For the uninitiated, metalcore music is defined as a broad fusion of extreme metal and hardcore punk. Bands include two guitarists, a bassist and double-kick drums for instrumentals, and there often are two singers—one for melodic tones and another to scream or growl out lead lyrics.
Enter Versus Me, a five-piece metalcore band that has fast built a following far beyond its Janesville roots.
In about two years, the group has gone from performing at the Edgerton Teen Center to prepping for southern Wisconsin's largest hard rock music festival—WJJO's Sonic Boom. In between, there was a performance at the 2015 Vans Warped Tour stop in Milwaukee, and there are upcoming gigs at the Taste of Madison and the Skylight Theater in Minneapolis.
That might seem like intense exposure for a band whose live performance resume hovers south of double digits, but don't worry—these guys aren't new to the game.
“For most of us, this is like a second or third hurrah,” said Lee Milbrandt, the band's bassist and, at 36, its oldest member. “We all have experience doing this, and we've had decent success. Now we have more maturity and experience, and it's showing.”
Along with Milbrandt, Versus Me consists of Lee's younger brother, James Milbrandt, who sings lead vocals; Patrick Thompson, vocals and rhythm guitar; Clint Greendeer, lead guitar; and Dustin Helgestad, drums. The Milbrandts and Helgestad are Janesville natives, while Greendeer and Thompson hail from Wisconsin Dells and the state of Maryland, respectively.
“We all have played in other bands, but we've always known each other,” Lee Milbrandt said. “We all had something lacking in those other bands, so they just didn't work out. We all had our own ideas of a new direction we wanted to go with this band.”
That “new direction” involved adding a taste of pop to the band's musical base. The unique blend of Thompson's higher tones and James Milbrandt's gravelly growl has set Versus Me apart from many other acts in Rock County, which admittedly is no hotbed for metalcore.
“It's hard (to draw fans) in Janesville because you're limited in places that play your kind of music,” Lee Milbrandt said. “Cover bands and country have always gone over well in Janesville.”
Aside from a Sonic Boom pre-show at The Back Bar in Janesville, the band has focused its attention on the world outside its hometown. It hit paydirt in 2014 with its first song, (A)tension, and a video created for the song has recorded nearly 130,000 views on YouTube.
“The range of people who have liked the song is something we had hoped would work out,” Milbrandt said. “We heard there were 4-year-olds who know the words because their parents listened to it, and there are people in their 60s who say, 'It's not what I listen to, but it has catchy parts.'
“We've always hoped for diversity in our fan base.”
The band's credibility got a helpful boost when Craig Mabbitt, lead vocalist for the nationally recognized metalcore band Escape the Fate, agreed to appear in the video.
“He's a friend of ours, and our strategy was to get him in the video because people might check us out,” Milbrandt said. “Even if they don't know who we are, they know who he is.”
Mabbitt isn't the video's only recognizable character. The city of Janesville plays a prominent role and, if you look closely, you'll likely know some of the other actors.
“We wanted to have a part in making it (the video),” Milbrandt said. “We wrote out the storyline, did props and got the people and locations. It was a lot of work, but it was a more original video that way.”
In the video's opening scene, Thompson is walking up Janesville's River Street. He stoops to offer cash to a man sitting on the sidewalk, saves a girl on a cellphone from tripping over a curb and high-fives a group of friends outside Rock Valley Driver School. Later, Lee Milbrandt walks down the same street. When he reaches the man on the sidewalk, who now is holding a sub sandwich, he reaches down, picks up the sandwich and, to the man's surprise, promptly autographs it.
“Yeah, that's our dad (his and James')” Milbrandt said of the man on the sidewalk. “He was a musician himself, but he was more into the Eagles and bands like that. I think he's getting into it (metalcore) a lot more. He has two sons in it, and he loves that we're doing something he couldn't pursue further.”
The video for the band's second song, “An American Tale,” was a departure from the first. Aside from a vocal cameo by Janesville native Josh Napert, scenes of the band's hometown are replaced with faster tracking, computer-generated flyovers and cutaways, and lyrics spelled out in pulsating neon.
Released two months ago, the video has nearly 13,000 views on YouTube.
“I think we have some songs that will surprise people,” Milbrandt said. “People are used to us playing metal, but right now we are working on an acoustic version of 'An American Tale' that will diversify us even more.”
Milbrandt stands behind the metal and metalcore community, defending it against detractors who can't see past the growled-out lyrics and in-your-face shows.
“Sometimes metal gets stereotyped in a negative way,” he said. “People say it's too aggressive or there is some other misconception of how it really is. We wanted to have something that would make a good live show—the kind of stuff you remember when you leave.
“Our songs don't have swearing, so our shows are good for kids and adults,” he added. “And our songs are positive, not negative. We don't hate our parents or anything like that.”
For now, “(A)tension” and “An American Tale” are available only through iTunes and Google Music. Versus Me will introduce the acoustic version of “An American Tale” live on WJJO at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, and the song will be available online immediately afterward.
With WJJO increasing airplay of the band's songs and Sonic Boom just around the corner, demand might force a change in plans for the release.
“Being on the radio was something that has marked a big shift in momentum,” Milbrandt said. “Recently, our first song ('(A)tension') has been getting strong airplay. Having that on the radio has really been pushing us, and it's given us a lot of opportunities.
“(WJJO Program Director) Randy Hawke says the song has done well, and that he likes it himself. I like to think he saw us coming out of nowhere.”
The band plans to release its first CD later this fall.
“We're basically holding off a little. Our goal is to get on a label and have somebody else distribute,” Milbrandt said.
“We didn't want to release all the songs at once. That would be like after you open your Christmas presents, what's left?