People who aren’t Jerry Lee Lewis fans might not know the answer to the question inherent in the phrase, “What made Milwaukee famous.” In the instance of Jerry Lee’s song, the answer is “Schlitz beer.” But for the Austin, Texas, band by the same name, the answer could arguably be “Austin City Limits.”
In 2005, a year after they’d released their debut album “Trying to Never Catch Up,” What Made Milwaukee Famous became one of the few unsigned bands to play the famed Public Broadcast (PBS) series, when they performed along with Franz Ferdinand.
“We were on a tour at the time,” said WMMF frontman Michael Kingcaid. “We were headed to Dallas, and our manager at the time called us on the way there and told us we were going to be on the taping. We were freaking out, because it was totally out of our league at that time.”
The news only got better from there.
“The next day they called and told us we were going to be on a sold-out stump show with the Black Keys and Arcade Fire, and the next day they told us we were going to be on the ACL festival,” Kingcaid said. “We had to cut the tour short.”
The wave of publicity that came from playing the program and the festival ensured that WMMF didn’t stay an unsigned band for long. Less than a year after the taping, the band had signed with Seattle-based Barsuk Records.
“We were talking to a few different labels,” Kingcaid recalled. “We’d talked to a few majors, too, which was silliness. But we were talking to a few indie labels. Barsuk was always one of our favorites. The ACL thing definitely helped, because labels are enticed to do something with you once you’ve been made visible.”
Barsuk re-released “Trying to Never Catch Up” with a different cover and a slightly modified arrangement, then jump-started the process of creating a follow-up.
“That was a very different process,” Kingcaid admitted. “You have your whole life to write your first album, but a year to write the second.”
Though Kingcaid personally found the shortened timeline creatively helpful, the increased pressures to produce took their toll. The second album — ironically titled “What Doesn’t Kill Us” — was released in 2008, but came at the cost of keyboardist Drew Patrizi.
“The second album was tough to get through,” Kingcaid admitted. “There was a lot of tension. I’m sure that happens a lot with bands, and generally that’s the end of it when it comes to a head. But we pushed through that, and I think the album is really great. But it was kind of a breaking point.”
WMMF toured hard in support of “What Doesn’t Kill Us” for the rest of the year before returning home and checking out for a bit.
“We had a lot of stuff to attend to,” Kingcaid said. “Like wives that had turned into ex-wives.”
After a mostly amicable split with Barsuk, WMMF self-released a third album last year, and now they’re back out on the road. Finding themselves back in the ranks of unsigned bands, WMMF has come full circle. It can sometimes be hard to look at the band’s path and see yardage gained. But this is who they are, and it’s far too late in the game to apologize for anything.
“After you’re in your 30s and everyone has a job and wife and kids, it’s harder to get out there (touring), playing Peter Pan,” Kingcaid admitted. “But I decided long ago that this is my thing. It’s what I’m going to do. Make music.” CV