Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson’s sparsely attended solo performance at Maggie Mae’s Gibson room Thursday night could be an indication of where the artist is headed: to points unknown. The set was stripped down and peppered with covers, starting off with Big Star’s “I’m in Love with a Girl,” in honor of Alex Chilton, who died March 18 of an apparent heart attack and who artists everywhere at SXSW have been memorializing in their own way. Robinson delivered covers of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” in simliar fashion, with layered synth effects, double vocals and a recreational pace bordering on self-indulgence. Two full-length LPs in — one almost universally lauded, one that received highly mixed reviews — it almost seems the Brooklyn singer-songwriter is unsure of how to proceed.
The artist says these performances at SXSW may be his last as Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson for a while. We caught up with him a few days before the festival, and he offered these sometimes verbose, sometimes monosyllabic responses. For everything Robinson says — and doesn’t say — he often makes a good point. From snarky comments about the music industry to the objectivity of music journalism in the digital age, Robinson waxes about music coverage in general and his own conflicts as an artist.
This is your second year performing at the festival. Who are some artists you’re looking forward to catching this year?
Suckers, Warpaint and Wild Yaks.
You’re sharing the stage with a number of your label mates, the Rural Alberta Advantage — who appeared last year at SXSW — and UUVVWWZ, among them. In your opinion, is SXSW a good vehicle for up-and-coming bands to make a name for themselves?
I’m not sure it’s been particularly beneficial for me, but I hear it works out well for some people. For some reason I can never seem to make it down with a full band, so sometimes it feels a little underwhelming. I’m trying to sidestep that by using some keyboard beats this year.
Was your performance at last year’s festival what led you to be noticed and signed by Saddle Creek?
Your eponymous debut was nearly universally lauded, yet 2009’s sophomore release Summer of Fear received strongly mixed reviews. Some criticisms were particularly harsh, calling the album “overstyled” and “overseasoned.” How did you react to this news?
I reacted very poorly at the time. Now I’m kinda over it. I knew from the get-go that it was a less “Pitchfork friendly” record, and I had long been apprehensive for that reason. It bears absolutely no relation to any of the four types of music they currently consider trendy, acceptable and conducive to making purchases at Urban Outfitters. I don’t think those particular criticisms are particularly accurate or defensible, but that’s music journalism for you. About half of the facts in even a positive review are usually hopelessly mauled, mangled or false. The Pitchfork review, in particular, was so strangely murky and unspecific that it got trashed on Ripfork as well, causing most of my acquaintances who read it to ask me whether I knew the girl who wrote it and whether I had blown her off at a bar or something. It also got some excellent reviews. Unfortunately, the great open-source democracy of the Internet era has left us with a culture that gets its critical opinion from an increasingly less professional yet highly centralized source. Smaller blogs then generally regurgitate the opinions of the oracle.
Then again, part of me hates everything I do and has already judged the work far more harshly than anyone else. I just generally hope that I’m wrong. I probably wasn’t ready to do that record when I did it; I was going through a lot of personal turmoil, and the band wasn’t really up to the task. But when a friend offers to help you make a big fancy album in a big fancy studio and you’re used to recording two albums a year but it’s been 20 months since you have, it’s kinda hard to say no. On the other hand, once you make the fancy album, you have to put it out to pay your friend back even if you start to feel weird or have misgivings about it.
If anything, the record is a bit bloated, but I think it’s got some of my best songs on it. Maybe if we had used more reverb some blogs would have liked it more, but at the end of the day plenty of albums are judged differently over the course of time — assuming that we, as a species, have much more of that left. I don’t like that it screws with my ability to make more and better records and tour. But screw it, imma make another one.
Summer of Fear was actually completed before your debut. How did it work out that the self-titled came first?
It was completed before the debut was released, not before it was created. Summer of Fear itself was recorded over two years ago. But the self-titled is four years old. When we did Summer of Fear I thought no one had put out the first record because it was too lo-fi. Hence much of the “over-seasoning” of the second. Shows where thinking gets you.
You worked with members of Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio on your past two records. Are there more projects in the works with these guys?
I think I’d like to take a step away from the “famous friends” aspect of my press packet. That being said, who knows what wonders the future holds? Maybe I’ll start crediting my friends under pseudonyms.
Bob Dylan is often cited as a big influence for you, and I hear a lot of him in the prose and tone of your new record. When did you first discover his music?
I think I started listening to Bobby when I was about 13. At least, that’s when I got kinda heavily into him.
You’ve been to Austin before. What’s the best street food?
Anything free cooked over an open flame.
Top three things to do while you’re here?
Eat/Drink. Bullshit with other bands. Contemplate the ludicrous nature of the music business.
I’m not sure but these may be my last performances as Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson for a while. I really like what I’m doing in the set now, though — lot’s of cheap Radio Shack synth and vocal effects, which will probably confuse a lot of people. Again. On the other hand, a lot of people have said it’s the best presentation of this material I’ve done so far. So come watch me either put the final nail in or kick the door off the coffin of my music career. Music industry’s shady; it needs to be taken over.