By Bryn Johnson
It’s the day after Mark Soriano and Gabby Powell had just lost their lead guitarist. The two are driving around in Soriano’s car in search for a new band name. The street names, house shapes, mannerisms of strangers on the streets do nothing to light a spark. Then Soriano digs into his knowledge of the Filipino language and shoots out “Ako.” (The word translates to “I” or “me.”)
It catches an ear. Turns a head. Makes a foot tap. Sort of like their music.
Soriano, Powell and their guitarist Joey Scott are the three members who make up Ako, an indie/alternative rock band who knows how to carry just as great of a conversation with people off of the stage as the energy they have when they’re on it. They’ll perform all of their originals with Powell bouncing around the stage, and continue on to cover Paramore’s “Hard Times” or even Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” to get you singing along.
Soriano has been playing drums since he was 14. His parents bought him his first drum set, and he sat down to learn every track on Green Day’s American Idiot album. Powell first joined a band in high school. The members of that group helped her realize that a band is only as great as the relationship you have with each of the members. They didn’t make it past graduation, but her former bandmate introduced her to Soriano in January of 2016, and that’s where this all started.
The relationship that Soriano and Powell have is a genuine one, a rare friendship that can withstand comfortable silence, or, for musicians, repetitious noise. They can sit across from each other playing the same chord progression for hours, until someone comes up with a way to build on that idea, until it becomes a song on their album.
It took them a while to find their third member.
“We’ve had three different guitar players since, so we must be just intolerable,” says Powell.
Joey Scott turned down Berklee School of Music’s headache of paper work and uncooperative financial aid services to come to the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee to play jazz guitar. Powell and Soriano, Marquette University students, had just said yes to a showcase gig that Marquette’s radio station was putting on- then realized that they had no guitar player. This is the part of the story where Scott swoops in.
Well, actually, it wasn’t much of a swoop on his end. More like a group chat message interrupting late night phone surfing.
“I was just awake looking at memes or something,” says Scott. “I got a message from Mark and I thought, ‘Oh, I better take this before the other two guitar players in the chat see this. They don’t need the experience, I do.’”
He sat down with his Les Paul and all of the recordings that Soriano sent him and learned the whole first album that Ako had put out.
The album Scott learned is called And You. This was the first time that either of them were in a studio recording music, and they both came out experiencing so much more than they thought.
“The way a microphone that is recording you absorbs your sound is completely different than playing anywhere else – it’s a learning process,” says Soriano.
Soriano, Powell and their former guitarist had recorded the 11-track LP at Tanner-Monagle Studios in downtown Milwaukee in just six days. They laid down live recording tracks of vocals, guitar and drums within the first three and left the last three for mixing and editing.
Funding an album out of your own pocket is worth it, but also such a time crunch. They would love to go back to do it all over again, especially with Scott, but without having to rush it the second time around.
The members of Ako want to play just to play, regardless of the venue – and that’s a mindset that pays off. Like most local bands just starting to receive recognition, Ako doesn’t have a manager making a schedule of dates of gigs and rehearsals. Part of doing it all yourself isn’t just funding your music, but also emailing your life away until someone wants you to play on their stage.
“The whole essence of being in a band is just following up with emails,” says Powell. “Constantly emailing places and begging for a spot, and then following up and begging, and then following up and begging again. And then eventually somebody will say yes.”
Powell collects a list of places they would love to play and sends out what seems to be 200 emails in a month’s time. Fifty percent, they never get a response back; 25 percent, they get a response saying no, or try again later. For the remaining quarter, it takes three emails to get venues to respond at all.
The group has a lot on their plate: they all practice individually and find time to practice all together. They’re also all part time-employees and full-time students. Powell studies biochemistry, Soriano is receiving a degree in English education and Scott has finished up his first year in the UWM jazz guitar performance program. Between all of that, they somehow found a way to take on the competition for Marquette Radio’s Battle of the Bands as well.
And boy, they’re glad they did.
The show was hosted in Marquette University’s Union Sports Annex on February 23rd. They played against seven other bands – artists with whom Ako had performed in the past, and others friendships waiting to happen. The location could hold about 250 people for the Battle, and about that many people cheered Ako on before, during and after their set. And even louder when they heard their name announced as the winners.
The winning package was more than a boost to the ego. They’ve been awarded a live performance and interview opportunity at 88.9 Radio Milwaukee’s 414 Live. The trio also played a show with Tigernite at Tonic Tavern in Bay View on March 14th.
They got to be the opening performance for Milwaukee’s own Vinyl Theater at Marquette Radio’s Spring Concert. They performed again on the same stage, with the same alternative/indie rock energy, only this time with new and exciting recognition.
“You play all these basement parties for your friends, and while it’s a great time, you never get any read off of it,” says Soriano. “It’s cool to receive some validation.”
Winning the Battle of the Bands contest has opened up doors for building connections and relationships with music enthusiasts. Ako has been interviewed by the online magazine OnMilwaukee.com (nothing’s been published yet) and was featured in Allen Halas’ Milwaukee music guide blog on Breaking And Entering.
“Most importantly, we’re just meeting a lot of people,” says Powell. “I’ve made a lot of new friends who are emerged in the music world in Milwaukee since winning.”
For Ako, the recognition and features that people are asking of them is just another reason to smile in the morning. They want to share their music with anyone who will listen, and especially those who will wait to chat after they come off the stage.
“If there’s anything we can offer people, it’s a good conversation,” said Soriano.
They’ve been through a lot together and the adventure has only just begun- especially with the talk of the three living together this upcoming summer. They’re confident it’s a good step, though.
“If we live together now, we just expedited about 10 years from now us having a horrible breakup,” Powell explains. “I think it’s a great idea, because I’ll then know within six months of living with them. All right, I wouldn’t have wasted five years of my life to then have an Oasis-like breakup”
For being 19, 20, and 21 years old, they have a lot under their belt already and a lot to look forward to. They have 15 new songs in the back of their minds, waiting to be polished up to make the cut for their second album, which they hope to start working on in June.
They have been rewarded involvement with more local bands like DATRF, The Red Flags at Landmark Lanes on May 13th, Sunny Dosas and Laska at The Up and Under on June 2nd and performing at festivals such as Pride Fest on Sunday, June 11th on the Miller Light Stage.
If you don’t catch them at one of those shows, there will surely be plenty more performances from Ako in the distant future to redeem yourself.