As I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this site, a couple of years ago, I managed to catch Milagres open for Low at the Bowery Ballroom, and I was impressed by their sound, a sound that I then described as being based around a stunning sense of harmony with earnest, plaintive lyrics and vocals, as well as catchy hooks and melodies. And although the Brooklyn-based quartet’s sound struck me as being much more muscular than Low, it was a perfect pairing based on overall tone and mood, and it was quite honestly just a gorgeous night of music – as well as a particular highlight of my concert reviewing and concert going year. Certainly, after catching Milagres live that year, it wasn’t a surprise to hear that their debut effort Glowing Mouth was released to critical praise across both the blogosphere and the print world.
Their much-anticipated sophomore effort, Violent Light was released earlier this year, and it’s a decided and radical change in sonic direction for Milagres as the album’s first two singles “Jeweled Cave” and “IDNYL” manage to owe a debt to 80s synth-based rock and pop (i.e., Scary Monsters-era David Bowie, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel), as much as it does to R&B and contemporary indie rock – and it’s done in a way that’s unlike anything I’ve come across this year. In fact along with the aforementioned songs, songs such as “Column of Streetlight,” “The Letterbomb” “Sunburn” the album manages to evoke an ambivalent and dynamic dichotomy – the material manages to express an aching and plaintive vulnerability and need that’s profoundly intimate, while possessing a grand, cinematic sweep. But lyrically, the album manages to speak about love and lust with longing, suspicion and bitterness; has surreal, nightmarish visions that poke out from the grit and grime of the city, as well as from the lush countryside.
As a blogger, I receive an impressive array of music over the course of a year but honestly out of everything I may receive, there are few albums that truly resonate within me and feel as though they’re speaking to me about my life right now, and Violent Light is that album. Certainly, for those who have found themselves picking up the pieces of their lives in the aftermath of a long-term relationship that’s failed, there’s this recognition that as much as you may desperately desire love and companionship, those two things very rarely make sense. We often don’t know the motivations for why we feel drawn to people as we do, and we often find ourselves in the push and pull of the transitions of life – all while the ghosts of our past occasionally haunt and taunt us …
I recently spoke to Milagres’s Kyle Wilson about the unintentionally personal nature of the album; the origins of the album’s name, and the original, proposed name of the album; the album’s 80s rock influences; and more. Check it out below.
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez
WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was your calling?
Kyle Wilson: My biological father was an aspiring musician and his father wouldn’t allow him to pursue his passion. While he was around he introduced me to music and as I became an adult I felt a strong resolve to succeed where he hadn’t had the stones to really try. As a kid I got picked on a decent amount and I would have revenge fantasies of playing in a band in front of the whole school and stealing the girlfriends of all of my tormentors. Of course later on I became interested in music for music’s sake, but at first it just seemed like the only weapon I could legitimately wield. So yeah, part of it was that I wanted to get the girls. I’m not gonna lie.
WRH: Who are your influences?
KW: I grew up on my stepdad’s record collection, which was mostly classic rock but also went all the way through The Clash and Elvis Costello. When I discovered punk as a teenager, I started writing songs. Then my ‘formal’ musical education intensified and I got interested in contemporary classical music, especially eastern European minimalism. For a long time I saw myself as a composer and not a songwriter. So all of those things inform my musical personality, but my latest obsessions have been with a lot of British stuff from the early to mid-80’s like Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and certain David Bowie albums as well as some other random stuff like early Steely Dan and early Genesis.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
KW: Honestly, I’m having kind of a hard time finding stuff that I’m really excited about at the moment. I just discovered the Prince album Controversy. I’m not sure why I hadn’t really dug into it before, but I’m enjoying that right now. I’m revisiting a few George Harrison solo albums. As far as newer stuff I really like the Jon Hopkins album Immunity and I’m kind of fascinated by a newer album called Caramel by Connan Mockasin. I’m not sure if that one will stand the test of time for me, but it’s at least entertaining.
WRH: How did you meet the members of the band? And how did you all know that musically and creatively that you had an understanding? Also, how did the band name come about?
KW: I met Fraser [McCulloch] at school. We both went to NYU and met at a mutual friend’s party. I went to see his band at the time, which included Chris [Brayzee]. We all slowly became friends and eventually bandmates. I think we learned of our commonality by sharing demos and just hanging out. Fraser was originally brought into the fold as a recordist and engineer, but he eventually became producer and bandmember.
The band name came from a Brazilian art retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. I saw a huge pile of life sized carved wooden heads and arms and feet which are apparently used as votive offerings to pray for someone who is ill or injured. I’m not religious but the display was macabre and fascinating so I wrote the word on the placard down and then found it in my notebook a while later. It’s google-able enough, although we do get a lot of accidental Facebook likes from Brazilians who thing we’re a church or something.
WRH: I caught Milagres open for Low at the Bowery Ballroom a few years ago, and was very impressed by the band. Interestingly, the material on Violent Light strikes me as a decided change in sonic direction; in fact, the material seems to owe as much of a debt to Scary Monsters-era David Bowie (I think of “Jeweled Cave” and “The Letterbomb”, as it does R&B ( “Urban Eunuchs and "IDNYL”) and contemporary indie rock – and it does so in a way that few albums sound this year, really. Was this intentional, conscious decision as you were writing the material for the album?
KW: We definitely have made a change in sonic direction since then, but I also think it’s part of our nature not to do the same thing over and over again. It’s good to keep yourself interested and to surprise yourself and take risks.
We did talk about some stylistic touchstones fairly early on in the making of Violent Light and Scary Monsters –era Bowie was on that list, so it make sense that you picked up on it. We also talked about a few other albums from around the same. You know, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush. I guess I mentioned those both before. We were aware of the fact that a lot of artists had turned to a certain type of 80’s vibe recently so we wanted to make sure that if we drew from 80’s influences we were doing it in our own way and not just re-hashing.
WRH: The songs on the album manage to create this ambivalent yet very dynamic dichotomy throughout – the material balances surreal and times utterly gorgeous imagery with the grit and grime of the city; talks about love and lust with equal parts urgent longing and suspicion and a certain bitterness; and ends wondering what happens once this all ends. I’ve listened to the album obsessively and although it feels as though it comes from a deeply personal space, it also seems to resonate within me in a way that maybe a handful of albums do every year or so. How much of the material on the album comes from personal experience?
KW: I didn’t set out to write a terribly personal album but now that its finished I can look back and see that it is actually very personal. I tended to use certain landscapes or feelings from my childhood as triggers to write the songs and then followed impulses and streams of consciousness from there. I’ve written a lot of songs in the past from the point of view of a character who isn’t me, but this album isn’t like that. Most of the songs express some aspect of my personality or life.
WRH: The album feels as though if songs appeared in a different sequential order, it wouldn’t be the same album. How much thought was given to song order, and how long did it take for the exact order to come about?
KW: That was a really tough aspect of this album’s creation. There are a lot of different emotions and vibes on the album and it was hard to put them together in a way that felt like it really worked. We also wanted to make sure to not front-load the album, which I think is a common tactic. Instead we hoped that the album as a whole would reward repeated listens. Since we live in a single’s market these days maybe that impulse worked against us, but we have a very old school mentality when it comes to making albums. We want the whole thing to be good and for it to work as a unified whole.
WRH: How did you come about the album name? Did you have anything else in mind?
KW: Yeah, we tossed around a few other ideas. I liked the idea of calling the album Urban Eunuchs. I thought that it might be weird enough to grab some people’s attention, but it doesn’t really represent the album’s content or vibe. At some point during the process, Chris had described the songs as being very dark but with a core of light to them. I liked that description and I thought the name Violent Light did a good job of capturing that, especially alongside the album artwork.
WRH: When do you know that you have a finished song?
KW: I don’t. When it’s released and I no longer have any control over it, that’s when I see it as finished. Until then I make tweaks and changes, especially to the arrangements and the sounds. Sometimes I walk around with a song in my head for months before I decide to bring it to physical reality in any way, so the writing of the actual song can actually be mostly completed before the song even exists.
WRH: Milagres has quickly developed a reputation for having music videos with a unique visual presentation – the video for “Jeweled Cave"was surreal and yet haunting. How did that concept come about?
KW: I’d seen a few of Mikel Cee Karlsson’s videos for the band Junip before and I loved them so I sent him the song. He came back with this really strong concept featuring Irene Andersen, a female bodybuilder. I thought the concept could work well against the straightforwardness of the song and I knew that Karlsson’s execution of the concept would have a kind of David Lynch vibe to it that we would be excited about. I was really happy with the final product. I tend not to like music videos that seem like commercials for music. I prefer for them to be works of art in and of themselves.
WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? Is there anything you wish you could do over?
KW:Hmm… I’m not sure I’d deem myself qualified to give advice, but I think its creatively rewarding to embrace your own eccentricities, take risks, go with your gut and stick to your guns. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what is popular or not popular at any given moment, but I like to think it will matter more whether or not your work stands the test of time.