The Milwaukee cello-drums project plays October 17 at Tempest Oyster Bar.
The Milwaukee band Nineteen Thirteen grew from a few one-off live collaborations in which cellist and composer Janet Schiff recruited different drummers to play with her, including Victor DeLorenzo, the founding drummer of the Violent Femmes. Since forming in 2010, the band has released a few singles and an EP, and has played live sets as both a duo with Schiff and DeLorenzo and as a trio adding drummer Nez. Schiff takes the lead in Nineteen Thirteen, layering rich and often mournful melodies, and the two percussionists play a restrained, subtle role, carving out space and atmosphere into which Schiff can expand with loops and effects. Ahead of the band’s duo show on Saturday, October 17 at Tempest Oyster Bar, DeLorenzo talked with us about how the project is evolving.
Tone Madison: Is Nineteen Thirteen currently playing a lot of shows in the duo format?
Victor DeLorenzo: Well,the show that’s coming up at Tempest is going to feature our duo. One of the nice things about our group is that the people behind it are exactly myself and Janet Schiff, who plays the cello. In fact, it’s her band to begin with, and the reason we’re called Nineteen Thirteen is because her cello was made in Romania in 1913. So it’s a celebration of the cello and Janet’s original music in that regard. But yeah, sometimes we play with a drummer named Nez, and he plays a full sit-down drum set and I usually play a small drum system and Janet will have her cello and a little bass amp that she amplifies it with.
But then other times—the first day of summer this year, we released our version of the George Gershwin song “Summertime,” and on that particular recording, we featured two guest musicians, one being the famous bass player Rob Wasserman, who is a friend of ours, who we hope to maybe do some live shows with next year… and then also Janet’s grandmother plays organ on the track. WHat we did was, there was a recording of Janet’s grandmother Marguerite Schiff playing just some of her favorite songs, and Janet’s father recorded them in their living room in Milwaukee. Janet played me these recordings maybe two years ago, and when I heard the recording of “Summertime,” it was just two verses. One verses was kind of an introductory verse, and the second verse she just kind of soloed over the changes. So after Janet played that for me, I said, “Oh my god, Janet, this reminds me of hearing an organist when I was growing up as a kid in Racine,” where I’m from. I just had this strange feeling of being in touch with the past, not only because I was listening to a recording made in 1961, but also because it brought back all these memories of my childhood. So I said, “Janet, what if we took this recording and we built the rest of the song around it, and then we just featured your grandmother playing the solo in the middle of the piece, and then that way you’ll have a chance to finally play with your grandmother, and also it’ll finally satisfy my curiosity as to whether, as a producer, I can pull something off.”
Tone Madison: What were the production challenges with that? Since it was an older recording, was the pitch all warped or something?
Victor DeLorenzo: Well, yes, the pitch was only half of an interval sharp, and whether that was due to what was happening with the organ or the speed of the recorder I’m not exactly sure. But that was something that yes, we had to deal with on that track in order for us to pull off the recording. But it turned out to be very successful. I’m very proud of it. I’ve done a lot of production work and certainly that ranks up there as one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever been involved with.
Tone Madison: With the changing percussion setup of Nineteen Thirteen, does that challenge you to approach the material a bit differently from show to show?
Victor DeLorenzo: Yeah, because usually what I do when Nez is playing with us, we kind of liken it to that he’s handling all the bass tones, because he has drums with big dimensions and plays a lot with mallets, whereas with my little drum system, which usually consists of one snare drum and one or two floor toms and one cymbal, I’m kind of playing the high end of stuff, almost like in a Latin orchestra if you had a timbale player playing with a full sit-down-set drummer. So I kind of provide that function. I’m the high end of the spectrum, he’s the low end, and Janet can kind of visit both any time she wants.
Tone Madison: When you first started this band, were you looking to try a new format or sort of challenge yourself as a drummer or composer?
Victor DeLorenzo: Well, I’ve been involved in many different kinds of music my whole life, and in regard to playing with Janet, first I had met her on the improvisational scene here in Milwaukee. She was part of a coterie of different people that would get together and either just rehearse or perform improvisational music. One particular afternoon Janet called me and she said, “Listen, I’m playing at the Circle A here in Milwaukee tonight, would you like to come and sit in?” And I knew her a little bit but not that well, but for some reason I felt like I was up for a challenge that particular afternoon, so I said, “Yeah, I would love to come and sit in with you tonight, do you want me to just play a few songs? What should I bring?” And she said, “Well, I’ll leave it up to you what kind of percussion stuff you bring, but I’d like you to play for the whole evening.” And I said, “OK, that sounds like a very interesting challenge.” So I showed up at the gig and I think I just had a snare drum and cymbal, and then I found when I got there that there was another drummer, whose name is Scott Johnson, and he was playing a full drum set and larger-diameter drums and playing a lot with mallets. I kind of just felt my way through the material that night, but it was very exciting and the audience really liked what we were doing, even though we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. It was just kind of flying by the seat of our pants. But afterward, it was a funny anecdote, at the end of the night, I said, “Wow, this has been a fun evening, and I’m so glad that there was another drummer so I could kind of follow what he was doing, and in that way I’d be a little bit more informed about the music.” And the other drummer, Scott, looked at me and he said, “Well, you know Victor, I’ve never played with [Janet] either.” It was just this thing where, oh, OK, it was just a very fresh meeting of the minds. I give Janet credit that she had enough belief in the two of us that we would know what to do! [Laughs.]
From that point on, I was intrigued by the music that Janet was writing, and I loved how I fit into what she was doing. And the idea of playing with another drummer was exciting to me too. I had done that in the past, but not on a fairly regular basis. To this day, it continues to be exciting for me no matter what kind of group of people we’re presenting on any particular evening, whether it’s a duo performance or a trio or maybe even other musicians joining us.
Tone Madison: Do you have any favorite bands that use two or more drummers?
Victor DeLorenzo: Yeah, sure. Two examples come to mind. I always enjoyed the interaction between Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr when they would play together. I think the first time I saw them play was in the Concert for Bangladesh film. And then I think of people like Rashied Ali and Elvin Jones playing on some of the later recordings that John Coltrane did. And then I also think of the version of King Crimson that had Jamie Muir playing drum set and also Bill Bruford.
Tone Madison: I hadn’t thought of King Crimson, but now that you mention it, I think they’ve even been touring with three drummers recently.
Victor DeLorenzo: Right, exactly! They went as far as three drummers. I remember seeing some videos of Jamie Muir playing with Bruford, and I thought it was a very intense relationship the two of those guys had, because Bruford was into his complex time signatures and playing very cleanly, but Jamie Muir was just all over everything, I mean playing literally even the kitchen sink. So I really liked the interaction of those two guys. But I think in playing with Nineteen Thirteen, even though I would refer to those touchstones as drummer duos, I certainly don’t try to really forcefully emulate any of that stuff, even though just talking about it right now with you, I can see certain examples where maybe I do have some things in common with those guys.
Tone Madison: How do you think the band has evolved since you started, and where do you see it going in terms of new compositions and recordings?
Victor DeLorenzo: Well, the next recording is already kind of mapped out. We just need to get into the studio and record it. Right now we’ve kind of been sidetracked by another project Janet and I have been involved in. That’s a group of people that are gonna be working under the umbrella of [Cooperative Performance Milwaukee], which is a theater and dance company here in Milwaukee. They’ve asked us if they could use a bunch of music from our catalog, and in talking with them, we of course said, “Yes, we’d love for you to use the music we’ve already recorded, but would you be interested in adding new music specific to the production?” And they said, “Yeah, if you have time to do that. In fact, we’d love to have you maybe even play the music live as part of the production.” And we said, “Well, we can’t really do that because we have other things on the books that we’re gonna be doing in that timeframe, but we have some time this fall to maybe do four or five pieces, brand-new pieces, that you could utilize in your performance.” We’ve already started doing that. We have one piece recorded already and we’ll probably do three more pieces for them. It will also be a different direction for us in that Janet won’t be the sole composer. She will be a collaborator with me and we’ll write together on these pieces for that production. That kind of leads us in a new direction and we have the music for the first full-length album already written. We just have to record it.
Tone Madison: Will you be playing much new stuff at the show on Saturday?
Victor DeLorenzo: Yeah, we’ll certainly be showcasing some of that new material and also some real choice cover versions of some songs. We’re partial to doing some Kraftwerk material. And then also, I think tonight [this interview took place last Friday before a Nineteen Thirteen show in Milwaukee—Ed.], we’re going to be doing a few John Lennon pieces, just in celebration of his birthday. We do a version of the first movement of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” and I’m thinking during the midst of that we’re going to do a version of “Revolution No. 9,” then I think I’m going to sing a Yoko Ono song called “Who Has Seen The Wind?” and we might be doing “Across The Universe,” which is one of my favorite John Lennon songs of all time.
Tone Madison: Have you been to Tempest before?
Victor DeLorenzo: No. You know, what happened is, I noticed some other bands from Milwaukee played there, and I hadn’t heard of the place. As far as Madison goes, we’ve played at the High Noon, and the last show we did there was at The Frequency.
Tone Madison: Well, the bands kind of set up in this clamshell formation in the bar. There’s sort of a Birth Of Venus vibe.
Victor DeLorenzo: And does the music sound good in the room?
Tone Madison: Yeah, it’s a busy bar on a weekend night and can be a little chatty, but it’s fun. It’s where Restaurant Magnus used to be.
Victor DeLorenzo: Oh, OK, yeah, I remember that.
Tone Madison: What else is on your plate for the near future?
Victor DeLorenzo: I’ve been kind of toying around with an idea for the past 10 years of finally getting this one-man theater piece together that I’ve been working on on and off. I’ve got a lot of the stuff written, but I think 2016 might be the year when I finally get that together in a perform-able state. So that’s something I’m looking forward to. And I’ve also started writing a column called Showoff with Victor DeLorenzo for OnMilwaukee.com. So I’m kind of showcasing my love of writing. And then beyond that, just continuing the progress of Nineteen Thirteen, maybe get on the road more. I also work as a producer, so I’ll probably do some more production work. There’s a few people who’ve asked me to get involved with their projects for next year.