Sulek describe themselves as “indie pop,” presumably because of the violins and cellos that coat some of the trio’s arrangements, but that term doesn’t do justice to how earthy their latest record is. This is music that’s more primal than twee, with shades of Tom Waits’ gritty blues and Low’s shadowy hymnals. They recorded Unbound at Last in an East Side chapel of the Newman Center and clearly they took full advantage of the acoustics, because the drums positively thunder.
On its fourth album, Unbound At Last, Milwaukee’s Sulek has expanded the diversity of its songwriting and sounds, soaring high with its dreamy atmospheric ditties and then crashing to Earth with the direct jolt of electric guitar thwacks and thrums. In between the free falls are some down-home, folksy acoustic tunes. It all works thanks to the driving force of the husband-and-wife team of Patrick and Ruthie Hoctor.
Along with original band member Chris Winberg, Sulek is now a trio, but the music it makes is as seductive as it is original. Early influences have ranged from Arcade Fire to Modest Mouse, but the mainstay presence of The White Stripes hovers above Sulek’s minimalist incantations, all the more appropriate as the band recorded Unbound At Last in the chapel of the Newman Center in Milwaukee. Patrick Hoctor is essentially a one-man band, playing everything from acoustic and electric guitars to cello, keyboards, drums, and percussion. Wife Ruthie lends vocals, and the two create a firm yet delicate balance that compels repeat listens.
Even the band’s name remains an enigma: “a mystery lost long, long ago,” according to Patrick. But the music emerges from the shadows, lingering gently around the restless spirit showcased in the single “Kissing Divinity,” with its anthemic refrain of the album’s title. The shadows turn more ominous with the slithering guitar twangs on “Devil’s Grin,” which promises no escape from the pain of past sins. Patrick Hoctor’s whispered warnings are as much a foretelling of what’s to come as a remembrance of things best forgotten.
Despite their youth, the members of Sulek come across as old souls, singing of lives and loves past with the wisdom of those who have lived through challenges, all the while maintaining a youthful gaze toward what lies beyond. Unbound At Last is well worth the walk alongside them.
Breaking free from something and pursuit of freedom are not faceless phrases for Sulek singer Patrick Hoctor, his co-singer wife Ruthie and drummer Chris Winberg. It's something quite dear and real to them. Each member has had their own trials or journeys to find their moments of freedom.
It's something evident in songs like “Brother,” from the band's fourth and latest albumUnbound at Last. When writing the song, Hoctor was reminded of his younger brother Gregory, who died three years ago in a car accident. While his brother was in jail, Hoctor would receive letters from him, which touched him since they had never been too close. But Hoctor regrets that he never sent his own letter.
“Writing that song released something in me, some kind of weird guilt,” Hoctor says. “Finally I wrote him one, but out of stupidity and laziness and unthoughtfulness I never sent the letter. I finally found it when I was writing the song and the first sentence was 'Dear Gregory, Forgive me for taking so long,' meaning forgive me for taking so long to give you this letter. That sentence has a whole new meaning now, because, guess what, I never sent it and you've been dead for three years.”
The song grapples with that guilt and tries to find some kind of peace with the past in order to break free from it. Fittingly, the rest of the album finds the band enjoying new freedoms. It's a looser album than even last year's Birds in the Attic.
“As a band we were limited in first two albums as we didn't know anything about being in a band,” Hoctor says. “And for Birds in the Attic, we were dealing with losing two of our members and figuring out how to still be a band without them. For this album we finally felt comfortable with each other and we had something that worked really well. The songs came together fairly easily and we just felt free.”
When his writing partner David Kelly left for a job in South Korea, Hoctor panicked a little, but he soon found Winberg to be more than capable replacement. Now, Winberg writes the lyrics while Hoctor focuses on the music, while Ruthie helps adjusting the lyrics or editing the arrangements. There's a joyous sense of collaboration, something not readily evident on their first two albums.
“The three of us have a hand in every song, a pretty big hand in every song,” says Patrick Hoctor. “This album was much less about solo performances and more about collaborating.”
After plans to record at Howl Street Recording fell through, Sulek recorded Unbound at Last in a chapel near the UWM campus. Within the chapel's wood and brick confines, the band's rich sound that dabbles in pop, rock, folk and classical music never sounded bigger. Instruments like cello, violin, and organ mingled with guitars, bass and drums to create an enormous sound.
“We tried to focus on capturing the room sounds of the chapel because there's a lot of natural reverb that we could pick up in the chapel,” says Patrick Hoctor. “Everything, especially the drums, sounds bigger.”
Of course, the band had some help conjuring that sound. They invited friends from a choir to sing, as well as the violin and drum players from Hoctor's other band, Mike Mangione and the Union. Returning producer Justin Heron also played a big role in bringing a more serious mindset and shaping the band's sound. He upgraded his recording system from 8-tracks to 24-tracks, allowing the band to go to town on the song arrangements.
“At the beginning of the recording, Justin actually told me, 'Patrick I have 24-tracks now, I want you to make the biggest arrangements you can for every song,” Hoctor recalls. “I went to town with every instrument I could get my hands on. It just felt right adding that to the songs.”
Five years ago, the notion of striking out into the music industry as a full-time group had never crossed the minds of singer Patrick Hoctor and the other members of Milwaukee band Sulek. They were too busy having fun tossing song ideas to each other in bedrooms and garages and playing the random show here and there for high-school crowds.
But sometimes it takes only the slightest bit of luck to tilt the scales. When Grey Gerling, a close friend and Hoctor’s college roommate, used the band’s homemade recordings in a number of hand-drawn animations for his online company, BarfQuestion Films, the music dam broke. Those who saw the videos grew intrigued by their soundtrack and began to ask about getting a copy of Sulek’s unique, dynamic blend of pop, rock, folk and classical music.
“He was like, ‘People are asking for albums and stuff. Think you could ever put one together?’” Hoctor recalls. “So that’s how the first album came about. We just pieced together all these songs we had written for fun and never had imagined selling at all. It pays to be involved with something else to help you grow.”
The four-man band of self-taught musicians released Songs from the Doctor's Office in 2008 and followed it up quickly with last year’s Believer’s Lane. Hoctor says that the band’s homemade sound not only comes from relatively inexpensive instruments and recording devices like 8-tracks, but also from diverse tastes in music and having two songwriters.
“I write half the songs, but David (Kelly), the piano/banjo/guitar player, writes the other half. And a few of them come together as a full band,” explains Hoctor, who adds that he takes two days for a song while Kelly takes six months. “Some songs are more folky, more rocking, some are more like surf music. Some are based around piano, some are more based around the guitar. So we dabble in all areas.”
It may sound like the band creates complicated parts to make this dynamic sound, but that’s not the case. “We’re forced to have simple parts for everything because none of us are really masters at our instruments; if anyone is good, it’s David,” Hoctor says. “As far as the guitar parts and bass parts, they always have to be pretty simple, so then we’re forced to make really interesting arrangements. We have simple parts, but when they come together they make an interesting and exciting song.”
Some things might change for the next album, when the band takes on an outside producer (a close friend of the band), but the core of the band will remain the same. The group plans to record together as a band like they did for their first album. “It’s going to be really interesting because we have a lot of fun recording it ourselves,” Hoctor says. “We often write parts as we record, but we’re going to have to rehearse before we go into the studio and have our parts down. The sound should be way up and above what we’ve done before. It’ll be something new, but we’re still old Sulek and will be along the lines of what we’ve done before.”
The band is gaining momentum with more shows due to the increased popularity, but they would like to think the reason for the group’s existence remains the same as day one. “We go to shows with our old instruments and people give us weird looks, but we do what we do, we have fun. And people can tell that,” Hoctor says. “We never dreamed of being an actual band and releasing albums and making money. That feeling has kept us true to something. We’re in this just for the sake of music, just for the sake of having a good time. We still have that in us, and we’re proud of that.”