Cullah is a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter who has a reputation as one of the most eccentric figures in Milwaukee’s scene. He has released a record every year on his birthday since he was fifteen. His style encompasses a vast fusion of genres including rock, folk, electronica, psychedelia, soul, blues, and funk. That’s just his sound – his cerebral lyrics touch heavily on philosophy and the metaphysical. You could talk to Cullah for hours about music, cryptocurrency, computers, politics…but I just talked to him for a bit about what he’s up to right now.
ME: To start, Ian, I’d love to hear about how you got involved with Wisconsin Music Ventures. I know you kind of told me this story at Cactus Club the other night but you’re going to tell it to me again (laughs).
CULLAH: Yeah I don’t remember all of what I said that night…it got a little fuzzy (laughs). I heard of Wisconsin Music Ventures when I met Allison at No Studios. We chatted and she told me she used to play French horn and that she had this business…then she said that we should work together…and then she just started booking random gigs for me and they were really cool and fun and different. And she booked me for talks to educate the community about things I know about…she just appeared in my life and I love what she does. I’ve been happy the whole way.
ME: She came into my life similarly – she just kind of appeared one day. We linked up at No Studios and I couldn’t say no.
ME: You mentioned how she not only would get you gigs, but unique gigs. I know that you have a particular story about playing at Adventure Rock. Tell me about that gig; I want to know how it all worked.
CULLAH: She’s like, “I’ve got a crazy idea, I don’t know if you’re into it, but let’s chat.” So we chatted and she said she was talking to Adventure Rock about doing music there. They have this weird center platform – I don’t know what it’s for – in the middle of the room, so I just came with my banjo and electric guitar and we had one speaker. I was just looking up and watching everyone climb to the top of the ceiling and I’m just trying to create suspenseful music. At the end of it it was fun but at the beginning it was weird, like the acoustics were weird. I sang some things but I mostly just did instrumental stuff for that. I’m not gonna try to play one of my songs where it’s like this theatrical performance.
ME: (laughs) Yeah, everyone’s got harnesses on!
CULLAH: I just imagined myself as them listening to the music and tried to communicate something to encourage them. I don’t know if I ended up doing that but there were a couple people that came up to me after. People were really focused…there’s some real pros there that were impressive.
ME: Yeah, definitely. So I know that you have many iterations of how you perform; you’ve done plenty of solo gigs but you also have the Comrades and the Copperheads…which iteration are you doing now?
CULLAH: Well, they all aren’t mutually exclusive. I can just call upon an ensemble to do a certain type of music. The Comrades is more like the soul-funk-rock and the Copperheads is like folk and bluegrass and country. I mean, I have to go on tour with all of them at some point in order for it to really mature, and it gets difficult to balance all that stuff. It just comes with the ebbs and flows of whatever’s working out. Through the summer I have Comrades gigs, basically.
ME: Are there any cats that can wear both hats in your ensembles?
CULLAH: Yeah, Pat Mullen and Monica Murphy. Those two are the main ones but there’s not much else because the Copperheads are a more stripped-down vibe with no drumset. There’s enough rhythm with a banjo and upright bass. I do have another one in the pocket that’s being developed right now but it probably won’t be debuted this year…it’s Cullah and the Cosmonauts. That’s where I want to unleash most of my discography that I haven’t performed. The songs people like most I don’t even perform (laughs). It’s just weird because the way I write the stuff is so hyper-composed and I just abandon the music immediately, so I’ve never really had a performance practice until three or four years ago. I have to basically deconstruct and reconstruct all these songs in the ensembles. The Cosmonauts I’ll be doing more electronic and psychedelic and electroacoustic.
ME: Hell yeah man, we’re going to space!
ME: So that said, given you have such a vast catalog, do you regularly pull old songs back into your sets?
CULLAH: Not really, man. That’s what I guess I was alluding to earlier about trying to get better at that. For this last solo performance that I did, it was like a private show I did and I played some older songs that I haven’t played in a while. Or, I should say, never performed. But they are songs I can learn on a guitar and play as opposed to trying to set up a whole rig of a sampler and sequencer and keyboard. I have started doing that, I’m just really not interested in playing a backing track and singing over it. I used to do that when I had gigs in high school and it just felt like singing karaoke to my songs, and it didn’t feel as satisfying. I couldn’t create in the moment other than just singing. There’s such a deeper impact you can make when you create music live, and there’s a way to balance it with samples and backing tracks and stuff. For me that would mean a real drum set and real synths and other musicians that come and bring their energy in. That’s what I’m looking forward to. There’s this one guy who would always Venmo me a dollar before shows to play this one song, and if I didn’t play it he would just request it back (laughs).
ME: This is a fun, random question. What’s your favorite brewery in Milwaukee right now?
CULLAH: Hmm…there’s a lot of good ones. In terms of beer, I think Lakefront is superior. But in terms of the microbreweries, Enlightened for sure. I’ve worked with them and put on shows there and the guys that are running that business are so awesome. They partner with really good people and they’re making really good decisions all across the board. I put on a Jam and Toast series there, and somehow it would just become a party where people would just bring homemade bread and homemade jams.
ME: I haven’t been there actually yet. I just went to Indeed recently for the first time and I loved it.
CULLAH: I haven’t been to Indeed but I like their beers. I like the Mexican lager that they have. The times I’ve drank it was because of Hear Here Presents. That’s the thing about the philosophies of these local brewing companies is that they’re really focused on community.
ME: That’s the way it should be.
ME: My last question is, what are your goals for the summer? What are you working on?
CULLAH: Well…I’ve got a new record coming out (laughs). As of now it’s probably going to be an EP, a 7 inch. I need to make music and it’s super important for my own psychological health but there’s also a lot of other projects that I want to build on. I’m really focused on the tour next year. Honestly I’m really hunkering down business-wise and learning as much as I can with enhancements to my website. I’m gigging a little bit here in July and August so the goal is to have fun and make a little money. I’m also closing out a sync deal and I have an intern helping me out with some PR.