The Milkman's Union
- by George Dow
It is a beautiful June evening when I catch up with The Milkman’s Union at Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain for a quick bite before their show at the Midway Café. Henry Jamison (guitar and vocals), Peter McLaughlin (drums) and Alex Hernandez (bass) are in good spirits despite competing with the first night of good weather in weeks, rush-hour traffic on their trip down from Portland, ME and a Bruins play-off game. Between bites of club sandwiches we discuss all things Milkman’s Union.
We talk first about their newest release, the Telos EP, a huge left turn towards a very folky sound. Given its departure from 2009’s full-length, Roads In, I’m curious—is Telos a Henry Jamison solo release, a demo, or just a new direction for The Milkman’s Union? The answer—All three, kind of.
Henry jumps in to clarify, “At least four of the five songs will have a studio version. In that sense, it’s a Milkman’s Union record. We felt like we needed something between our last album, which came out in 2009, and now. This is a way for us to create a little island between them. This is kind of like a preview. We like the idea that people can hear the versions on the EP, then come out to a show and hear the fleshed-out version, then later on they’ll be able to hear the studio version. So it’s kind of like they see every step of the process.”
The EP also introduces new vocal styles from Henry. Less Thom Yorke-ish, high range and falsettos, more lows in the style of Johnny Cash. “The songs use a lot more of my range. I moved into some more guttural, Johnny Cash-type things. Then I tried a couple with falsetto, so it’s a much broader spectrum… And I’ve just been singing a lot more,” Henry admits.
Peter jumps in too, “There are some slight effects that we threw in during the mixing process to amplify certain things. Alabaster Box has sort of an old record sound to it—sort of a telephone voice—kind of nasally. Since we’re putting it out there for people to download, we wanted people to know that it’s more than just demos.”
In addition to the Telos EP, The Milkman’s Union released Texas Hold Me, a single-track collaboration with Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Peter explains, “She’s been a friend for a little while. We have a mutual friend. On a whim I gave a buddy of mine an extra copy of the record (In Roads) to give to her. She listened to it and three days later I got a call from her. She was playing at Space Gallery in Portland. One of the bands dropped out and she wanted to know if we could fill in.” After that they played some more shows together and got to know each other better. “Then she lived with us for two weeks,” Henry adds. “We trapped her in a room more or less… I mean she was down with it but she’s an elusive character. Her last day there—her last hours in our house. I wrote the lyrics down for her. She did a great job. She’d heard the song before and she knew just what to do.”
One of the more endearing things I discovered while talking to Henry, Peter, and Alex is that they disagree on almost everything. Not in a bitchy, argumentative way—but in the way best friends bicker and disagree more for the sake of a good discourse than anything else. The Milkman’s Union are three guys who have very different thoughts and styles that come together and lend to the tensions necessary in any successful creative relationship. Case in point is our conversation about their next full-length release.
Alex tells me, “The thing is that since the last album, we’re sitting on close to two-and-a-half albums of material.”
Peter jumps in to contradict, “Well… I don’t know about that much.”
Not to be left out, Henry adds, “It’s close to two. Twenty songs, or so.”
There’s disagreement on the direction of the next record too. Henry tells me, “We’re going to start recording on Monday. Treat it like a nine-to-five type deal. We’re trying to record an EP but it will probably turn into endless sessions, until all of the songs that we’ve written have been recorded.”
Peter adds, “It’s unclear what the next thing will be. We’ve been talking about this EP that we’ve wanted to do for a while, but the songs on that change fairly regularly.”
Henry is quick to contradict, “Oh no… they’re solid now.”
Peter goes on to explain that they’ll wait to see how the recording process goes. Instead of thinking in finite terms, they’ll simply record and see where things go. The results may be a new EP, a new full-length, or both.
Henry explains that as the recording process proceeds, the nature of the songs and how they work together often changes.
It’s obvious that they have no preconceived notions about the end results of the coming sessions. I come away not really knowing what we’ll see next from The Milkman’s Union, but thoroughly enjoying their exchange.
When recording begins, it will be done in their house. “We’ve got a little set up. Pro Tools, a computer rig. We have just enough equipment and different types of microphones that we can do some pretty nice stuff. We have offers to record in nicer facilities, but in the end it’s better for us to be able to do it at home. We’re not fast. We’re not the type of band that can just knock off tracks quick in the studio. We tend to spend way too long on things. It ends up that the home way is the only way for us.”
Alex adds, “It really is amazing what a band like ours is capable of in its own house with a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment. Twenty years ago you would have had to invest tens of thousands of dollars to have all the capabilities that we have. It still blows my mind.”
Once recording begins the guys expect to spend the summer concentrating on the process—making it what amounts to their full-time job. They’ll be doing little by way of performing over the summer, booking just a few gigs here and there.
The effort that they plan to put into the recording process brings up the subject of day jobs. “Yeah, I work the nine-to-five,” Alex tells me. “I sell pet medications at a marketing firm. They’ve been very supportive but it’s definitely tough. It’s like being married and having a mistress on the side.”
Henry pipes in with a smirk, “Who’s the wife?”
“The nine-to-five,” Alex explains. “When you’re cheating it’s always the mistress that you’re really interested in.”
“But you still love your wife,” Peter adds.
“Well of course. But she has an inkling that something’s up.”
Before the conversation degenerates into complete nonsense we move on to Peter and Henry. Peter works sound at two venues in Portland and Henry pretty much lives the boho life working as a poster boy for one of the clubs, wandering around Portland putting up posters. Both Peter and Alex have designs on following Henry into the world of full-time band work.
With this, we finish the last of our fries and the guys walk next door to get ready for their set.
They take the stage to a small but respectable crowd, the kind that you’d expect on a Tuesday night. What’s most encouraging is that, as one of the opening bands, it’s obvious that most are there for them specifically. Many sing or nod their heads knowingly along with the songs.
The set flows through a wealth of reference points—The Meat Puppets, Radiohead, Lou Reed, Pavement, even some early Cure. I’m struck by these similarities because though Henry admits to being vaguely familiar with all of them he says he never spent much time listening to any of them.
Hearing songs from the Telos EP mixed alongside those from In Roads makes me excited for what’s to come from The Milkman’s Union. These deeper, live versions of the songs from the EP shed their folkier trappings in favor of their indie rock leanings. Their set leaves me and all everyone else in attendance looking forward to their next release.