Locally Made

new indie pop band Wisconsin Built

photos by Zachary Oliphant

KEEPIN’ FLANNEL ALIVE, BABY! Made of UW-Eau Claire seniors, Wisconsin Built is Thom Fountain (drums, background vocals) and (above) Eric Charles Christenson (songwriter, vocals, guitars).
KEEPIN’ FLANNEL ALIVE, BABY! Made of UW-Eau Claire seniors, Wisconsin Built is Thom Fountain (drums, background vocals) and (above) Eric Charles Christenson (songwriter, vocals, guitars).

Oh to be a young band, playing a Monday night gig at an intimate community theater to an audience of the other bands on the bill, the band members' girlfriends, and at least one set of parents. Sandwiched between two bands from Duluth – the first an awkward collision of The Decemberists and The Promise Ring; the latter a high school band sounding like most high school bands (musical diarrhea) – was Eau Claire’s Wisconsin Built, a lo-fi pop duo with only 15 shows under its belt. The local boys did their best to prop up the bill. 

Thom Fountain (drums, background vocals, The Looks) and Eric Charles Christenson (songwriter, vocals, guitars, keys, The Cool) are UWEC seniors in journalism who work at The Spectator and are enjoying what is probably the best job they’ll ever have in the dying, confused field. They hail from the Green Bay suburbs but, like many soon-to-be-college freshmen, chose to flee as far as the statewide system would take them. Landing at a university with a rich music program in a town that supports its free outdoor concerts was an advantageous bonus.

Unlike many fellow undergraduates from the music department, Eric and Thom won’t be mistaken for budding masters of their instruments. Yet they know their way around low-key “bedroom pop.” As one of their inspirations, king of loner-pop Brian Wilson, penned in 1963: “There’s a world where I can go / And tell my secrets to / In my room.” He may as well have written that line for Eric, who recorded most of Wisconsin Built’s 20-song catalog in his dorm room and in his parents’ basement. Eric’s falsetto vocals, confined in a hushed atmosphere, may have been a thing of necessity. After all, who wants to sing heartfelt songs to his entire dorm floor?

Musically, the Beach Boys’ vocal styling informs much of Wisconsin Built’s sound. “I don’t think you can beat their harmonies,” Eric says. Sonically, though, Eric and Thom favor a much rawer sound, preferring the sparseness and tape-hiss-friendly designs of the lo-fi community that came to the fore in the 80s and 90s thanks to groups like Half Japanese, Sebadoh, and Beat Happening. Their mellow songs about escapism and clumsy love go hand in hand with the intimacy of a four-track. “It doesn’t have to sound good, to be good,” Eric quips.

Wisconsin Built are working on recording a more “produced,” five-song EP and hope to have it finished before the fall semester, when the group wants to hit the road for a few out-of-town weekend shows. They know it will take networking – and talent – to climb the local ladder and clearly look up to their established peers. In jest, I ask them if it’s possible to be a young band in Eau Claire and not be influenced by Bon Iver.

“It’s tough, certainly,” Eric says with a chuckle. “But we’ve gotten more influence from many of the other bands in Eau Claire.”

“Laarks for sure,” says Thom.

Wisconsin Built’s recorded songs feature banjo, Casio keyboard, chord organ, piano, tambourine, hand claps, frugal trap, clean guitar, and lots and lots of reverb. On this night at the Grand Little Theatre, the duo mostly stick to electric guitar/drums/vocals, turn up the distortion aplenty, and largely abandon the vocal harmonies, marking a stark contrast to their recorded material. 

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