By Nick Moorhead
Last Friday night the CD release party for The Milling Gowns’ Something Dangerous That Loves Me EP was held at Radio, a young bar renowned for drawing in creatives of all disciplines and like-minded friendly people.
“This is why I love Radio,” Milling Gowns guitarist Kevin Heinold effuses. “This isn’t a bar where people come just to drink. They’re only open when there’s a band playing, not on off nights just to take your money for beer.” He gestured to the crowd, noting its diversity as a highpoint of both the venue Radio and Milling Gowns shows. He was right: there were punks, preppies, goths, bookworms, industry types, hipsters and hippies. Behemoth ex-jock professional types still wearing their suits from the day rocked out with emaciated, flannel-clad indie rock kids. “There’s something about our music that draws people in,” Kevin then mused. Right again.
The Milling Gowns, who play an intriguing blend of 90’s shoe-gaze, 80’s post-punk, and abstract noise – “Gloom Pop” is the relevant moniker – are shrouded in a haze of mystery. The lead singer goes by just M, lyrics are inscrutable, and in the past the act’s line-up has altered as breezily as a Kardashian can scorch through a husband, though the line up is stable now, not unlike Yeezy’s adoration for Kimberly.
“I morphed around a lot,” M says, describing the first days of the band, when it was just him and his rock group fantasies. “I dreamed of forming a band while growing up in New Hampshire,” M says. He moved to Boston in young adulthood with that ambition of assembling a group, but says “it was hard to meet people” and that he had difficulty “taking a chance” with musicians he didn’t know. Within the past year the current group assembled itself, and M was able to realize the sounds of his childhood daydreams. “I like to take the pop mentality and f— with it, and I do gravitate toward the sadder stuff, but I hate the ‘sad bastard’ tagging. There are other bastards way sadder than I am.”
Bookended by the psych-pop of dreamy phenoms Plumerai and Boston super group Velah, The Milling Gowns killed it. Their set featured crisp, ear-bleeding sound, blistering intensity, and a set list of all their best songs: Violet Wrist, Where the Ground is Rust With Needles, Vanishes, and more.
M had the stage presence of the late great Kurt Cobain, squirming about in his sweater with scrunched sleeves, brooding relentlessly, and generally looking as pained as can be while maintaining a graceful, powerful stage presence at the same time. With vocals so low in the mix of the majority of their recordings, hearing how commanding and iconic M’s voice is when seeing the band live is a surprise of the best kind. He has epic pipes.
The band is a lesson in the balance of opposites. When the drums and guitars are decidedly terrestrial, M’s voice introduces an alien feel to the track, and when the wild rhythm section is flailing about the psychedelic seas madly in squalls of dirge, M’s voice steadies the manic guitar and bass like an anchor. The voice’s ability to intoxicate and sober the audience in equal measure and often at the same time is astounding. That M’s vocals are backed by a stellar drummer, a stylish bassist and a modern-day Hendrix of a guitarist does not hurt one bit. These guys are excellent. They recall shades of Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine one moment and Ceremony-era New Order the next. They actually cover the song on a recently released compilation. Track that record down.
The Milling Gowns were more than generous with the time they spent talking with me at the show. Most offered little help in way of unraveling the mysterious nature of the group, however. I talked with M for 45 minutes and walked away with less information about the band than I started with. Rumors were squashed, though no real new information was offered. Nonetheless, I felt significantly enlightened, like my IQ had shot up a couple points.
Conversing with M is like playing tennis with a backboard. You’re going to achieve some self-improvement, but don’t expect any feedback. For example, when asked if he was a perfectionist, M’s reply is “yes and no.” The reasoning is good, too. He is, because of the marathon studio times spent fine-tuning a track, and he’s not, because he likes to leave in little mistakes or funny asides that keep the project sounding human. His answers dart off in one direction before doubling back on themselves, always leaving the interviewer with more questions by the end. Though frustrating for an interviewer, these tendencies actually bode quite well for his career as a rock musician. What else than bipolar musings are you supposed to expect from a man who sings “I love myself, my —- life I hate”?
Milling Gowns are now a four piece. There’s M singing, Allen Esser on drums, Stoops as the bassist, and Kevin Heinold playing guitar. Though they have changed members countless times in the past for disparate reasons, M maintains none of these reasons were inner turmoil in the band, that everyone he’s worked with are “fine professional people.” This particular lineup, which has been constant for more than a year now, looks to stick. Their personalities all work well together. M is the rock star, Stoops the grizzled veteran, Kevin the fun loving partier, Allen basically Don Draper in a leather motorcycle jacket. It’s like Entourage with them, except not corny, and nobody has to be Turtle. They’re each supremely cool and terrifically grounded in their own way, and when they get together they make beautiful rock music.
The EP that spawned this release party is a dense, thrilling piece of work. The themes of Something Dangerous Loves Me are primarily human: blood and nature. Not blood in an overtly violent sense but as in lifeblood, and a deep red is the prevalent color in this release’s art work. Nature in that classic Wordsworth way, and as an escape from the omnipresent influence of technology. I asked M about the intriguing title: what’s the something? Why is it dangerous? He explained that the title refers to a spirit animal – half wolf, half bear – that he daydreamed would protect him from bullies back in grade school. M may have been emotionally wounded back then, but he’s emerged more resilient for it. This imaginary protective animal is a beautiful allegory for his tremendous voice, which is capable of being wielded as a weapon of self-defense.
Many of the songs on the new EP are difficult to parse, so I had to ask M about the meaning of many of them. He was reluctant to explain, preferring to leave interpretation up to the listener. “Songs come from my past,” was his enigmatic reply. If you know that M is fascinated by nature, Where the Ground is Rust With Needles initially suggests a bucolic scene somewhere in the woods where pine trees grow. M later reveals that the song is about a friend he lost to heroin. Those aren’t pine needles at all. And this is a recurring theme in the band’s lyrics: ambiguous word choice that leaves a lot of interpretation open to the listener. You could almost argue they are just pine needles after all until you see the visceral pain M goes through performing the song live. Don’t expect that bristling track to become a staple of their sets.
The Something Dangerous Loves Me EP was recorded with producer Richard Marr at the Galaxy Park studio over a year’s period of time. Some bands avoid time in the studio like a medieval knight does the bubonic plague. Not so with The Milling Gowns. “We’re one of those groups that see the studio as another member of the band,” M explained.
Affording all that time spent in the studio is not an easy feat, unfortunately. M and several other members alluded to the band’s financial instability. It’s not the world’s biggest secret, or even the band’s biggest, considering the new EP was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. M is grateful for the donations and Stoops specifically thanked the contributors at the end of the show. In addition to the Kickstarter resources, the band needed to funnel proceeds from shows and income from day jobs into the process as well. “This is what I love to do,” Kevin says, an unusually bright version of his billion-watt smile spreading across his face naturally. “I work at a print shop by day so I can do this with my nights.” M echoes this sentiment of sacrificing financially and personally for the music. So many musicians are beyond talented but in it for the money, or disarmingly passionate but totally awful, so to discover such a potent mixture of musical chops and unadulterated passion in the Milling Gowns is quite the find. You don’t find musicians who are this good and care this much very often.
As closer Vanishes ended The Milling Gowns set with tribal drumming, grungy guitar, a thunderous bass and otherworldly, apocalyptic chanting for vocals, their innate ability to find heart-aching beauty in the bleakest aspects of life crystallized.
The Milling Gowns didn’t play an encore because Allen Esser had to quit for health reasons. He had been in the hospital earlier that day for strep throat. That he played at all, let alone a full, bombastic set, is a testament to the sort of passion for music that this group possesses. “We’re loving the music we make,” Kevin explained. “And so we sink everything into it.” As well they should.