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WISCONSIN through the lens: KYLE HILKER, rock photographer

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Seattle are all American cities which can either be related to a specific music genres or to have given birth to artists who have contributed to the history of music. In some cases to both of them.

Have you ever heard about artists coming from Wisconsin, from cities like Madison or Milwaukee?

Probably not…or maybe yes but you don’t really know. Honestly, when you think about music, American music, these are not the first cities and Wisconsin is not the first state you would think about.

Well, it’s time to reconsider the “geography of American music”.

Kyle Hilker is a music photographer who lives in Wisconsin. Some time ago we got to know each other through Facebook because of our common passion for Andy Frasco & the UN. During the Covid pandemic, especially during the lockdown, we often shared our thoughts on what was happening in our countries. He was also so kind to send me some CDs of artists born and raised in Wisconsin. He wanted to cheer me up after so many months without being able to even go out for a walk.

I started listening to these bands and I started thinking about Kyle’s pictures taken at all the most famous venues in Madison and all over Wisconsin and I suddenly had an idea: I could talk about these artists. Therefore, I told him what I had in mind and we decided to work together.

This is how this new project started.

This is a project built out of friendship whose aim is building bridges and breaking walls. This project is called Wisconsin Through the Lens.

You will be taken into a melting pot of styles and music genres: from bluegrass to hardcore, from reggae to jam bands and everything in-between and beyond.

The first chapter was supposed to be my interview to Kyle. However, considering that we couldn’t meet and have a chat while drinking a coffee, we thought that we could switch the interview into a sort of real conversation.

And this is what you’ll find: Kyle’s  answers to my questions and yes, I will answer his questions! We talk about our common passion for music, the artists we love, our view on the future of live music and some politics…

It goes without saying that we are both nervous but overwhelmed with joy.

We hope you’ll follow us…we’re gonna have a lot of fun and meet interesting people.

Q.: We’ve known each other through Social Media and I got to know you through your pictures and through our common passion for music. Now it’s time to get to know you a bit better. Who is Kyle Hilker? 

K.H.: I am 33 years old living in Downtown Madison, WI. I have only recently started my business, Shatter Imagery, about 3 years ago. I currently still work full time doing pre tests for eye exams. My music taste goes all over the board, from Illenium to Rammstein to Umphrey’s McGee to Wiz Khalifa, pretty much everything besides country. I have a dog turning 9 in October and a cat around 12. I usually hang out by the lake. I’ve never attended a school for photography. I’ve just learned from my mentor and A LOT from Youtube videos.

Q.: When talking about people’s passions, it’s always interesting to know how they started. How did you get into photography? 

K.H.: I have always been into live music, literally going to 100s shows a year, always taking pictures on my phone. I was at a Umphrey’s McGee show here in Madison at The Orpheum taking pictures and one of the photographers saw a picture on my phone and said I should really consider a camera. I told him I never touched one before and he gave me all his info and helped me get set up and pretty much became my mentor, if it wasn’t for that photographer I would have never touched a camera and got started in this amazing life. I am forever thankful for him. Thank you so much Aaron Bradley (Aaron Bradley Photo).

Q.: We will feature artists from Wisconsin, therefore it’s important to talk about your city. What is it like living in Madison?

K.H.: I have lived in a few cities in Wisconsin and Madison is my home. This city is amazing. There is something for everyone, from parks, lakes, every sport you can think of, movies, concerts. It’s big enough for malls but small enough for you to know and see the same people a lot. Being less than two hours from a major city (Chicago) is also very, very nice for a change of pace if needed. I cannot imagine living in another city in this state. The local music scene here is absolutely unbelievable.

Q.: You are a music photographer, a live show photographer. Do you remember the first artist/band that you had the chance to photograph?

K.H.: Absolutely and I still cover them very regularly to this day! The band is called WURK and they are a funk fusion jam band. I would compare them to The Motet. It was at a tiny bar that had a back room called Harmony Bar. I remember getting my very first camera and after learning its basics, just wondering “now what?” Thankfully I had a friend who said she knew this 7-piece band starting to make noise locally. She asked them and thankfully they allowed me to show up. They paid my cover charge. I didn’t get paid for that one but that was my first show ever. That year I shot WURK around 40 times throughout the year. If I feel a part of any band it’s with those guys.

Q.: We met because of our “friend” Andy Frasco, an amazing, super talented and, most of all, crazy artist. How is it like to be at one his shows? As you know, I’ve never had the chance to see him live…

K.H.: ONE OF A KIND! He is the most genuine person I have ever met, rockstar or not. You will laugh as much as you dance at his shows and trust me you will do A LOT of both there! He is a DO NOT MISS show. One of the shows I’m missing the most during these times. He’s been doing a super amazing live stream and also has a hilarious Podcast if you want a very very small glimpse on his live show.

Q.: You’ve been to a lot of festivals and venues around your city. During the past few months, we have talked a lot on how Covid-19 has been affecting us and the things we like to do. How has the pandemic affected arts & entertainment businesses in your hometown?

K.H.: Sadly, it’s totally shut down and we are at risk of losing some of our independent venues. About an hour away, we have socially distanced drive-in shows where you stay in your car and/or designated spot and listen through your radio or, if you’re close enough to the stage, to the live band. Thankfully I will be covering a couple of these shows, WURK being one of them! 

Q.: The USA as a whole and most recently Wisconsin have been facing an increase of violence and protests after the killing of George Floyd and Jacob Blake. During the protests after George Floyd was killed, you were in the streets of Madison and you took pictures of what was happening. These pictures are beautiful and shocking at the same time. There was also one thing you wrote in one of your posts that really made me think a lot. You told about having to deal with pepper spray and tear gas. How do you feel now about this situation? And how did you feel when you started looking at those pictures you took?

K.H.: We NEED to change here badly, not soon but right now. The things happening in this state and around the country are sickening. If it takes a few broken windows to get the attention brought to the flat out racism and abuse by police to the black community in this country then so be it. Looking at those images and the events leading up to it is heartbreaking. It was extremely hard to cover something like that but now it’s no time for silence.

Q.: You’ve also showed a lot about your beautiful city, located on an isthmus surrounded by two lakes and considered one of the greenest, bike-friendly cities in the world. And it’s also a city full of street art. Tell me more about this. Do you know the artists or did you find those places by chance?

K.H.: Very bike friendly! You can rent bikes across the street from my building! I randomly found all the street art and I am slowly meeting the artists! There are some absolutely amazing artists in this city and I am very glad I can help share some of it! It’s always changing and definitely helps keep the camera in my hands without concerts currently. It seems like every week I’m finding a new spot or meeting another artist and I will never complain about that. The art is really helping to bring the community together in these very uncertain times.

Q.: You’ve recently had the chance to work with Rob Dz in helping with the production of his latest music video: “Talk about it”. It was a project with a strong and deep connection to  Madison (his whole new album was recorded at The Madison Public Library, using their state of the art equipment, even for the video). In your post you wrote: “I never take opportunities like this for granted”. What did you learn working on this project?

K.H.: Well, I’m so new into photography that I have never actually switched my camera onto video. It’s just a totally different aspect I want to learn and keep expanding my skills. Then MOD Media here in Madison asked if I wanted to help. It would have been a mistake to say no. They are one of the top production companies in Madison and some great people. I’m very excited to keep learning with them in the future, and when I heard the track it was something I could be proud to be a part of.

Q.: Have you ever seen a picture of a fellow photographer taken at the same gig you attended and think: “How’s that possible that I missed that moment?”

K.H.: Everyone has a different eye so while one amazing moment could be happening in front of the stage, the drummer could be doing something amazing you are capturing. Now if my settings were off and the moment I wanted is out of focus that is a different story. I have nothing but respect for all the other photographers. One of the first things I learned is that it’s not a competition, it’s a community. That’s why if any other photographers ask me a question I will always try to help. I wish all other photographers thought that way, but one can dream. 

Now some questions for you!

Q.: I know you are a HUGE Dave Matthews Band fan. Besides DMB, what is the first live show you are looking forward to after all this?

Yes,I am. I am really a huge fan of Dave Matthews Band and the weird thing is that I’ve become such a great fan only recently, after attending their concert here in Milan on April 3rd, 2019. Before that I only knew few songs and I’ve never expected they would become such an inspiration to me. Honestly, I will miss not being able to see them live. Even if we’ll be able to go back to live shows in the near future, their 2020 North American tour was already sold out (and postponed to 2021). I couldn’t get tickets (I was ready to take a plane and come to the US to see them) and there’s no plan to have them playing in Europe. However, my agenda is already pretty full of gigs in Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg. I really can’t wait to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds for the fourth time, Eric Clapton, Joss Stone, Alicia Keys, Imany, The Kronos Quartet, The Lumineers, Joshua Bell, Diane Reeves. It will be a real journey, taking me from classical music to jazz, from blues to soul and everything in-between. This is the beauty about music – it makes you “Travelling Without Moving” (Jamiroquai – he was actually meaning something else but I like to quote him).

Q.: You are an amazing journalist, how did you get into it? Is there anyone you look up to in the field?

I’m not a trained journalist, meaning that I haven’t studied to be a journalist or a music editorialist. I have a university degree in Finance, and two postgraduate diplomas in English and American culture from UCSD and in International Trade & Commerce from UC Berkeley. I currently work as Marketing and Communication Specialist for a bank. Music is my passion. My motto is: “I was born with the music inside”. I have an incredible passion for music which I inherited from my father. As for taking inspiration I have two main references and they’re both female journalists: one is Eleonora Bagarotti, an Italian journalist, writer, actress, musicians, single mother, who has the power to talk about the artists she loves with great knowledge and leaving you the feeling that she’s also passionate, that she’s a real fan. And then, Amanda Petrusich, editorialist at The New Yorker. She is very similar to Eleonora in the way she writes and she’s a reference for my English articles.

They both really, really rock!!!

Q.: With shows being cancelled all over the world, what is your favorite thing to do in your hometown for entertainment?

I live in a small town (12.000 inhabitants) located 16 km. (10 miles more or less) far from Milan, the big city. It’s still a mostly rural town where I can still ride my bike whenever I want. Honestly speaking there was not so much to do here before the lockdown and there’s even less now. But there’s one thing I regret: I was involved in the organization of some music events and then everything was cancelled. I have to go to Milan for work every single day and it takes more than 1 hour to go and 1 hour to come back because of the traffic. It’s unbelievable. At the same time, I don’t think I would ever be able to live in the “big city” but this is another story…

Q.: We do know each other through social media which is awesome, considering maybe 10 years ago this wouldn’t have been possible, but let’s learn a little more. Who is Raffaella Mezzanzanica?

Who am I? This should be the simplest question in the world but it’s the hardest to give an answer to. The two pictures above clearly explain who I am.

I am a crazy, “psychedelic, prog, punk rocker” and nobody would ever expect that from me. I’m crazy for live shows and I’m still dreaming of having music as part of my “real job”. I’m the one who has been taught to listen to music in a certain way. As we are all huge Pink Floyd fans in my family, we all strongly believe that you can listen to their music only using headphones and in a completely dark room. I’ve grown up listening to prog music (Italian and international) and to most of the 60s music like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. Then, I started deep-diving from that point in the whole music world: grunge, electronic, rap, hip hop, country etc. I don’t trust people who believe that “rap is not music”. I’m also the one who still cannot listen to Chris Cornell or Chester Bennington without crying. I’m also the one who cries at live shows and hopes that people around are too involved not to notice. I strongly believe in the power of women and this is the reason why my two columns are dedicated to female artists: “Girls United!” is about women of impact in the music world, while “Girls Music Club” has a focus on new and emerging female artists, together with female sound engineers, photographers, music producers etc. I’m also the person who had to fight against her own weaknesses and demons two years ago, when I suffered of panic attacks which prevented me to even being able to go out from my house for four months. I knew I had to fight and this is exactly what I did. Now I’m stronger than ever before. And the most incredible thing is that my recovery began when I started writing about music, even if I had to learn that music cannot cure but it can help. Today, after two years, I’m a completely new person. I’m positive, strong, full of energy and ideas and the greatest gift was to have people (siblings, friends, colleagues) recognizing this.

Q.: I personally feel the USA is not doing the best at containing the COVID pandemic, In your opinion, is Italy doing what they can to help the people and get everything back to normal? 

I will start saying that there are many things I don’t like about my country. However, in my opinion, I was relieved to having to deal with the pandemic here in Italy and, probably for the first time in years, I wasn’t thinking about being in another country. We have been facing unprecedented times and this situation asked for unprecedented measures. This is what the Government did.  Did they have or could they do more? Possible. But I think that, despite any political view, they did what they could. Of course, the lockdown was tough. During those months we all had to deal with silence and I realized that even silence has a sound and it’s one of the worst and most scary sounds in the whole world. Now that the lockdown is over, we are struggling to restart, to get back on track and I think that it’s now that the Government is not doing what has to be done. They are even doing less with the second wave of pandemic.

Q.: With the amount of injustice the black community is facing in the USA due to police violence and systemic racism, are there the same issues in Italy? 

Racism as homophobia and misogyny come out of ignorance and ignorance is well spread out all over the world. I believe and I am a strong supporter of social justice, inclusiveness and gender equality. I really would like to say that we don’t have the same issues but we do and we do it everywhere: at school, at work, everywhere! There’s one thing though: we do not have access to weapons as easily as in the US. But again, violence and racism exist here as in any other part of the world.

Q.: Drive-in shows are popping up all over the country here, have you seen anything like that in your country?

Music and entertainment are two sectors which have been deeply affected by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown period as well as in this second wave. The saddest thing is that our Government seems not to care about this. Many activities have not been closed (museums, for example) but when talking about music, nobody seems to hear. It’s a real struggle and the main problem is that people tend to think that music, especially rock music or related music genres are not a form of art. They’re kind of “Children of a Lesser God” which is absolutely unacceptable. Honestly speaking, I really don’t like the idea of attending “Drive-In” concerts. I know that we should restart from somewhere but the idea of a gig that I have in mind has nothing to do with such an option.

Q.: With Billy Strings becoming immensely popular over the last few years, Bluegrass has become one of the most popular genres in the US. In your opinion what’s the most popular genre in Italy?

In Italy we don’t have anyone comparing to Billy Strings who is one of my favorite artists, especially for his punk attitude while playing such a traditional music genre. We are devastated with “trap” music and talent shows, which I think is a real pity because we have a long tradition of really good music here in Italy. We’ve had incredible songwriters, real poets as well as pioneers in prog music and electronic. Real visionaries. Unfortunately, talents are struggling to emerge every single day. And this is mainly because young generations do not think that music is something which has to be studied and deep-dived. They simply stay in their “comfort zone” because it’s easier. I’m not probably the most appropriate person to talk about Italian music because in my family we’ve never really listened to Italian music, except a few exceptions in prog music and some songwriters. I’ve grown up with American and British music references, then I have switched to a more global vision. There’s probably nothing more global than music today. I love the fusion of styles and genres. This is probably also the reason why I love jam bands like Dave Matthews Band so much.

Q.: How are the venues surviving in your area. 

Honestly speaking…I don’t know. They’re struggling but at the moment there’s nothing they can do. Government has recently shut down cinemas, theaters and all venues again. I really don’t know how people working in the entertainment business will be able to survive.

Q.: Who was the first artist you interviewed? Were you as nervous as I am right now for my first interview? 🙂

This question makes me think that there was already a connection to Wisconsin, even in my first interview because the first artist was Trapper Schoepp and he is from Milwaukee. It’s such a weird coincidence…I read the story of his song “On, Wisconsin” and I contacted him through Facebook Messenger. He was very kind and he accepted. I sent him my questions and he replied to them. I was the first one (and probably the only one) to interview him here in Italy. Most of my interviews are written. This means that I’m sending questions and the artists reply to them. I would love to have more in-person interviews but considering my target group of artists (all living abroad) and the pandemic is not that easy…Up to now, most of the artists I have asked to be interviewed have been very kind…maybe it’s because I’m Italian…just kidding ;o)

And yes, I’m always nervous. Before sending my questions, I do a lot of research because my intention is to show the human being behind the music and the lyrics. I’m not interested in asking technicalities about the songs but more in knowing the reasons why they chose to write those songs.

Q.: I absolutely LOVE Italian food, what is your favorite dish that I must try when I visit.

I’m Italian and I should love eating and good food, but I don’t. As I’m always saying: “I eat because I need to and that’s it”. However, I have a favorite dish which is “Eggplant Parmesan” (melanzane alla parmigiana). I won’t tell you how it’s made…you’ll have to find out! When you’ll come to Italy, you will find out that each region has its own particular recipes. I hope you like wine, because we have some of the most well known and appreciated wine producers in the whole world. Each dish has a specific wine. Italian people have a lot of fun in their kitchens. I’m such a bad cook. Let’s go back to music ;o)

Find out more about Kyle Hilker/Shatter Imagery:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShatterImagery/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/shatter_imagery/

All pictures included in Kyle Hilker’s interview courtesy of Kyle Hilker/Shatter Imagery

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