A Frustrating Mess
It's a bright, cheery East Bay afternoon, and Miles Kurosky is walking, sunglasses on, talking on his cell phone. The singer, songwriter and guitarist for Beulah has arrived a little late for our interview, but he lingers on the phone anyway, trying to reassure the caller about something. Finally he hangs up, offering an apologetic smile. With his round face, childlike shock of hair and twinkling eyes, he resembles a character from a French version of Peanuts. Despite his European looks, though, Kurosky is a California boy: He grew up around Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco in the early '90s. The dot-com boom pulled his San Francisco apartment and practice space out from under him, so these days he lives in an isolated part of West Berkeley -- the kind of neighborhood where everything interesting is a drive away.
Kurosky doesn't have a car, but he doesn't really need one. He's been spending most of his time these days in Atlanta with his girlfriend. You can hear the change of place in his voice: A tease of a Southern accent tugs at his vowels as he explains that the caller he couldn't get rid of was his manager, Jordan Kurland, reminding him to be nice during our interview.
Kurosky laughs it off, but Kurland's warning was probably in order. Kurosky is known for being a pit bull among the Hello Kitties of indie rock. Rile him up in an interview, and he'll take a pound of flesh off anything put before him. On good days, he trashes overhyped bands, crappy magazines, British culture -- any number of deserving targets. On bad days, the victims are his own bandmates, especially Beulah guitarist/trumpeter/co-founder Bill Swan, whom Kurosky attacked with a beer bottle during one memorable interview.
A few hours later, Kurosky reveals that his manager had more specific concerns: The bandleader had spent the previous day contemplating suicide in his apartment.
For a man on the verge of putting out his finest work to date, it's been a very cloudy year.
These days, the unemployed Kurosky will go wherever Beulahmania seems to be growing. And it is growing. 1999's When Your Heartstrings Break sold 20,000 copies. Tours that followed found the band playing to festival crowds across Europe. On a recent tour of England, the inhabitants of a small Welsh town chartered a bus to come see the group play in Oxford. After the concert, excited fans cornered the band in a restaurant and ran through a cappella versions of its songs. Once, in Japan, Kurosky was followed into the bathroom by a group of stone-faced, staring young men. His immediate fear -- that he was about to be mugged -- subsided when the onlookers broke into sheepish smiles and greeted him by name.
It was in Japan in the fall of 2000 that Kurosky wrote much of Beulah's new album, The Coast Is Never Clear. Kurosky was visiting a friend in Tokyo, doing interviews and making promotional appearances on Japanese television. Over the eight-week stay, he worked out skeletal versions of nearly a dozen songs, then sent tapes to each of his bandmates: bassist Steve LaFollette, Swan, keyboardists Pat Noel and Bill Evans and new drummer Danny Sullivan (formerly of Screeching Weasel, Pansy Division and the Groovie Ghoulies). Kurosky included a request that each player flesh out the rough mixes however he saw fit.
As soon as he got back, Kurosky mixed and matched the parts he liked from each member's tape, creating a sonic blueprint for the band's dates at Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco.
Thanks to a recently inked contract with Capricorn, Beulah had enough money to rent Tiny Telephone and to hire John Croslin, a well-respected engineer who worked with Spoon and Guided By Voices.
It was at that point that things started to go wrong. Or, more specifically, Kurosky started to go wrong. The other bandmembers were used to him being bossy and critical in recording situations. ("Miles was listening to my mandolin solo over and over again," reads a note from Bill Swan's studio diary. "Another Obsessive Compulsive Disorder moment.") But now Kurosky's unpredictable mood swings were extending beyond the point of tolerable eccentricity.
"While I was making the record, I was losing my mind," Kurosky says matter-of-factly. "Or I thought I was...I remember telling the guys during the making of the record -- I was just like, 'I think there's a bad Miles and a good Miles, and I think they're both inside of me, and it's freaking me out.'"
Kurosky went to see a psychologist, who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. The psychologist gave him two choices: Start taking an antidepressant or begin daily counseling.
With the album's lyrics yet to be written, Kurosky chose therapy. "I didn't want to take the drugs," he says, "mainly because I was worried it would affect my songwriting. I definitely didn't want to be taking drugs to make me happier and have that be in my songs, because that's not how I really am and how I was feeling at the time."
Not surprisingly, the personal excavations in his psychologist's office had a powerful effect on what transpired in the studio. In the past, Kurosky's lyrics had been compact little mysteries, charming bits of wordplay and indecipherable endearments. "I just tried to be too smart for my own good in that sort of Pavement way," Kurosky explains. "Totally cryptic."
This time, though, the heavy emotional work of therapy made that blithe approach to lyrics untenable. As a result, the studio became a real-world adjunct to his counseling, a place where the bleak discoveries of therapy got catalogued and organized into chorus and verse.
What came out wasn't pretty. Whether the words document the dwindling sex life of a long-term relationship ("Night Is the Day Turned Inside Out") or a car crash involving his uncommunicative father ("A Good Man Is Easy to Kill"), all the stories are bummers. Despair tarnishes every silver lining.
The dire mood set by the verses makes the 400-watt pop music blasting behind them all the more perverse -- and necessary. If the libretto of The Coast Is Never Clear paints a wintry picture of estrangement and loss, the score is a garlanded bandstand in deep July; the dark thoughts hang from melodies so bright you have to squint to endure them.
The weird mix made perfect sense to Kurosky. "I've always approached it like Motown," he says. "It's like blues wrapped up in dance music. It's heartache, it's loss and all these things. But you wouldn't know it, because you're dancing to it."
And dance you will: The Coast Is Never Clear is the best, most infectious work of the band's career. With the orchestral flourishes and trans-pop experimentation of When Your Heartstrings Break, Beulah proved it could emulate everyone from Bacharach to the Buzzcocks; on the new album, the group adds saloon-style country, '60s go-go and old-time barbershop harmonies to its pop palette.
This ever-increasing musical vocabulary adds punch to the soul-aching lyrics. On "Gene Autry," Kurosky longs for a return to the West Coast: "When I get to California, gonna write my name in the sand/Gonna lay this body down and watch the waves roll in." But as church bells chime and trumpets herald the homesick traveler's arrival at the beach, everything goes awry. "The city spreads out just like a cut vein," Kurosky crows. "Everybody drowns, sad and lonely."
The album is full of such darkly delightful moments. Many of the best tunes -- "Popular Mechanics," "I'll Be Your Lampshade" -- are fueled by Swan's trumpet, which adds ebullient mariachi trills to some songs and understated, jazzy highlights to others. It's also impossible to overestimate the contributions of the twin keyboards: Evans and Noel are integral to Beulah's wide-screen pop, laying rich swirls of sound and emotion in the spaces between LaFollette's playful bass and Sullivan's immaculate drumming.
In any other band's story, pulling off a record as triumphant as The Coast Is Never Clear would be the beautiful-sunset ending to a stormy drama. The musician wrestles with his inner demons, makes transformative art and sends everyone home happy. But dealing with mental illness is rarely cathartic, and happy endings are not really Kurosky's style.
When the band finished recording The Coast Is Never Clear, in October 2000, Kurosky flew with the tapes to Nashville, where he and Roger Mountenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney) spent two weeks mixing the album. They completed it in time for Capricorn's scheduled release date of June 2001. Then Capricorn did a funny thing: The label liquidated most of its catalogue and started over as an indie called Velocette. Beulah was one of the four bands kept -- good news, considering that its recording contract could have ended up in indifferent corporate hands. But because of the changes, the release date was postponed indefinitely.
The delayed release was the start of a string of setbacks for the band, which culminated when Kurosky returned from Atlanta for a San Francisco gig that no one in the band was ready to play.
"We knew we weren't up to snuff," says Kurosky about Beulah's performance at the Noise Pop Festival last February, "and we ended up playing a really poor show. In our minds, we played awful."
The clumsy set ratcheted up tensions over the uncertain future of the album and added fire to the long-simmering personality conflicts in the band. Beulah was on the verge of breaking up.
"Everyone was in a bad mood," recalls Kurosky of this past winter, "and nobody wanted to do anything. I think everyone just looked at each other and said, 'This isn't fun anymore. Why are we even doing it?'"
With the band's future up in the air, Kurosky flew back to Atlanta to let things cool down. Shortly thereafter, Velocette announced a mid-September release date for The Coast Is Never Clear. The promotional juggernaut began humming, spitting out promotional CDs, scheduling interviews and setting up release parties. Most important, the release date gave the band something to look forward to.
Even so, the hardest work began with the album's release. For better or worse, Kurosky is having to own up to all the personal tales on the record, especially the family matters. For instance, in "A Good Man Is Easy to Kill," Kurosky grapples with the idea that he could lose his father without ever having shared a loving moment with him.
"My dad is an alcoholic, and he broke his neck when he went flying through his windshield," Kurosky explains. "And then he was in traction and was supposed to die...You just want to have some sort of communication with this man that you find you really don't know in the end. And he doesn't know you, and you end up talking about some sports team that you both like. Or the weather. It's like, 'This thing that you went through almost killed us. Listen, [love] is the thing we really want.'"
When asked if he's looking forward to his father hearing the song -- with its chorus of "Give up your love/I promise it's not gonna kill you" -- Kurosky blanches.
"No. No. See, I get even chills just talking about it. It scares the shit out of me. It scares me, because what if this man hears this song? And what's he going to say?"
For Kurosky, "A Good Man Is Easy to Kill" is just one of a dozen difficult conversations waiting for him now that The Coast Is Never Clear has been released. Of course, there's also the more pressing issue of his bipolar disorder. As evidenced by his serious mood the day before our interview, having a brutally brilliant record in the stores is no protection against the headaches, insomnia and suicidal lows that are often a part of mental illness.
Our conversation leaves us there, in the restaurant, in nowhere, West Berkeley. Our plates are cleared, and the check lies waiting to be paid. The interview is finished, but as I pack the microphone away, Kurosky starts revving up, talking about a recent interview with Guitar Player magazine. "I told them how much I hated every guitarist that was in their magazine," he says gleefully, his eyes animated for the first time since we got on the subject of his depression. "It's true! The guitarists in their magazine suck!"
For a second it looks like the pit bull has come out to feed. But then, just as quickly as it came on, the gleam fades. Kurosky shifts in his seat and looks away. He's gone somewhere less venomous, less manic. For the time being, it's the best possible place to be.
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