The Repository #21: Warmer Milks

With the recent reissue of Warmer Milks’ killer Soft Walks on Sophomore Lounge, what a great time to revisit this excellent interview from 2006 with Michael Andrew Turner by the late, great Lee Jackson. – BR

Cover of the new Soft Walks reissue by Robert Beatty

Warmer Milks is Not a Noise Band

Most of us wouldn’t have made it this far without a little change. As messed up as things might be right now, we can at least hope they’ll be different tomorrow. It’s mostly up to us whether that difference will be for better or worse, but at least it’s in our hands (or is it?). This is why making music can be such a worthy endeavor. It provides a means of control and change, and occasionally even some positive results.

Lexington, KY’s Warmer Milks has done a lot of changing in the last two years. Originally the solo project of Mike Turner, ’Milks soon became an open trio with the addition of Travis Shelton, Greg Backus, and various other contributors. The “Penetration Initials” CDR prompted many, including Lord Byron Coley and Sir Ben Chasny, to dub Warmer Milks the ones to watch in ’06. Several CDRs, tapes and a 7” single have also surfaced, and tours with Six Organs of Admittance and Howlin’ Rain have further cemented W/M’s reputation for conjuring primal aural catharsis. But it’s the mind-melting weird psych opus “Radish On Light” (Troubleman) that should certify Warmer Milks’ place atop of the art-rock heap and bring them the wider audience they so righteously deserve. 

Nothing else in ’06 even comes close. 

After witnessing a howler of a live set in a living room in Denton, TX, our man Lee Jack got in touch with Mr. Turner to discuss the rigors of touring, keeping sane, the greatness of Steely Dan(?) and what it really means to be heavy.    

So by the time you hit Denton, you were pretty worn down from the road, and the set you played seemed to come from a really dark place. Parts made me think of pure agony, but it was so compelling that all I could do was watch to see what would come next. I’m curious how your earlier shows went down in comparison. As in did the tenor of your material become darker as you became more frazzled from the road?

The performances turned into more grim affairs as the last tour went on. This had everything to do with a physical and spiritual deterioration. An apex of joy occurred when we played in San Francisco with our friend Elisa. Personally, everything slipped into psychic warfare shortly thereafter. Maybe those performing in the group felt one way or another about how things were going, but I felt like I was falling apart. This only made playing more intense. Regardless of how I reacted at the time, there were most definitely some beautiful moments born from those dates. It seems weak to say, but it was a hard tour. I learned a lot.

“An apex of joy” in San Francisco (but where else?)–can you briefly take us through it and what you felt as the intensity grew? Was it purely an intuitive thing with the piece taking over, or did you still feel in control? 

The show in San Francisco was beautiful. We had met up with Elisa three nights previous when we played a show in Olympia with her group, Magik Markers. She needed a ride to San Fran so we agreed that she would get a lift if she would play with us in Portland and her final destination. A bond happened between us three in the Milks and Elisa literally overnight so it made the shows very satisfying. On top of that, I’m a huge fan of the Markers’ output which had me stoked from the get-go. Elisa had been traveling for months with her band and we had also been doing some extensive touring throughout the year so everyone had energy brewing from that nomadic vibe. Portland was a pure thrash-out, very fun and party-like, but San Francisco had more weight to it, patterns locked up between the four of us and there was no rush to smash things and go into any tangents. The set was about friendship, exploration, and introspection. It was my last stand with any type of utter positivity, set wise or any other time, for the rest of the tour. They were all real in what was coming across, but San Francisco had a feeling I actually want to revisit on a daily basis. We had many other beautiful moments going back to the second we first got in a room together and fucked around on our instruments. I don’t want to get too overboard with the mysticism around what goes on when we play. It is a place that any person goes to. What I experience as an artist is just a small part of the world. It’s really difficult to regret a single gig and what I don’t get out of one night someone else will leave with a new perspective on what they’re thinking, feeling, or making. 

As far as what I was actually feeling during the set in San Francisco, it was a mixture of not being there while hanging on to every single second of action until we were done. It’s wild, even when we got back to our friend Ethan’s house that night, I couldn’t really speak. These cops outside had their guns out yelling at these dudes in a moving truck to put their hands behind their heads and it still didn’t shake the beauty of what had happened earlier. My ass was just planted on his couch in a daze. It’s nice that I get to experience that with so many people and myself in one lifetime. Makes all the bullshit worth it. I’m so thankful to be alive and able-bodied to tap into music. Crazy.

Can you fill us in on the genesis of the band?

Genesis? Didn’t you read the Blastitude article? Kidding. Warmer Milks is me making music and some friends jumping in. It used to be a frat house, front porch, beer drinking deal. “Penetration Initials” was the first Warmer Milks song I ever wrote and it just expanded. I had a lot of friends at the time making good music and I was listening to it. After a while, I felt the need to challenge myself instead of being another Lexington local rock dude. I started jamming with T/S (Travis Shelton) and he has been the longest-running member. G/B (Greg Backus) came in a year in, and both of them are the cornerstone. When the three of us cease then it all stops. Currently, we’ve been doing our own things but that always changes right after I call it.

“Penetration Initials” sounds like it was recorded live in front of a really big audience. Will it get reissued somewhere down the line?

”Penetration Initials” was recorded in a huge arts center opening for Low. Most of our CD-Rs are recorded live in some capacity. Between the tours with Six Organs of Admittance, Superwolf, Howlin’ Rain, and the few tours we did alone between now and last summer, I’d say some live cuts are going to be surfacing in the near future. It would be wonderful to reissue “Penetration Initials” on vinyl and get it further out there than we did with the original CD-R. If someone with a rad label that we respected offered, we would be very into the idea. There was a strange rush to find a label to release “Radish On Light” and while we’re glad we found it a home, we’re not exactly in the mood to go door to door with something we feel very strongly about. Besides, there are still copies floating around as well. People just have to look harder.

This may sound weird, but I can’t help but think that “Radish On Light” has an almost doom or black metal feel in spots…wasted-psyched-out-skronk-doom though. Is this a new development for ’Milks or has it always been there? My initial exposure to you guys, “Penetration Initials,” is such a different glide. Based on these and other releases, one gets the sense that you really like to switch things around.  

Changing things up purely exists to satisfy my own curiosity. The players that have participated in Warmer Milks agree that going with something regardless of its fit is mandatory to progress. A love for whatever turned into “Radish On Light” has always been there; things just take their time getting made. When we started recording the album, it was an exciting time because it had nothing to do with what was going on sonically with Penetration Initials and it was yet another opportunity to play with foreign sounds. A righteous influence comes from sounds and experiences that are born from themselves. True we listen to music on a regular basis, but what is created doesn’t have to be modeled after whatever is directly in front of its creator. What comes to mind as far as a song is concerned should always be perverted to the point of not even remembering where it came from. Do I always execute this? Probably not. 

Lately, I’ve been writing music on acoustic guitar using a variation of open G and singing melodies that bring a lot of “classic” stuff to mind. There is a place I have to go to in my bedroom, in my mind, THAT place that tries its best to strip any immediate, standard moves without losing the soul of the piece. Most importantly, I want to love what I’m playing and if it conjures up familiar territory then I have to come to some type of medium. Then again, shit, if I decide to rip off my favorite album in a year, I will. Right now where I’m standing, I want to have fun, and having fun is pressuring myself into newness, and deciding what is new to me is most of the fun. That might turn into starting a 10cc tribute act. Who in the hell knows?!?

To associate us with a genre is lazy. To think a specific type of listener will identify is bullshit. I can definitely relate to some of the music under both black metal and doom umbrellas (as well as many others) but would never even dream that we were a part of said genres. My definition of what is heavy goes a lot further than those tags. Being “heavy” was a large part of “Radish On Light,” but I was most concerned about the lyrics and the actual performance in the room during those sessions as in HOW people felt while playing not WHAT they were playing. That to me is what makes a situation heavy. If things were locked into a certain streamline then it was all going to come out in a strange unison. It was a family thing for sure and I think that feeling has passed for the time being. Right now I’m more interested in what can happen with me playing alone in my home.

So are you more of a “pop guy” or a “noise guy”? W/M strikes me as a kind of exploration of the tension between composition and pure chaos. There are quite a few bands out there that operate in a similar borderless format… Do you feel part of this larger world “scene” or more isolated from it all? 

The borderless format is simply me enjoying whatever appears as an idea to explore. Noise or pop? Warmer Milks is not a noise band. That word gets thrown around so much these days; it’s just not thought out. I’m not quite sure what justifies someone calling himself noise. Japanese harsh early nineties shit, fine. Kids with broken keyboards and laptops making “noise”- NOT so sure if I can credit that to pure noise. More tags, I dunno about that stuff. Sometimes we prep beforehand; sometimes we decide to go with what is right there in the moment. That’s all it is. I don’t feel isolated in that we hang with and are influenced by people, animals, things that are like-minded, opting to go with what feels good as opposed to what is supposed to fit.

I use the “noise” term very loosely, thinking one way to get beyond the dogma of labeling is to loosen the boundaries and not take all this stuff so seriously. To me, modern music can mostly be broken down into two categories: jazz and pop. Noise is just a more extreme take on jazz. Sun Ra, for instance, is a progenitor of modern noise, yet he isn’t noise, is he? Merzbow is literally noise. Fushitsusha is literally noise rock. Fushitsusha and Haino represent a kind of the height of noise with soul, feeling, purpose. It’s hardly noise for noise’s sake, though. 

THIS is something else… Anyway, that being said, most noise strikes me as pointless. So yeah, Warmer Milks isn’t a noise band, but that set in Denton sure was noisy!

I’m just dreaming for the journalists of the world to come up with another word for noise to describe a chaotic moment(s) in a group’s set. That’s all. I personally love much of what is talked about as “noise”, but like anything else, there is so much bullshit talked in reference to noise that we always make an effort to distance ourselves from the tag. Most importantly, we don’t want to offend the masters of NOISE and be viewed as posers. Fo realz. Your take on the “two forms of music” is interesting…

Tell me about home–sights, sounds, people…

Lexington has some stuff to look at. Like sprawl and the destruction of our downtown area, but I’m sure everyone in America is experiencing it to some degree. Once you get away from the towns and cities, Kentucky is very beautiful. Lots of grass and trees, the good stuff. Lexington has some wicked music in it too: Rampart Tapes, Eyes and Arms of Smoke, Ara, Caves, Elephants, Cadaver In Drag, Three Legged Race, Handouts, Bush’s skating style. The list goes on but it’s been a while since I’ve ventured out and checked out the new stuff.

What is art?

I’ll go with “Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.”

Why make art?

I’m forced to. I have no idea why I do. 

What inspires you as an artist?

Deja vu. Exhaustion. Anxiety. Love. Fear. Trevor Tremaine. Rehabilitation.

When did you know you were ready to share your stuff with the rest of us?

I’ve been making crap ever since I was five. MTV taught me a lot about getting out there. How could you watch Madonna and not want to be center stage? 

I noticed in the recent Blastitude article (I did read it!) that you admitted, rather unhiply, you’re a big fan of the ‘Dan and other more conventional pop favorites (not to suggest Steely Dan were in any way conventional, but definitely pop!). What is the best Steely Dan intro album for a recovering hipster/sugary jazz-pop lover and why?

I must completely disagree with you that Steely Dan is “definitely pop”! They were a very fucked up band with total talent and originality. Their hooks go beyond pop and 9500% of their music dealt with inner failure and corruption. Complex shit.

 Start with this:

 1972 Can’t Buy A Thrill 

 1973 Countdown to Ecstasy

 1974 Pretzel Logic

 1975 Katy Lied

 1976 The Royal Scam

 1977 Aja

 1980 Gaucho

 fuck hipsters, now or then.

Pop is not a bad word, Mr. Turner. Pop can be everything you just described (see the solo works of Robert Wyatt, which touch on jazz & prog as well as ye ol pop). I will happily investigate further! Byron Coley is famous for his distaste for two bands: The Beatles and Steely Dan. While he’s obviously on crack re the Beatles, I figured he must be onto something with Steely Dan. I fully accept that SD is a contemplative, literary sort of band. It’s just the smoothness that’s always turned me off.  

I love a lot of pop music; I just have a slightly different definition of what pop is. Hell, pop means popular so we’re both off the mark. Good stuff, good stuff. Robert Wyatt is the man, and I can handle some Beatles, but it’s rare that I’m reaching for ’em. Byron hates the Steely Dan, and while I cannot hate Uncle Coley for it, I sure can feel sorry for his ass. The more I listen to the Dan, the more rough edges I discover. 

Is there an ideal Warmer Milks fan? Have you ever composed music with an audience–no matter how minuscule–in mind, or is it purely a personal voyage that others might or might not latch onto?

The kids.

There are times when I’m jamming or writing and I think “Man, ____ (insert close friend) is really going to dig this part.” Most importantly I and everyone else included just want to be into what it is we’re making. When it dies, that’s it. We have to make it count.

Any releases by other folks have you been digging lately? 

Recent cuts and shows from Religious Knives, Azita, Lambsbread, Lungfish, Bonny Billy, and the Demon Fuzz Afreaka! reissue.

Five desert island albums from any artist, genre, era?

The desert island album thing always throws me for a loop so I’m going to name (gulp) twelve albums that at some point in my life have been important and that I can still stand by: 

(in no order):

Ocean Blue – Cerulean

Alice In Chains – Dirt

Negative Approach – Total Recall

The Movies – In One Era Out The Other

Christina Carter – Living Contact

Harem Women – s/t 

Silver Jews – Natural Bridge 

Jawbreaker – 24 Hour Revenge Therapy

Warmer Milks (T/S solo) – Nephalim 1

Blatz/Filth – Shit Split

Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead

Mayo Thompson – Corky’s Debt To His Father

Tell me some more about what you’re working on now.

I actually have no idea what direction it will take because everyone is preparing their own pieces individually then we’re getting together and going from there.

”Radish On Light” is being released on Troubleman as we speak. Hopefully, that will open new doors and present new experiences.

On my own, I’ve started a new project called Soft Ends Akcre Group which is acoustic-based material not unlike early Milks stuff but more song-based and less “psych” or whatever. I’ve got quite a catalog of songs and start playing shows this week!  

Thriller’s “Steady Sheets” is coming out on Rampart this fall. MBV, Mary Chain-inspired stuff run through the KY muck factory. And Alva’s “Diarr” cassette is out as of this week on my new label Juicy Fruit Records (JFR). It’s an unofficial sequel to “Aja Braun” and also exists as a soundtrack to the 1972 occult film which took place in Eastern KY.

Closing words?

Just because you feel good doesn’t mean you’re good, and just because you don’t feel good doesn’t mean you’re not good.

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