Milemarker bassist Al Burian isn’t a musician.
“I don’t consider myself anything,” he said from a near-horizontal slouch on one of the wicker sofas at the Mercury Lounge. “I’m just some guy who does stuff. I don’t really think of myself as a musician, I’m just a person who plays music sometimes.”
The band was sprawled out across the Mercury’s back patio, drummer Tim Herzog and guitarist Dave Laney also exhibiting poor posture. Keyboardist Roby Newton hopped incessantly from foot to foot, staying near the heat lamp.
“I’m a hobbyist,” she said.
“[She’s] trying to get into the classical French mentality,” Laney said, “of just being a hobbyist and taking long vacations in the countryside.”
Newton excepted, the band’s torpor was a well-earned respite after an hourlong set at the Living Room. Playing mostly songs off the previous year’s Anaesthetic and 2000’s Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth, the band drew a surprising number of burnt-out scenesters and generally older concert-goers to see their hardcore-derived, synth-spiced progressive punk.
“It’s weird,” Burian said. “Punk rock – even though it’s got this ethic of freedom and do-it-yourself and anything goes, it’s one of the most conservative musical forms.”
“It’s really easy to put on a show that’s really killer just by playing three songs and jumping around and turning all your amps up really loud,” Herzog said. “But it’s not so easy to just sit on a stool with an acoustic guitar and whisper into a microphone, and have it be enough to make people cry.”
Don’t get the wrong impression, however, Milemarker are a far cry from, say, Dashboard Confessional or Jets to Brazil or any of the other claustrophobically introspective groups now labeled “emo.” At best, they take their cue from the original definition of “emo”: bands inspired by hardcore but eschewing the didactic, haranguing lyrical conceits that are traditionally attached to the form.
“The stuff we write about is the things that we think about a lot,” Laney said, “whether or not it’s gentrification, or eating disorders, or … seeing strip malls pop up in our towns and take away local businesses. And you think of a way you can relate that to somebody else and they can connect with it on a moral personal or weird level rather than, ‘A strip mall popped up in my town, this suuucks!'”
“Everybody’s got their themes,” Newton said. “I’m working on insecurity and gentrification, and that’s the only thing I make anything about. And I think everyone who’s creative in some way has their themes that they’re always trying to work through.”
“I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings for anything,” Burian said. “I’m a bitter, angry person.”
These themes aren’t always conveyed successfully. The cover of Frigid Forms sees the band replete with plastic-looking face masks and blank or paranoid looks.
“When we went to Japan,” Burian said, “I became really aware of the context of the Frigid Forms record, referencing Gap ads and that sort of thing. That wasn’t getting across at all. People were pretty much perceiving it as, ‘Oh, this is a cool picture of some hip-looking people, I like that!'”
“These people – I mean, in my youth I was one of these people,” Newton said, “coming in and not knowing about what you’re talking about, they’re just like, ‘Oh, I heard this band was cool …’ They don’t know anything about punk, they don’t know anything about politics maybe, and yeah, they’re coming.”
“For every 10 of those people who don’t get it,” Herzog said, “there’s that one person who hears all that and then goes and buys a book from [merchandise guy] Pete. And then he’s gonna go home and read that book and all the sudden there’s this whole world that kid never realized about.”
“If one of 10 people buys the book and finds out about something that’s concrete and real and life-changing. And of the other nine people, if four of them just thought … ‘Yeah, that’s the song I listened to when I broke up with my boyfriend and was bummed out,’ that’s okay too,” Burian said, referring to the table anarchist publishers AK Press set up alongside Milemarker’s.
Aside from their unorthodox lyrical methods, from the beginning, Milemarker also rejected the rule that hardcore must consist of angry people with guitars. The band’s use of synthesized tones drives its sound as much as the poetic, circuitous conveyance of agendas.
“At the time that we started trying to use sampling stuff,” Burian said, “or keyboards or using electronic stuff, it seemed a lot crazier, it seemed it messed with people more. … Now it seems pretty standard.”
“Last night we played a show that I thought was awesome,” said Laney. “Two electronic bands played … then we played. It seemed like a well-versed show, something for everybody to get into.”
“What I wonder,” Burian said, “is why is Alec Empire Alec Empire. Why isn’t there just some punk rock Alec Empire?”
“Well, there is,” Newton said, “but he’s still sitting in his bedroom.”
“That’s why I think electronic music is so cool,” Burian said, “because it’s the new three chords.”
“But it’s not as visceral,” Newton countered. “It’s not as physical.”
Physicality formed a cornerstone of Milemarker’s live show. Newton’s blond mop formed a constant whirlwind around her keyboards, while Burian and Laney played the freeze-and-twitch accompaniment to the songs’ soft-and-loud structures with perfect timing. Herzog, who replaced recorded drummer Sean Husick on this tour, provided a rhythm that was less stilted and more organic than that of his predecessor. Perhaps this physicality excused the overall poise of the band; by this point in the interview, Burian had slid so far down in the couch that only his head remained upright, his bearing belying his words.
“There’s a certain weird work ethic that’s involved,” he said, “where I think everyone in our band feels like, in general, if you’re going to do things, don’t do them half-assed. And because you have to for personal validation, you take the things that you make seriously and you put energy and yourself into it. … It’s like, if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna suffer and we’re gonna push ourselves as far as we can go.”
“That’s the funny thing,” he added. “You try to be all countercultural and you just sound like a Nike ad.”
This drive isn’t just limited to music.
“I make a ‘zine,” Burian said, “and Dave makes a ‘zine.”
Those ‘zines are Burn Collector and Media Reader, respectively: the first, a more eloquent “perzine” along the lines of Cometbus; the second, an amateur survey of communications theory.
“Roby makes, um, things,” Laney said.
“I make comics, and puppets,” Newton said. “I do puppet shows.”
“I do stuff,” Herzog said.
Burian posited a theory on the nature of the push some people feel to try and be more than just a spectator – or more than just a musician.
“If you’re an artistically expressive person,” he said, “that indicates that you’ve got some kind of a problem. You’ve got some kind of interacting problem with other people so you can’t just come out and say it, you’ve got to make things. That never really works, because you never really get the closure, never get someone to solve your problem.”
“For this band,” Herzog said, “I think that the schtick is that maybe it’s not about the message but more about the method unto which the message is conveyed.”
A McLuhan rehash perhaps, but still a telling paraphrase of what Burian had said earlier: The members of Milemarker aren’t musicians, they’re merely messengers.