Today's indie music scene is in many ways a dangerous place. What can from the outside seem like a utopian community of DIY artists and innovator friendly venues is in often actually a cut-throat business. Take Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, for example, a twenty-seven year old Brooklyn-based musician who plays a kind of beautifully broken folk-rock. In 2008 he was riding a wave of blogosphere hype, heralded as the 'next big thing' by sources all across the interwebs. This led to the release of two albums and a national tour. Two years and one bad review later, he is singing to a near-empty Knitting Factory, a gig he didn't even try to promote because, in his own words, "I don't give a fuck."
After missing our last show due to a train miscalculation, we made sure to show up at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn at 8 PM, right when the show was supposed to begin. Expecting at least a moderate crowd, we were surprised to be literally the only people present. About seven people drifted in and sat at the small bar on the show floor as Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson began setting up his equipment alone. When he first started strumming his Epiphone hollow body, it wasn't clear if it was a sound check or his first song. About a minute in we figured out he was playing "Shake a Shot", the lead track from his most recent album Summer of Fear. He continued to play through his set without once pausing to look up at the audience, which may have been a good thing, as the venue bar (separated from the show floor by a sound-proof window) was clearly filled with at least three times the amount of people in the crowd.
He nonchalantly moved from song to song, barely saying a word in between. It at first seemed like he was ashamed of the small crowd, but it became clear after a few songs that he genuinely didn't care. This did not mean that he poured out his soul for all ten of us, but rather that he had planned on a show of semi-ironic self indulgence regardless of how many people showed up. Not to say that his set was bad; far from it. While his songs never built to the kind of gloriously loud and depressing climaxes they reach on his albums, they still carried weight, and he played with a detached sincerity that was all the more impressive in light of the circumstances.
The following are excerpts from our conversation with Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson.
JS: Alright, so...the concert!
MBAR: The concert...
JS: Do you usually play with a full band?
MBAR: I used to, I've been doing solo stuff lately. I'm in a weird sort of stand still.
Here the conversation drifts away; Miles discusses the different neighborhoods he has lived in.
MBAR: I kind of can't stand Williamsburg anymore.
BW: It's become a dangerous place.
MBAR: I moved down here from the West Coast, and I was super hard-core like "New York is the best", but, I don't know, I'm just so fucking bored with it now, I'm so fucking sick of it.
BW: Everyone's so souped about being in New York.
MBAR: That's the thing, I can't really relate to that any more. It used to make sense to barely make any money and fucking live in a fucking shithole with other people when I was psyched about being here, but now I'm like "I don't want to be here", so why would I do that?
The conversation again veers away, and somehow the topic becomes Buffalo, NY.
MBAR: Buffalo sucks.
JS: Anyway...music! [laughter] Interviewing! Was this an awkwardly small crowd for you?
MBAR: The thing is, I don't really care, you know. That's the thing. I don't really care if there's anyone here or not. I mean, ideally its great to play a packed audience, but...I'm like just coming out of some weird sort of ultra burn-out. I went really hard for two and a half years; I stopped working, I toured a bunch, released two albums...so right now I'm just like, I don't feel like playing the old stuff I recorded cause it was done so long ago. I have a ton of new songs, some of which I don't really like, which I have to sort through. My idea is to go and record like a hundred-song album and put it up online for free. Call it "Purple Rain, Purple Rain Infinite Mixtape".
JS and BW: That's a great idea.
MBAR: It's taken me a while 'cause lately I've just felt so disengaged from music. Like last summer, doing the cover art for the album Summer of Fear which came out this fall, like I was so disengaged I was just like, I didn't even want to listen to that album. I had done that album when I was breaking up with my ex-fiance, and I did a lot of the photo shoots in weird places in Oregon where I had photo-album pictures with her. It was just weird.
The conversation again turns to travel.
MBAR: I loved being on the road. That was the best.
JS: Are you in the middle of a tour right now?
MBAR: No, I stopped touring. I'm in a weird...this is the first show I've played in a long time without my 'Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson Is Dead' shirt. I was just playing the RadioShack keyboard and wearing that and big sunglasses most shows. Its kind of weird, honestly. I wouldn't have played this show if I hadn't been offered money. I need to take a break -- I want to record some music I'm excited about, put it out, and then play it. I want to save up a little money and buy some stuff so I can record this next album on my own. The many songs album -- you know, like, uh, 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields or like a Beck album or a Beastie Boys or Sublime album where its like that 90's idea like "I can put a ton of different genres on one album." That's what I want to do. I listen to a lot of hip-hop and I really want to make like at least hip-hop beat inspired tracks. I don't want to make another kind of folk-rock album. I mean, Summer of Fear was made to be like a Tom Petty-Fleetwood Mac homage. That album caused a lot of stress -- the amount of money it cost to make, the mixed reviews it received. It was across the board, like, Spin, number 11 album of the year, Pitchfork, 4.8. This girl who wrote my review, I have a feeling she might have lived in Brooklyn and I was mean to her in a bar or something. I spent a lot of years blackout drunk in bars in Brooklyn. I probably just pissed off this person. It's been a tough year, but that's how it goes.
The conversation now moves to the topic of high school bands.
MBAR: I was in one band in high school. They recruited me for the talent show. I had started doing improv marathons, that kind of stuff. I was smoking so much weed then, taking so much adderall and shit. I would do this thing where I would take a suggestion from the audience and make up a song, and it was total standing ovation every time. That's how I started performing. So this band recruited me to be their lead singer, but all they could play was the outro to "Freebird". Couldn't play the whole song, only the outro. So I quit the band right before the audition for the talent show.
MBAR: Two weeks later, I went to school that morning, I had taken a couple hits of acid and eaten half an eighth of mushrooms, smoking my customary drug before I went to school, came in super fucked up. I told my friends "I am super fucked up" and they were like "Well, you know, we've got that assembly for the talent show." And I was like "I've got an idea -- I'm going on." It was customary for me to be like, roaming the halls during class and stuff, doing other shit. I tested very well, and I was not white, I got some A's once in a while, so the school preserved me as some sort of demographic booster. "Look at this fancy nigger! College bound!" So anyway, I hid backstage for like two hours. I came on with the band, and they were like, "What are you doing?". There was no vocal mic set up, because I hadn't auditioned, so I walked up to the principal's address mic. Which is not balance adjusted at all, so my mic is WAY louder than the band. And I just start screaming weird stuff, like some sort of terrible Jim Morrison style freak-out. The lead kid, his dad was super wealthy and had like 200 guitars, and he only played this Satriani Silver Surfer guitar, and all he would do was solo over the end of "Freebird" for ten minutes, so I was like mocking him, like fake jerking off on him. And then I dove on the drummer who I was friends with. So I got taken in for an interview with the principal, had to convince him I was sober. I think they thought it was hilarious, though.
JS and BW: [laughter]
MBAR: That last tour we did with the band, I was running every day, not drinking, not smoking pot before rehearsals, you know, and we played awesome shows. I was running and jumping around stage. There's awesome pictures of me doing like super Springsteenian shit on the stage. And then we got into that car crash and the band fell apart and...
JS: You got into a car crash?
MBAR: Yeah, we spun out on black ice in Montana and totaled the van. Everyone was actually fine, except for the van. I had to finish the tour solo to get the rest of the guarantees to absorb some of the cost of putting the band in U-Hauls and on planes, and then we played one last show in New York. They're actually all playing tonight, one of them with Holly Miranda in Prospect Park.
BW: Did that end a stream of touring?
MBAR: Yeah. Most of 2008 and 2009 I spent on tour. It was awesome, I had a good time. There's nothing I'd rather do than get out and get in a car and drive somewhere. I grew up with my dad doing comedy on the road. He was a stand up comedian. So the road to me feels like a real professional experience. Like if your dad was a doctor and you were trying to take over the practice. I was like, "I'm a man now", more so than when I had a full-time job.
The other band playing got very loud, so we wrapped up the interview and said goodbye to Mr. Robinson.