Teenagers across America gather in bedrooms, garages and basements trying to learn the songs of the Foo Fighters, Fall Out Boy, and others in the hopes of writing the one song that defines them.

For the band Sulek, what started in 2005 as a group of teenage boys playing cover songs in a bedroom, has transformed into an “indie pop” brand that has surprised many in the southeastern Wisconsin music scene.Sulek, an indie-pop band from Wisconsin and Illinois, has surprised music fans in the Milwaukee area with its unique sound. Pictured are Sulek members, Chris Winberg, left to right, (drummer/song writer), Patrick Hoctor (singer/guitarist) and Ruthie Hoctor (singer/song writer). (Submitted photo by Danielle Burren)

In 2012 the band was nominated for “band of the year” by 88.9 RadioMilwaukee Music Awards and their album “Unbound At Last” (2012) was nominated for Best Album Artwork and Best Disc that We Missed awards.

Patrick Hoctor, guitarist and singer, one of the founding members, remembers the relaxed atmosphere of those early years.

“We didn’t take ourselves seriously at all,” he said.

Originally there were four members from Wheaton Warrenville South High School in Illinois, who played cover songs of Guster, The White Stripes and Modest Mouse.

Chris Winberg, drummer and songwriter, and another founding member, said, aside from the instruments they played in the school band, they didn’t know how to play anything else.

“The interesting thing about all of us, the primary instruments we play in the band,” Winberg said. “None of us had any lessons in those areas.”

Winberg lived a mile away from Hoctor and they ran cross-country together in high school. The other original members lived close at that time and they also played in the Hubble Middle School, Wheaton, Illinois, band.

The idea behind getting together to play music was just to have fun. They had no realistic dreams of touring around the world; they wanted to “keep it chill” and put their relationships with each other above the music business.

“I’d like to say it still is today a very similar vibe,” Hoctor, 27, said. “Just friends and family just getting together playing music for the fun of it.”

First live show but no name

Branching out of the basements and bedrooms, they got their first gig at a local coffee shop in Wheaton.

“It was the only place that we knew had live music,” Hoctor said. “We thought ‘we got to book a show there but we don’t have a name.’”

Scratching their heads to come up with a name, the bandmates looked to what they had in common.

“We were all in middle school band together,” Hoctor said, adding his first instrument was cello. “We all really, really loved the band director in middle school and his name is Mr. Sulek.”

And thus, Sulek was born.

From left to right: Chris Winberg (drummer/song writer), Patrick Hoctor (singer/guitarist) and Ruthie Hoctor (singer/song writer), comprise the band Sulek, who have had recent success with their last album, “Unbound At Last.” (Submitted photo by Danielle Burren)In that coffee shop in 2005, Winberg had to make some adjustments in order for them to even sound like a live band.

“When we started playing together, I didn’t own a drum set. We had a keyboard that has a drum setting,” Winberg said. “I played our first show amplified through an amplifier and played it through a piano keyboard on the drum setting.”

His parents were in the audience that day and decided to get him a drum set for his 18th birthday.

“In some ways I miss (the keyboard),” Winberg, 27, said. “It was such a random and unique way to do things.”

After high school, the band members went to college but stayed in touch. Hoctor studied architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the band got together to play “concerts.”

“We would hold concerts in the stairwell of the dorms,” Hoctor said.

They even went to places where they were guaranteed an audience, at least for a moment.

“We even did a little elevator concert one time,” Winberg said.

Winberg went to Marquette University and studied physical therapy and nursing.

A new bandmate

During those first years in college they added another member, Ruthie Cullen, singer and songwriter, who would later marry Hoctor and created the award-nominated “Unbound At Last”

“The first song that you sang on,” Hoctor said to Ruthie, who was part of this interview. “I first sang my part and the harmony part, and it wasn’t very good.”

Ruthie’s face said she agreed.

“So I tried again. I rerecorded it from the beginning,” Hoctor said. “I just sang the main part and (Ruthie) sang the harmony part and the song is infinitely better.”

Hoctor and Ruthie have found a harmony playing together.

“When we started singing, we would listen to each other,” she said. “We wouldn’t boss each other around.”

Born in Ireland, Ruthie, age 28, and her family came to Wisconsin when she was a child. Her father, Michael, is a deacon at St. Joseph Parish, Barron, in the Superior Diocese.

“I had a very rich Catholic upbringing that was very involved in social justice,” Ruthie said.

She also attended UWM, where she studied art and lived in the same dormitory as Hoctor. They had similar friends and a strong friendship before their romance began to bloom.

Ruthie admitted Hoctor was more the “pursuer” and won her over. Today, her role in the band is irreplaceable.

“Now she plays a critical role,” Hoctor said. “We can’t play a show without her. I can’t write songs without her anymore because she’s so infused in the band.”

Faith important in lyrics

The last two Sulek albums, “Unbound At Last” and “Birds in the Attic” (2011), were recorded in the UWM Newman Center, where the two spent much time together.

“I worked there as the liturgical musician,” Hoctor said. “I was playing music at all the Masses and the priest there (Fr. Michael Lightner), we were close, and he’s a really nice guy, and he loved Sulek.”

Spending all that time there got the band thinking it would be a good place to record.

“The acoustics in that place were really nice,” Ruthie said, adding it has a “warm sound.”

Ruthie said their Catholic grounding helped them create the music they wanted.

“We are the ones writing the songs so we carry with us our belief system, and everything that molded us,” Ruthie said. “However, we’ve never sat down and said, ‘Let’s write a song about Jesus,’ although I’d be curious to know what would happen if we tried to do that.”

Winberg, also Catholic, said the band isn’t “Christian rock” but there are deep meanings to his lyrics.

“When I write lyrics there’s definitely an element of faith and God in there,” Winberg said. “I’m always trying to find that silver lining that helps through things that aren’t always going well.”

The music they want to make, Hoctor said, is something they want to resonate with their audience.

“We take our faith pretty seriously,” he said. “Naturally, if we’re going to write lyrics that come from our hearts and our minds, of course it’s going to have Catholic values and beliefs.”

Major life changes affect the band

Hoctor and Ruthie got married in 2009 at Our Lady of Divine Providence, Milwaukee, and in 2010 they had their first child. As two of their three children watch, Patrick and Ruthie Hoctor play an acoustic song in their basement rehearsal area of their Grafton home, Dec. 20, 2014. (Catholic Herald myFaith photo by Ricardo Torres)

They’ve added two more children since then.

The growth of their family has changed the amount of time they have to work on albums.

“On the past two albums, ‘Birds in the Attic’ and ‘Unbound at Last,’ every one of those songs I imagined her singing on,” Hoctor said. “If she isn’t singing on them it’s simply because we didn’t have the time because we had kids.”

Having children has opened their eyes to different, deeper cavities of emotions.

“I feel like my heart has exploded with a new capacity of loving because of having children and even getting married,” Ruthie said. “If that is a fraction of what the divine love is, it’s so comforting to know he’s up there.”

The children have taken a central role in the Hoctors’ life, which has changed the process of making new music.

“The last demo we did, we sent the kids over to a friend’s house,” Hoctor said. “We had two hours without kids to bust out a demo.”

Today, Hoctor works as a project manager for Stone Cast Products and Ruthie is a stay-at-home mom who freelances as an artist.

In 2013, Winberg was married at Gesu, Milwaukee, and moved to Aurora, Illinois, where he is a physical therapist, which makes it difficult to get together to rehearse or play live.

The evolution of the indie-pop group has walked alongside each member of the band and it’s reflected in their music.

“The progression of Sulek has spanned a very interesting time,” Ruthie said. “We’ve got some awesome songs that have nothing to do with our faith.”

“Swamp Song,” off the first album “Songs from the Doctor’s Office” (2008), Ruthie said, is an example of an upbeat, fun song to play live with no real, deeper meaning.

“It’s all about this guy who gets attacked by an alligator and it’s a great song,” she said.

Hoctor sees a different meaning in the song.

“Even though it comes across as something silly and meaningless,” Hoctor said. “It feels much deeper.”

The chorus is:
Tell my family, tell my kin
I won’t be coming home again

Hoctor said at the time the song was written, band members were going off to different colleges and leaving home.

When it comes to making their music, it’s a process. Winberg and Ruthie primarily write the lyrics, Hoctor writes the music to accompany them. With each song, the band members collaborate to make sure it comes off in a way that makes everyone happy.

Winberg said it took him quite some time before he was writing songs that worked.

“Once I found the form (Hoctor) enjoyed and the lyrics that I wrote, it was like a spark was lit and that’s how ‘Birds in the Attic’ came about,” he said, adding the album was actually recorded in the attic of the Newman Center.

Praise comes

But growing up hasn’t stopped the band from making great music. Their latest album, “Unbound At Last,” was well received by the Shepherd Express which, in a July 2012 critique, described it as, “Breaking free from something in pursuit of freedom are not faceless phrases for Sulek,” and the now no-longer, A.V. Club Milwaukee wrote in 2012, “On its fourth album, ‘Unbound At Last,’ Milwaukee’s Sulek has expanded the diversity of its songwriting and sounds, soaring high with its dreamy atmospheric ditties and then crashing to Earth with the direct jolt of electric guitar.”

 “We spent far, far more time on that album than any others,” Hoctor said. “We really invested ourselves into that music and tried to make something that people couldn’t ignore.”

He felt the audience was missing the messages within the songs.

“It kind of felt that our past albums, no one really listened to them,” Hoctor said.

Ruthie jumped in, “That’s not true.”

Hoctor quickly clarified.

“In the first three albums, we put more into them than what people got out of them,” he said. “We tried to make something people couldn’t ignore.”

Ruthie understood and agreed.

The positive response was reinforcement for the work they’d been doing.

“We didn’t want it to go to our heads. We still want to keep it casual,” Hoctor said.

Sulek’s songs are filled messages of love, loss and hope, without directly addressing faith.

“We keep our lyrics vague enough —I don’t know if vague is the right word — that even people who are not of our faith enjoy our lyrics,” Hoctor said. “We believe that these Catholic values and beliefs are a universal truth … even bands that don’t tie themselves to Christianity sing about the same things as bands who do. Because we’re all in this together.”

It’s been over two years since “Unbound at Last,” and although there aren’t immediate plans for concerts, Sulek has written new material and hopes to put out new music soon.

“I don’t think we’ll ever stop,” Winberg said. “I have enough lyric material for another album, two albums probably.”

The creative process is always at work with Sulek.

“Chris just writes and writes,” Hoctor said. “He sends me stuff all the time.”

The music itch is starting to be felt in the couples’ homes.

“Patrick feels like he’s got an album ready to explode out of him,” Ruthie said.

For now, Sulek is what they’ve always been – a place where friends and family can gather to listen and play music in harmony.