Bandleader and songwriter Kyle Wilson, of the Brooklyn-based act Milagres, is a man of interesting dualities. His guitar-driven pop songs contrast neon nightlife with the great outdoors, and while some tunes sweat a palpable masculinity, he has a talent for writing from a very female point of view. Eric Shae talks with Wilson about old Japanese guitars, the comparisons people are making between Milagres and vintage Bowie, and the effects of a physical injury on his writing.
Bandcamp: Your first album, Seven Summits, plays like an organic celebration of the outdoors – life, death, decay and everything that cycles through it. And then with your next record, Glowing Mouth, there’s a noticeable shift in tone and style. From what I understand you suffered a back injury, after a fall on a mountain climbing expedition, between the two albums. Before we get into Violent Light, would you mind talking a little bit about that accident and whether it played into your songwriting for Glowing Mouth?
Kyle Wilson: When I started writing songs for Seven Summits the thematic material emerged quickly and before I knew it I was essentially writing a loose concept album around mountaineering. I became obsessed with the subject matter and my research on the topic turned into an actual passion. Each year I found myself climbing longer, tougher routes and eventually I was losing sight of my interest in music. My aspirations had actually turned towards becoming a mountain guide at one point. I think Seven Summits was very much in keeping with that aspiration – wanting to share this unique experience and how it had transformed me. Despite my change of course, I did continue to write songs, and some of the songs on Glowing Mouth were written before the injury, while others were written during the recovery and after. If you put the songs in chronological order based on when they were written, you can actually see how they kind of go from light to dark and then back to light again. I think it’s typical for people to view the accident as a catalyst for a change in perspective, but I still think that for me it was the sport –there’s something about spending your whole day trying to survive in such a place that puts the little things back in their place.
BC: You guys have since undergone a line-up change as well, right?
KW: Yes, Eric Schwortz, my good friend and longtime collaborator decided to leave before we really got to work on the new album. He’s still a good friend, and it was really great to work and tour with him for so long. I’d say I’ll miss him but he lives a few blocks away. After Eric left we decided to approach this album as a four-piece for many reasons. I think it’s turned out to be the right decision without a doubt.
BC: “Perennial Bulb,” the opening song to Violent Light, braids elements of your prior albums together with an entirely new feeling and sound. Were there any major life experiences that guided this one, too?
KW: No, I don’t think this album has quite the creation myth that either of the other two did, but it draws more on my childhood and the place that I’m from in Northern New Mexico, which I like to think is a very unique place. I basically started writing it as soon as we were finished touring, so I didn’t have too many new experiences apart from playing in a band to draw upon. I suppose I ended up digging a bit deeper as a result.
BC: While I get the David Bowie and Peter Gabriel comparisons that people are making about Violent Light, the mysticism in songs like “Terrifying Sea” remind me more of Kate Bush, and there’s a beautiful darkness and lyrical wisdom that recalls Neil Young. What kind of records were you listening to before and during the writing/recording of Violent Light?
KW: Wow, those are some great comparisons! The album that I probably listened to the most during the writing of Violent Light was Can’t Buy a Thrill by Steely Dan. I feel so strange saying that because I don’t think it really had any effect on the album at all! But I love that album because it has this darkness to it, especially lyrically. And at the same time it’s really easy to take in. The songs are direct – unlike their later work, which I also like but for different reasons. But as far as Violent Light goes, we definitely talked about certain albums or eras within the careers of people like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and David Bowie as stylistic touchstones. But we also wanted to incorporate some newer influences like trap music and hip-hop. I’d been listening to some very ridiculous tracks by Wacka Flocka for example, and they had an impact on the album. Al Green and Pink Floyd both came up a few times as well. The album cover definitely has a bit of Dark Side of the Moon homage going on, and you’ll hear bits and pieces of that if you listen closely, as well as Robert Fripp and Marc Ribot. We didn’t want our album to sound like a period piece, so we drew from many different eras that we love and also tried to keep the production big and fresh.
BC: Going back to the Bowie influence, “Jeweled Cave” reminds me of some lesser championed, but still awesome parts of Bowie’s career like “This is Not America” (the song he did for that movie The Falcon and the Snowman), as well his work as Tin Machine. What are some of the more personally influential Bowie records in your quiver?
KW: To be honest, my favorite Bowie records are not particularly obscure. I like all of the albums that everyone else does! But I would say Scary Monsters and Heroes came up the most when we were recording Violent Light.
BC:There’s something so uniquely decadent and almost regal about “The Black Table.” It reminds me of 1980s new romantic bands, but also it just sounds like you guys – and then there’s that awesome guitar part that just juts out. Where did the life for this song come from?
KW: My grandfather built a house in this beautiful valley in northern New Mexico about a mile away from a very striking plateau known locally as “The Black Mesa.” The landscape there is just vast and has this intense history and feeling of isolation. The song just grew out of the place – or out of imagining it from my desk. Up in the mountains, about 15 minutes from the valley is Los Alamos National Laboratories, and that’s where they developed the atomic bomb. My grandfather was an engineer at LANL and he worked on aspects of the hydrogen bomb. So the song also gets into science a little bit as well.
BC:“Column Of Streetlight” takes me right back to RIDE and Slowdive. Are you or your other bandmates closet shoegazers? Not that you sound like Thames Valley ’92, but the geek in me hears and loves those walls of guitars.
KW: Haha! That’s funny. I don’t think my bandmates are big fans of shoegaze and I certainly couldn’t consider myself a big fan or anything. But I definitely like it and have most of the seminal records in my collection, so it’s had an impact.
BC: Speaking of guitars and geeking-out, what were some of your favorite sounding guitar-n-amp combos used on Violent Light? What’s your favorite live rig?
KW: I stuck to my own guitar for almost everything on the album, which is a Japanese lawsuit version of Gibson’s ES-335. It’s called an Edwards and you have to order them from Japan because they are illegal to market in the US.
BC: That’s cool! I actually have a deep fetish for old, weird, Japanese guitars.
KW: They aren’t expensive and I highly recommend them for those who can’t afford an older Gibson guitar. When I take my guitar in for a setup the techs are always impressed at how much better it is than a new Gibson. I used a [Fender] Telecaster for a few things on this album, but not much. For amplification I mostly stuck to a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’65 reissue. It’s nothing special, but it sounds good and is durable for touring. I used some weird old Gibson amps and maybe a Champ or a Princeton here and there, but we didn’t go too crazy with the gear. I’d say we labored over the synth and key sounds more.
BC: On “IDNYL” and “Sunburn” you coast into a falsetto range that’s incredibly soulful and your voice becomes almost genderless. Do you think your songs are genderless, do they have different genders?
KW:I love this question! When I write music, I often hear a woman’s voice in my head – instead of my own. Most of my favorite vocalists are female and I’m also interested in opera where women play men, and men play women, all the time. I like the idea of being versatile enough to be able to switch roles as I choose. I also wanted to play a little bit with the theme of masculinity in an urban setting, hence the ridiculous title of the song “Urban Eunuchs,” which starts with a very depressing trip the band inadvertently took to Niagara Falls, NY where there’s this very paved over, economically depressed, version of a national park. Looking over the railing at the massive waterfall and the casinos across the river in Canada, I kept thinking about how for some people who live in a place like New York City, this could be the closest they ever come to the real thing.
BC: You’ve got a real knack for storied lyrics. What do you think is your most conceptual song on Violent Light and what do you think about concept albums in general?
KW:I love concept albums and I’d probably write one every time, but they take such an obsessive energy and they really have to work with the music you’re interested in writing at that time. You really have to commit and live in the world of the album all the way through. To me it’s sort of the musical equivalent of method acting. Maybe that’s just how I tend to approach it though. A favorite that comes to mind is The Who’s Quadrophenia. I guess it’s a very dude-y album, but I love it. As far as Violent Light goes, I think there are a few threads running through the album that hopefully people will pick up on, but there aren’t any narratives that are as straightforward as those on Seven Summits. I think that’s because the music on Violent Light is very different. We wanted the songs to be lean, to the point, and for the most part self-contained. Kind of like ten punches in the stomach.