jay kundrath interviews jersey rock ‘n’ roll institution The Milwaukees …
‘Rath On Record #3
Artist: The Milwaukees
Genre: rock/post-classic rock/Americana-core
Homebase: New Jersey
Players: Dylan Clark — vocals, guitars, songs; Jeff Nordstedt — lead guitar, vocals; Donovan Cain — bass; Pat Fusco — drums
The Milwaukees — while not a household name — are something of a rock ‘n’ roll institution in their home state of New Jersey. Led by singer/guitarist Dylan Clark, the band released its debut album, Sunset And Sunrise, back at the end of the last millennium in 1998. But in 2001, with the dawn of the new century, they dropped their second album and stunned the entire scene. Missile Command — still hailed as a classic by many fans — played like a greatest hits album, featuring one jaw-dropping modern rock track after another, each one polished to a radio-ready, razor-sharp sheen by producer Wayne Dorell. On the heavy uptempo numbers and the haunting slower ones, Clark’s vocals deliver a powerful emotional quality that communicates and captivates. Perhaps for this reason, critics at the time tagged the album as “emo” — the trendy genre of the day. But it was rock in all its glory, connecting with the listener in a way that most records never do. The songs told a story. Each story was pulled from Clark’s life, striking, honest and real.
Though The Milwaukees did not become international superstars in 2001 (as many of us suspected they would), the band carried on with growing intensity, adding a new drummer, Brian Stoor, and a second guitarist, Jeff Nordstedt. The following year, they released The Bland Comfort Of Life With Lloyd Justin, a six-track nail bomb of an EP that detonated with less polish than its predecessor but made up for it in raw power and adrenaline. Careening forward on the strength of songs like “Planes Above Us” and “Sea Of Neptune,” the band sounded intense, dangerous and slightly unhinged. In other words, very fucking cool.
But this change in direction would lead to a full metamorphosis on 2003’s This Is A Stickup. Produced by John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Jawbox), this record harnessed their new sound into something brooding, beautiful and strange. From the terrifying cover art, to the odd time signatures, all the way to the top of Clark’s lungs (clearly audible on lead track “Angel With A Knife”), this was clearly a new band. The tensions that fueled this sound, however, would soon prove too unstable to last. And in the four years following Stickup, internal struggles found The Milwakees with a brand new rhythm section, leaving Clark as the sole remaining original member.
This latest incarnation of the band — Clark, Nordstedt, bassist Donovan Cain and drummer Pat Fusco — spent some time developing a new chemistry and ultimately a new identity for The Milwaukees. They returned to the studio and released American Anthems Vol. 1 to wide critical acclaim in 2007, All Music Guide calling it “a rock masterpiece for a new generation.” At once an evolution and a welcome return to form, Clark delivered a winning song cycle rooted in classic rock history, but also hearkening to the great promise of the Missile Command era. Now, the band has returned to the studio for American Anthems Vol. 2 with producer Wayne Dorell.
I had an exclusive advance listen to some of the recordings — perhaps the band’s best yet — and later sat down with the charming and outspoken Clark at the famed Tick Tock Diner in Clinton, N.J., for an interview and a Florentine omelet. I walked away with with an audio cassette bursting with Clark’s very candid thoughts on a range of topics, including the future of the band, his appreciation for Lady Gaga and the album he wishes he never made.
What follows are several choice selections from our lengthy interview.
What’s In a Name?
ROR: Besides the many sonic differences, The Milwaukees of 2010 are — aside from yourself — a completely different band of players than The Milwaukees of 1998. Did you ever consider changing the name?
Dylan Clark: Yeah, very much so. As a matter of fact, after Brian and Dave [Post, original bassist] left, and Chris [Spanninga, second bassist] and Pat were in the band, it just started totally changing. And I just said, “No. 1: I don’t feel nostalgic towards our old stuff, and I want to let that be as it is.” And I really wanted to change the name. … I didn’t think it was The Milwaukees at all, but at some point, Jeff kinda convinced me that as long as I’m singing and writing the songs, it’s The Milwaukees.
The Only Record I Can Still Listen To
ROR: When I think of Missile Command, I think the lyrics come off as very honest and real. Were you kind of purging all of the truest sentiments of that time in your life?
DC: I don’t know, a lot of the songs at that time were just — [pauses] — and i’m trying to go through them all in my head — [pauses]. Y’know it’s a funny thing having written songs when you were 18 and written songs when you were in your 30’s. I wrote all those songs when I was 21, and I can never be 21 again. So I don’t feel the same way about certain things, and I can’t ever recreate that. At the time, I think I was just trying to do the best I could.
… For me, I know where I wrote all those songs. I know where I was and all that. So it’s different for me. But definitely looking back on it, it is the only record we ever did that I can still listen to. The other ones I can’t even listen to. It makes me kind of ill. But that record, I can listen to it. I like it. Because I think for some reason — I don’t know why — all these things just sorta came together. Wayne [Dorell] was doing his first records, we were doing our first records, and we were all really excited about it. Wayne — more than anything — he made our songs good It was me, Scott [Pohlman, original drummer] and Dave [Post] who made the record. But really, it was me and Wayne. He deserves as much credit as I do on that.
In Hindsight …
ROR: When you look back on your discography, you have some very distinct albums, each with its own cult following. Are you proud of each album, or would you rather new fans just begin with American Anthems Vol. 1, as it really is the first album that features the current lineup?
DC: I wish that the first album that we did that not many people have, [1998’s] Sunset And Sunrise, was recorded with somebody else. We were going to do it with [Steve] Evetts over a weekend at Tracks East. And we should’ve. And instead we went to record with some clown who was going to charge us way less. And I really think the songs are good. They just needed a little bit of help. Like, I needed a little help vocally. But I think it could’ve been the pre-album to Missile Command because I really think some of the songs on there are strong. They’re all written — the Sunset And Sunrise songs and the Missile Command songs — within the same year. I don’t have any regrets about Missile Command. I would give that to anybody.
The EP after Missile Command [The Bland Comfort Of Life With Lloyd Justin] is fine for me. It is what it is. It just kinda represented the kinda out-of-control phase we were in. And the Stickup thing, I wish we didn’t make. We were falling apart. I wish I could’ve been smart enough to just walk away at that time and start a new band and not go through that. I wish Wayne [Dorell] could’ve just got a hold of the songs and been like, “Dude, there’s no songs here. You got two songs. You need to go write eight more.” … But to answer your question, I don’t mind if people listen to Missile Command, but other than that, [pauses] I kinda wish it was just Missile Command and then American Anthems. That’s how I hear it.
Almost Like Therapy
ROR: Through the years and many changes, you’ve continuously emerged as a serious songwriter determined to press on despite all challenges. Tell me what kept you going then and what keeps you going now.
DC: I think what kept me going in the past is that I wanted to be a rock star. And then I got to a certain point after I got together with my wife and everything just slowed down a little bit and I really — I don’t want to say “gave up” on that stuff — but I realized that this is something now that I just do. I’ve done it since I was 13. Since I picked up a guitar, I always wrote songs It’s something that’s quite easy for me and it’s really enjoyable. And for me, it’s almost like therapy, without actually having to go.
There’s a lot of things that happen in my life — in everyone’s life — and I feel like I have an outlet for it. … And we remained a band, because at the end of the day we don’t take ourselves that seriously. Y’know, the music may sound serious. We may present ourselves as serious on stage — and all that bravado and all that stuff. But there have been many times when all of us just said, “Who really fuckin’ cares?” Like, we’re a band that says if we play a show here, great. If we don’t, great.
A Secret, Shady Life
ROR: You’re now married with a toddler at home. How does that affect your creative process?
DC: It affects it for sure because I’m a guy who needs to be very much alone to write songs. … It’s a very personal thing to me, and I’m not meaning to exclude, but my wife has said to me, “I feel like you have a secret life. It’s almost as if you’re cheating on me in some kinda way. You have this whole shady life where I hear you have these songs but I’ve never heard you play them once. Never been in the house when you were writing a song. You’ve never played me a song. You never asked me what I thought. You just sort of have this life that’s very secret.” … And I try to explain to her that there’s a bit of embarrassment there when you get down to the core of it.
All the bravado, all the clothes and all the talk on the microphone — that’s all just makeup for insecurity that you have for the fact that people might not like something I’m doing. So you put up these walls and characters to protect yourself from negative feedback about something that you do.
So it’s affected me in the way that I don’t have the free time anymore. When I come home from work, my wife is home, taking care of the baby. I don’t have any time to write songs. And there’s been a couple of times where she’s said, “I’m going out.” And the baby will be sleeping, and I run over and grab the guitar. Before we had the baby and she was working late in the fashion industry, I had all day. That’s why we had so many songs for American Anthems: because every day I could just write songs. Some days, it wouldn’t work, of course. But some days, I could bang out three songs. That’s how it’s affecting it. I don’t know if it’s affecting my writing, though.
ROR: It seems to me that you’ve carved out a comfortable spot for The Milwaukees in your life where you’re not killing yourself, but you’ve still got that outlet.
DC: It’s like in the movie Beetlejuice, when Michael Keaton says, “I’m not doin’ two shows a night anymore, babe.” I’m not doing it anymore. And I made it clear to the guys a couple years ago now that I’m not into it. … If you tell me we can open for Train in Pittsburgh, I’ll drive out. I don’t care what band it is. I’ll open for Katy Perry. But we’re not gonna be doing that.
It beats you down. And there’s a lot of good bands out there that aren’t bands anymore because they burnt themselves out on the road. I really give all of us that did it a lot of credit I would never take it away The good times and the bonding with the guys. It’s awesome. But it’s not glamorous. And the funny thing is that my friends still think it must’ve been! “Oh, you guys have been to Europe twice. That must’ve been great.” Yeah, it’s like touring the States, but just a little bit better. The difference was in Europe, for every three shows there was one good one, where in the States it was every 10. And so that was a little bit better. But we still played Stoke [Stoke-on-Trent, U.K.]. And it was freezing cold, and we slept on a gymnasium floor. It must’ve been 30 degrees, and we had no blankets. No nothing. And we were literally piling merch shirts on top of us to stay warm. It was the worst night of my life. I don’t ever want that back. But I enjoy telling the story now. But it was the worst. Those were the nights that you lie there and say, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this?”
What’s The Rush?
ROR: The quality of the new material is really exciting. Some of your best work, in my opinion. Is the band excited to release it?
DC: Yeah. I really like the actual recordings, too. I like the songs, but until recently I always felt like we needed a couple more songs. And we just recorded two more songs. I was like, “I don’t want to drag this out forever, guys, but sometimes you gotta be patient.” And one thing I’ve learned is — we’re always rushing stuff for no reason — but what’s the rush? We’re not on a deadline. We’re not Kings Of Leon. Let’s just wait until I have the two — the best two of the whole bunch. … So we did. So, we’re really excited about the songs and also the recordings.
The Fame Monster
ROR: What American sounds have influenced this latest batch of material? Is it mostly classic material or are there any newer artists who are inspiring you?
DC: Um … It’s funny. “The Way Yt Always Goes” in a weird way was influenced by — not so much the music but just — [pauses] Lady Gaga music? I don’t particularly think it’s the greatest music. But I was listening to her songs one day, and I was thinking, “Now why do people like this shit so much?”
I was kinda just picking it apart as people in bands do sometimes. And like when every song is kinda like — [starts tapping his spoon on the table to a steady 4/4 beat]. Just put a decent melody over it. And so “The Way It Always Goes” was written with just a capo on an acoustic guitar. It was a country-sounding song. That’s the way it went. A finger-picking song. And I had the song for a long time. And I thought, “Well, what if I just changed this?” So I brought it to the guys one day, and I was like, “Pat, just do this one thing.” [Taps his spoon again] It’s not really his thing. And I just changed the chords around. I mean, the changes are the same. Everything’s the same, but instead of being in half-time, it’s in full-time. [Taps again] So that sort of idea influenced me.
Old Navy, The Gap And The Milwaukees
ROR: With bands like The Gaslight Anthem creating a buzz with their Springsteen-influenced sounds, do you think a larger audience may be primed for a formal introduction to The Milwaukees?
DC: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always thought about our sound: Bands like us are either going to be a popular band — or a Foo Fighters-type band — or you’re not going anywhere. Because there’s no middle ground for bands that are putting out poppier music. The Gaslight Anthem — I’ve heard their stuff. I like it. I don’t own the record, but I’ve heard the singles. The kid’s a very good songwriter. The band’s a little ham-fisted to me. Sounds like the band’s sorta punk. I think that there’s more things to come from that guy that are going to be way better.
But also they’re a brand. They’re a thing. Even as simple as the dude has a sleeve [tattoo]. The dude looks like Mike Ness, or whatever. We don’t really have much of that. So right way — for them — there’s something to latch onto if you’re one of those people. Y’know what I mean? With us, it’s like, I almost feel like people that shop at Old Navy and the Gap would like our music more than people who are hip, or even have tattoos. Like, people who have 9-to-5 jobs, who used to love Pearl Jam and now are looking for a new band to like.
… But I gotta be honest with you, I don’t even know if I hope for that anymore. Like, I like my life the way it is. And I would have to take a shot at it. But I think it would be shitty for it to happen to me right now, because there’s a lot of things going on in my life, and I don’t want to be on the road. I don’t want to be away from my wife and kid. There’s no scenario where you just take off and get to take your wife and kid on the road, and you make enough money to live.
…. I would love to one day write for Katy Perry. That would be my dream job. ‘d love to write for young bands that are coming up that need songs. For pop stars. Or get the kinda gig that the chick from 4 Non Blondes [Linda Perry] got, writing all the Pink stuff. That’s the gig that I want. I don’t want the Mick Jagger gig. That’s not something I’m into. That being said, if people start listening to our music and start buying our records, well … [pauses] I’ll decide at that point if I hate it or not. I’m not gonna turn down the opportunity, but … [pauses] Ah, who knows. I always thought that we were just as good as any band on the radio. But that’s me. Everybody thinks their band is as good as any band on the radio.
ROR: One last question: Will the world ever hear a Dylan Clark solo album? Or would that be sort of redundant at this point?
DC: Not at all. I have songs specifically set aside for this thing I wanna do that’s very much an acoustic album with piano. Sounds more like a Jackson Browne thing than anything else. That’s sorta what I wanna do. I will do it eventually. It’s something that interests me a lot. And before all these tracks came together for the new record, it interested me more than doing anything with The Milwaukees. It was kinda like I was done with it, and I wanted to do my own thing. Because I think there could be something good in there. But I’m proud of the fact that the band has stayed together for so long. Because it’s not easy. And we’ve always gotten along. In every form. [pauses] Except for Scott [Pohlman]. [laughs]