1 Building Sound

Before music can be made, someone has to make the instruments, and Three local craftsmen are well known for their work.

by Rob Reid

Gordy feels there is a certain humming going on today. When he talks to folks outside of the area, they often equate Eau Claire with music.

Bischoff Guitars

If you mention instrument makers in the Chippewa Valley, luthier Gordy Bischoff’s name always comes up first. This is the 40th year Gordy has been making guitars. Bischoff guitars will most likely be well represented at the Eaux Claires festival. Justin Vernon owns three, including a whiskey-barrel guitar and the guitar featured on the song “Holocene” from the Grammy-winning album Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

Gordy also builds ukuleles. A guitar-player himself for the past 50 years, Gordy says the ukulele is now his playing passion. He shared a great anecdote about receiving a call from April Base Studio that they had a ukulele emergency. A small group arrived at his shop including a quiet, unassuming man. Gordy lent him a ukulele to finish the recording. That man later asked if he could purchase the instrument. Gordy started writing his name down: “S-u-f-j-a-n Stevens.”

In addition to building stringed instruments, Gordy repairs them. He spends long days on both aspects of his career, segmenting his work: a few hours repairing, then setting that work aside to build guitars, sometimes working on a few at a time, and then going back to finishing up the repairs. When not in his shop, Gordy hits the guitar festival scene, having recently showcased his work at the Memphis Guitar Festival. His products can be seen at www.bischoffguitars.com.

Gordy compared today’s music scene to what it used to be back in the 1970s when he first moved to the area. It was a bit slower back then but easier for musicians to play enough to pay the rent. He’s upset that venues won’t support them enough today to enable most of them to quit their day jobs. That said, Gordy feels there is a certain “humming” going on today. When he talks to folks outside of the area, they often equate Eau Claire with music.

Oliver Snare Drums

Drummer and visual artist Eric Lee began making drums because he hated playing on crappy drums and couldn’t afford the cost of quality instruments. Since that first drum, his business – which is named after his son – has been a viable addition to the Chippewa Valley these past three years. Eric’s snare drums are custom-built specifically to a drummer’s needs and budget. Eric crafts only snare drums, although he did admit that this summer he will build his first kit for himself. Eric is also a visual artist, and one can see that skill reflected in the drums on his website: www.oliversnaredrums.com.

Eric is a family man – early to rise, early to bed – which isn’t really conducive to a musician’s schedule. Although a musician himself, he tends to stay on his woodsy spread south of Eau Claire, working on his various projects. Eric is pleasantly surprised how many area drummers will order from him when quality drums can be bought more cheaply from international sellers.

Eric has begun showcasing his visual artwork in New York. An art dealer learned about Eric just as he was showing at the Volume One Gallery. His exhibit was followed shortly thereafter by a feature on Wisconsin Public Television.

Eric is also busy building a “quirky” play set for the Eaux Claires Festival. The details are “mum’s the word” for now. The finished product is supposed to be a surprise for concertgoers, but a major performer will be showcased on it. We actually sat on the unfinished play set while conducting this interview. There’s a lot of work left to be done on it, but Eric was very calm about the enormity of the project that faces him. Once that’s done, it’s back to the drums.

Dwarfcraft Devices

Dwarfcraft Devices, a company owned and operated by Ben and Louise Hinz since 2007, specializes in handmade effects pedals and synthesizers. Ben, who also considers himself a musician foremost, created demonstration videos on YouTube and word-of-mouth led to breakthrough sales from a California music store. Ben and Louise have gone on to sell their products all over the world, including Japan, Australia, Switzerland, and Germany. Musicians who use their products include Weezer, Low, and Justin Vernon. They obviously have fun with their business, proudly proclaiming on their website (www.dwarfcraft.com) that their products are “Built in Eau Claire, WI, while we watch cartoons – because we have the best job.”

Most of their business takes place outside of the Chippewa Valley. Louise feels that they learned from those artistic communities to be the artists they are today. That said, Ben and Louise are proud of the local music scene. Ben stated that there are a lot of talented people who choose to do their best work here with no hope of financial reward, yet they continue to make their music. “It is a rare thing that a really good band will play to an empty room in Eau Claire,” Louise notes.

Their latest product is the ECX1, “a combination of four pedals worth of stuff plus mixers and oscillators in one unit.” The Wizard of Pitch, a new pedal, is the integral component of the ECX1. Ben will be premiering it at the Eaux Claires Festival, mostly at an onsite interactive dome featuring sound and videos. He claims this new item is a compendium of everything they’ve worked up to this point. Ben says, “It’s like the feature film adaptation of our bestselling book series.” He’ll be able to showcase all of his skills and roles on a grand scale at the festival: musician, engineer, and businessman. The ECX1 will be available for purchase later this summer.

2 Symphonic Surplus

How does the Valley support so many orchestras? It’s the fans.

by Tom Giffey

Nobuyoshi Yasuda has conducted the Chippewa Valley symphony since 1993.

By contrast, the Chippewa Valley is home to more than half a dozen orchestral ensembles, some of which Yasuda – usually known simply as “Nobu” – conducts. There’s the Chippewa Valley Symphony (for whom Nobu wields the baton), the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra, the Chippewa Valley Youth Symphony, the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra, plus the University Symphony Orchestra (Nobu again) and the University Chamber Orchestra at UW-Eau Claire and the Red Cedar Symphony Orchestra in Rice Lake. It’s safe to say you won’t find so many ensembles in one place in the Midwest outside of a major metro area.

There’s no simple explanation for this trove of classical riches. UWEC’s strong music program certainly plays a big role, but Nobu is quick to credit the loyalty of audiences and other financial supporters. “The people here love music and just enjoy going to the concerts,” says Yasuda, who is also a UWEC music professor and an accomplished violinist. “They support orchestra, jazz, choir – anything.”

Ivar Lunde Jr. also has conducted a number of those ensembles. A professor emeritus of music at UWEC, Lunde is artistic director for the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra, having recently stepped down as the ensemble’s full-time conductor after more than a decade; previously, he conducted the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Chippewa Valley Youth Symphony.

“Ever since I came to Eau Claire (in 1968), I have thought that the scene here has been rather high quality,” Lunde says. The university’s music program has been key, he says, noting that many graduates and retired faculty stay in the region and continue to enrich the music scene.

“What’s unique about Eau Claire,” he adds, “is we don’t have a lot of the (concert facilities), but we’re still very active.” Because of this, Lunde is excited by the prospect of a new performing arts center as part of the Confluence Project.

So is Nobu: “For 20 years I have dreamed of this new home,” he says of the Confluence Project. Today, he says, “I really feel that our cultural life has really, really developed.”

3 One More Song

scene veterans continue to shape the Chippewa Valley soundscape

by Andrew Patrie / photo by Andrea Paulseth

Sue Orfield is a titan in our music scene. Always down to collaborate, Orfield has her own public access TV show where she features (and performs with) other local musicians.

Sue Orfield

A veritable titan on the tenor saxophone, and lynchpin of Eau Claire’s own Sue Orfield Band, Orfield has established her name on both coasts and beyond. A quick scroll through her band’s website reveals a succinct, yet intimidating, resume, including numerous awards and performances alongside such luminaries as Bo Diddley, Bobby McFerrin, The Indigo Girls, Ann Wilson (Heart), and Dizzy Gillespie. But while her skill is obvious, there is a refreshing absence of ostentation; she takes the stage with such playful abandon it is easy to mistake her for one of us and not the artist we’ve been drawn together to revel in.

I asked Orfield how, with all her experience, she ended up calling Eau Claire home. “I moved to Eau Claire, after living in Seattle, because I’d moved back to the Midwest in 2004, to Menomonie, where I grew up,” she said. “And a year later, it was a no-brainer to move to a city with such a wonderful music scene chock full of musicians. I loved it, and I love it more now, as the music scene has blossomed since then.”

Joe Gunderson

You can’t throw a splintered drumstick around these parts without hitting a band Gunderson has played for/helped out in some capacity. Seriously. The dude is that eager, friendly, and a workhorse behind the drum kit. “I taught myself to play drums at age 21, after really getting into the EC music scene in 1995,” Gunderson gushes. “I went to almost every show I could: Voodoo Love Mint, Venison, Three Liter Hit, Touch Is Automatic, and Ben Shaw. I used these bands as measuring sticks as to where I should be musically and creatively.”

An Eau Claire native, Gunderson was drawn back to the music of his hometown after moving to Florida: “I make music here for two reasons: the lifelong friendships I have made over the last 20 years, and the feeling I get when all band member brains are locked in on a live performance.” Catch Gunderson perform with the Jim Pullman Band, Stare Across, and others.

Jim Schuh

“My first musical trip to Eau Claire was to compete in the Jaycees’ Regional Battle of the Bands at Regis High School on April 12, 1969,” recollects drummer Schuh, who has been playing live music since 1965, most of it right here in Eau Claire. “Two weeks later, our Marshfield-based high school rock band, The American Tea Company, played at The London Inn, a beer bar serving people 18 and older. Shuttle buses ran students back and forth to UW-Eau Claire. I moved to Eau Claire in July 1971 and eventually joined an established band, Saddle Tramp, that played country rock and bluegrass music, followed by Willow Creek, Working Class, The Woodtick Brothers, Sneaker (1985-1993), Live & Kickin’ and Delta Blues Duo: Howard ‘Guitar’ Luedtke & Drummer Jim Schuh.”

Framed by full, flowing locks and a beard of silver tinsel is an affable smile that perfectly characterizes this scene veteran. Anyone who has seen Schuh Fly, one of his current bands, play out knows this burly bear of a man is more teddy than grizzly and has no trouble getting audiences eating out of the paw of his hand.

Michael Schlenker

Though you’re more likely to find Michael Schlenker playing guitar with the Sue Orfield Band today, back in the 1980s “Schlenk” was shredding for Eau Claire based heavy metal band Axis, whose only album, No Man’s Land (1988), is worth seeking out. An eclectic at heart, Schlenker just loves to strum his guitar. Period. Genre be damned. So why not help out a bunch of teachers in need of a guitar player for their all night lock-in graduation gig? (True story.) “My parents always commented that ‘He will grow out of that.’ I guess I haven’t grown up yet,” laughs Schlenker. “I play every day, write, whatever. I really do love it. I am thankful to be able to do it and have people enjoy it.”

Schlenker is also proprietor of Speed of Sound, “for all of Eau Claire’s audio/visual equipment needs,” which extends beyond making a band sound great: Schlenker has helped amplify many a high school poet as well. Clearly an integral part of the community here, Schlenker demurs, “I am not real big on talking about myself, and it was never my intention to stay in the area, but things like this (article) make me feel blessed that I did.”

Jon Olstadt

Jon Olstadt has the distinction of playing in not one but two “legendary” Eau Claire rock bands: the first was Venison (sadly, now defunct) and the second is the Drunk Drivers (still chugging). More importantly, it was an Eau Claire band that first inspired a young Olstadt. “One night, many moons ago, I found myself in the Stone’s Throw. A band called Another Carnival was playing,” he explains. “I had never seen an Eau Claire original act, so we decided to stick around. It was fantastic. I had a lightning rod moment – standing there in front of the stage, I decided this is what I want to do … I’m going to get into a band! And I’m still having the time of my life playing music with my best friends in the Drivers.”

If you run into Olstadt in public, he is apt to engage you first in conversation about what is going on in your life. What is most striking is his gratitude to be making music as part of the community: “This city has a wealth of talented groups and it has been that way for decades. There are always opportunities to play music around town and those opportunities are growing. I’m fortunate to count so many as friends and have learned a lot about music (and beyond) through these connections. I’ve been able to get an education, make a living, raise a family, send my kids to good schools, catch a big muskie, boat beautiful lakes, paddle scenic rivers, hit endless bike trails, look up in the heart of the city and see the northern lights all right here in Eau Claire.”

4 Off the Grid, in the Studio

the natural landscape makes the Chippewa Valley an attractive recording environment

by Tyler Griggs

Audio engineer Evan Middlesworth in his recording space, Pine Hollow Audio. He’s helped track countless local albums.

“You don't have to live in New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville to have a successful (music) career.”

Evan Middlesworth audio engineer, Pine Hollow Audio

We spend a lot of time talking about local musicians, but the studios and audio engineers who record our performers are critical to the music scene, too. The people behind the mixing boards at Chippewa Valley recording studios have great talent, but why is that? Perhaps there is something about this area that enables the Chippewa Valley’s sound engineers to do what they do best.

“You don’t have to live in New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville to have a successful (music) career,” says local audio engineer Evan Middlesworth. Evan records, mixes, and masters music at Pine Hollow Audio, his own studio just outside of Eau Claire. “A lot of people, especially people coming from the (Twin) Cities, feel like this is a small location. People say ‘X-Y-Z’ studio is great, but they step outside and they’re distracted by the busyness of it all.” The warm, earthy setting at Pine Hollow helps performers let go of whatever’s bothering them and just make music.

The ability to disconnect from the grid is a quality Pine Hollow Audio shares with April Base, the Fall Creek studio founded by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. He recorded his Grammy-winning sophomore album there with sound engineer Brian Joseph.

Brian reasons that the natural stillness and quietness of recording away from the city helps performers connect on a deeper level. “People that are similar in what they feel is a good time or what they values as far as family and friends, appreciation of beauty and nature, that’s the studio feeling.”

Brian also noted that the economics of this area helps contribute to the Chippewa Valley’s creative class. “The cost of living around here is reasonable,” he says. “It helps make it possible to carve out a modest living” while you achieve your dreams.

Perhaps it’s that the Chippewa Valley breeds a kind of musician who goes into a studio and records with an uncommon sense of honesty. If a musician can connect to nature and if a studio’s vibe reflects that same gentle tone, maybe that is where the essence of recording in the Chippewa Valley comes forward.

While Evan emphatically agrees the Chippewa Valley could be the Music Capital of the North, Brian had some reservations. “Art is a delicate thing. I don’t think it’s meant to be stacked up against other art or competing to have some title. It’s just a bunch of people enjoying each other,” he says. “I think it is important that people are tapping into that same celestial brightness.”

Perhaps it is that modest sense of camaraderie that brings out the best in our local creatives.

5 Truly Independent

local musicians have the freedom and technology to record and release on their own terms

by Alex Tronson / photo by Feng Vue

You don't need much more than talent, a laptop, and an internet connection to make a splash with your music, something tons of locals have done in recent years.

A few years later, and now everyone’s talking about websites called Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Places where you could release music for free, no third party and no maze-like iTunes distribution. Just make a profile and start uploading. It was a revelation. Instead of producing songs and throwing them on my iPod, I could just send my friends a link. Promoting got easier, publishing was a breeze, and the satisfaction of watching the “played” stats rise was nothing short of exhilarating.

It’s become fast and efficient for artists to record at home and gain a modest following solely through online connections. This is especially true in my own genres of electronic and hip-hop production. Kids sitting in dorm rooms, lights off in front of laptops, are now some of the biggest names on the Internet. In the past, getting yourself out there took a team of professionals, seasoned and ready to watch you write a fat check for their expenses. Of course, this hasn’t gone away completely, but it’s a heck of a lot easier for kids with limited funds to promote themselves. Not to say it’s easy to get recognized, however.

Dave Power, an Eau Claire-based musician currently drumming with Aero Flynn, has been putting out independently produced music for years, by himself as White Dune, and in the noise rock ensemble Terminator Jeans, among others.

“When a local musician releases something independently and sees a certain amount of success with it, it teaches their peers and other fellow musicians that releasing stuff on one’s own can work, and they will then want to do that, too,” Power said. “It is very, very, very hard to make any sort of headway with independent releases (without a management company, record label, or PR company behind oneself), but it’s possible, and it happens.”

This lone-wolf style of indie production and distribution is important to cities of all sizes. It promotes musical diversity, allowing artists to create what they want without all the mess that comes with big budget practices. In Eau Claire alone – a smaller city than music heavyweights Minneapolis and Chicago – we’re getting the expected singer-songwriter folk aesthetic, but we’re also seeing the influx of more hip-hop, electronic, punk, noise-rock, and metal: artists like Sloslylove, churning out waving synthpop, or Adelyn Rose and Hemma with complex, melody-driven alternative rock.

Coming to the Chippewa Valley from Minneapolis, I never thought anyone would pay attention to my music, considering I didn’t think it was in tune with the area’s more easygoing vibe. But what I discovered was that, with only a handful of people producing electronic music, people took notice – at least to a certain degree. There’s no doubt word can spread fast in small towns, though Power doesn’t believe this makes it any easier to catch fire.

“With my own experience and observations, it can be very hard to self-release one’s own stuff in small towns because such a small number of people see it,” he said. “I think it is easier to make strides with independent music in bigger towns, because there is a much larger audience, and in comparing Minneapolis to Eau Claire, a larger ratio of excited music listeners, show-goers, and music buyers.”

Regardless, we’re seeing something cool happen here in the Valley. With the ease and number of independent artists creating and releasing new art, everybody is chipping in to put the Chippewa Valley on the musical map, and I really hope it never slows down.

6 The Valley’s Grammys

locals who grab recognition in the industry

by Mike Seitz

Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album went to Bon Iver at the 54th Grammy Awards.

Bon Iver

Justin Vernon’s name has become something of a local legend and his band caught a lot of attention in 2012 when they won two of the prestigious awards (after being nominated for four). Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album went to Bon Iver at the 54th Grammy Awards. The often smooth and mellow tones of their music will put anyone at ease; a fresh genre-bending sound, straight out of the Valley.

Peter Phippen

Peter Phippen is a man who bought his first flute on a whim and played it for an hour and a half. His only accompanist was the thunderstorm that night. After more than two decades, he has become a master of the instrument, both musically and knowledgeably. The relaxing style of his music is somber and beautiful, which earned him a nomination for Best Native American Album at the 53rd Grammy Awards.

Geoffrey Keezer

Keezer, an Eau Claire native, is a master of the 88 keys on the piano. When his fingers dance across them, they produce a sound simply enchanting and that’s what earned him two Grammy nominations. Áurea was nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album in 2009, and the following year he received a nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist for his work with singer Denise Donatelli.


UW-Eau Claire has one of the nation’s most prestigious jazz programs and only the best perform in the Jazz I ensemble. It’s no surprise they have been nominated twice for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. The up-tempo melodies that Jazz I produces are superb from year to year.

James Solberg

James Solberg has a gift when it comes to the blues. His kickin’ melodies produce a groovy sound whether it’s with his guitar or voice. Along with one Grammy nomination, Solberg’s band has also won the national W.C. Handy Award for “Best Blues Band of the Year” twice.


7 Three Chords and a Dream

nothing else to do? well, form a band, of course

by Andrew Patrie

Friday nights you could find us, a murder of magpies, flocked atop a bus bench, late enough for the routes to have stopped running, not yet late enough for curfew to make of us a curiosity, across from 2 S. Barstow St. No longer a physical space today – and known in its last incarnation as the “mural building” – back in the early ’90s it was used for “adult entertainment,” dubbed the “mini-cini” by locals. Its patrons were our targets as we cawed and heckled, from the cobwebbed shadows cast beneath the one jaundiced streetlight, at the lonely men who, cowled in shame, quickened in their footsteps away.

I remember one of us saying, “This can’t be all there is to do in this city.” At 16, we wanted desperately to believe him, but all evidence seemed to point to the contrary, unless you were 21 and old enough for the bar scene.

“Why don’t we start a band?” another offered. We considered this suggestion, deemed it worthy the status of “genius,” and flew from our perch, black hoodies fluttering like wings, in spite of the fact none of us knew how to play a single instrument.

My first drum set was a real Frankenstein’s monster: pieces assembled from other kits, which showed up in my basement one day courtesy of my friend Orion, and like those graverobbers employed in gothic stories past, I thought better about asking from whence he had gathered such sundry parts and instead focused on bringing new life to the creation.

We practiced at my place. Friends learned basic chords on bass and rhythm guitars, and microphones picked up what we hoped passed for vocals. My parents and neighbors fled from our sessions as driveways emptied for errands that suddenly needed to be accomplished during our “jams.”

Bands sprung up like amplifier stacks, swapped members as often as guitar strings, and tended to render their names iambically: hot dish, milk truck, sam hell.

Bands sprung up like amplifier stacks, swapped members as often as guitar strings, and tended to render their names iambically: Hot Dish, Milk Truck, Sam Hell. However, our frustration at not being able to play for an audience was all-consuming and overwhelming, and after graduation I only really stayed in contact with a couple of the Sam Hell guys: Ryan and Stephan. In 1994 the three of us started playing together in a new band: Curious Jorge (managing to finally break the iambic syllable count). We shifted practice pads from my parents’ place to the ear-bleeding, concrete contours of a friend’s college rental. We wrote one song immediately: “Trailer Park Girl,” our sound a bizarre commingling of three-chord pop punk and Amphetamine Reptile-style aggro-rock; covered a song by The Rubinoos, an American power pop group from the ’70s; and re-worked two Sam Hell songs, “Jerry’s Girl” and the infamous “Wood Cock.”

Ryan was also “scratching records” for, at the time, Eau Claire’s most entertaining rock (and carnival) act, Three Liter Hit, which afforded us one of those “right place/right moment” opportunities (TLH frontman Keith Killoren was rather fond of the song “Wood Cock,” too): Our first gig was set to occur on the UW-Eau Claire campus in “The Cabin,” a small, dim room lined with tables and chairs, during the 15-minute intermission between Three Liter Hit’s two live sets.

We took the stage that night and opted to open with The Rubinoos song. Ryan played the main riff while I alternated closing the hi-hat, and kicking the bass drum, with my feet: shh, shh, da-dum, shh, shh, da-dum. … Then the snare/kick four count (ba-tum, ba-tum, ba-tum, crash!) signaled Stephan to hit the low-end and Ryan’s voice shortly followed. Man, this was it, the big time, the inchoate dream, first envisaged outside that porn theater on South Barstow, about to be actualized.

That’s when we noticed the first head, a mere silhouette through the stage lights, rising in the gloaming like a moonflower, then a second, a third, another, and another, people standing not in any kind of solidarity with the band but to leave.

We finished the song and Ryan visored his eyes with his hand while uttering, “That cleared the place out.” I should mention the name of that Rubinoos tune: “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

We can’t always choose our audience. I go back to those poor dudes emerging from the “mini-cini” to our adolescent jeering. And it’s true that most in attendance the night of our first show bailed on Curious Jorge. But, some people stayed, through “Trailer Park Girl” and the Sam Hell songs. Even those who left lent us an ear for a minute before deciding they had better things to do. I remain grateful for both.

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