The post-hardcore group, with roots in both the Chapel Hill and Chicago indie scenes, formed in 1997 and powered through eight glorious years before going on hiatus. They briefly re-emerged in 2008, then disappeared again—until now. And we’ve got the scoop on their new album, Overseas, and a whole lot more. The band is currently on tour in the west and then to the midwest this week.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY DAVID ENSMINGER
As the millennium unfolded, bands like These Arms Are Snakes and Milemarker felt like redeemers that cracked the egg-dome of punk norms. Emo had taken shelter in pop modes, math rock unleashed charmless vanities, street punk often felt sulking and rodent, but Milemarker felt like an expedition transmitting new frequencies. Their searing coterie of tunes, like “Signal Froze” (with its warped vocals, undulating electro vibes, and crackling rock’n’roll urgency) and dramatic “Shrink To Fit” (imagine Gary Numan meets Atari Teenage Riot), signify their crack post-modernism.
Instead of mustering play-by-numbers angst, thin protest, and soon faded disaffection, the stuff of teenage war cries, the music of Milemarker seems fermented in a nuanced analysis of the sensory-overladen landscape of late-capitalism and the information economy. Plus, they always feel shaped by prescient literary sources: William Burroughs, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard, and more. Hence, nothing in their music, lyrics, or composition is overtly stripped-down or bareboned; they offer no simple recitation of revolt. Instead, they approach tunes in a cyber-fiction way, creating scenarios, news dispatches, and memos from the digital edge, producing music that morphs and transcends.
Roby Newton’s (who also masterminded their light show) moody chromium voice fills tunes like the hypnotic “Food For Worms” as she excavates all the damage done to women in the world of dead, damaged, suicidal heroines and forced silence, when the best minds of a generation starve for their place in intellectual and cultural spaces: “The girl’s heroes have taken their own lives. We’re left with sewn lips and model lines. The place for us: we are seen and not heard.” She urges people not to take shelter in desultory destruction; instead, turn off the ovens, throw out the stones, shut off the gas, she infers, and don’t enact the tragedies all over again, like a vicious interlocked replication of breakdowns. It’s a call to liberate from the dire ends of Sylvia Plath and others, to crush the monocles of madness, and to fight omnipresent confinement, barriers, and censure.
Meanwhile, her tireless tidal waves of dark, distressing keyboard shape the erratic pull and push of “New Lexicon,” a prescient tune examining the idiom of conformity – the recited phrases learned by rote, never questioned or doubted, like pre-programmed, mass-recited Orwellian thought squelching all dissent and difference. Due to so many memes, jargon, and scripts emanating from the political spectrum, the song looks hard at how language can become no more than a glass paperweight dampening the flicker of free thought.
Yet, despite heady preoccupations, Milemarker can still unleash pummeling power and slanted rhythms, like “Sex Jam One: Sexual Machinery” and the holographic punk of “Tundra,” which doesn’t feel a million miles from Kanye West (as does their urban dance-throttled “Idle Hands”) as it gnaws on incandescent keyboard riffs, the drums explode in sudden urges (from jazz-bridged syncopated asides to sheer fist-stomping smackdowns), and the slow, degraded guitar forms a distorted plumage. Newton and crew weigh in on the impending ice age – using the song as stretching harsh light to illuminate the impending eco-cataclysm bound to upset economies, military agendas, populace routines, etc.
Having taken a break since 2005, they have re-emerged, like nomads populated with new band members and up-to-the-minute visions. Overseas (released on the Lovitt label), with Monika Bukowska providing the unflinching internal roil and rhythm on the heaving beats on songs like “Conditional Love” (an electro-punk motif frosted with singalong punk propellants), is dancefloor odored and ordered, an electrifying emblem of punk hybridity.
Al Burian kindly offered to answer questions “haphazardly.” [Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared at the most excellent ‘zine Dagger, which not so coincidentally is helmed by our very own Tim “Dagger” Hinely. Many thanks to him and Mr. Ensminger for allowing us to share it with the BLURT readership.]
DAVID ENSMINGER: No doubt, members of long-lived bands come and go, line-ups change, etc., but now only half of the band remains at the core. Have you essentially re-imagined Milemarker, not just resurrected it … perhaps taken off the guardrails?
AL BURIAN: Milemarker always had a pretty shifty line-up; every record has had some variation in the musicians playing on it. And from the beginning, we always had an agenda of pushing boundaries, at least our own personal boundaries, of getting the people in the band to go places where they are uncomfortable. Dave and I wanted to do some new stuff with the band in 2015, so we found the other two people, Lena and Ezra, and immediately wrote a record with them. The band history gave us some sort of aesthetic range or parameter for writing– I guess in that sense the band as an abstract entity is the guardrails.
Your tune “New Lexicon” (which musically always reminded me a bit of …Trail of the Dead) is so apropos to this volatile era, this immediate strife. Was the song intended as a play on Orwell’s notion of language being an epicenter of control: “We don’t need big brother to enforce the new lexicon … we wrote it for ourselves.” Is the general public, and not just Trump, responsible for the emergence of alternative facts?
.A lot of the dystopian science fiction elements in the bands’ past lyrics are becoming descriptive of current reality, which is not a very good development. It seems to me that this current administration is fundamentally different from anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Though to be honest, I have no idea what to expect. I’ve been sitting in my apartment in Berlin, viewing the U.S.A. through the mediated lens of the internet. Of course, we are all responsible in some way for what is happening. With the band, and especially with touring in the U.S. now, I assume everyone in the audience is going to be aware of what’s going on; they don’t need a political analysis from us. Our agenda is to make music. That’s not meant apolitically: if I’m going to be optimistic, I’ll say hopefully that music can serve as a unifying force, maybe even communicate something fundamental and transcendent.
Another changing format that has become the de facto norm is “reality TV” (actually, scripted to the core), which the band presciently recognized on “Make Love to the Camera Obscura.” The line “what’s the point of doing anything if it’s not on camera” is eerie. People have shifted from mere consumers to endless makers of content. Does that appeal to you, in the “become the media” sense punks like Jello Biafra once espoused, but also trouble you?
That line is actually taken from Warren Beatty, spoken derisively to Madonna in the documentary, Truth Or Dare. But yeah, if “new lexicon” is Orwellian 1984, dystopia “make love to the camera obscura” is Huxleyan Brave New Worlddystopia. I think Huxley was closer on the mark in terms of predicting our present situation, although really maybe it’s kind of a gross melange of the two, with an authoritarian Big Brother presiding over a sheep-like hedonistic pleasure-centered society. The worst of both worlds! I think the song still holds up overall, social criticism-wise, although the line “you’re on camera an average of ten times a day” is out-dated: that was the average number of surveillance cameras you’d encounter per day in 1999. The number of cameras that capture you on a daily basis now is undoubtedly exponentially higher.
By the time you cut tracks like “River of Blood” for the last album– over eight minutes in length – had you become restless with post-hardcore routines? The lyrics seem pointedly political – the destructive machinations of government and war, but the song (called “math-core” by Pitchfork), seems restless as hell…searching.
“Rivers of Blood” was a pretty old song when we recorded Ominosity. It was written fairly soon after the songs onAnaesthetic. We were into longer songs at that point. As far as the lyrics, why do you say “but”? You can’t be pointedly political and restless as hell at the same time?
People tend to romanticize the independent networks of labels, indie publicists, and fanzine editors that formed the backbone of punk from the 1970s-2000s, etc., but the longer I chronicle the movement, the less transparent, and even less honest, it all seems. How would you describe dealing with the punk “infrastructure” (for lack of a better term)? Did we create an alternative commerce and ethos, or did we fail?
Punk led me to pretty much everything I know about as far as “alternative” or anti-mainstream ideas. It’s a conduit for all kinds of information and can lead you to all kinds of interesting places. But it’s only one way to get to these points, and it can lead you to some pretty dumb and nihilistic places too. The question of failing depends on what the goals are. We’re all only humans, and we exist in the framework of the current economic system; to feel like a new world didn’t spring out of your efforts is a beautifully idealistic standard to hold yourself up to, but maybe a little unfair to yourself. We’re all doing the best we can, for the most part. One thing I always liked about punk is that it embraces deviance generally. So there are a lot of freaks, a lot of scam artists and schizophrenics, a lot of bad thoughts, bad ideas, experiments gone awry. There are a lot of lonely people just trying to get attention. That’s all part of it, and part of what makes it great. “Succeeding” might be the wrong paradigm for thinking about it.
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