music for yourself by clicking here.
Feature images courtesy of the band.