The folksy literati of Milwaukee-based trio Mittelstadt sat down with EMMIE Magazine for an introduction to their band and an exploration of their debut EP, Roll Ginger Roll. Featuring a Sufjan-esque suite of instrumental diversity and poetic, remarkably ornate lyricism, the debut effort of members Benny Koziol, Philip Adrian and Enzo Demichele is a sweet, nostalgic journey into history – not only the band’s history, but also the history of music, nature and America.
On “Crimson,” Roll Ginger Roll’s first track, the listener is introduced to the sort of lyricism that makes it really special. Koziol’s words evoke memories of years and poems past. A sort of spectral nostalgia is juxtaposed against uptempo percussion and the warm tones of Demichele’s cello. Though Koziol sings of how “ghastly breath snuffed me out/ I go unseen by you/ But passing thru the mist tomorrow/ you will know the fume,” the song features a particularly vivacious surf guitar solo, and burns itself out in a spurt of lively and frenetic percussion.
It should be clear that Koziol’s songwriting aims not at contemporary relevance, but tries instead to glimpse a sort of timeless nostalgia. Such a feat is accomplished through the complex structure and vocabulary of his writing, which places the listener in the halls of some literary kingdom more than any folk-pop place. The diversity of instrumentation and relative levity of the band’s sound keeps it from falling too deeply into a hole of stuffy history, though.
Even the band’s name, Mittelstadt, is a marker of Benny and Philip’s history. In this case, as school-aged friends.
The album’s main themes – the historical folk mysticism which gives Mittelstadt their unique identity – is demonstrated most on the stripped down “The Ghost of Abraham J. Lincoln.” Featuring the crystalline sounds of nylon string guitar, solemn piano chords and some harmonies and descriptions of nature reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, “The Ghost of Abraham J. Lincoln” is, quite literally, a lyrical fever dream. Spawned somewhere in the depths of Koziol’s sleeping mind, the song features some interesting imagery: “A ripple of trouble, a sliver of fright/ scampered down my back in the noon daylight.”
Ultimately, the music of Mittelstadt feels remarkably well developed. It should never be said that the trio suffers from an identity problem, or that their music fits too neatly into the definition of the modern folk band. Rather than being caught up in nature or the minutiae of everyday life and the perils of modern romance, the music of Mittelstadt is wrapped up in a sort of epic nostalgia. The specters of dead music and dead souls haunt the pages of Koziol’s writing while the sprightly and diverse musical history of the band’s members fill the instrumentation with a contrasting verve that gives Roll Ginger Roll a sort of disorientating and novel feeling.
Go into it unprepared to listen closely and you might see Roll Ginger Roll as another pop-folk-rock effort retreading ground long covered by the likes of Sufjan Stevens and The Shins; if you look closely though, you might find yourself haunted in the same way the songs are – by the specters of music past, of presidents past, and of fifth grade teachers who once were, and remain, formative influences on music’s future-makers.
Give Roll Ginger Roll a listen, and watch for upcoming performances by Mittelstadt in the Milwaukee area this summer. Read on for selections from a Q&A with Mittelstadt.
Would you mind introducing yourselves?
Benny: I’m Benny, I sing and do piano and guitar. I should probably decide on what’s best for me. They both turn me on now and again but I’m gonna have to make a commitment to one sooner or later.
Philip: I’m Philip, I play the drums.
Enzo: I’m Enzo, I play the cello.
I noticed some brass on the album, who took care of that?
Benny: That was a friend of mine, Jack Folstein. He played Trumpet a few places on the album.
Lyrically, the album is pretty dark. You talk about love lost and death and ghosts, and depression to an extent on “Crimson,” but sonically the album is pretty upbeat. Was that a conscious decision?
Benny: I’ve always written poppier songs. That’s a language that I’m more well versed in.
Benny: Yeah. I kind of… came of age… came into music with stuff like Buddy Holly and the old bubblegum pop songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, that’s the kind of early stuff that Phil and I played. I think that’s kind of in our DNA: making sort of more upbeat music. But I think there’s something to be said for music that has a very… wounded suffering at its core but is put on with a smile. I think there’s traditions of that for centuries –
Tears of a clown.
Benny: Exactly, sort of the court jesters of medieval europe – these tormented souls dancing about.
What about the name, Mittelstadt?
Philip: Mittelstadt is actually the last name of me and Benny’s fifth grade teacher. I don’t know what he’s up to now.
Benny: He’s at MPS.
Philip: Yeah, I don’t know. He was a really inspiring teacher.
Benny: He was very much like… a lecturer. He would get off on his tangents and, for a Fifth Grade teacher, he would really push into some strange, existential directions. He was talking about like the universe and Carl Sagan all the time. He told us all these old like ghost stories. He was a very strange fellow. Very inspiring. We did like these Christmas plays that took up like literally a month of the entire year. We stopped doing school stuff just to rehearse these plays. It was very Montessori, the whole thing.
Are you still in touch with him? Does he know your band is named after him?
Benny: Hopefully not.
But like you said it’s a German word meaning like, middle city. It kind of has that whole Bon Iver like “too good for our own language we’re picking a foreign word” thing.
You mentioned your teacher told you a lot about ghosts stories. I noticed that a lot of lyrics on the album have a sort of ghostly theme. Is there anything there? Is that one of the album’s themes?
Benny: I’m very interested in ghosts, I guess. My family believes… their house is haunted. Um… That sounded weird.
Were you ever visited?
Benny: No, no. Um. No I just think ghosts as a literary or like poetic device are very interesting and I think that music is very much so… for me, like writing is a sort of communion with the past. I definitely think in terms of music that’s already happened years and years ago than most of the music that’s coming out now. Creating kind of feels like trying to put yourself in this lineage of a lot of musical ghosts and voices and things that have happened in the past. And I feel like that connection to the past and the way that certain musical ghosts will reappear in songs I’m making now is something that I kind of dwell on now.
Would you say that Roll Ginger Roll is an album that’s caught up in the past?
Benny: Not caught up in the past, exactly, but I think the music: the baroque stuff, a lot of the songs are inspired by different feelings about the past or history or different eras – it’s very historical what I’m envisioning.
You told me that “The Ghost of Abraham Lincoln” came to you in a dream. Do you want to go into that?
Benny: It was a couple months ago. I think it was like last summer. It wasn’t as dramatic as the song, obviously. It was more or less… I was walking with one of my friends in the Appalachian countryside and we found this house, and we were dicking around in there when we found like this item. We were like: what are we doing here? We darted out and there was Abraham Lincoln, standing in the doorway. That’s when I woke up… like cold sweat.
Benny: But that’s like… the whole thing I was talking about with the ghosts. It’s like a weird intuition I have about Abraham Lincoln. Like the stories about him, with his, I don’t know if he was bipolar or had clinical depression or what. He was a pretty sad fellow. There are these stories about like the occult, like ghostlike… he had like a sick child they conducted a seance on at the White House. He has a sort of ghostly presence in American culture that I wanted to explore.
Roll Ginger Roll is available now on Bandcamp.