Success wasn't enough for Pat McCurdy
by Divina Infusino
Something has happened to Pat McCurdy.
Something internal that has changed his musical and professional outlook.
Something that many musicians, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, are never lucky enough or determined enough to realize.
As leader of the group Yipes!, McCurdy was the only Milwaukee musician to obtain a national recording contract in the last three years. His two albums with RCA-Millenium taught him a lot.
"I learned you should always believe in yourself before you start listening to what other people are telling you," McCurdy said. "You can get a big head by packing 1,000 people into a Milwaukee club. Think what a big head you can get when the president of RCA Records tells you he thinks your record is great.
"All of a sudden you start thinking you're a big shot. But you're not. You've got a lot of work to do before you're really good.
"This time I refuse to sacrifice the music. No more relying on a routine or a cover to go over with the crowd. It has to come for ourselves.
"The music is what carries you in the long run. You have to cultivate your own style. You can make it by copying someone else's style. But you can't make it really big that way."
That's not just talk.
McCurdy's new band, The Men About Town, is one of the most daring acts to play mainstream rock clubs in years. The band has sidestepped many elements considered a prerequisite in the Milwaukee and Wisconsin club circuit.
It has no flashy lead guitarist, no dependence on current cover material, no sexual baiting and no monolith blast of chords.
Instead, McCurdy is writing lyrically interesting songs that pick and choose from many influences, including '40s swing and cabaret and '50s rock 'n' roll.
Instead of solos, the band, which consists of Pete Strand, the bass player from Yipes!; keyboardist Bob Pachner; drummer Rich Cooke; and Yipes! former rhythm guitarist Mike Hoffman works its instrumental dynamics by veering off each other. The act is sophisticated, yet danceable and fun as McCurdy leads the group with his ringmaster shownmanship.
McCurdy's reputation with Yipes! hasn't hurt his ability to put the sound over with Milwaukee audiences. The Men About Town's sponsorship by Miller Brewing Co. has also helped.
Miller supports the band by supplying and distributing printed materials, posters and buttons. McCurdy's band is part of a national network of bands sponsored by Miller, a system devised by McCurdy's manager, Gary Reynolds.
Miller kicks off its program with McCurdy's performance at Teddy's tonight.
Yet, despite these advantages, the Men About Town have carved a difficult road for themselves.
"We have long discussions about how we can maintain our integrity, although we don't use that exact word. We noticed that all our favorites like Elvis Costello and Squeeze have that quality about them. They get consistently better. And that's what we're trying to do," McCurdy said.
"So we don't let anything lie. That causes friction in the band because we'll be screaming about how this was wrong, we've got to change something, this song's got to go. Where most bands will learn their music and play it out for a long time, we change things if we're not satisfied."
McCurdy contends that too much attention to local club success has short-sighted many Milwaukee bands. Said McCurdy:
"We're trying to practice for what we hope will be some success. There are a lot of talented musicians in this town, but none of them ever make it.
"Playing clubs here is not your career. Careers only start there. You've got a whole bunch of levels to go through yet.
"When you go and meet the big shots and they're all waxy and they don't care about the musicians and it's all dollars, and not music, you find that out."
McCurdy said Yipes!, which played a guitar-strong pop sound, was signed prematurely and lacked enough business savvy to control its recorded output. Said McCurdy:
"Yipes! started in 1977 because we liked the Ramones, Blondie and Pez Band. We were signed a year and three months later. By the time we started making records, we were trapped into that sound.
YIPES! BECAME PASSE
"The longer Yipes! played, the more passe the sound became. It got to the point where I became the clown just to make things interesting. We'd play and I'd think 'This is so dull.' By that time we were listening to music that maybe had two guitar solos in the whole album.
"Meeting Bobby also changed my thinking. I saw what a really trained musician can do. Bobby has played piano for 17 years and he's only 22 years old. I thought, well we can make something out of this," he said.
McCurdy avoids anything that seems to reek of "the next big thing" in music, he said.
"I try to consciously keep our songs in classic arrangements instead of using fad tricks. We'd be more likely to draw back into a rhythm and blues record or something Bob heard in a Duke Ellington song," McCurdy said.
"A lot of bands derive their style from sounds that are currently familiar to the audience and it goes over easier. Bands always want to be like other bands, instead of thinking this could be our sound."
Finding a musical approach unique and authentic to one's self is probably the most difficult task for musicians anywhere. But McCurdy insists that meeting the challenge is the only road to musical accomplishment and long-lasting, recognized achievement.
"It's a maturing process. We're trying to grow up.
"We're about one-eigth of the way there. We're trying by being observant, and watching ourselves. I carry a notebook with me all the time just to jot down ideas.
"We never want to do something in our music just to make money. If you want to make it big, you've got to do that. It's harder. But we want music that won't date. We want our music to be fresh five years from today as it is now.
Like I said, musicians in this town never really make it. I'd like to be the first."