The keyboard may be one of rock's most maligned instruments, the bane of many a garage band's existence and the black sheep of the modern musical family. For better or worse, however, a burgeoning flock of bootstrapped rockers are introducing the 88s to unexplored aural environments, pairing Rolands and Yamahas with Gibsons and Fenders in ways previously unimagined. One such outfit is Chicago's Milemarker, an ever-evolving gang of four or five that's determined to use keyboards without watering down its sound or reverting to cheesy retro novelty.
"I'm not super into the new-wave revival thing," says frontman Dave Laney, phoning from his Windy City apartment. "Duran Duran and Joy Division and Flock of Seagulls were good bands, but I feel like if you're gonna do their thing, you need to add some type of modern twist on it a more solid drummer, or somebody that's gonna play from a more punk-rock background. I'm more interested in music that's trying to push some type of boundary than settle for complete replication or emulation, something that's already happened. Bringing in a keyboard and getting somebody to sing like The Cure isn't super original."
Of course, those familiar with Milemarker's icy minimalism knows that the band can rock with one hand tied behind its collective back, and that the group's current sound owes more to distortion pedals and cranking amps than anything else. Not to worry, though. Milemarker won't be blowing up on "TRL" with the latest pop-punk anthem anytime soon, either.
"I think most of those bands are really bad," Laney says. "Bands like Blink-182, or whoever else is making it pop-punk-wise Green Day and stuff like that. I just don't have any interest in doing what they're doing. I just feel like it's pop music, it's not independent music. They might as well by 'N Sync ... but they can't dance quite as well."
Milemarker formed in Chapel Hill, N.C., issuing its debut, "Non Plus Ultra" in 1998 with a lineup that included Laney on guitar and longtime drummer Ben Davis. Rather than document its ferocious live show, the unit chose to create an effort primarily comprised of loops and samples taken from other acts. Crowds who caught the group's stripped-down, screaming rock show on tour were duly befuddled.
A 1999 followup, "Future Isms," further confused listeners, primarily because of Laney's decision to play drums on the effort, with Davis switching over to keyboards and an ever-shifting cast of characters lending a hand. The outfit also earned a reputation for multimedia live performances, which included light shows, small-screen movies and other rock peripherals, most of which have now been excised. Around this time, Milemarker relocated to Chicago, taking immediately to the local underground scene, which didn't include the elitist pockets running amok in the band's birthplace.
The addition of keyboardist/vocalist Roby Newton (who ran the band's light show in the early days) for 2000's "Frigid Forms Sell," marked a new era for Milemarker. A concept album focusing on the alienating nature of prepackaged sexuality, "Frigid," was the album that put the group firmly on the map.
Milemarker spent two weeks in a Washington D.C. recording studio to complete its soon-to-be-released, "Anesthetic," an effort that continues to mine "Frigid's" musical vein. For "Anesthetic," however, Milemarker enjoyed a newfound cohesiveness, partially from working for the first time with the identical lineup as its previous effort. The group even tracked the material in the same studio, with the same producer, all of which made things infinitely easier.
"Right now, I feel like the integration of the instruments is better than it's ever been," Laney says. "And that was the goal with the new record. Instead of having them as different, almost schizophrenic parts of the record, to try to blend them all as one."
Synergistic marketing is one thing you won't find readily associated with Milemarker. The band adamantly refuses to sell merchandise on its Web site, offering potential customers links to reputable, independent businesses instead. This is all part of the outfit's approach to current issues, themes that are often buried beneath the its sonic snowstorm. Laney even takes to the streets with Media Reader, a zine that he's distributed on his own dime for the last couple of years. Filled with politics, social commentary and a bit of music, Media Reader which will now be issued in book format offers further insight into Laney's left-leaning agenda. Currently, it's the introduction of the Euro that's got the Milemarker frontman's attention.
"Once you take away a country's currency, it kind of moves it towards the United Countries of Europe than it does Europe as a self-standing community of really distinct cultures," he says. "You can only infer what the next steps beyond the currency are. Not to get too conspiracy-theory on the whole thing, but 50 years or 500 years from now, languages start dying out and cultures start blending in with each other."
Kind of like those watered-down pop-punks on MTV?
"Yeah, the state of music is a weird thing right now," Laney says. "The industry is getting much more involved in the independent music scene like more typical industry things, like booking agents and publicists and things like that. Even labels that never had these things are starting to do 'em. But it happens, it shifts. It's something a little bit different now than I feel like I was involved in five years ago. It's just weird. Bands that have been around for a long time (are) playing the Metro, doing 800 or 900 people in Chicago, whereas five years they'd have played my basement in Chapel Hill."