BLURT’S BEST KEPT SECRET #17: Dark Circles

With one delightfully
eclectic album under their belt and another one in the works, the clouds are
gathering nicely for the Nashville
indie-rockers.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

As previously announced, the latest selection in our Blurt/Sonicbids
“Best Kept Secret” series
of new or under-the-radar artists is
Dark Circles, from Nashville, and our 17th BKS since commencing the
program back in 2008.

 

Meet the band: Celeste Millius (vocals, acoustic guitar) and
Pat Millius (guitars, keyboards,
percussion), both with extensive musical backgrounds. Celeste grew up in New York and, as a
member of the Convertino clan – her brother is John, of Giant Sand/Calexico
fame, while her father was a professional piano player/accordionist and her
mother was a music teacher – started performing early on with her family. From
there her travels took her all over the country and she subsequently played in numerous
bands, notably the all-girl Downgirl, which released the Smooch album in ’98; she describes the group as “a
foray into many new and exciting experiences… one word sums it up: fun.” Adds Pat, “Tough, badass guitars, with Celeste purring like a kitten
over the mayhem. One of the best live bands I’ve ever seen – they presided over
numerous block parties under the 4th street bridge in downtown L.A.” Trainspotters may also recognize
her name from Giant Sand’s 1990 LP Swerve:
Sand mainman Howe Gelb tapped the Convertino talents further and had her sing
backing vocals on several tracks.

 

Pat’s from L.A.,
is an accomplished artist and muralist and has also been in a number of outfits
over the years, among them the improvisational Sunz of Zorro, garage/punk outfit
DAVE and surf/garage combo The Fugitive Kind, which featured none other than
John Convertino on drums (the band’s Bone
Dance
album
was released in ’88). As you’ll read below, it was Convertino
who introduced his sister to Pat. A romance blossomed, as did a musical
partnership; the duo eventually gravitated to Nashville and established a home recording
studio, and earlier this year they released their debut album as Dark Circles, One Golden Day, currently available via
CD Baby. (That’s Pat’s art gracing the cover.)

 

It’s always risky to quote directly from a band’s own bio,
but in this case the description they provided us was what caught our attention
in the first place and prompted us to investigate more closely (musicians,
there’s a lesson in there somewhere): “A
woozy melange of pop styles, from the sunshine harmonies of Brian Wilson, to
Joni Mitchell’s jazzy meditations, to the retro-pop groove of Sergio Mendes
& Brazil ’66; all shaded in deep blue undertones.”

 

The first thing that strikes you when listening to One Golden Day is how all over the map
it is while retaining an essential cohesiveness that might elude less experienced
artists. The duo clearly knows what it wants to do, as evidenced by the
explicit Latin/bossa nova vibe of “Winter Lullabye,” delightfully playful
instrumental “Cicada” (which hearkens back to the anthropomorphic song-titling
tradition of ‘60s pop and surf bands), and the sleek and jazzy “Giving Birth to
Grasshoppers On A Yellow Dashboard.”

 


Giving Birth To Grasshoppers On A Yellow Dashboard by Dark Circles

 

 

Elsewhere, Pat’s garage roots are on display in the more
revved-up psychedelia of “Hills Have Eyes,” while in “One Golden Day” both
musicians share the mic for one of the sweetest slices of sunshine pop – listen
for the midsong choral break – this side of the Cowsills. And the moody,
brooding “Under the Ride,” with its percussion, piano and viola and echoey
production, tips its hat in the direction of early Velvet Underground, with
hints of Mazzy Star lining the edges. Deep blue indeed – and a remarkable album
in every sense of the word.

 

Check out Dark Circles’ official website or
MySpace page for additional details as well as more song samples. They’re one of the good ‘uns, trust us. On to our interview.

 

***

 

BLURT: Let’s start
with the “key influences/heroes” question – what made you want to play music?

PAT MILLIUS: One my earliest memories is my step brother
Mark coming home from a “love in” at Griffith Park in the sixties, and painting
my whole body in psychedelic colors, and then we freaked out to the Doors and
Love’s first album. He had an electric guitar with a reel to reel tape recorder
as an amp and he taught us the opening riff to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” on
guitar. I used that reel to reel for some of my first ping pong song
recordings.

 

CELESTE MILLIUS: Because I am the 4th of 5
siblings, I shuffled along in the middle. From Peter Paul & Mary to “Onward
Christian Soldiers”. From Styx to Miles Davis.
I wish any or all of them had been an influence on me. Something has always
been there, like the smell of my dad’s cologne; it’s just there and I’m in it.
The sounds that come in are nothing like the sounds that come out.

 

Pat, could you
elaborate a bit on your background as an artist? Also – per the note in the
Dark Circles presskit – about your grandparents being “silver screen hoofers.”

PAT: Yes, paint. Between that & music, if I try to
ignore either one, they will wake me in the dead of night and enslave me until
they are satisfied.  Recently I’ve been
working on a series of nude portraits of Celeste (one of which is the cover to One Golden Day, in which I shaved her
head with paint).

        My grandfather
Kenny Williams twirled the likes of Betty Grable & Rita Hayworth across the
screen. My favorite is a cross-dressing song & dance number he did in the
early ‘40s with June Haver where he does some seriously nutty footwork in a
huge 19th century bustle. Grandma was a Ziegfeld follies beauty
queen who went on to skate in the Sonja Henie classics. I guess, technically,
you’re not a hoofer if you’re on ice skates.

 

Celeste, you’re John
Convertino’s (of Giant Sand/Calexico fame) sister, and I recall from talking
with him that he came from a musical family. Tell me a little about what that
was like.

CELESTE: It’s true we are one of those freaky families that
are extremely close. When you’re young you think that anything is normal,
because that’s all you know. So what’s so weird about being loaded into the station
wagon in matching outfits and headlining national Christian conventions with
mom as our fearless leader? (And seamstress.) Johnny, of course, as the
youngest became the designated drummer because his voice hadn’t changed yet. He
definitely has his voice now.

        I don’t
remember whose idea it was to form a rock band, but the road was our only home
for years.

 

So how did the two of
you meet, and what’s been the musical arc leading to Dark Circles and landing
in your current base of Nashville?

PAT: It was Johnny who introduced us. He and I were in a
righteously feral garage band at the time called The Fugitive Kind. Within months
Celeste and I were at “The Hitchin’ Post” in Vegas. Dark Circles germinated
over time with us just having fun dismembering jazz standards like “Strangers
in the Night”. It was always there for us during the years of bacchanal in the L.A. clubs. In fact, some
of the songs on the new album are dismemberments of unrealized punk song from
those bands.

        I had an art
studio in our basement overlooking Echo
Park Lake,
and one day some guy from the city came and said that it was a codes violation
and we were ordered to clear everything out. That’s when we headed for Nashville. We can do what
we do just about anywhere so music didn’t factor into our choice of where to
go. I’d done some mural work here in the past and it was one of the few places
where we could afford to live. Celeste’s brother Marco lives here too, and he’s
really helped us get our bearings.

 


Under The Ride by Dark Circles

 

The music: what are
some of the musical and aesthetic inspirations behind it? There’s a lot of stuff going on in it.

PAT: Difficult to analyze. We have a modest recording studio
in our house and it’s like a playground for us, although a far cry from a grand
piano in a sandbox. It’s our playground and our shrink. A lot of insomnia [is] in
this music, and frankly the next morning we’ll listen and wonder who invaded
the studio.

 

And the videos: what
inspired the “One Golden Day” and “Gulf of Mexico”
clips? The home movie excerpts in the latter in particular resonated – they
reminded me of my childhood.

PAT “Gulf of Mexico,” the
song and the video, all sort of came together as one. Partly about a beach
camping trip we took to Grand Isle, Louisiana, exactly 15 years before the
Deepwater Horizon disaster, at a difficult time in our lives, full of
transition & uncertainty. We took a video camera and visited friends and
family along the way. So right around the time of the oil spill, I was digitizing
video tapes with this gadget I’d just bought. This footage was in there along
with the old Convertino family home movies we were transferring. Their mother
had not much longer to live at that point. She’s that dazzling blonde in the
video. And there’s footage of their father who died before I ever got a chance
to meet him. A mythic, towering figure in family lore whose loss is still felt
strongly. It was all very resonant with the sense of loss we felt as we
helplessly watched the news of the gulf.

        Much of “One
Golden Day” was actually filmed on Easter morning. I couldn’t sleep so Elvis [see the video] and I drove down to the
school where I clap erasers together for a living to watch the sun rise. Made
sense at the time.

 

 

 


 

 

 

How about live
performances? Touring plans? With everything that’s going on in your songs I
imagine it’s a challenge to recreate some songs live.

PAT: Live performance for us has always been in excessively
loud and unhinged situations. Dark Circles happens when the tape starts
rolling. That’s why it sort of took me by surprise when my buddy Mitch Laney,
who is the absolutely blood-curdling bass player from our band DAVE, called
after hearing the CD and asked, “When we were gonna hit the road?” A bolt of
lightning from the sky! There’s a lot of directions this can take and we’re
really excited about it. 

CELESTE: The challenge is just getting through a song
without bursting into tears.

 

Nashville‘s been shedding its reputation as an
all-country mecca reputation, with an indie rock scene emerging. What’s your
take on the city?

PAT: Very healthy scene here. The energy is palpable. It’s
spilled out of the clubs and into everyone’s living rooms. If there’s an empty
space somewhere, it gets turned into a music venue. But then we really don’t
get out much.

 

And of course –
what’s next? A new record?

PAT: Yes. Working title is Squall and the clouds are
gathering quite nicely so far.

 

 

 

***

 

Bands, go to www.sonicbids.com/blurtonline to submit and have us review your materials for feature consideration.

 

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