Meet the Emperors of Wyoming, a High-Tech Cowboy Band
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these cowboys have gone high-tech in a bid to rope you in with an alt-country sound.
By Mary Papenfuss
When Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins producer Butch Vig decided to return to his music-making roots, he and his bandmates — Phil Davis, Frank and Pete Anderson — retreated to their home-studio lairs to alchemize something unique and profoundly American. They fiddled with guitars and recording software, dreaming of prairie winds and campfire grub.
After passing their music around by email and refining their sound, the Emperors of Wyoming have emerged as a band of digital pioneers with cowboy souls. They’ve just released their eponymous debut album in the United States (earlier European release), and the creation is an homage to bedrock Americana, blending the spirit of the cowboy heyday with a new Western golden era birthed in Silicon Valley. In one of the first all-digital alt-country collaborations, th e “virtual band members” forged tracks in a round-robin of shared music files without ever getting together in person.
We’ve been lucky to experience an incredible range of music, and we share an appreciation for a country, folk-infused music that’s as indigenous as jazz.
As the four Emperors roped the Old West with today’s digital power, they also mined sounds from a rich musical vein that spans decades. The result? A maverick mash-up of styles and genres, “sometimes several in one song, because we like them all,” says frontman Davis. The mix draws inspiration from Tom Petty to the Band, Creedence, Crazy Horse, the Byrds and swamp rock. “We’ve been lucky to experience an incredible range of music, and we share an appreciation for a country, folk-infused music that’s as indigenous as jazz,” Vig tells OZY.
The steampunk-cowboy CD art — created by Emperor Frank — features Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill beneath a circus marquee. But despite their Wild West aesthetic, the Emperors aren’t plainsmen. They’re Midwesterners who met decades ago at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The four played in garage bands, including Buzz Gunderson, Spooner and Fire Town . Vig would later launch Madison’s legendary Smart Studios , where his multiplatinum band Garbage , as well as Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, recorded.
When the musicians decided to work together again back in 2009, the immediate problem was that each member lived in a different city. The immediate solution? Form a virtual band. After fits and starts via the Internet, songs began to “fall from the sky,” Davis says.
There was no master plan, no Google Hangout conferences, just email.
Whoever took the reins of a song was expected to exhaust its possibilities — “beat it up and take its lunch money,” in the words of Pete Anderson. But there was no master plan, no Google Hangout conferences, just email. Everyone’s ideas morphed into versions that ended up with Pete’s brother Frank in a Pro Tools platform.
For Davis, recording beyond the reach of managers was “incredibly freeing.” It was about “experiences and music we shared that meant something to us,” he tells OZY. “We came together and didn’t have to be in the same room to do it.”
Vig saw it as a return to the “purity and honesty” of the art with a band of brothers who “love the same things and wanted to create the same kind of music,” he says.
The Emperors of Wyoming will perform this summer in Wisconsin’s Miles of Music Festival and have been contacted about appearing on David Letterman. For a taste, be sure to try Rebirth of the Cool or Don’t Know Why I Love You.
But first they need to rehearse. In the same room.
- Mary Papenfuss, OZY Author Contact Mary Papenfuss