Clare McCullough

Essays, Opinion

The DIY Strength of the Sunkin Suns

When I first met Sam Catral, he was wearing a patterned button-down and a full beard that would give some the impression that he was much older than what his years were. Snow was still in drifts along the streets and you couldn’t go outside without shivering. After our toes had thawed, we made conversation about our shared love of guitar music. Being a full-time student and teacher of jazz guitar, he gave me some pointers that have served me since (Keep your hand still, let your fingers do the talking). He was giving me advice on life, which I thought was a bit bold – me being two years his senior, he at the time was only around 19 years old.  Despite, or perhaps because of this youth you’ll find Milton, Sam, and Yanni’s influence dominate in just about every stage in Milwaukee.

The Sunkin Suns are the human embodiment of the DIY culture that permeates the Milwaukee music scene. Their ethic is one of empowerment of the individual and the employment of alternative approaches outside of traditional mainstream consumer culture. They are as punk-spirit as it gets… but make it jazz. Since their conception, they have created Milwaukee music nights where other DIY bands have a place to excel. Be it in sweaty attic shows where the oppressive air seems to take on a cross breeze pushed only by their groovy guitar bends and eccentric drum lines or loud basement shows hosted by a local anarchist. They push on, despite societal and bureaucratic obstacles. Circumventing the traditional route of the creation of music. They take total control of their final product. The pleasure of watching the Sunkin Suns perform is like stepping outside of your comfort zone, outside of the established cultural community and finally being able to choose what you want your night to look like.

The Sunkin Suns was originally Sam’s pet project with his friend Milton. They officially met on the high school bus he informed me, introduced by a mutual friend. It was the beginning of a project that has survived through undercover jobs at jazz bars in Milwaukee; brief ill-fated forays with cover bands and has now culminated in a Psychedelic Jazz Trio Jam Band that plays everywhere that matters. Despite Milton and Sam having incredible talent, they were lucky enough to pick up one of the best drummers that I personally have ever been lucky enough to see, Yanni. The might of that man’s internal metronome and quick humor makes a person think that anything is possible. Their forces combined; the smooth music is like cold water on a sultry day and refreshes all parts of the good land from River Revitalization foundation fundraisers to Marquette University’s Straz Theater.

Four years later after Milton and Sam met, more often than not getting turned away from shows because of their age, you can find their sticker on every lamp-post of Milwaukee county’s streets from West Allis to Oak Creek. They have around eight songs in rotation that they wrote themselves and are more than willing to hop on the bill with other up and comings of the music scene in Milwaukee. Most famously, Cullah but also other lesser known but should be known Christian Porter, Graham Scott, Gnatcatchers, and Dogbad. There is so much to be seen in the streets and stages of Milwaukee both in snow and in sunshine. Like a duck, calm above the water, but below- a flurry of productive activity and everyone wants in.

The Sunkin Suns mixes old favorites with new takes like a twist of lemon on your mineral water carbonation of sound-buds. As their deft fingers pick out the classic melodies and lift up the spirits of every pair of ears they touch, they weave notes as if they were cotton strings set precisely on a loom. If the songs they create bring so much happiness, then the influences that they leave behind are DIY euphoria. Leave all of the out-moded disbeliever talk at the door and let your soul decipher the meaning of the connection of the melodies to your past, your present, and your future. Without realizing, you will find your head bobbing to the beat.

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