Bannister Effect Tells Stories Through Music Around the Main Line

Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Unexpected Main Line bandmembers Eli Wenger and Joe Puleo find harmonious common ground with Bannister Effect.

Joe Puleo had written a novel—sort of. “I finished the manuscript, but it wasn’t what I wanted,” he says.

Puleo had written some poems, too. “They weren’t even poems,” he says. “I thought they might be lyrics.”

So he took them to Eli Wenger, a tenant in a building Puleo owned and an accomplished musician. In 2014, Wenger had some news for his friend: “We’re going to make an album.”

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Puleo didn’t know what that meant, much less entailed. So he stepped away from the process—for a while. Once his words and Wenger’s music began to coalesce, he stepped back in. Puleo went to rehearsals and watched Wenger and other musicians record. He even played the bongos for 15 seconds on one song, offering an opinion every so often about how everything sounded.

bannister effect
Joe Puleo (left) and Eli Wenger, members of Bannister Effect at Steel City Coffee House. Photo by Tessa Marie Images

The first poem Puleo wrote was about his divorce, and he worked from there. The result of this oddball collaboration is A Life I Knew, a collection of songs about divorce, new beginnings and a lot more, from a duo calling themselves Bannister Effect. “His bringing me poems was a blessing,” Wenger says. “His words started it, and I could make music. His lyrics inspired me.”

This past spring, Wenger and a five-piece band of local musicians played the songs live for the first time at Phoenixville’s Steel City Coffee House, which Wenger owned from 2010 to 2016. For him, the showcase was just another exciting step on a musical journey that began in the 1980s. As for Puleo, an entrepreneur, trainer and coach, he never imagined he’d be part of a band in any form. “There’s no money in this for me,” Puleo says. “I’m not looking for adulation.”

As a freshman in high school, Wenger bought a portable, four-track “recording studio,” supplementing it with a microphone from Radio Shack. The device allowed him to experiment with different instruments and record his band, the Influence, which mixed original music with ’80s punk covers. “I learned the song concept and how to build the structure of a song,” he says of his time working with and recording the band.

After graduating from high school in Downingtown in 1992, Wenger spent some time in Boston before returning to the area and building a recording studio in a Chester County farmhouse. In the early 2000s, he and his band, Los Halos, put out three critically well-received indie rock albums for Seattle’s Loveless label, two of which were laid down in his studio. “We had varying levels of success,” he reports. He also played in something of a one-man band, the Middle Wages, in which he used lyrics from another friend, Dave Foster, as the basis for orchestral pieces.

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When Wenger bought Steel City in 2009, it essentially took over his life for seven years—until he finally sold it and began working on his next project. It didn’t bother him that Puleo had no musical experience—he liked what he read.

“Joe would write, and I would turn it into a song,” Wenger says. “Maybe I’d remove some lyrics or add some lyrics. The narrator of the album is a combination of Joe and I. We’re speaking through experiences that are ours.”

Puleo’s experience began primarily on the wrestling mat. He graduated from Phoenixville High School in 1984. He spent a year at the College of William & Mary before transferring to Elizabethtown, where he swam, ran cross country and majored in English literature. He did some high school teaching and coaching—and a lot of reading (“50 novels a year,” he says)—before becoming a trainer and opening Haddonfield Running Company and later Philadelphia Running Company.

A multiple triathlon winner, Puleo continues to train elite athletes. He also spends a lot of time with a blended family that includes his new wife, Jen, six kids and “all kinds of animals”—dogs, chickens, a horse. He’s also carved out enough time to supply more lyrics for Bannister Effect. The project is named after the British runner Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. A Life I Knew begins with audio from an interview with Bannister, whose feat serves as a loose preamble for the album’s themes of resilience. “It begins with a divorce and tells the story of before and after it,” Wenger says. “We’re trying to wrap our heads around who we are. We have to move forward in a new and better way. As a listener, you have to put yourself into that state of mind and look at your own self.”

Wenger admits that the album isn’t the most accessible. It’s not a collection of pop confections or standard singer/songwriter fare—it requires significant investment from the listener. Both men are in good places now, so the album does touch on personal reconciliation. “It’s a balanced look at what it’s like to live a life responsible for one’s actions, so you can put yourself in position to learn and evolve,” Wenger says.

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Puleo reports that the pair has collaborated on more songs that could be released as an EP next year, proving the partnership has staying power. “We became close friends,” Puleo says. “We respect each other’s way of living.”

Related: Meet A.J. Croce, Singer/Songwriter and Former Chester County Resident

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