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Madison, Wisconsin, United States | SELF

Madison, Wisconsin, United States | SELF
Band Folk Pop


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"Pioneer trio blazes new trail for Madison music frontier"

It’s been a great while since women cinched their calico skirts, men loaded the covered wagons and families headed west on the Oregon Trail. In this electronic age, local band Pioneer rekindles the frontier spirit in listeners with expressive melodies that celebrate a rustic simplicity.

Members Kenny Monroe, Jacqueline Kursel and Roger Barts seek to remain indefinable for listeners in terms of both genre and sound. Pressed to categorize their music, members of Pioneer classify themselves as an indie band and describe their sound as “vaguely folk-rock with some pop.” Despite its detail, such a description cannot adequately capture the refreshing tunes this talented trio from Madison conjures with their bows, picks and sticks.

“My roommate always says that we need to find our niche and define our sound down to something more particular, but I always tell him that I think he’s insane. My favorite part about this band is that we don’t stick within a genre,” Monroe said.

The group’s lyrical portfolio includes an array of songs from slow ballads to reeling pop melodies. This varied sound has enabled Pioneer to play a diverse body of shows appearing alongside acts ranging from rappers to rock bands to fellow folk artists.

“All our songs definitely don’t sound the same, which is a complaint that I have about some bands,” Monroe said. “I feel like it’s easy to get pigeon-holed, and keep writing the same kinds of songs, but I try hard to hop around.”

When Pioneer performs they avoid presenting listeners with a homogeneous set and instead use musical variety to engage audience members.

“It’s really common to see a show and have that mood set the whole night,” Barts said. “I think it’s kind of refreshing to hop around a little bit and keep everyone’s energy going all over the place.”

While a homestead in the west represented the ultimate goal for pioneers in the 19th century, Pioneer strives to broaden the popular conception of pop music. Performances including the songs “So Far Away,” “I Like You” and “Good for One Another” bring the group closer to this goal with each string plucked and lyric intoned.

“I’m tempted to call everything pop, because I try to write songs that are catchy and stick in people’s heads,” Monroe said. “But, people don’t so much identify with pop, because there’s some kind of a negative connotation surrounding it which hopefully we’ll help to put a more positive spin on.”

In addition to expanding the definition of pop, Monroe’s acoustic guitar and Barts’ drums coupled with Kursel’s cello allows Pioneer the opportunity to create music with darker overtones.

“I was trained as a classical cellist since the 4th grade, but in the past year I’ve started playing blues, folk and pop,” Kursel said. “I draw on all these different styles in Pioneer.”

Artists ranging from Bright Eyes to more obscure Wisconsin talent Sleeping in the Aviary have impacted Pioneer’s evolving repertoire. Growing up, Monroe’s proximity to the Michigan folk scene also exerted great influence on Pioneer’s sound.

“I grew up on the Wisconsin side of the Wisconsin-Upper Michigan border. I spent a lot of time in Upper Michigan, especially musically. Everyone I played music with early on was from Upper Michigan. Eventually these relationships connected me with people from the Lower Michigan folk scene,” Monroe said. “I hope to have Pioneer up there for the first time sometime soon.”

Pioneer’s sound relies on tempo variation and interweaving guitar and cello melodies bolstered by percussion. A healthy dose of reverb and guitar distortion also helps the trio to blend instrumentation and create a bigger sound.

“We don’t have a lot of instruments to fill space with,” Kursel added. “So we try to make the most out of that.”

It seems paradoxical that Pioneer could grow sound with such maturity in a live performance, but by the middle of their set, it seems as if even the audience’s breath follows the pace of their melodies.

“I think one of the most important things is being really dynamic. We have really, really quiet parts where nothing’s going on and really loud messy parts…all within one song, sometimes really close together,” Monroe said.

Increasingly, the group prefers to feature songs that incorporate personal experiences with similar emotional undertones.

Since the band’s inception, audiences have embraced the musical renderings of Pioneer and clamor to witness the magnetic connection they build through haunting instrumentation and compelling vocals.

As the group grows in popularity, they hope to continue to define the Madison music scene by promoting house shows that feature regional talent.

“We’re all fans and support local music,” Barts said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of house shows, which I think easily are the best things to play, because they’re really intimate,” Monroe said. “Bands have been contacting us a lot more now than in the past, because we’ve put on house shows. Our goal is to treat people really well when they come through, feed them, give them a really warm reception of a house show with local acts, and then visit them in the future.”

Pioneer has found a welcome reception at other atypical venues in Madison including Project Lodge, an art gallery and community space, where they recently played with indie artist Paleo.

Pioneer has only recently begun to appreciate their large impact on the Madison music scene after headlining the Rock County Folk Symposium. Besides an impressive regional folk line-up including Julian Lynch, the event boasted a collective corn harvest and roast on property by the Rock River near Janesville.

“It was a night when [everything] clicked and we were like, “Oh wow, we sound really good together,” Monroe said.

“Before that, some things didn’t quite click, but that night everything went really well, and I feel like it’s been going really well since then,” Kursel added.

With every show Pioneer continues to amass a dedicated following who would gladly ford rivers and mend axel wheels to listen to this UW talent. In an age of electronica and trip-hop, Pioneer invites listeners to appreciate the subtleties of folk instrumentation as a means to represent the unique personal experiences that bind listeners together. While a horse drawn wagon and foodstuffs are not necessary for this journey, a little plaid never hurt.

For videos and photos of Pioneer, visit local Madison music blog Urban Agrarian at For news and up-to-date concert listings for Pioneer, visit them on Facebook or at - The Badger Herald

"Midwestern Wilderness and Folk Symposiums"

Ending the musical portion of the evening was Pioneer. Cello and guitar diverted the foliage-blanketed trail of folk into Americana. Thoroughly talented, the conjunction of cello lends a new calm dynamic to songs akin to riding the rails. Instead of a violinist, Jacqueline Kursel’s cello added log cabin strength to Kenny Monroe’s vocals. The rambunctious soundscape concluded the symposium, letting the crickets and the crackling fire take back the starlit spotlight. - In The Black Box

"Kenny Monroe on tour! Interview!"

I always grew up looking around at my friends and thinking – Where are they gonna be in 3 years?

I never would have expected the honest response to be “touring with Paleo“, but looking back it should have been obvious. At least, if not with Paleo, someone of similar caliber.

I met Kenny Monroe at a summer camp when I was 15 years old. With a proper educational background in music at an early age it should come as no surprise to see Kenny crafting beautiful, catchy guitar arrangements with much more to them than what is on the surface. In his songs he has found an incredible balance between intricate fingerpicked guitar parts and his haunting, raw voice.

Kenny went on to form local Iron Mountain band Welcome to the Woods – comprised of himself on lead vocals/guitar, Johnny Haefs on Drums, Caitlin Spera on bass/harmonies, Dan Mitchell with even more harmonies, and often accompanied by friends Dan Haefs and Kate Pote of This is Deer Country. WTTW found themselves quickly accepted into the Upper Peninsula music scene, playing shows in Houghton and Marquette when all of the members were still in high school. After recording their debut ep twenty(one) the group disbanded, primarily due to the distance of now spread out members, and Kenny found himself starting over in a new place.

Since then Kenny has definitely kept busy performing in groups around the Madison area and working on his own music. I sent him some questions – check out what he had to say.

After releasing twenty(one) can you describe to us what your musical endeavors have been like? Have you seen a direction you’ve gone musically since then?

Since releasing that album, I’ve played with a couple different groups in Madison. I’ve played bass in an orchestral indie pop band called Crane Your Swan Neck for a couple years now, and last fall I started playing bass in a 70s-style power pop band called Blackwell Beauties. As far as my own music, I really haven’t done anything until just recently.

I feel like the new material is a lot different from the songs that people know from twenty(one), but in a good way. I’ve changed a lot since writing that album, and the music definitely reflects that.

Looking back at the release of twenty(one) do you feel differently about the songs now than you did when you wrote them?

I’m still really proud of that album. I’ve grown out of some of the songs, but I still think the album really captured that part of my life. Not to mention, I learned a lot and had a lot of fun recording it. I still play “Second Life” regularly, and “New Line in the Sand,” “Sing Michigan,” and “The Country Song” occasionally, but “Sleeping Beauty” and “By Default” are in indefinite retirement.

How did you end up finding yourself touring with Paleo? What are you most excited about for that?

It was pretty random and surprising. I had opened for David (Paleo) last time he played Madison with a band I play bass in called Crane Your Swan Neck, but as far as I know, David didn’t know I even had a solo project. I’m really not sure how he found me and I haven’t asked him yet, but I’m glad he did. He is such an incredible songwriter – one of the best of our generation – and I’m excited and deeply honored to be playing with him. And of course, I can’t wait to bring him to the U.P.

How has moving to Madison affected your life, musically and otherwise?

At first, the move to Madison was devastating musically. It was really difficult for me to leave Upper Michigan because I felt like I was really getting somewhere musically, and I felt like a true part of the scene. It took me a while (two years) to accept that I wasn’t a part of the Michigan scene anymore. Lately, though, I’ve come to terms with my split from the Michigan scene and I’ve realized that Madison has a lot to offer. It seems like lately, more and more people are starting to care about creating a vibrant music scene. I’ve seen some of the best shows of my life in Madison lately and met some really passionate people. We even have a new music blog that’s been doing some great things called Urban Agrarian.

What/who are your biggest inspirations (musical and otherwise)?

Early on, Neil Young and Conor Oberst were really influential. In late high school I was introduced to the Michigan folk scene, and artists like Matt Jones, Chris Bathgate, and Frontier Ruckus – but especially Matt – had a huge impact on me. Seeing Matt Jones play for the first time (at Keweenawesomefest) completely changed my life. More recently, I’ve been heavily influenced by Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse and Elliot Kozel of Sleeping in the Aviary.

Outside of musical inspiration, when I write, I usually become obsessed with a single idea or concept that shapes everything I create for a period of time. Twenty(one) was all based around the “eternal return” – the idea that everything repeats itself. Just recently, though, I finally laid that concept to rest, and lately I’ve been basing a lot of my writing around “summer.” A lot of songs, like “Labor Day,” which got put on the Future Sailor Something Striking compilation, center around specific summer days or events. At the most basic, the idea is that summer is the time when things change, when you fuck up, and when you start over.

When can we expect another release of your original music in some form?

It’s hard to say. I have a lot of new songs in the works, but I’m not sure when they’ll be ready to record. Stay on the lookout. Hopefully sometime this winter.

Catch Kenny Monroe and Paleo on tour at one of these locations -

Jun. 28 – Eau Claire, WI @ Infinitea Teahouse w/ Feathe – free, 7:00pm

Jun. 29 – Madison, WI @ Project Lodge w/ Dovekins, Austin Hays – $6, 7:00pm

Jun. 30 – Sheboygan, WI @ The Weather Center w/ Cedarwell – free, 7:00pm

July 1 – Houghton, MI @ Bridge House w/ This is Deer Country, The Tallest Buildings – free, 9:00pm

July 2 – Marquette, MI @ 213 N 3rd St w/ tba (lots of Marquette bands) – free, 9:00pm - Mostly Midwest

"Graveyard Review: Welcome to the Woods"

If you haven’t heard, our Graveyard Reviews are going to be a monthly feature where we give you some brief thoughts on a hard to find, or unavailable, album that we think you should hear. All the albums in the Graveyard Reviews will be available to download in their entirety for free! Simply download the zip file at the bottom of the article.

As I’ve said before, growing up in Iron Mountain did not give many opportunities for a local music scene to get involved in. For me, the local music scene was the high school jazz, marching, and concert bands. The amount of local high school band correspondance provided a meeting place for young, eager musicians who wanted to pursue their own arrangements and music styles. During my four years of high school band geeking I had a front-row seat watching Welcome to the Woods, a folk-rock group helmed by Kenny Monroe, quickly grow to fruition – and as fast as they came, they were gone.

After meeting Johnny Haefs (drums) and Caitlin Spera (bass/vocals), Kenny had his core members – and they wasted no time getting down to business. Booking local shows shortly after they started practicing together had people talking about Welcome to the Woods – even if their first performances were rough around the edges. As time went on, Kenny moved to Madison for school – but not before recording an E.P. at Thrashin’ Vamp Studios. With one last full band show at Bridgehouse in the fall of 2008, Welcome to the Woods took the stage after Frontier Ruckus and had no problems keeping the energy going.

twenty(one), the 7 track E.P. from Welcome to the Woods, is an album that hasn’t left my van’s CD library since I purchased it. The album seems a little hurried at times, but is by all means an accurate representation of the bands upbeat, folk-rock sound.

The album is defined by Kenny’s raw vocals, which give an honest feeling to the stories told in twenty(one), and his intricate finger picked guitar. Other members and friends add to the sound without ever convoluting. The beautiful harmonies provided by Caitlin Spera, Kate Pote, and Dan Mitchell inflate the power behind Kenny’s voice, and the musical accompaniments from Dan Haefs and Katrina Coates, all behind Johnny Haefs’ percussive prowess, take Kenny’s guitar parts and turn them into full musical arrangements.

“I’ve got a closed casket, you’ve got a million more” chants the band at the end of the opening track The Country Song, the bands response to past and current political affairs. Despite being the albums strongest song, it benefits by placing it first on the tracklisting by coming full circle at the end with a rag-time piano Country Song Reprise.

What is everyone doing now? Dan and Kate, as most of you know, are keeping busy with This is Deer Country, and have a new album dropping before the end of the year. Dan Mitchell is playing solo shows down in Madison. Cait Spera is playing in Eve’s Attic and frequently updating her art blog. Johnny Haefs is pursuing a career in music but (to my knowledge) is currently not playing out with any groups. - Mostly Midwest

"Kenny Monroe Shoot 6.9.10"

Here are some photos of our friend and local Madison folk musician, Kenny Monroe shot on a particularly summerish evening down by the lake.

more shots from that evening here - Urban Agrarian

"A UW House Show"

After splitting from the Terrace, we headed over to my place- acquiring a couple musicians along the way, t0 set up for Urban Agrarian’s first house show featuring Juniper Tar, Strand of Oaks, Myles Coyne and Jack Tell, Austin Hays, and Kenny Monroe. The music started around 11:3o in my kitchen with Kenny Monroe. Per usual, his indie love songs wooed even the sweatiest of crowds. The highlight of his set was the world debut of his new song about summer. The ending lyrics to the effect of a raspy “and it’s so fucking humid outside…” gained a hoot from the wilting yet respectful and dedicated audience. - Urban Agrarian

"Kenny Monroe takes it to the streets"

Late one Friday night earlier this summer, Peter Eaton and I set out with Kenny Monroe of Pioneer to film his strangely appropriate “Summertime” somewhere in the streets of Madison. The torn-up block of Gilman street seemed appropriate, and despite drunk biddies and bored cops hassling us, we got a solid take of the song. - Urban Agrarian

"UA Showcase: Myles Coyne, Feathe, Austin Hays, Pioneer"

Pioneer takes the acoustic-folk stylings of Kenny Monroe, who we know and love, and adds a band made up of Jacqueline Kursel on cello and Roger Barts on drums. Having seen Kenny perform what feels like countless times, whether it be in Spencer’s living room, in my kitchen, on the railroad tracks, or at previous shows, I was curious to see how his songs would change with the addition of more instruments. The simple answer is– good–except for a few issues with levels (which proceeded to cause trouble throughout the night). With a bit more practice performing together as a band, I think Pioneer will be just what Madison needs as a solid midwestern folk band. - Urban Agrarian

"One Big House Show 8.28.10"

The Lineup:

1. maggie shafer/the donner party/dan mitchell
2. porcelain grin/austin hays/pioneer
3. tiny murders/the blessed broke/julian lynch

That’s a whole lot of music to cram into an evening, and a living room (hence a good deal of spill-over onto the roof). Nine mostly midwest bands of genres ranging from acoustic-f0lk to psychedelic pop gathered and brought friends to Madeline Elledge (from The Donner Party) and Jacqueline Kursel’s (from Pioneer) east side apartment on August 28th for the biggest house show lineup all summer.

Here are some photos from the event: - Urban Agrarian

"Pioneers on State St 9.17.10"

Another night, another Pioneer atypical-venue show. On Friday, Kenny Monroe and Jacqueline Kursel of Pioneer preformed a set at a crowded apartment off of State St. Though usually an at-least three-person band, it was nice to hear a set of acoustic cello and guitar duets. While we only stayed for Pioneer, Brett Newski and Palmer Shah preformed later in the evening. - Urban Agrarian

"The First Basement Show 10.22.10"

Next up was Pioneer, whose regular playing around Madison this fall has resulted in a comfortable yet fresh live show whenever I see them play. They’ve really perfected their sound, though the lovely acoustics of The Basement surely didn’t hurt the combination of guitar, voice and cello. Kenny Monroe’s ability to come up with interesting and catchy riffs that fit into compelling song structures is matched by Jacque Kursel’s consist ability to come up with cello parts that accentuate the riffs and fill out the song. Below is their newest addition to their live set, “I Don’t Have Time Now”. - Urban Agrarian

"Wisconsin Folk at the Gates of Heaven"

A folk show in Madison wouldn’t be complete without a set by Pioneer. Roger Barts was back with Kenny and Jackie on the drums, which added an extra layer to their lovely cello and acoustic guitar set up. Kenny’s warm voice filled up the the synagogue and was amplified by Jackie’s beautiful cello part. As we’ve probably said in the past, these guys get better and better each time they play. - Urban Agrarian


"twenty(one)" - EP - 2009 - under band name "welcome to the woods" - future sailor records

"urban agrarian demos" - unreleased



pioneer started officially on a mid-summer day at fair trade coffeehouse in madison, wisconsin, but actually began long before. kenny (guitar, vocals) had been playing shows around the midwest for several years, whether alone or with a band. during the summer of 2010, after a streak of inactivity, kenny began playing solo again in and around madison. in june of 2010, he was asked on tour with paleo and met jacqueline - it was a good june. this was the turning point for what would become pioneer. after the tour, jacqueline and kenny began playing, and shortly thereafter added roger, kenny's former roommate and good friend, on drums. the chemistry was immediate, and kenny's songs took on a new identity. the name pioneer was chosen. since, many shows have been played and many new songs written. whether at an art gallery, an attic, a living room, a basement, a bar, or a theater, pioneer have proven themselves as an important new player in the wisconsin music scene. pioneer is heavily influenced by midwestern artists like paleo, frontier ruckus, matt jones, sleeping in the aviary, icarus himself, as well as national artists like neil young, conor oberst, isaac brock, and wilco. pioneer is an acoustic folk band with pop sensibility. the songs are dynamic and touch on a wide variety of genres and influences. pioneer proudly supports and promotes local music and DIY art spaces.