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A busy punk leaves Madison and finds “room to dream”

Chris Joutras reflects on his recent move to the Upper Peninsula.

Photo: Joutras at Art In during the venue’s final show before closing, in February 2020.

Chris Joutras spent 10 years living in Madison, and for most of that time he juggled multiple roles in the local music world. The first band Joutras started here, Dharma Dogs, played fierce but endearing punk songs that often exploded into waves of feedback and sludge. Joutras also played in multiple other bands at different times—including Dumb Vision, Cool Building, Momotarōs, Coordinated Suicides, and Tom Grrrl—co-founded a label called Kitschy Spirit, and booked dozens of shows for his own acts and others, at venues including Art In, Nottingham Co-op, Mickey’s Tavern, and as of spring 2019 the Tip Top Tavern.

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Joutras (or just “Judy” to some) was one of those people who helps to hold the local music community together by overextending themselves. But another defining factor of Madison’s arts and music circles are that they’re often transient. People burn out or leave town or both. Joutras sort of completed that cycle recently, moving away to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a small, very musical family that also includes his partner Anna Greenwood, Kevin Willmott II (who played in Cowboy Winter and the Otis Redding tribute act Don’t Mess With Cupid), and Addie Greenwood (of bands including Sabertooth Man).

As of last March, the COVID-19 pandemic upended Joutras’ job as a booker at the Tip Top and the other kitchen and service jobs he usually relied on. Most of his own music projects were in a lull—he jokes that he was down from four or five bands at a time to about 1.5. (He has also been working on a couple of long-distance collaborations, Quality Control and Goose Eggs.) Housing shortages and rapid gentrification are driving up rents in Madison. And even before the pandemic, Madison did not have a healthy economic climate for musicians.  “I remember when I was touring in France and the people there were astounded that we had day jobs, and that some of us had two or three or more day jobs,” Joutras recalls.

As of last spring, Joutras was living in the former Smart Studios building on East Wash (which has plenty of weird recent history). He wanted to start his own studio there, but it didn’t work out. Even though he’s never seemed particularly concerned with making a lot of money from music, Joutras felt that maybe he’d “sort of hit a ceiling” in what he could accomplish in Madison.

“I was helping to foster a thing at the Tip Top, but that space being what it was, you could only do so much there,” Joutras says of the small North Street bar. “Personally, I felt kind of stagnant. I just needed a change. I don’t know what I was trying to do, to be honest, just kind of build a community here around music. I felt like I did my part and it seemed there were more people coming up.” 

During his brief run in charge of booking at the Tip Top, Joutras tried to expand beyond his usual comfort zone of punk and noise-rock. There was still plenty of that (from bands like Milwaukee’s IfIHadAHiFi and Madison’s Treatment), but the lineup also embraced DJ nights, hip-hop artists like K. Sankofa, and a series of avant-garde noise shows booked in partnership with Milwaukee’s Peter J. Woods. (The Tip Top also has a popular Sunday-night open-mic, but that started before Joutras’ time.) One of my favorite shows there during that time was a September 19, 2019 performance from Kansas City-based songwriter Hadiza, with an opening set from Madison-based dancehall artist Jimmy Sugarcane. Joutras was also part of the short-lived Bangers and Mash booking collective.

“My wheelhouse is definitely the rock ‘n’ roll, punk stuff, noisy stuff, but the more I got away from some of my old haunts, I realized that there was a much larger, vibrant scene in Madison,” Joutras says. “There are a lot of different subsets, different scenes hanging out in different places. Trying to actually blend that stuff together and bridge gaps, I think that’s the work you’ve got to do—otherwise you’re just preaching to the choir….but the strengths are that there are a lot of hard-working people, people who care and are passionate about it and put a lot of time into it. Sometimes a lack of community can kind of create some of those gaps.” As a result, shows that mix up multiple genres in local music are rare, and the city has lots of somewhat isolated musical pockets that aren’t always aware of each other’s activities.

“You can’t put party hats on everyone and give them little noise-makers and be like ‘alright, we’re all friends now,'” Joutras admits, but exposing people to local musicians they wouldn’t normally seek out can be a powerful thing. 

Like a lot of artists who wear multiple hats, Joutras was finding it hard to balance his role as a show promoter while still leaving enough time to his own music. “It just seemed like maybe it was a good time to try something else, once we were shut down for a few months and it didn’t seem like we were gonna come back in the same capacity anytime soon,” he says.

Joutras had thought about moving to a larger city, but decided that he’d feel safer around fewer people. He also wanted to find a more affordable place to live. After talking it over, Joutras and his housemates set their sights on the Keweenaw Peninsula, and they moved up there in August. He’d really only been to the UP once before, to play a 2018 house show with Dumb Vision in Houghton, not far from where he lives now. The show was packed, he recalls, and thinking about that reassures him that he can eventually find collaborators and an audience in the area.

Joutras does have a day job in the UP, but doesn’t feel the same degree of financial pressure he experienced trying to survive as an artist and service worker in Madison. That has given him more time and energy to “re-introduce myself to playing music,” he says, from a room in his house where he’s surrounded by guitars, keyboards, and amps. Willmott has also been working on writing new songs, and the two might collaborate at some point.

“There’s room to dream here, in a way,” Joutras says.

The relative isolation might also help him get back on track creatively, he notes, somewhat jokingly: “I kind of want to get snowed in. I want to come out with my Bon Iver album. Bon Iver mixed with Layne Staley.” The Kitschy Spirit label has also been pretty quiet over the past year, but things might pick up again going forward. Since its founding in 2011, the label has put out a variety of releases from Joutras’ bands and others, including Madison hardcore outfit No Question and the long-running, increasingly melodic and prog-learning Wisconsin band Poney. Some of the bands Joutras’ played in, including Coordinated Suicides and Dumb Vision, also have some recordings in the can that haven’t come out yet, but Joutras regrets not recording more of his work during his time here. (Full disclosure: Coordinated Suicides guitarist Mike Noto is a Tone Madison contributor.)

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Despite the frustrations, monetary and otherwise, Joutras’ time in Madison was clearly transformative. If you ran into Joutras in the crowd at a show in 2011 or 2012, you’d meet a kind but incredibly shy person. When he played live with Dharma Dogs around that time, that demeanor gave way to spasms of anger and slicks of dissonant guitar. While he’s still fairly shy and withdrawn, he says he used to be “Pretty much terrified of everything.” It took a while to work his way into the music community.

“When I first moved there it was kind of the project lodge days and trying to get gigs at places and not getting called back, and then playing too many shows at Mr. Robert’s and stuff,” he says. “[Dharma Dogs] played our first show at La Mestiza Mexican restaurant on the Square.”

The withdrawn demeanor and the rage came, in part, from growing up in Racine and Lodi—where he met Dharma Dogs drummer/vocalist Nate Karls—and feeling like “kind of a hick.” 

“I think both Nate and I would both probably say—he’s from Lodi too—that we had a lot of pent-up angst about being forced to grow up there,” Joutras says. “What we wanted to do was just be super raw and real as we could be on stage, to be as real as we could be emotionally, and I guess we were also pretty loud. It was definitely cathartic. I always wanted feel like I literally expelled some demons or something. If I didn’t feel like that, I’d kind of be disappointed.” 

Shortly after moving to town, Joutras tried to get into a house show down the block from his East Gorham Street apartment. Instead of letting him in, the person working the door looked at Joutras’ ripped jorts and scraggly hair, and dismissed him with a curt “No.” He went home feeling crushed and defeated.

“The din of the party and band inside taunted me down the block,” he recalls. “I wasn’t cool enough to participate, according to those gatekeepers. I never forgot how that made me feel that night and I carried that with me… I never wanted to make someone else feel like that when I was booking shows.”

When it’s safe to do-things in person again, Joutras hopes to bring up some Madison bands to play in the UP and connect with other musicians in his new home.

“There’s definitely music up here, and some potential to try some new things,” he says.

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