The Schwillbillies

by Brett Lemke
December 2002

The Schwillbillies on the December 2002 cover of Maximum Ink - photo by Rokker

The Schwillbillies on the December 2002 cover of Maximum Ink
photo by Rokker

They’re unplugged, ambitious as they come, and look like a group of bank-robbers from an early John Steinbeck novel. They are The Schwillbillies: a self-proclaimed “Rage-grass” band from Madison that play shows and festivals around the Midwest. The band will release their yet unnamed debut CD on Tuesday, December 20th at the historic Orpheum Theater in Madison.

Maximum Ink had a chance to sit down with the boys from Wis-tucky. The Schillbillies are a misfit quartet of troubadours ready to play anywhere at the drop of a hat. The band consists of Banjer on Banjo, Geeter on Guitar, Sloppy on Mandolin, and Thumper on Bass. To the band, Bluegrass is the first and purest form of American music. “It’s gotta be the most machismo fucking shit out there,” says Sloppy, “Most of the traditional tunes are about drinking , fighting and killing women,” he adds with a devilish grin, shedding some light on the similarity between Country and Bluegrass lyrics. These Wisconsin hillbillies’ influences, however, are taken from a broad range of artists. Whether it’s Bill Monroe, The Del McCurdy Band, Garcia/Grisman or Split Lip Rayfield, they draw upon old legends and new talent to mold their intense interpretation of American bluegrass. “Those guys threw down really well,” says Geeter, “To hear that stuff really touches your soul.”

Geeter and Banjer, who met previously at a bluegrass festival were already sharing a flat with bassist Thumper. Then, out of the blue “Our friend Lazer saw Sloppy [The Mandolin Player] playing for change on State Street one day and told him that we were trying to do this thing” says Geeter.  Immediately, Banjer added, “We met this guy and he was just off the train wearing a hat, some overalls and his mandolin… looking like a dumb hillbilly. [laughs] He asked us if we knew of any bars that he could get into without shoes.”

The nameless group played the streets and garnered a local following. “One day we were out at the Willy Street Co-op and one of us said ‘Hey we’re on Schwilly Street’. That pretty much stuck, and we just became the Schwillbillies from that point on.” Says Geeter. They stressed the importance of working for themselves to get things done and take advantage of every gig presented to them. When asked if they ran into any problems playing acoustically, Geeter smiled and said “We want to make this happen and keep the music as organic as possible. If the power goes out, at least we won’t be out of a job.”

Over the past summer the band took a trip to California, stopping to play along the way. They played in the parking lot at the Terrapin Station reunion of the Grateful Dead to an enthusiastic crowd. “It was awesome,” said Geeter, “We played until the cops told us to leave, and even they were getting into it. They were like, ‘Great music guys, we hate to do this, but you gotta split’. Continuing the tradition, they will tour the country next summer and the highlight will be the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, which is a favorite of artists like Bela Fleck and David Grisman.

Every Tuesday night at the Orpheum, you can come down and hang with Banjer, Geeter, Sloppy and Thumper through a double-set until last call. “We love an audience that will get drunk with us. The crowd interaction is great everywhere except Stevens Point. They just don’t like us up there for some reason,” says Geeter. (circa 2002 information)

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