Evolution is a term used quite a bit in the music industry. Critics tend to focus on how a band’s sound changes from album to album and whether that change is one in the right direction. Sometimes bands like AC/DC or Oasis keep their fanbase happy by putting out the same record over and over again. But then you have your Radioheads or the Beatles who change their sound often, sometimes so much that they sound like entirely different bands. Going that latter route is a huge risk, and one that could potentially mean losing fans.
For Milo Greene, the move toward synth pop on their second album, Control, wasn’t a conscious decision as much as it was a product of the world around them. The L.A. quintet’s debut self titled record, full of harmonies and acoustic guitars, was recorded Bon Iver style, in a Northern California cabin in the wine country. After over two years of touring, the band went back to their home base and found a deeper appreciation of rhythms and grooves in their respective home recording studios. The end product sounds nothing like their first album, but after talking with Graham Fink, one of the four vocalists and multi-instrumentalists from Milo Greene, the two records are more similar than you’d originally think.
Steven: I know you do tons of interviews, so let’s start this one off differently: is there anything you’ve wanted to discuss that you’ve never been asked before?
Graham: [laughs] The rise of the Los Angeles Clippers, coming from the squalors of misery for many decades?
Steven: I’m a Warriors fan! We can’t talk about this!
Graham: I had a feeling when you said you were from the Bay Area…
Steven: So are all of you guys big sports fans?
Graham: Yeah definitely. I’m a huge basketball fan, a huge Clippers fan. I think we all have a lot of allegiances and love for various sports. It keeps us sane on the road, being engaged in sports. When we have four hours down at a bar in the middle of nowhere and there’s a game on, it helps pass the time and keeps us kicking.
Steven: What else keeps you guys busy on the road?
Graham: This is the first show on this leg, so the answer I give you today is probably going to be different than the one I give you 25 days from now. It’s been really fun thus far. We definitely all try to make each other laugh a lot. If you’re laughing together, it’s harder to want to kill each other, which is a staple in our family dynamic. We do all kinds of things; at every gas station, we go out and do little workouts that involve jumping jacks and different things. We try to find strangers to say hello to and give our demos to. We make friends with fans in the middle of nowhere too. I think it’s important to step back and realize how lucky we are to make music for a living that allows us to travel and tour. We all try to have fun with each other to try to keep that spirit alive. That gets harder and harder the more consecutive weeks you’re living out of a van, but I’ll tell you what, we’re all feeling pretty good about it right now.
Steven: Since you guys all congregated in LA about five years ago, Los Angeles has changed a lot. Have you seen this change in Los Angeles as a city?
Graham: Definitely. I grew up on the West side, but I’ve been in Echo Park and Silverlake for just over ten years now. It’s definitely been growing a lot and the music scene and community has always been a standby in Los Angeles but has been built up in those neighborhoods. It’s been interesting to go through my 20s there, my formative years. I moved there when I was 19 in college and now I’m 29 and have been a touring musician. It’s cool to have that as a home base and there’s nowhere I’d rather get to go home to when we finish up tours.
Steven: With your sound changing dramatically between albums, how much do you attribute to what’s going on around you in LA?
Graham: It definitely plays a role. Our first record, we wrote and recorded in very rural and forest-like landscapes. We were in cabins and the wine country. Our mentality was to get away from it all and immerse ourselves in writing, demoing and recording. Our new record was definitely written, recorded, and experienced in Los Angeles. We had the opportunity to live our own individual lives in our own beds and our own homes, which was probably more important than Los Angeles specifically. LA inevitably played a lot because this was the first album that was actually written entirely in LA, where we all met.
Steven: All of Milo Greene went to college (USC and UC Irvine). How do those experiences translate to your life as a musician?
Graham: I was in another band before this one and in college, I took every other semester off while on tour. Building on that, I went to school for psychology, which is incredibly helpful being in a touring band [laughs].
Steven: Most bands prior to the release of their second, third or fourth album play smaller venues to road test the new material to see what works and what doesn’t. Instead of playing small venues in the lead up to Control, you opened for Bombay Bicycle Club at huge venues like Terminal 5. What was it like playing these songs for the first time in front of such large audiences before the record even came out?
Graham: It was great for us. We toured for two years, if not more, off the first album and had played those songs over and over again for a very long time and got comfortable with them. When you write a new album, especially an album like this that we wrote and recorded largely in studios with veterans without the live component, sometimes there can be a disconnect with how that’s going to translate to the live forum. Getting the Bombay Bicycle Club tour, who are such a great band with great music loving fans, was an amazing experience for us to step on stage fresh and perform new material. We performed almost entirely songs from the new album with a couple others woven in. The fact that we got such a positive response with people dancing and resonating with these new songs was definitely a testament and reminder to us that we were onto something. We started building a new fanbase and also introducing our existing fanbase to the new sound.
Steven: So what prompted the change between the first and second album? What was going on in your minds when you decided to move away from folk and towards synth pop?
Graham: It was never a conscious decision in the way you described. There was also never a conscious decision when we started this band to start a folk band. We were a bunch of singers that got to know each other in living rooms with an acoustic guitar, which ended up being the sound of the first record. The sound of the second record is very much us having home studios and time apart to write and that built this new soundscape off one another. Thematically, a lot of us went through significant break ups and live experiences. We had to figure out what it meant to permanently be on tour in our 20s and not be able to make those relationships work that we held out hope for and this record has a lot to do with that. We were all writers independently as a collective and at the core of it all, we were looking at rhythm and grooves more this time, whereas on the last record, that was more of an afterthought.
Steven: Since Control is rooted in heartbreak and failed relationships, how hard was it to be this personal on the record and play these songs live? Do these memories ever come back while you’re playing them?
Graham: I think it’s really cathartic to play these songs live. For me, especially “When It’s Done,” which is really personal for me, I feel like I’m still releasing some of that energy every time I play it live. I think that’s great for me and additionally, for the live performance aspect of the band. Having that sincere fire every time we think of that song makes our performance that much better. I don’t think it’s ever been hard to play the new material, but letting that tension out on a nightly basis is a real release for us and is healthy and positive.
Steven: How do the songs from each album combine into a succinct live set?
Graham: I think we’ve found the right ebb and flow from the old to the new songs. I think our live show displays the fact that two albums, despite having their differences, are not so far away from one another. We’re a band of singers that like to sing with one another and this band is the cross-section of our tastes. I think we’ll continue to build and grow into a third record, but building different soundscapes into something that feels cohesive is something we’ll always be interested in doing.
Steven: I’m always curious about what bands I listen to are listening to themselves. Straight out of High Fidelity, what are your top five favorite records of all time?
Graham: Oh man, I love High Fidelity, but I’ll never have an answer to that question. Anyways…
- Hunky Dory – David Bowie
Oh man I hate this question…
- Remain in Light – The Talking Heads
Honestly, I want to say Nebraska, but…
- Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen
- Hard Promises – Tom Petty
- Sgt. Pepper – The Beatles
Milo Greene plays back to back New York shows starting tonight (March 12th) and Friday (March 13th) at the Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg respectively. They then hit DC’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel on Sunday March 15th. Their synth-filled second album, Control, is out now via Atlantic.