Dead Milkmen songwriter Joe Jack Talcum comes to town
By Gary Spencer
I wasn’t a popular kid in school. Being a disaffected teenage youth growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I gravitated to punk rock and any related music that came off like a soundtrack for outsiders. The Dead Milkmen were such a band for me with their loose musical approach and their hilariously sarcastic lyrics emanating with a youthful, rebellious attitude I could definitely relate to. Best known for the surprise hit “Punk Rock Girl,” the Dead Milkmen were kind of a toned-down punk band with a quaint pop sensibility.
The Dead Milkmen broke up in the mid-1990s, and it’s been many years since I’ve dusted off my copies of Big Lizard in My Backyard or Beelzebubba. So when I caught wind that Milkmen guitarist and songwriter Joe Jack Talcum was coming to town to play at South Park Tavern, it brought back memories of cranking up those albums on my Walkman coming home from school. In the years since the demise of the Dead Milkmen, Talcum has been keeping busy with several bands as well as an active solo career. Talcum’s songwriting ability has developed over the years with a deeper maturity level compared to his Milkmen days, but fear not old school fans – he still knows when to inject the humor to keep things familiar.
I recently did a quick Q&A session with Talcum to get his reflections on his musical past and to find out what he’s been up to in recent years.
Please explain the genesis of The Dead Milkmen.
When I was in high school, I recorded songs on cassette for an “imaginary” band called the Dead Milkmen for which I also wrote a fan club newsletter which I mimeographed at the local library. We played our first real show in July of 1983. [Joe Jack Talcum]
Give me your take on the similarities and differences between your solo material versus your songs for Dead Milkmen.
For a song to be a Dead Milkmen song, the entire band has to like it in order to work on it. Some of my solo songs, initially, were merely songs I wrote that did not fit as Dead Milkmen songs at the time. I felt, in some sense, back in the ‘80s I could experiment a little more both musically and lyrically with my solo material. The songs did not necessarily need to be funny, though humor played a role in all of my home-recorded solo “albums.”
The lyrics have to mean something to me, personally, for the song to work. I tend to like to use humor as a way to add an element of surprise or oddness to a song, at least for the first time a listener hears it. But it has to be a lyric that won’t get too stale too fast. The punch line can’t be the only thing making the song interesting. [JJT]
How did your solo career come about?
In 2004 I was asked to open a show in Philly for singer-songwriter Micah Blue Smaldone. I’d never performed solo before. I said yes. The show was a success and later that year I ended up going on a small tour with Micah in New England. I did not really go out of my way seeking shows, but I also did not turn down any requests for shows and before I knew it, I was playing at least one show every month in and around Philadelphia. Some other touring acts asked me to tour with them and that’s how my solo act spread outside the Philly area. [JJT]
Tell me about your new Joe Jack Talcum & the Powders album.
I did a full-band tour in the spring of 2009 with Samuel Locke-Ward’s band backing me. I called them the Powders. They were actually Sam’s band with Sam on organ, minus his guitar players. In Omaha, the guys from Grotto Records saw us and asked if they could release a split with Sam on one side and me on the other. We recorded it the following October. [JJT]
You are slated to do soundtrack work for a feature film called Detonator …
The only thing I can say right now is that I started writing themes for it and that it should be finished by fall. It’s a low budget punk rock indie movie being shot right now in Philly. [JJT]
Describe your live show.
I will be playing solo acoustic with no backing band. If people have requests I try to honor them if I can, but hopefully not in a way that will derail the show. I suspect that some of the less vociferous folks at my shows might be interested in hearing my solo songs — which many people don’t know to request. I devote slightly more than half of the set to Dead Milkmen. [JJT]
Assume there are people reading this who aren’t familiar with your Dead Milkmen past. Why should they come see you this coming Sunday?
You are going to have a good time. [JJT]
Joe Jack Talcum will perform live at South Park Tavern on Sunday, July 31. The show is all ages with a cover of $5. For more information, visit
Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer