Reason To Smile

The Gufs' Celebrate 30 Years

BY JOSHUA M. MILLER   |   PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

Right place, right time.

That’s how Dejan Kralj, bassist for The Gufs, described the beloved Milwaukee band’s reunion earlier this year. The full band hadn’t played a show since 2011, and its members — brothers Goran and Dejan Kralj, plus Morgan Dawley and Scott Schwebel — had largely been doing their own thing. During a rare get-together, someone brought up the fact that 2018 marked the band’s 30th anniversary, and it resonated. “Everyone had a bit of nostalgia and missed playing together,” says Dejan.

And so, the band will celebrate three decades as a band with a pair of concerts Dec. 29 and 30 at the Pabst Theater.

“That was the catalyst behind it — to do the shows not just for the fans but for us too,” says Dejan. “To celebrate the fact that, more or less, we’ve been around the past 30 years and still feel we have music to be heard.”

“Right place, right time” also applies to how the band came together in the late ’80s. Goran and Schwebel met as roommates at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and discovered they had a common interest in creating music. Goran asked Dejan, who was still in high school in Indiana, to join them. A bit later, the trio recruited Dawley, a Marquette student and Milwaukee native.

“We never had any big plans other than playing some shows and having some fun,” says Dejan. “The whole goal of the band was to get a show at The Unicorn or The Boardwalk, which later became The Globe. To play all these little clubs. It was a great music scene; there was live music five or six nights a week, if not more. It was really cool to be part of that.”

While the band gained national acclaim when they recorded a pair of albums for Atlantic Records in the ’90s, releasing fan-favorite singles such as “Smile” and “Sunday Driver,” they never forgot their Milwaukee roots. In fact, they celebrated them on their final studio album, 2006’s “A Different Sea,” which features string arrangements by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Dejan refers to it as “our first truly Milwaukee album, where we wrote and recorded in
the city.

“Milwaukee is where we grew up and grew into becoming musicians,” Dejan continues. “Goran and Scott were inspired by what they went out and saw on a regular basis, in terms of all the bands. Paul Cebar, Pat McCurdy, Big Sky, Wild Kingdom — all these bands were around in the late ’80s when we got started. Milwaukee and the music scene was the catalyst for [our] getting together and starting a band.”

Years later, the band has influenced a new generation of Milwaukee musicians, including bands such as Camden, Decibully, Eric & Magill and Fever Marlene.

“Scott Starr, the guitar player for Fever Marlene, said the first concert he went to was a Gufs show,” Dejan says. “His parents took him to a Gufs show at Summerfest when he was a kid, and, years later, these guys were starting their own band and doing really well. We played shows with Fever Marlene between 2007 and 2010.”

“It’s cool to see you have that kind of impact, because we looked up to the Violent Femmes and BoDeans as far as, ‘Wow, these guys are from Milwaukee and they’re doing something special,’” Dejan continues, “It definitely makes you look back and smile a bit to think that we had a positive impact.”

And may once again.

“We’ve been seeing each other more in the last six months than we have in the last six years,” Dejan says. “We’re knocking a lot of rust off. A lot of times we’d try a song that maybe wasn’t all too common in our set list and we’d have to sit there and be like, ‘Someone get out your iPod and play that song.’ And we’ll sit and listen and relearn it. For the most part, we were pleasantly surprised how seamless it was picking up after all that time.

“We definitely rekindled some of the spark that we lost awhile back when we went to our own little corners of the world,” Dejan concludes. “Getting back together, we’ve realized how good of friends we are and what an incredible bond we share. And, given the fact that we still enjoy playing together, that maybe this isn’t over. Does that mean more shows? Maybe new music? Those are
all possibilities.” mke

SOUNDS BITES: DEJAN KRALJ
ON THE GUFS' EVOLUTION

ON MATURING AS MUSICIANS
“We’ve grown and become more mature songwriters. Our songwriting and lyrics, our arrangements and musicality overall is more mature than when we started. ... I think the turning point for us was when we did our second album for Atlantic [Records], ‘Holiday from You.’ We recorded up in Toronto with Arnold Lanni as producer, and at that point we really came into our own and learned how to write a really good song.”

ON THEIR SIGNATURE SOUND
“People would still be able to hear a Gufs song today and recognize it as us. Goran’s vocals are very unique. That’s been the consistent element throughout all these years.”

ON THEIR LOYAL FAN BASE
“For a lot of people that spent high school or college years in Wisconsin in the ’90s, they remember the first time they went to a concert and saw us. Or how some of the music we wrote back then helped them get through a hard time. ‘Holiday from You’ was an inner-reflective album that came out during a weird time for the band. The band was going through some difficult times. Members were going through difficult times. Songs like ‘Last Goodbye’ or ‘Happily Ever After,’ these are all songs that are personal to them. I’ve heard a dozen or more times from people that said ‘For a Ride’ was the song they played at their wedding. I’ve heard from fans that met at one of the shows and got married. One of my closest friends who grew up with Scott met his wife at a show, and they’re still together 25 years later.”

ON THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY SHOWS
“When we started formulating ideas for the show, we didn’t know if this would be our last show or not. One thing we wanted to do was to let it go out the way it started, which is basically four guys on the stage alone. We looked at the idea of guest appearances and stuff, but we wanted to be true to the history of the band [and] where we started. Which is playing the Unicorn and Boardwalk with the four of us vying for a room of people. We want to go back to the ideal simplicity of those types of shows.”

ON "NEW" MATERIAL
“‘Heard it Before’ was written and recorded between 2000 and 2001,  after we left Atlantic Records. We still had a publishing deal with EMI, so they were looking to get us another record deal and set us up with a handful of producers and writers. We ended up working with Dan Wilson of Semisonic up at his studio in Minneapolis. EMI and management shopped it around, but nothing came of it. Looking at what to do for the show, we realized we had a handful of songs that were never released. As far as nostalgia, it would be fun to throw something out there that people hadn’t heard before.”

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