Feature ·

Ex-Beulah frontman living the solo life

 

I
first heard Beulah in 1999 when the band opened for Gomez at
Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club. I was immediately and permanently struck
by a sound style so clearly singular but distantly familiar: clean,
half-melancholy pop, with exactly measured amounts of horns and keys.
Lyrically
and sonically, Beulah always managed a scrappy style of honesty, a rare
quality that's attracted a fan base that's growing to this day.
The band broke up in 2003 from that old brew of burn out, infighting and knowing (or assuming) your course has been run.

 

Except for A Good Band Is Easy to Kill,
a documentary released last year about Beulah's 2003 tour, we haven't
heard much from the members since their band's final release, Yoko,
but there's word of an impending solo album from former frontman Miles
Kurosky. I got to talk to Kurosky over the phone recently as he was
sitting down to dinner and Oprah in his San Francisco
apartment. We chatted mostly about his future recording plans, but we
also talked about Beulah's legacy and his recovery from multiple
shoulder surgeries that were brought on by several issues that had
nagged at him for ten years (no badass motorcycle-crash story
unfortunately). After some small talk, he got the interview started
with a question of his own:


Miles Kurosky: The first question I have is, Does anybody really care what I'm up to?

 

[more:]

I really think so. When you broke up, especially after how good Yoko was, it left a lot of people wanting more of Beulah.

Fair enough. I'll take your word for it.

 

Well, I hope people are interested -- then they might read the interview.

[Laughs]
There you go. I've not been interviewed in quite a while, actually.
Somebody at Spin contacted me recently, but I didn't want to do the
interview. I think it was about Elephant 6 mostly.

 

How do you feel about being attached with that scene? I don't think you really sound like most of those bands.

Well,
we are mostly associated with it because we put out the only official
full-length on Elephant 6. I don't think we sound like a lot of them
either, but it was good for a while.

 

I know you had a couple of surgeries on your shoulder. How are you doing?

Well,
my first inclination is to say that it's been a nightmare, but I think
that might sound a bit melodramatic. Oddly enough I've grown accustomed
to the pain and, although frustrating at times, I've also come to terms
with the fact that my arm may never be the same again. It would be nice
to reach into a cupboard to get a glass, maybe do the dishes, or help
my girlfriend carry the groceries. That said, all I can really do is
continue with my physical therapy and be grateful that it's not worse. ... I mean, it's only an arm. A few years ago my father broke his neck
when he crashed through the windshield of his car, so I'm careful not
to whine too much. ... I'd like to think I'm doing alright but then
again, I'm well medicated. Actually, I just watched Born into Brothels and Murderball, so I'm feeling pretty blessed right now.

 

I watched those recently as well. Really good stuff.

Yeah, I read some reviews about some people who don't like Born Into Brothels.
And it's so weird because most people want a movie made how they want
it. And it's always the liberal intelligentsia. They are always so,
"What we should really be talking about is the WTO and America and why
we fucked everything up." And you're like, "Really? It's just a story
about some kids taking pictures." Everybody has their own fucking
agenda, and I just thought it was a sweet movie.

 

Did those movies help put things into perspective a little?

When
you're fucked up and you're hurt, either mentally or physically, it's
easy to feel sorry for yourself. And you have to always see something
worse to snap you out of it, to make you not feel so bad. Because it is
a bummer, you go for a year and you can't play guitar, and that's what
I've been doing for the last ten years.

 

When do you think you will be able to play guitar again?

I'm
not sure, but I'm hoping for April or May. When I was four months
post-op after my first surgery, I would stand the guitar on the couch
like an upright bass and tap the strings with my fingers.
Unfortunately, that experiment was interrupted by a second surgery and
a return to the sling. I did try to play the guitar last week, but I
had to stop because I kept getting a sharp pain right over one of the
incisions. I've been having problems with a couple of my screws,
staples, sutures getting caught on my tendons when I move my arm.
Hopefully I'll grow some scar tissue over them so it won't hurt so much.

 

You've been done with Beulah for a while now. Has nostalgia set in at all?

No,
not really. I mean, I've been guilty of sentimental drunkenness and
trading war stories with friends in other bands, but that's about it. I
have no problem with reminiscing, but I don't really long for the past. ... I'm not big on looking back. I don't sit and listen to Beulah
records. Somebody the other day asked me if I could play a song, and I
don't even remember the chords. It's something I made, but it's not
something that I think about a lot. I don't know if I have space in my
brain for it.

 

Do you stay in touch with the rest of the band?

I
do, mostly through belated e-mails, infrequent lunch dates, and
babysitting. Also, Bill [Swan, Beulah co-founder] just invited me over
to his new house in Santa Clara to watch the Super Bowl. Unfortunately,
I'm not sure I'm gonna be able to make it because I might fly down to
L.A. to watch it with my dad. My family is from Pittsburgh, ex-steel
workers, and we all bleed a little black and gold. Needless to say,
Super Bowl Sunday will be like Christmas, Easter and Secretary's Day
all wrapped up in one.

 

What have you been doing since the band broke up?

Besides
being hurt and getting cut open every six months, not much. After
Beulah broke up I had to really decompress actually. I didn't give two
shits about music or being in a band. It just didn't interest me on any
level. And, in fact, I really didn't have any interest in making music
again. It just seemed like I had done it, and what's the point?

 

What got you out of that?

Well,
the weird thing is that, it's what I do. So the songs just started
coming and then that was it. They just came and, voila, they keep
coming.

 

So you are working on a new record. How is that going?

In
a lot of ways the injury has been really serendipitous in that it's
given me time to think about it a lot. I think sometimes when people
quit bands or breakup bands and then go solo, they jump into it too
quickly. I've also noticed [that a lot of newly solo artists] will
either go do something entirely off the mark -- like they will make a
techno album -- or they will go the other way and take out all the
instruments and make it an acoustic-y, sort of roots-y record. And I
don't think I will do it that way. I just figured I would pretend it's
the fifth Beulah record in that all Beulah records sounded different.
All I know is to trust my instincts, and if my instinct happens to be
to do something kind of really weird and funky and not-so-Beulah-like,
then I'm probably doing the wrong thing ... I write pop songs and I
think I should keep going with that natural progression. All I know is
that the songs so far right now are all pretty good.

 

Bill Swan wrote on the Beulah Web site that you were working out some of the material a cappella. Is that true?

It's
so funny. People have also written about that, too ... where they think
I'm actually going to make an a capella record. That's not the case;
it's just that when you can't play guitar ... If
I write a melody, I'm like, "Dah, dah dah dum, dah dah dah dah dum."
I've written like three songs like that, then Pat Abernathy -- who
played in Beulah -- he comes over and I sing it to him and he figures
out the chords for me. I can play rudimentary piano, and I'll try to
figure out the chords that way. Just as long as I can remember it and
get it down and get it on a Dictaphone. I've written the songs that
way; I certainly won't record them that way.

 

How many have you written that way?

Three at least and I'm working on a fourth.

 

And how many songs do you think will be on the record?

I
think ten. ... I might do a cover; I'm not sure. Probably somebody
really obscure -- when I say obscure, I mean like a friend of mine,
nobody huge.

 

So is this gonna be a solo thing. Are you calling it Miles Kurosky?

Probably not. I don't like the idea of just using my name. I have no idea. Do you have any good band names?

 

Um, no, actually. [Had I been swifter I could have offered up a few awful suggestions: Miles to Go, the Longest Mile.]

They
are hard to come by, huh? Most band names are kinda garbage anyway.
When you read Prefix or Pitchfork or whatever, it's surprising that
bands get away with such bad names. You just get used to them after a
while.

 

Are you going to have set band members?

No.
The one thing I've learned from Beulah is I would probably just have a
band name and do what my friend John Vanderslice does: have different
people to play for different things. That's just the way to go.

 

You know when you tour your band will be on the bill as "Whatever the band name is (featuring Miles Kurosky of Beulah)."

I
know. I don't like that either. Well, that's if I ever go on tour
again. Right now I say no. It all depends on where my head's at -- it
doesn't sound appealing to me right now. I did plenty of it. I would
like to go to Europe for free again. That's always fun.

 

Will anyone else from Beulah be involved on the album?

Danny
[Sullivan] who used to play with Beulah, he's going to play on some
drums, and Eli [Crews] will help out, he was the bass player. ... Pat
Abernathy, he played keyboards, will play on it, and I think Pat Noel
will help out some. And even Steve LaFolette -- who used to be the bass
player from years ago -- he will help out too on keyboards and
everything. And then it's just a slew of other people who weren't
Beulah. The only one from Beulah who probably won't be showing up is
Swany, Bill Swan.

 

Why isn't he involved?

I
don't know. He wrote me four messages about it, like e-mails. Not mean
in any regard. I think what it is -- I can only guess even after
reading four e-mails -- is that he played second fiddle for a good
eight years, and I don't think he is excited or anxious to reprise that
role. I think he just wants to do his own thing and not go down the
road again, which is totally understandable. But he will write me notes
every once in a while saying, Hey, I remember you playing that song a
long time ago; that would sound good with an open G chord or something
like that. It's not that he's not for it. For him he is just trying to
make a mental break with the thing. I mean, why would he want to play
second fiddle to me again? But, again, it's kind of fortunate in some
ways, because less trumpet means more oboe and tuba and bassoon. But he
might still; it's too early to tell. It all depends on the day and how
bored he is anyway.

 

On The Coast is Never Clear (2001) and Yoko (2003) your
lyrics started to come across differently. You exposed yourself a lot
with those lyrics, kind of exposing men in general in the process. It
stood out because most indie-rockers are afraid to show any kind of
masculinity when highlighting their faults. Do you agree with that?

Yeah.
It was confessional and it was honest, and it was poetic and esoteric
-- maybe, but only to a point. Well, it was maybe more poetic. I wasn't
veiling the words or the emotions. ... well I wasn't veiling the emotions
with a lot of words. Yoko, especially -- that one was really straightforward.

 

Did you get all of that out? Is the stuff you are writing now about similar themes?

No, that was then. I don't know what I'm going to write about yet.

 

So you don't have any lyrics down?

I
have lots, but I don't know where they are headed yet. That will have
to be a surprise. Half the time I wrote Beulah lyrics, like, the week
before I sang them. I like the idea of being under pressure. For me it
just brings out the urgency and makes me try harder.

 

What do you think of the A Good Band is Easy to Kill documentary?

Well,
I think it's kind of funny. It's like having a home video of your
wedding. It's not something I'm going to sit around and watch everyday,
but I'll be happy that I have it thirty years from now. ... There were
times I didn't like the angle in that it was all very discouraging and
being in the band was tough. The fact is we sold out most places we
played -- most of the places we played were quite big. Even when he
showed the hotels we were staying at, it was like the bad hotels. I
remember calling him and asking him, "Can you make it at least look
like we were somewhat successful, for Christ's sake. People are just
gonna think that we never did anything." And within the world of indie
rock we actually did pretty well. ... There were certain things that I
was a little wary about, like when I said "fuck Bob Dylan." I knew that
people would take that so seriously, even though Bob Dylan is obviously
a hero of mine. Kids have written the Web site and said they were upset ... . The funny thing is that I was only reacting to the fact that we've
made Bob Dylan and people like him into sacred cows. And the fact is,
yeah, he's fucking Bob Dylan, but that shouldn't be it. If Bob Dylan
releases forty minutes of flatulence, are we supposed to be excited by
that?

 

Or if he does a Victoria's Secret ad.

Yeah.
It's very frustrating for any artist to be dismissed or their art to be
dismissed without even an argument: "Well, it's Bob Dylan. Your breakup
record can't be as good as his." I just thought I was honest on the
record, and I figured that should count for something and that
shouldn't be dismissed so easily. I did say that I would've allowed a
scene of me snorting coke off a dead corpse just because it would have
made for provocative viewing.

 

Right about the time you broke up a lot of bands started cashing in. How do you feel about this new reality?

It
is true that the world has changed for indie rock, remarkably so. When
a band like Arcade Fire is up for a Grammy, the world has gone a little
cuckoo -- in a good way, mind you, I think it's wonderful. The
marketability of indie-rock has reached an all-time high. It's
remarkable -- it's almost baffling. When Beulah was starting up, a lot
of these things that are happening for these bands today weren't even
feasible. They weren't plausible. The biggest you could get would be
Pavement or Yo La Tengo or something. So bands are putting out their
first records and they are just blowing up. ... You look at a band like
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah,
they're putting out their own record -- they're not even on a label.
They have far more control over their destiny than if they were on a
label.

 

Do you think the hype that is generated over these bands will screw them up in the long run?

I
guess time will tell. Who knows? We will only know when they put out a
second or third record to see how long people's attention spans last.

 

Do you think you guys missed the boat a little bit when you called it quits?

It's
hard for me to say that had we started up five years later would it be
different. It's kind of like saying, "Well, God, I would be far more
successful if I got into the college of my choice," and pining over
some decision you made ten years ago. Life is the way life is, and
who's to say? We could have started out in 2004 and not blown up. I
think it's exciting; I think it's good for all of these bands -- they
don't have to rely on labels and certain press and things like that.
The computer has changed it all.

 

When
we started Beulah [in 1996] we didn't even have a Web site for two
years, and we didn't even have an e-mail address. In '98 you were a
goofy local band if you had a Web site; it just seemed like such a
stupid thing. We capitalized on some of it. Our song was on The O.C. and on The O.C. soundtrack.
And in a way that's helped. Kids still write and they still buy things
from the site, as if we were still a band. And I think that's mostly
from The O.C.

 

Considering that, don't you think people are interested in what you're up to?

I'm
kinda out of the loop, so I don't really know if anyone cares or not. I
was sort of just inclined to believe that once you break up nobody
cares anymore, you know?

 

You said this to Rolling Stone a couple years ago: "Here
I am in an indie-rock band that's done quite well and done a lot of
things we never thought we would. We've played festivals, we've been on
Conan O'Brien ... but at the end of the day I wonder what I've
done. All I got is some crow's feet. What's the fucking prize?" How do
you feel about it now that the band is behind you?

Hmm,
I sound like I'm philosophically teething. Funny, jaded existential I
am not. The easy answer, of course, is that there isn't any fucking
prize. I don't know, I think everyone at some point questions their
career choices or the decisions they've made throughout their life.
Second-guessing comes with the territory. Unfortunately for me, I
wasn't consulting my priest; I was talking to Rolling Stone. To answer
your question, I loved being in Beulah regardless of the aforementioned
and forever illusive bacon.

 

Is there any chance of another Beulah record?

That won't happen. We left a good taste in folk's mouths; no use in tarnishing that.

 

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