After the demise of Beulah, Miles Kurosky laid low. In fact, it’s been years since the world last heard from the pop guru. Beulah garnered both well-earned critical acclaim and a sizable cult following in the heyday of indie rock, but it never quite broached the mainstream. It’s a shame too, because Kurosky has long displayed a knack for writing pop melodies that are both infectious and well-executed.
Earlier this month, Kurosky released The Desert of Shallow Effects, his long-awaited follow-up to Beulah’s swan song, Yoko. It’s more upbeat than its predecessor, and it’s one of the most intricately arranged works Kurosky has had a hand in to date. The strong melodies are still there, though perhaps more subtly, and the album brims with woodwinds, brass, and all sorts of unexpected turns. Lyrically, Kurosky retains his dark sense of humor—-punctuating personal traumas with clever turns of phrase. I recently spoke with Kurosky, who performs tomorrow night at DC9, while he was hanging out in the parking lot of Sun Studios in Memphis. We talked about his new album, the plight of the starving artist, and his disdain for the emotional acting of Celine Dion.
Washington City Paper: Would you say this new record is an extension of what you were doing with Beulah?
Miles Kurosky: It is, but it isn’t. It’s become abundantly clear to me after reading some of the reviews and talking to people, that I’m in a sort of purgatory. If I make something too like Beulah, then I’ve lost it. If I go too far out from Beulah, then everybody’s upset because there are so many people expecting a Beulah record. I mean, if Beulah was together, it’d probably be just like this record.
WCP: With such dense instrumentation, I imagine there are a lot of overdubs. Was that fun or painful?
MK: I love it. It’s what I hear in my head. It’s fascinating to me that I’m pegged as a pop songwriter, and somehow that means I should just play guitar, bass, and drums. Those are the bands that we should be giving shit to on a daily basis. Everybody picks up guitar, bass, and drums, and they don’t challenge each verse and each chorus, you know? They do that blueprint over and over, but I don’t want to do that. I want to make something complex and lasting.
WCP: The lyrics are a bit different than what you did with Beulah. Still darkly humorous, but maybe there’s a bit less of your heart on your sleeve? Was that intentional?
MK: No, and that bugs me. I read that thing in fucking Pitchfork, and that drives me nuts. They’re all true stories. The story “Apple for an Apple” is about me wondering if I should believe in God as I’m about to be cut open. The first story is about my limbs failing me. One is about me being almost molested by a priest. They’re all true stories, and I told them as stories. Somehow they’ve been deemed as third person narratives about other people, but every one of them is about me, or someone I love, or someone I’ve interacted with.
WCP: When you keep playing a song about a difficult personal experience years after the fact, is that always cathartic, or does it ever open old wounds?
MK: No. I’m happy right now, and I’m in a good relationship with my life. Yoko is a break-up record, but I’m really good friends with the girl I wrote those songs about.
Do you ever notice people like Celene Dion? When she’s singing a song, she over-emotes. It’s like she’s going through therapy every time she sings a song. She’s either really emotional or she’s an actress, and I think she’s the latter. I can’t imagine if every night you sang a song, that you went through those emotions again—-that would be fucking insane, wouldn’t it? It’s the past, I’ve moved on from a lot of those things. It’s more cathartic in the writing process. When you put it to tape, the weight lifts, and there’s no reason to go through the same thing every time again.
WCP: Now that life is more stable—-you have a wife and a house—-does that affect your songwriting? There’s always this idea that an artist has to be starving.
MK: I’m still a working-class musician. I’m still starving, I’m not rich person. But it’s bullshit to think you have to be in pain to write good songs. I seriously doubt the Beatles were unhappy every step of the way. They were having the times of their lives during Rubber Soul and Revolver, and they sold thousands of records. To think the artist has to be in pain and suffering, that’s more the listener and the critic. They put that on the artist. My heart was on my sleeve on the tape of Yoko—-and Yoko seems to be well-received now, but it wasn’t received well when it came out. People were upset that it was too personal.
WCP: Have you been sticking to the new record live, or do you toss in a few old Beulah songs as well?
MK: We’ll play a few. We’ve played “Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand,” “Landslide Baby,” and “Popular Mechanics For Lovers.” People want to hear them, and after all they are my songs, so I don’t have a problem with it. I only have 10 songs on the record, and we need a full set, so I’d rather dip into my own songs than do a cover of someone else.
WCP: Are you eager to keep making solo records now, or is this it?
MK: I don’t know. This may be the last record I ever make, or maybe we’ll do another in five or six years. It’s hard to say. One thing I’ve learned after being away from music for six years is that I can walk away from it.
Miles Kurosky performs with Pancho-san at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow at DC9, 1940 9th St. NW. $12-$14. (202) 483-5000.