285 Kent Avenue, New York, Monday, July 23
By the time Milk Music arrive in New York they’ve been on the road in North America for the best part of two months, and they play like a band no longer in any doubt of what they want to achieve. You can sense it from the minute Alex Coxen, their 24-year-old frontman, steps onstage and opens a can of beer with his teeth. You can see it in the way his three bandmates – his older brother Joe Rutter on drums, Dave Harris on bass, and Charles Warring on guitar – fix their eyes on Alex’s fretboard and move instinctively with him as his fingers dance over heavy riffs. And you can hear it in every break, every dry snare-drum roll eaten up by walls of feedback, every hulking guitar melody that hangs in the soupy New York air like smoke from an exploded firework.
What do they call it, their own brand of SST Records-era hardcore punk shot through with guitar lines that’d make J Mascis proud? They call it “high art”. What’s more, they don’t even snigger when they tell that to NME in a concrete passageway behind the stage before the gig. Outside, lightning cracks open the sky and the faithful wrap their heads in their sweaters in the dash to get through the doors of 285 Kent Avenue on the Williamsburg Waterfront. Inside, Milk Music are taking themselves very seriously indeed.
And why shouldn’t they? They’ve been turning away calls from record labels for months. They’ve self-released an EP, ‘Beyond Living’, and are getting ready to press their first LP for release later in the year. They’ve booked most of their own tour in the US, and have noticed that the venues look fuller at every show. And they’ve risen out of a small town where new bands are in no short supply, simply by waiting for people to come to them. Milk Music hail from Olympia in Washington State, a petri-dish of a place that’s about as far away from New York as you can get without leaving the US. Olympia’s had more than its share of alt-rock glory: it spawned two labels, K Records and Kill Rock Stars, it played host to Nirvana before Nirvana moved to Seattle and everyone decided that’s where they were from, and more recently it’s cultivated a local scene made up of bands who have found a balance between the bite of hardcore punk and the sweet melodies of alt-rock. Alex from Milk Music says that, for a certain time in the last decade, Olympia was the only place in the US where you could find music that wasn’t hardcore or “bad indie”. “I just had to be there,” he told [i]NME[/i], which was lucky, because it was where he lived.
Inside 285 Kent Avenue, Milk Music prove that though they might have grown up as part of a scene, the band they’ve become will not easily be defined by one. They open with ‘Caged Dogs Run Wild’ and a circle pit takes over the floor immediately, punters smashing against each other in the concrete box of a venue, sound ricocheting off the tin roof. In ‘I’ve Got A Wild Feeling’, Alex’s vocal strains over speedy riffs that ride over the breaks. ‘Beyond Living’, already something of an anthem, heralds the biggest circle pit of the night with the crowd yelling the chorus, “[i]I went down to my room[/i]” over the guitars.
Halfway through, an amp pedal breaks. Alex grabs the wire and dangles the pedal in the air. “SOUND GUY!” he yells, and sound guy stands to make his way through the crowd. But before he gets to the front, Alex has the thing patched up, after remembering that he comes from a scene where DIY is not so much a PR catchphrase as a part of life. “You’ve probably figured out by now that we’re Milk Music,” he announces. “What you don’t know yet is that we are the shit!” After 10 songs, no encore and a tight enough set to wipe the floor with most of their peers, Milk Music may not be high art, but they are, indisputably, the shit.