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Journey along with the new music of Milwaukee's Painted Caves

Painted Caves has new music out, following up on a 2012 self-titled album.
Ankur Malhotra
Painted Caves has new music out, following up on a 2012 self-titled album.

It’s been a long pandemic, and a long winter. Luckily, we can turn to some locally-produced, Middle-eastern influenced psychedelic surf rock to whisk us away.

Milwaukee’s Painted Caves released its first album in 2012. The band is now out with new music ripe for audio consumption. There are the tracks The Machine Demands a Sacrifice, Najma, andArmy Ants.

WUWM asked lead singer and producer Ali Lubbad about Painted Cave’s Twitter profile, which describes the band as “psychedelic Arabs grow[ing] pensive in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

(L to R) Matt Wilson on bass and Ali Lubbad on guitar and lead vocals for Painted Caves
Courtesy of Ali Lubbad
(L to R) Matt Wilson on bass and Ali Lubbad on guitar and lead vocals for Painted Caves

Lubbad says part of this description comes from the state of modern music distribution, which involves “so much assigning of labels.” He says Painted Caves is not easily categorized. Also, Lubbad and oud player Mike Kashou both have a Palestinian background and were raised here. “So, our sense of what is aesthetically cool is probably pretty uniquely specific to the United States and maybe more specifically Milwaukee,” he says. “I think that was maybe an attempt to be clever that way.”

Lubbad is proud of his heritage and the fact that his father was Palestinian. “And a big part of my family that still exists in what is technically Israel, in the occupied territories, suffers because they’re Palestinian. They don’t really have a choice,” says Lubbad. “But I try to be careful because I feel like anytime you identify with a mob of people, the danger is you become a moron and start taking on some sort of a group identity that leads to some sort of genocide somewhere.”

He says it’s important not to be so proud that you dehumanize other people.

Musically, Painted Caves absorbs, loves and practices the wide breadth of sounds in the world, which includes Middle Eastern music. But Lubbad also explains he isn’t chasing some sort of “authenticity.”

“[Authenticity is] such a relative thing,” he says. “But I think when someone shares their interior landscape of humanity with other people, people feel that. [As opposed to] when you're doing some kind of contrived thing that's for attention or not coming from the right place.”

Producing these new Painted Caves tracks took years, says Lubbad. He recorded the musicians at times separately when they came to town, and then finally mixed everything together separately. On the track, "The Machine Demands a Sacrifice," for instance, he ended up with an hour and a half version, a 14-minute version, a 9-minute one, and finally whittled it down to the 4:45 version he has on Bandcamp.

“Unless you have a really well-rehearsed ensemble of people that live together, to recreate that in a recording is a colossal work,” he says. “And so the thing that's hard about syncing it up is the endless choices because everything works everywhere. Every piece of the song can be entered, changed in every other part. It's like a puzzle with no right answer.”

The notes, words and rhythms are performed by Lubbad, Ali Amr, Dena Al Saffar, Carl Nichols, Matt Wilson, Mike Kashou, Tim Moore, Sunil Qusba, Anthony Deutsch, Kyle Samuelson, Jen Schattschneider-Roach, Holly Haebig and Paul Cebar.

Painted Caves has performed at the Milwaukee Art Museum in past years.
Courtesy of Ali Lubbad
Painted Caves has performed at the Milwaukee Art Museum in past years.

While lyrics are a holistic part of the music, Lubbad keeps them sparse, while keeping heavy on the instrumentals. Several of the tracks have a riff or a vamp that the musicians continue to play with and evolve. And so the instrumentation feels like a journey.

To explain why he lets the musicality lead, and not the lyrics, Lubbad paraphrases a quote that he heard, by German linguist Heinrich Zimmer. Essentially, as Lubbad remembers the quote, "The most profound things can't be talked about. The second most profound, wonderful things in life, you can express through art and non-language activities. And the third best things are what you and me talk about every day.”

“So to get closer to expressing things that are really, sincerely, beautiful, important, meaningful,” says Lubbad, “I don't think you can do it with language, or it's pretty hard. And I think music is one step closer to that. And, so, I generally want to shut up and the songs as much as I can and only say things that I'm sure are worth saying.”

Though minimalistic, Lubbad has a poetic writing style. The lyrics for Najma, for instance, are: Shine on, Shine on/ Life to dine before it goes away/Star crossed, wave tossed/All is not lost, we are all on our way. The words are wrapped in the instrumental elegance of instruments like the oud, quanun, viola, darabuka, rigg, bass, guitar.

Lubbad says part of the reason he’s been finishing songs he started a long time ago is that he "believes in life, people, the importance of hope and loving strangers.“

“Everything physically in our lives, viruses and hatred and rioting and election denial, and all these crazy things that have happened, almost make you question the humanity of the popular amount of people and in our country specifically, but in the world,” he relays. “And I think something that occurred to me is that usually really sweet, good people are quiet, and you don't hear a lot about them. They're just like the silent majority that makes everything else possible. And, so, I think it's important to remember those people and be one of those people. And so musically, I thought, you know, I really want to share music again.”

He observes that there’s been a general isolation that it seems people are coming out of, or maybe trying to come out of but are not quite there yet. “And I think it’s worth recognizing yourself and other people and acknowledging the oneness of us all,” Lubbad notes. His track The Machine Demands a Sacrifice also gets at the complexity of modern life by playing on the idea that the technology in all of our lives, like iPhones and the Netflix and everything else, is the machine that separates us and is the opposite of oneness. “We have to be using the technology, not allowing the technology to use us,” he says.

Lubbad says much of the dangers we face right now is the propensity to think rigidly, almost machinelike, or by condemning "the other." He says, "the sacrifice the machine extracts is our mercy, flexibility and our humanity."

So what is Lubbad's wish for the music of Painted Caves, which is available for a nominal fee or even free? "Hopefully, it's helpful to someone or makes them feel good and feel good about life and has some sort of message of hope."

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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