Milwaukee on the Wild Side: an interview with Jill Kossoris

The Shivvers seemingly had it all: the right attitude and the right sound, but they were perhaps in the wrong place. Hailing from Milwaukee - located in the American mid-west - they were far from the major cultural hubs of Los Angeles or New York, and the only way for an unsigned band to be heard before the internet was in the clubs.

Despite supporting major artists and garnering local acclaim, they would part ways in 1982 after just two years together, leaving behind one 7” single release (so rare it now commands hundreds when it appears at auction) and a host of unreleased studio recordings. They became one of the quintessential cult bands, and when Hyped to Death Records discovered them in 2006 a revival of sorts went underway. The Shivvers would enjoy some air time once more with the release of their previously unheard material; a delayed but deserving sense of recognition that would see them in some circles being hailed as the greatest Power pop band the world never knew. Today, they’re still very much a cult oddity and very little is known about their trials and tribulations. The Music Fix is honoured, then, to welcome lead singer and songwriter Jill Kossoris.

It says on your Facebook page “I tried art, hated school.”

Clichéd but I had “No respect for authority”, as my parents were told. I just didn’t think these teachers had any more of a handle on life than anybody else, in fact less. Why do I have to listen to them, when I can learn from people who are truly inspiring, like Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Frank Sinatra, Roxy Music? I wasn’t nasty but I looked kind of “Goth” before the term was coined; the inspiration was silent film, so I stood out a bit! But I had friends.

I did enjoy art school, but again it is school! At some point I had to choose between art school and music. It was a no-brainer, although financially I should have better prepared for my future.

Let’s talk about your beginnings in music.

My parents were huge music lovers. My dad owned an independent record shop. He loved Bebop, Jazz, Classical and played everything very loud. my mother’s family was from Kentucky, so she played a lot of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Frank Sinatra. My sister is twelve years older than me, so she was blasting the likes of The Rolling Stones.

Anything in particular rub off on you?

Well, the thing was, it all rubbed off on me! I loved all of it. I studied classical piano for years, I think it gave me a very open mind toward all kinds of music. My parents didn’t really speak to each other, so they often communicated through music. They always said I had very emotional reactions to music: as a very small child, I used to cry every time I heard ‘Ramblin' Rose’ by Nat King Cole. But Rock ’n Roll was it - Mersey bands like The Beatles and Badfinger, that stuff is legend to me.

So when did you first start performing as such?

My first band was Cream & Coffee, which never made it out of the basement! I think the first time I actually “played out”, as they say, was when I was fourteen. A band made up of my local school friends called Eclipse. What a heavy name! We’d play mostly Chuck Berry, perform at local school dances etc. That taught me how to play with other musicians and gain some confidence.

Which inspired you to try bigger things?

Small steps along the way, always very driven to do my own thing. But I had to work my way through and try and figure out how to find like-minded band members.

And how did that process go?

As you start to seriously develop your taste, you start to run into people who think along the same lines. My dear friend, Richard LaValliere, who just died last week, was a huge influence. I had met him when I was sixteen though an ad I placed.

He was as a mentor to you?

Yes. He was such an individual, and yet never imposing. It’s rare in my experience to meet people who are original thinkers and not overly arrogant. He never forced his thoughts on me.

Jill’s obituary to Richard can be read here

He would join you in In a Hot Coma for a while?

Yes, we played together for a little over a year, then I really felt it was time for me to move on to my own band.

That’s what I find a little interesting. You seemed to go through a bit of a shuffle with band members for a while, but when you ultimately got The Shivvers together, the line up was close to what you had originally began with - a few early key members who stayed with you despite moving on to others projects in the interim.

Well, I stole Scott (Krueger) from The Orbits because he was a great bass player and writer, and really improved the band. Sometimes you don’t see your weak points until you start playing out a bit. Takes a while to sort things out. But the initial four members were together through most of The Shivvers.

The line-up changes does get a bit confusing between The Orbits, In a Hot Coma etc.

The order will drive you nuts, Kev! And there’s a million versions on the internet. Scott was not in In a Hot Coma when I was. That band went through a lot of various combinations. Basically the initial Shivvers were Jim Richardson, Jim Eannelli, Mike Pyle and Richie Bush. We just replaced Richie with Scott and that’s the classic line up. There were about five different variations of In a Hot Coma prior to that and I was in the last one (as keyboardist). When I quit, they became The Haskels.

With that done it was all about honing your skills?

Writing my first songs and gathering up the courage to play them for people - going through obscure cover songs and trying to bring something new to them; working on my voice by singing along to The Supremes in my bedroom all night. It was about picking unexpected songs and bringing a new punky pop energy to them. I liked to mix things up like playing an Iggy Pop song right after an Abba song and make it sound perfectly natural.

So the covers would be a way to craft your sound while you wrote your own music ?

Yes, it was always about the songs and showing that just because a song was popular, didn’t mean it wasn’t cool. There’s a lot of snobbery in some music circles and I wanted to break that up. There’s a reason some songs are popular, they communicate to a lot of people and there’s nothing wrong with that. Learning covers is a great way to learn how songs are constructed. It’s like architecture. I enjoyed watching punks dance to ‘Hey Deanie’ by Shaun Cassidy.

Always helps to have some crowd pleasers lined up and be able to showcase your versatility.

Absolutely. You have to leave you mind open. Some critics simply cannot accept the fact that popular songs are art, and some are awful.

With you guys it was more about the rawness, the intensity of the Punk/Power pop genres? You came on the scene during what was arguably its peak. The energy was there, you could afford to experiment…

The Punk movement definitely influenced us, especially the UK scene. Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, their open mindedness and appreciation of great songwriters. We were considered really radical locally - a girl in a band and playing this punky music. Even the local Rock people were confused.

That kind of local curiosity boosted your live performances? That was something you continued doing for some time before deciding to hit the studio?

I loved to win over a hostile audience! Give me something to rebel against, tell me this isn’t Rock ’n Roll. We actually recorded ‘Teen Line’ very early on, my first time in the studio. ‘Teen Line’ was very, very early, after playing just a few gigs in small clubs. As we became more popular, we started breaking out of the punk clubs and playing more mainstream venues. But we continued to play both, I’m proud of that because we didn't “sell out”, as they say. We were told repeatedly that we were a fad and that we wouldn’t last.

I imagine that would be quite disheartening, but ‘Teen Line’ worked out pretty well for you. It was positively received

Well, I like friction! Something to rebel against to create something new. I just wish we would have had a manager that understood us.

Which is what I don’t quite understand. You were making catchy music that felt a bit radical, but not alienating. With other bands of the time going on to bigger things, why was so hard to win over some kind of management?

We didn’t fit neatly into a category. We had management, they knew there was something there, but they didn’t quite know how to market it or describe it. You have to know what you’re selling before you try to sell it. Looking back now it seems pretty obvious but we were really considered oddballs. “What the hell are these people doing? They sound like punks, but they’re playing pop songs!!”

A cliché to say it, but given more recent trends you were perhaps ahead of your time.

I think we were in the wrong place. No internet to spread the word. If we were in LA or New York, I don’t think we would have had this problem.

but you did have serious interest, particularly from Eric Carmen, whose band The Raspberries was a big influence on you. How did his relationship with you start?

I was a member of his fan club. I got the head of the fan club to send him a video and he loved it. He didn’t get why were weren’t signed to a label either.

What did you send him?

‘Please Stand By’. Told him we were even doing Cyrus Erie songs, from one of his more obscure bands.

And he was interested in producing you?

Yes, but he did want me to quit the band and re-record The Raspberries hits, along with some of my own songs. He thought it would be cool having a girl sing them, and it would have been but I told him that they weren’t just great songs, they were great recordings. I wouldn’t re-record those songs for anything, they’re some of the most energetic, passionate Power pop songs the world will ever hear. I’m bull-headed!

Oh! So that immediately threatened to break up The Shivvers?

Yes, and I thought I would lose artistic control, I knew I would lose it. But I sometimes wonder if I could have talked him out of it…

He clearly knew you had a special knack. Just listening to songs like ‘Hurts too Much’, you really had a way of making these songs feel like your own.

Thanks. ‘It Hurts Too Much’ was a different story, but the early Raspberries singles - no one will ever top that Carmen energy.

So after the initial talks didn’t work out you decided to pack up and head to Boston?

From the initial formation of the band, we knew we would probably have to move somewhere to be heard. This was before The Violent Femmes, The Bodeans etc and of course the internet. But, we had not really talked about it seriously and it came as a shock when one of the members said “I'm going to Boston and you can follow if you want” sort of thing.

Had Jim (Eannelli) already left by then, to be replaced by Breck?

Yes. Breck only played with us a few times but he fit in beautifully. Another Orbits steal! Jim never really liked the pop thing we were doing.

Why didn’t you follow?

There’s lots and lots of reasons why I didn’t follow. My voice was giving me problems from singing three hours a night. Plus I don't like ultimatums! I felt like I was being pushed, and we needed to discuss this. We would have been better off moving to L.A.

After the split in ’82 what did you do from that point?

I kept song writing and had to learn to deal with health problems. I worked to improve my songwriting skills. I don’t know if I would have been happy being famous anyway. It’s a cliché' but the money would have been nice.

At that time, had you recorded the nine or so other tracks that would later appear in 2006?

Yes. Every song with the exception of ‘Blue In Heaven’ could have been on a first album. All written between 1979-1982. ‘Remember Tonight’ was recorded in 1987, five years after we broke up. It wasn’t necessarily a reunion but just something I needed to record.

You stayed in Milwaukee then, during the time between?

Yes. I just wrote and wrote and pulled out of the music scene. I needed to just retreat and see where I wanted to go.

Was the plan in ’87 to have The Shivvers give it one more go?

We stayed in touch, we’re all friends. I wanted to get the song to another artist. I didn’t know that would be even more difficult than getting a record deal!

Another case of it’s all about who you know?

Partly. But, as I’ve worked in Nashville, it doesn’t seem to always be the case. I’ve known some very well connected/famous people trying to get their songs cut and it just doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of money to be made in songwriting, so it’s very insular. The best song doesn’t always win.

You moved to Nashville around 1993, which wasn't long after the sad passing of Breck?

I would commute back and forth, stay for a couple months at each place. Breck was another one of those one-of-a-kind characters that I will always miss. Very sarcastic, confrontational, alienated almost everyone he came into contact with. It was hilarious!

How did things work out behind the scenes for you? Did you write a lot for other artists?

I wrote with The Mavericks, really loved their sound. I felt a real affinity, they’re actually kind of Power Pop anyway. They were considering recording a couple of my songs, then they broke up. Do you see a pattern here? Timing is everything. The odds of getting a song cut in Nashville is about equal to winning the lottery.

I must admit to being surprised, given the place is considered a major music city.

Everyone is a songwriter. Everyone!

Then how do you establish yourself? I mean you did try in 2001 with your solo release “Invisible”.

I’m still working on it. “Invisible” is basically a collection of demos but people always tell me they love my voice, so I put it out thinking that no one would hear it. Then the interest in The Shivvers happened.

Yea, what did happen there? How did you end up getting involved with Hyped to Death?

Chuck Warner called us out of the blue. Said he had heard ‘Teen Line’ and was blown away by it. He wanted to put out a CD. I have to be honest, by that time I was so cynical. I thought “Yeah, whatever”. One of the main criticisms of the band was that we were great live, but “We didn’t have the songs”. So I think it’s really ironic that the songs are continuing to live on, with no band!

The rest of the songs just stayed hidden until that point? Because that CD has so many gems on it. What a great first album that would have made…or I suppose did make.

Chuck went by one song. When he heard the rest, he couldn’t believe it. And then we sent him a live DVD. No one had heard these songs. Thank you, it would have been a good first album. As my friend Richard used to say, “Back to back, hit after hit after hit singles.” I wrote those songs as singles, always thinking in terms of tight, three minute wonders with no down time. The other interesting thing is that we had no producer. We’d just go into the studio and bang it out live, no input from anyone else. I like to imagine what we could have sounded like with Chris Thomas or someone behind the board.

But it ultimately works. It’s raw and energetic, wild and fun. Listening to the Milwaukee hits you’d be hard pressed to separate the live audience recordings. You sounded amazing live.

Thanks again. Like most things in life there’s a good and bad side. No input from executives kept it pure and real but also a secret.

Any find memories of gigging you’d like to share?

Iggy Pop! Absolutely the most fun. Came into our dressing room after the show and told us how much he loved us and asked me out for coffee. This was interceded by a Shivver who never let me have any fun but was also very protective. “Jill it’s not coffee he’s looking for.” I don’t know, he seemed like a perfectly reasonable, intelligent guy, and I knew how to handle myself. Wish I would have had that coffee now but we had to pack up our gear and head back to Milwaukee…

A few bands, who I will refrain from naming, wouldn’t let us have any room on stage; share the dressing room; use appropriate lighting etc., but most of the time we could work things out.

Since the release of ‘Lost Hits From Milwaukee’s First Family Of Power pop’, what's the reception been like elsewhere? Has that helped push yourself further?

Well, Japan. From what I understand they love Power Pop, and were the first to get really excited and discover The Shivvers in large numbers. But word is still spreading. Just had a huge write up in a major magazine in Spain. We’re still a cult band mind you, we’re not talking about a lot of money or anything. Musicians everywhere know us now, which is cool. The press has been overwhelmingly positive.

That’s great to hear. And I’m quite excited by what you’re presently working on. Can you say anything about the song you sent me? Is this a new band in the works?

Well, I write whatever comes into my head. No intention behind it. If it’s an alt. country song then fine, if it’s a garage banger that’s OK too. ‘Burnin’ Up My Time’ came to me in a dream, at least the start of it, and I took it to my local musician friends and they recorded it. Scott just nailed the vocals and harmonica.

What’s the plan from here for you? Another solo album perhaps?

The songs I’ve been writing lately are so eclectic, so I don’t know if they would fit together nicely on a CD. But the last CD was a mixed bag too. Maybe but I'm mainly writing for Nashville. I like the humour in country songs. If I'm writing for myself it can get pretty dark.

This may sound childish but I still want a hit song. A single, a radio song, I love hit records! I love the radio, the immediacy of it. You’re just driving in your car, and slam! A great song you’ve never heard before will slap you. And of course if Bryan Ferry would like to record ‘Back To The Well’ (from Invisible) I’m all for it!

It isn’t childish at all, you deserve it. I hope from this piece more people will check out your music. And if Bryan’s reading this, contact Jill!

Hah! Bryan, please! It’s a great song for you. Bluesy; spooky; a little different....come on man!

So you’ve never been to the UK?

Unfortunately, no. It’s one of my dreams, to see the land of Roxy Music; The Rolling Stones; Oscar Wilde; Mike Scott; Aubrey Beardsley; Sasha Baron Cohen. Hey, and what about Justin Currie? Did you hear his first solo CD? It’s brilliant in my opinion.

I don’t know that one.

I think you'd like it. ‘What is Love For’ - amazing writer, killer lyrics, great melodies. So great it could have been recorded by Sinatra. Seriously classic. Mr Currie is one of the great pop song writers.

Anyone else you’re enjoying right now?

Mike Scott (Waterboys) will always be one of my top favourite artists. His songs are fearless, truly inspired and poetic and yet somehow they never sound pretentious or false. They sound like they came straight out of the ether, like there is no interference between the initial creative idea and the finished song. That's nearly impossible to accomplish as a writer. Once you start “thinking” about what you’re writing, it’s over, you’ve killed the sprit.

It’s been a pleasure, Jill.

Best to you.

Lost Hits From Milwaukee’s First Family Of Power pop: 1979-82 is available on CD or as a download, though I personally recommend the CD version for the inclusion of The Shivvers’ rare TV appearances. Jill’s solo CD, Invisible, is also available from most places.

Extra special thanks to Jill for the featured images and exclusive track ‘Burnin’ Up My Time’.

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