It's not easy to sympathize with bands that saddle themselves with unreasonably long and silly names. But halfway through an interview with What Made Milwaukee Famous frontman Michael Kingcaid, I realize it would be downright rude to ask him why a rock quintet from Austin would choose a seven-syllable Midwestern beer slogan for a handle. After all, nobody asks Ben Gibbard why he settled on "Death Cab for Cutie" anymore, and that should always be one of the perks of success—transcending your own ill-conceived name.
Perhaps by no coincidence, What Made Milwaukee Famous have been following the Death Cab career blueprint to a tee thus far—signing to the latter's former indie label Barsuk and gradually extending their reach into mainstream markets.
"We'd certainly love to follow that path," says Kingcaid. "We've always wanted to reach as many people as possible, and when you get to that kind of status, like Death Cab, instead of just being an indie band that sells 8,000 records, you're No. 1 on the Billboard charts.... We'd love to get there at some point."
Kingcaid is refreshingly open about his interests in mass appeal—an attitude that's still readily frowned upon in the indie world. As a result, WMMF's new album, What Doesn't Kill Us, has been met with mixed reviews. Some critics have called it a "safer" record than the band's explosive 2004 debut Trying to Never Catch Up. Even Kingcaid admits it may have a more "accessible" sound, but What Doesn't Kill Us still delivers a well-crafted blend of power-pop, new wave and indie rock that recalls everyone from Elvis Costello and The Cars to Spoon and The Strokes.
"I think the primary reaction we've gotten is that people really like the album and understand it," Kingcaid says. "I mean, you always kind of worry about how people are going to react. But for the most part, when you're writing and recording the songs, you already believe in it yourselves. So as long as we, as a band, can convey our belief in it, then I think we can always get the message across to people. And in this case, I think it's coming across—hopefully."
For those who haven't gotten the message, WMMF are more than happy to deliver it personally, as they did at a number of high-profile festivals this year, including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and back home at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
"At a festival, it's up to you to catch peoples' ears as they're walking by," Kingcaid says. "I mean, they're music fans and they're there to hear new music. So it's easy to vibe off them, and it's made for some of our best shows."
As a Barsuk band with a weird name, What Made Milwaukee Famous (a reference to a Jerry Lee Lewis song, by the way) is all too easily categorized as "indie-rock." Kingcaid, however, has a very different perspective.
"I don't necessarily like to think of us as an indie band," he says. "I'd rather be called an 'outie' band. I'm totally game for being an outie band! We want to play to as many people as possible.... There are some bands that don't want to do that, and I applaud them for their artistic merit, I guess. But we're trying to make a living. We've got credit card bills piling up. So I'm kind of fine with going outie. And I think we have the means to get there."