Live from Soundtown: A chat with hometown hero Cory Chisel

Tom Pilcher

Appleton’s own Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons opened the main stage at the Soundtown Music and Camping Festival Friday night, playing a diverse set of Americana and folk-rock. Chisel featured a number of the standout tracks from his 2009 full-length “em” Death Won’t Send a Letter “em,” but the group also ran through a number of newer songs as well.

Chisel clearly knows his American music history: His catalogue displays the usual folk troubadour influences, but he also tips his hat to the equally influential sounds of 1960s soul and gospel. One newer cut borrowed a classic 6/8 Stax groove for its foundation, revealing Chisel’s wide-ranging ear.

Chisel, who confessed that he never uses set lists, also dipped into some of his quieter material. “Tennessee,” an acoustic and slide guitar gem, made a rare appearance, adding a sense of intimacy on the huge festival stage. It also helped that you could find the band around the festival for the rest of the night enjoying themselves and happily hanging with fans.

Following his set, Chisel sat down with me to discuss breaking out of Appleton and his plans for a new record.

You’ve been touring pretty consistently all summer, right?

Pretty much, yeah.

Has it been fun, though?

It’s been a lot of fun. This is the last leg, and then I go to Europe the day after tomorrow and we get a week off after that. But a trip to Europe is sort of like a vacation too.

And you played the Newport Folk Festival earlier this summer?

That was last summer actually. This year we did Bonnaroo in Tennessee. The way those festivals work is that you switch off years, because they don’t like to have the same bands every year. Newport was a great experience, though; we really loved it.

So, have you been playing with the full band recently? I’ve seen a few different variations of the group now.

We don’t necessarily have a usual setup, we operate on what we feel like doing. Sometimes I get in a kick where I really just want to play with Adriel [Harris, keyboards and vocals]. Those are different types of shows for sure. The idea of our band is to not make it boring for us. There’s a side of me that really enjoys really personal, intimate acoustic shows. But then for something like this with a big stage, I love to play rock ‘n’ roll songs too. I’ve always wanted the idea of art making to be whatever we wanted out of it.

Are you mostly based in Appleton now?

Actually, it’s kind of all over the place. We have a strong Midwestern contingency which is great — Chicago, Rockford, that area — but we also have a lot of our players from Nashville. The Wandering Sons has always been sort of a collective of people. Some people we play with play with other bands, and some are a lot larger than our band. Like My Morning Jacket, they tour heavily so we can’t steal Carl [Broemel] all the time.

To me, Appleton, and that area of Wisconsin in general, can be a little isolating musically. How did your group break out onto the national touring scene?

We certainly started without any idea that we were going to break out of anywhere, and we were initially concerned with pleasing the people around us. We didn’t really have this global sense of the world. You know, music travels; that’s what happened to us. We began to have fans outside of our sphere, completely unbeknownst to us. That’s the great thing about music: You can be working hard in one area, and someone passes a record to someone who passes a record and it works its way out there. We broke out by not trying to [laughs]. We just wanted to be able to not work in the paper mill, that was our goal. Once we succeeded at that, playing music locally, that was it. We knew we weren’t going to make a million dollars, but I never knew anyone who had a million dollars anyway.

It does still feel like you maintain a connection to Appleton though, with your support of local groups like The Wishbone Breakers.

Yeah, I’d like to see that continue within the town. I like to see people give a shit — if you’re going to make music, really care about it. When I see people really caring about what they’re doing, it’s like “What can we do to help?” You know, there’s people who like being seen as a musician, and there’s people who are really trying to make a statement. We try to help out when we can, when we see people trying to make a statement.

You mentioned earlier that you have a side that really enjoys playing louder rock songs, and one where you enjoy quieter, more personal material. How do you strike that balance, both live and on record?

Well, here’s how I do it: I don’t make set lists, I never have. I have a working database of songs that I’m in the mood to play, and I try to read the way I’m feeling and the way the crowd’s going. If we get on a big stage but end up having a smaller crowd, then we can play some of those quieter songs. If there are 2,000 people, then you can’t really get some of those songs out. I like to react to what I’m looking at. If it seems like we can pull off a tune that’s just me and Adriel by ourselves, we’ll do it. If we want to be 12 guns blazing, we’ll go there. We try to keep it as honest and alive as possible.

Was that second to last tune a Charlie Parr song?

Actually, both of those two were new songs, and the encore song, with just clapping, that’s a very old song. That’s a perfect example: I wanted to play those songs because I saw that Charlie Parr was playing here, and I love his music, and it sort of gets you thinking in that direction. Those songs remind me of something you’d hear Charlie Parr play. That’s how those tunes ended up on the set

You can definitely hear that influence.

Oh yeah, I love his music. He’s great.

There was another tune you played today that sounded like an old soul song from Stax or something. It had that 6/8 groove.

Yeah, that’s a song I wrote a while ago, but it never really sounded good until now. That’s kind of what I mean: It’s been sounding good lately, and I’ve really been connected to it.

Do you have any plans for a new record anytime soon?

We do. We start the first week of October. We’re full of new songs and ready to make another record.

Will you be using the same group of players as last time?

I don’t even think we’ve decided yet [laughs]. We’ve got a lot of friends, we just kind of check in with them and see who is available. We usually pick out players by who we’re getting phone calls from, asking, “Where you making a new record?”

We have a very strange way of deciding on things; we usually just wait to see who works. I mean, Adriel and I are definitely always going to be there. From there, we’ll see who shows up in the studio.

Did you write with the full band in mind?

I don’t write with anything in mind, I really don’t. I write because I feel compelled to write something, and what we turn it into depends on who is around. The music I hear in my head, it’s not ever played on real instruments, it’s just a sound. You could play it on trumpet, you could play it on guitar, you could play it on anything.