The Emperors of Wyoming's first record drops Sept. 17 and includes a haunting country ballad that sounds as though Tom Petty and Tom Waits got it on. "The idea for the song was to tell it through the eyes of someone whose life was changed forever by someone they loved," says vocalist/guitarist Phil Davis.
The tune, "I Never Got Over You," could be the theme song for the Emperors of Wyoming: a quartet of friends who made music together 30 years ago and now, in a fertile burst of Internet collaboration, are making music again.
Davis says the self-titled album is a "Wisconsin record," even though only two of the four members currently live here. Butch Vig of Garbage is in West L.A. Frank Anderson lives in Appleton. Peter Anderson lives in Davis, Calif. And Davis lives in Fitchburg.
But back in the '70s and '80s, the musicians played together in a couple of Madison's most popular bands.
Davis and the Anderson brothers torched the college rock scene in one of the best-named bands ever: Buzz Gunderson (the name of the violent hood character in Rebel Without a Cause). Vig and Davis formed Fire Town, a pre-alt country band that netted a national recording contract. It would be Vig's last stop before Garbage.
Three years ago Davis (a former Isthmus staffer) realized there were morsels of music in various formats saved in his basement studio. Songs and ideas of songs that were at rest but asking for attention. "I Never Got Over You" was the first track that saw light, a rough version of a full number that Davis decided to share with his past and future band mates.
"Butch got engaged right away," Davis says. "And then the band started to make it into a band song. We had to figure out the beats per minute so that once we knew it, whatever it was, then we would all record at that.
"Then it was a free-for-all of ideas. Butch heard a drum machine part, and he put that on. And then Peter Anderson, the bass player, said, 'What about an electric sitar?' And that seemed worth trying. And Frank Anderson, up in Appleton, he put in these huge, almost orchestral sections of pedal steel. And suddenly there was this synthesis, sounds coming together, congealing, into this thing that doesn't sound quite like anything else and yet has a lot of familiarity to it."
Vig says the piecemeal process quickly normalized itself.
"We seem to share almost a sixth sense in terms of what the arrangement and vibe should be," he says. "I've known Phil, Frank and Pete for a long time, and even though we worked on the songs separately in our home recording studios, I think the album has a very cohesive feel. Part of that is due to the chemistry the four of us share."
In addition to artistic chemistry, the four share a Midwestern sensibility, a Wisconsin world view that pops up all over the album. "Avalanche Girl" tumbles along in front of the weight of a jangly electric guitar rockslide. It came out of a Vig-Davis email conversation about a girl Vig knew when he was 16 growing up in Viroqua.
"They would go to this pond, which is a real place - Avalanche, Wisconsin," says Davis.
"Cornfield Palace" is Frank Anderson's quirky invention, a song about a woman who lives in a farm mansion and commutes to Milwaukee for extramarital action while her husband plows the fields.
"'Cornfield Palace' is a rocker, pure and simple," says Vig. "I love Phil's lyric: 'She's the Queen of West Allis, in her SUV.' We channeled a bit of Neil Young and Crazy Horse into the track. Frank's lap steel really gives the song some swagger."
While the musicians performed hundreds of hours together three decades ago, the Emperors of Wyoming have never played a single note together in the same room.
"The writing and recording was quite fascinating, unlike any album I've ever done in the past," says Vig. "I found the process quite liberating in a way. We all wanted to make an album that used old-school instrumentation and simple arrangements, but put the whole thing together using new technology with computers and file sharing. I know a lot of electronica artists do that, but not many country-rock bands."
The album is coming out on "There were many times over the past 20 years where it would have been easier and made more sense to hang it up," says Davis. "But we didn't. There's real value in keeping at it, regardless."
"There were many times over the past 20 years where it would have been easier and made more sense to hang it up," says Davis. "But we didn't. There's real value in keeping at it, regardless."